Obituary: Charles Grant Gordon, whisky executive

Charles Gordon, life president of William Grant distillers. Picture: Contributed
Charles Gordon, life president of William Grant distillers. Picture: Contributed
Have your say

Born: 21 August, 1927, in Glasgow. Died: 21 December, 2013, in New York City, aged 86

Charles Grant Gordon, the great-grandson of the founder of William Grant & Sons Scotch whisky, helped build the family firm into one of the top three most-successful producers of Scotch, exporting to 180 countries and with current annual sales of more than £1 billion, growing even during the current global recession. Always known as Charlie, he was on the firm’s board for 60 years, including as chairman and ultimately as honorary life president.

He was often described by his peers as “Mr Scotch Whisky”. That may be a little unfair on his younger brother Sandy, for they were both credited with making Glenfiddich – from the Gaelic for Valley of the Deer – the world’s leading single malt whisky, now popular from the United States to Russia and China and most points in between.

The company’s most famous blended whisky, Grant’s, has also become a world leader and the firm produces Balvenie single malt, Hendrick’s gin, Tullamore Dew Irish whiskey (acquired in 2010), and popular modern brands such as Monkey Shoulder whisky, Reyka Icelandic vodka, Milagro tequila and Sailor Jerry rum.

Glasgow-born Charlie Gordon was already a young director of the company, originally based in Dufftown, Banffshire, when Grant’s launched the revolutionary but now iconic triangular Glenfiddich bottle in 1956. He later helped expand the company, personally developing its distillery in Girvan, Ayrshire and introducing non-Scots, notably in the US, to the joys of a single malt. Workers building the Girvan distillery in 1963 recall the man who insisted on being called “Charlie” living in a caravan on the site and cycling around all day, every day, urging them on with the promise of free bottles when the job was done. He gave 1,500 bottles of Scotch to the workers and in return they welded his bicycle to the distillery’s cooling towers as a sign of respect.

Gordon also witnessed the takeover of much of the Scotch whisky and spirits industry by the current big two in alcoholic beverages production, Diageo (Johnnie Walker, Smirnoff and Guinness) and Pernod Ricard (Ballantine’s, Chivas Regal, Glenlivet, Jameson’s Irish whiskey, Absolut vodka), while Grant’s remained a family firm. He was a driving force behind the company’s expansion to its bottling plant and customer service centre in Strathclyde Business Park, Bellshill, Lanarkshire, its marketing office in Richmond upon Thames and the Glenfiddich visitor centre at the original 19th century distillery in Dufftown on Speyside. In his early years with the company in the late 1950s, Gordon was the first in the industry to have coppersmiths on site at the distillery, skilled craftsmen to tend to the copper stills, as well as coopers to look after the casks. He and Sandy went on to see the family’s products take off in Asia, Africa and South America.

According to Gavin Hewitt, the outgoing chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, Gordon helped “appeal to the emerging markets … to the affluent, the middle class people who are aspirational, people who see Scotch whisky as the drink of choice … and it means they’re part of the global network”.

Charles Grant Gordon was born in Glasgow on 21 August, 1927, eldest son of William Grant Gordon, a distiller in the family firm, and Janet Grant, a doctor. That made him a great-grandson of the founder, William Grant, twice over since his parents were distantly related.

He went to primary school near his home on Bearsden Road in the city, followed by Glasgow Academy, Ardvreck boarding school in Crieff and ultimately south of the Border at the historic Rugby public school in Warwickshire during the Second World War. From his dormitory at Rugby, he recalled seeing fires rise into the sky above Coventry, more than a dozen miles away, after that city was blitzed by the Luftwaffe.

Evacuated during the war, he spent much time back in Dufftown with his two beloved aunts, Elizabeth Gordon and Janet Sheed Roberts (née Gordon). The latter – “wee Janie” as Gordon called her – became something of a matriarch to the Grant’s whisky family and was the oldest woman in Scotland when she died last year at the age of 110.

Not quite turned 18, Gordon joined the Royal Navy right after the end of the war in 1945. Mostly based in Malta, he served aboard the heavy cruiser HMS Sussex, replenishing RN submarines, and ended his service in 1948 on board the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious.

After three years at Glasgow University, he qualified as a chartered accountant in 1951 and joined the family business. His father, whom he had adored and who had groomed him in the whisky business since Charlie was a child, died in 1953 at the age of 53. As eldest son, Charlie became a director of the company, later joined by brother Sandy and by Eric Lloyd Roberts, husband of “Wee Janie”. Together, they transformed the family firm into a global player.

The founder of the firm, William Grant, a farmer’s son and shoemaker, had set up his own distillery and produced his first bottle of whisky in Dufftown on Christmas Day, 1887. His daughter Isabella married Charles Gordon, the firm’s first salesman, hence Charlie Gordon’s double great-grandparenthood from the Grants and Gordons.

In 1954 in Glasgow, Gordon married Margaret Louise Eccles, a radiographer at the city’s Western Infirmary, and settled in Westbourne Gardens. Having served as director, and sometime chairman of Grant’s, he was named life president in 2008.

Following the death of Louise, as she was mostly known, he married Francesca Canales and together they pursued his other great loves beyond his family, philanthropy and the whisky business – ocean sailing. He and Louise had started with the yacht Yala – their three infant sons’ prams secured to the mast – and he later put a lifetime of experience into launching his yacht Cinderella 1V.

He and his second wife Francesca made their last transatlantic crossing only last year when he was 85 and at the helm. He had just refitted the yacht for next season and was on his way to London and Scotland for business meetings in November when stricken by pneumonia. He died in hospital in New York City with Francesca and other family members by his bedside.

His son Glenn Grant Gordon, now the chairman of William Grant & Sons, told The Scotsman: “We are all very proud of my father’s achievements in his very full and energetic lifetime, and give thanks for the legacy he has left us with. He touched the lives of many, many people.

“In our family and our business, which my father always intertwined, he very much believed in a spirit of partnership.”

Stella David, the company’s chief executive, spoke of the “exceptional contribution Charles Gordon has made to our company. Indeed, few people have made a greater contribution to the Scotch whisky industry over such an extended period of time. The company is fully committed to continue on his remarkable legacy.”

Charles Gordon is survived by his wife Francesca, three sons from his first marriage to Louise, and nine grandchildren.