On the day he received his OBE from Princess Anne, Dennis Malcolm, master distiller at Glen Grant, took Sam Coyne back to the beginning, talks Gruppo Campari and gives us a whisky education
Dennis Malcolm OBE Glen Grant
How do you see your relationship with Glen Grant? What is your role?
Glen Grant was founded in 1840. The founders built the foundations of this brand; they laid down good casks for me, good whisky for other generations to appreciate.
All I have done is helped to build the brand up, but I’m laying casks down now that I know I’ll never see. Like planting an oak tree, I’ll never see it grow to maturity, I’m just one brick in the foundations.
My job is to keep it consistent. In 20-30 years time you might taste a dram of mine and say: “Ah he screwed that one up.”
What then is the most important part of the foundations you’re building, in your opinion?
The most important thing is quality. Irrespective of what you’re thinking, whether it’s a jacket or a dress, everyone strives for quality. For us, consistent quality is the name of the game, hence why I shout from the rooftops about this one (holding up the 10 Years Old). It’s the fifth year in a row that it has been awarded single malt of the year 10 years and under, multiple casks, by Jim Murray. Nobody has done that before. Now that we’ve got it five times, I should really run before they steal my title, but I don’t need to because I know it is consistently excellent.
You’ll have to stick with me here, but you’ve mentioned both the 10 Years Old and the 18, I’ve heard a lot about age-statement/non-age-statement, do you think age is a sign of quality?
No, look at me! Don’t put things in ages and don’t put things in colour. The darker the colour doesn’t mean it’s better. Some people will tell you not to put ice in your whisky. I’ll tell you something, if I put some water in here – it should really be room temperature – but I’m going to show you something. This is a young one, and it’s quite bland with no water. Once you put water in it you get this lovely creamy fruity aroma from it. It’s got a nutty finish. Glen Grant DNA is fruity, dry and nutty, you’ll find that in each expression, but different hues give it different flavours, different aromas and you can change it just by giving it a splash of water.
Single malts are to be enjoyed. The best way to do it is with friends. So there’s no right way or wrong way to drink it. Add mixer if you want. I’m not saying that age doesn’t make a difference, it is important as well, but it’s more important that people enjoy it.
Age changes the taste. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a better whisky. Whiskies are like people, they all mature at different ages, but some whiskies peak. They’re like football players. They get to 34, they can’t get any better, they plateau off.
So speaking of maturing then, you started as an apprentice cooper…how did you end up where you are today?
That’s right, I started 1961. My maturation was bumpy. It has been enjoyable, it’s not a job for me but a way of life. The first time I put a clock in the office was when I returned to Glen Grant. I didn’t work with a clock, it wasn’t a job, it was my life.
It has been a rewarding journey, because I’ve seen a lot of innovation. One thing you have to be careful with as you go through your life, is that when money’s cheap, big companies will invest and push it, and when it’s not, they won’t. They’ll want to save money, but there’s only one way you can save money on a good single malt whilst maintaining the profile, and that’s save on the services: the number of people you, the energy you buy, the malt, the transport, try and drive the prices down. But in the end, you need to keep the product the same.
Has your relationship or interest with the role and brand ever wavered or has it always been certain that this is what you wanted to do?
Now you can say what you like about me, but I won’t have anyone insult Glen Grant!
I found it interesting. I started as the apprentice cooper, making casks and I always had questions. “How the heck can that hold any water?” Perfectly jointed, the pressure holds it, no glue, nothing, so I was intrigued with that and I like working with my hands, so I went into coopering.
Once that was finished, I wanted to find out how whisky was made and I went into that for six years. I went through the whole process and then I went into management. So I’ve been in management twice as long as you’ve been alive. But it’s been a fantastic journey because I’ve been learning all the time, and you never stop learning. You’ll be asking the same questions, but for different reasons, helping to protect the profile of the product, whilst moving forward, expanding, doing experiments, creating new expressions, it’s a journey.
