Close Menu
In the Magazine

Moving while standing still

George Grant is gradually modernising Glenfarclas and appealing to new markets, all the while ensuring the essence of the family-run Scotch business remains unchanged.

Combining Modesty with a cheerfulness that defies the dour Scot stereotype, George Grant, sales director for Speyside’s Glenfarclas, jokes that he was “the last throw of the dice” for the difficult UK market.

Speaking ahead of his induction into London’s Worshipful Society of Distillers at the end of 2011 – a year which marked the 175th anniversary for the whisky brand – he tells db how he intends to raise the profile, and sales, of this pleasingly old-fashioned but highly respected brand in the world’s major Scotch markets, including the UK.

This, he reminds, is not easy, as he recounts the loss of a 400-case business due to the demise of the old Oddbins last year.

Nevertheless, he also happily records a 25% sales increase for the previous 12 months and sustained growth since he took on the UK three years ago – a time, he recalls, when Glenfarclas was considering a withdrawal from the country altogether.

Although one can sense Grant’s struggle in selling Scotch from a mid-sized and family-owned company which doesn’t dabble in the UK supermarket sector – and studiously avoids the discounts that characterise it – it’s clear he won’t be tempted to sacrifice the brand’s upmarket positioning for short-term volume growth.

George is the sixth generation in the Glenfarclas-owning Grant family, which is not related to the Scotch of the same name, and, as only child of the current chairman John Grant, future heir to the business.

“We want to make money on every bottle we sell,” he says, which does mean, he admits, “we are not as [price] competitive on the 10- to 12-yearold levels”, but on the other hand, “once you get to 21-, 25-, 30- or 40-year-old, we are much more competitive because we have been laying down stocks for a long period of time.”

In fact, Glenfarclas distils around 3.5 million litres of alcohol annually, although not all of this goes into the Glenfarclas label. But, as Glenfarclas gradually shifts a greater proportion of spirit to its own brand, and away from the blenders, the scale of the company is becoming limited by the size of the stills.

“The next step,” he says, “is to begin producing seven days a week and pay overtime”. Company literature describes the Glenfarclas style as “full bodied and well Sherried”, but Grant explains that commentators tend to associate Glenfarclas with Demerara sugar and bitter chocolate flavours.

And while he always believed these characters came from the oloroso Sherry casks used to age the spirit, the company’s recently released 150 bottles of 43 Year Old from Cognac casks, has the same Glenfarclas brown sugar and bitter chocolate traits, suggesting the source of these must be from elsewhere.

“It might be down to the fact we use direct fired stills,” he ponders, which is an expensive but important approach to the Glenfarclas production process.

In terms of the brand’s appearance, notably, Glenfarclas remains consistent, using the identical bell-shaped bottle and large rectangular label whatever the age

statement. “We use the same packaging for the 40 year old as the 10 year old because we are trying to market what’s in the bottle,” explains Grant.

“I’d rather someone bought my product and drank it

than sat and stared at it,” he adds.

Nevertheless, he also admits that Glenfarclas is highly collectible, and “a lot of people will buy Glenfarclas as an investment”.

Certainly, the returns for the most rarefied bottlings have proved impressive. Grant recalls the release of the

Glenfarclas 50 Year Old in 2005. Just 110 bottles were produced and sold on release for £1,600 each, and when a bottle recently came up for sale it went for over US$10,000. “But the 50 Year Old was probably designed more for investment, while the 40 Year Old is not,” he explains.


Grant’s latest project, he excitedly recounts, involves an exchange of casks with Hine Cognac.

The relationship between the two brands stems from their joint UK agent, Pol Roger Portfolio, which distributes the spirits alongside the Champagne, and a handful of other highprofile vinous labels such as Burgundy’s Drouhin.

More specifically, however, both Hine and Glenfarclas share the same communications agency in Patricia Parnell, who has been instrumental in bringing about this tie-up.

As Grant says of the project: “We will send a cask from Glenfarclas to be filled with Cognac and aged in Hine’s cellars and Hine will send one to us. Then in 12 years time, we will bottle them up and ideally we would sell them side by side as a dual pack so you can taste them together.” And there’s significance in the 12-year wait because, Grant adds, “In 12 years time Hine’s cellar master Eric Forget is retiring.”

Returning to the topic of sales, Grant ascribes the Glenfarclas resurgence in the UK to expanding distribution. “We are not in the supermarkets but we have increased sales due to the greater number of independent wine shops and the growth of The Whisky Shop chain.”

Further, for the future, Grant says, “we will be in the new Oddbins”. He wouldn’t turn down a supermarket listing either.

“If the right supermarket deal came along then yes, we’d be interested, and we’d propose the 10 Year Old, and reserve the 12 Year Old for the independent sector.”

Certainly, in the crucial French market for Scotch, Glenfarclas features in the major multiples, but with a different label, called Glenfarclas “Heritage”.

This,explains Grant, “is a 10-year-old equivalent with 40% aged in Sherry casks and 60% plain – it’s the opposite for the Glenfarclas 10 Year Old.” Comparing the two markets, Grant stresses the French taste for brown spirits compared to Britain’s interest in vodka and gin.

Speaking specifically of the progression in the former country, Grant says: “In France, they start