What role has digitalisation played in your companies? I think I’m right in saying you were a big part in digitalising at Chivas?
Ooooh, that’s right. We put in scanner systems and we did it at Glen Grant as well. When I left Glen Grant to work at The Glenlivet in 1979 there were 58 people working there. It was all manual, there were no forklifts or anything like that, things have changed. Now, there is all sorts of machinery.
When I came back, in 1983, we streamlined it quite a bit. In the 70s, there was a big boom in oil, North Sea oil, technology was coming in from space and everywhere, it was fantastic.
You may think I’m a dinosaur, a traditionalist… but I’m all for computers. They’re checking the strength and depth of the spirit every millisecond, all the time. You can sleep at night, the operator is there controlling it, but he’s not altering it. It’s the way to go!
With that in mind, what do you think is the next step in the innovation, a lot of people seem to think that it’s about social media and that each brand needs to have a huge social media presence, experiential marketing….
When Campari took over, they got me here and in 2007 we relaunched, we rebranded, we spent two days with Dave Broom, Michael Jackson, Charlie MacLean and Chiana Brassini, to change Glen Grant for the future. Campari has invested millions upon million in Glen Grant. In 2013 we opened a £5.5 million bottling plant all of our own. Why would you bottle in Speyside? We produce it, we warehouse it, we mature it and then we bottle it. We have total control, that’s why!
Three or four years before that I got £4m to re-roof and tidy up the warehouses, maturing sheds, I got another half a million to do up the visitor centre, I then got another £460,000, to put in a heat recovery system to save energy. I knew they trusted me and I was going to reciprocate that trust and make sure that we were going to be number one.
You’ve got good, hands-on people at Campari?
When you get somebody like Bob Kunze, you know that you can bank on somebody to help you. He’s got a good ear, he’ll listen to you and he’ll tell you if he disagrees with what you’re thinking. I like that. We can all nod and nod, nod, nod and say ‘yeah that’s fine’, but the meeting wont go anywhere like that and you’ve just wasted a day. Control by committee is not a good idea - break the mould, say something contentious to get the full view. I do.
So, because we’re a little short for time now, where do you think whisky is going?
It’s growing and growing and growing. It’s not an adult yet. I know there are old whiskies out there, but it’s not an adult yet. It’s not ready to retire yet. I think its becoming more affordable and a choice for younger people. Whisky is not like gin or vodka – whisky is a complex liquid, you’ve got loads of character in there and young people want to know more about it now. They’re more inquisitive and demanding about it. People are becoming more like brand ambassadors to the product now because they experiment with it. They won’t just take the one, they’ll go and try somebody else’s the same day. That way they can see, they can choose.
Whisky is made all over the world, in England, Canada, America, Japan, so I don’t speak of whisky, it’s not my right, I don’t want to speak of single malts or blends, because every single malt is a distillery’s single malt.
People want a story don’t they?
Well, the Glen Grant one has a huge heritage. I go into the distillery every day and I go into the archives. I’ve got the letters there asking to build the distillery from 1854. Glen Grant has a story as we were the first distillery to use purifiers in both stills, not the first, but the first to use it in both stills and still use them to this day. In 1861, 100 years before I started there, Glen Grant was the first distillery, and the only distillery then to generate electricity from the distillery, using the waste water from the condensers. James Grant did that in 1861, very innovative… futuristic even!
You were inducted into our Whisky Magazine half of fame, so I assume that today is just the second biggest accolade you’ve had?
I was the twentieth inductee and I’m really proud of that one because it is people in the industry recognising me for what I’ve done. The certificate is there in my office along with a few different plaques for different things, but that’s the only one that I’ve got up on the wall. But the journey continues and I’m busier than ever. The ingredients are important and simple: water, barley, yeast. But the ingredient I never mentioned, that’s people, people are the most important. You can make really special things, but it won’t be consistent unless you get the right people, people with passion, to do it.
You’re not going anywhere for the time being then?
7 December 2016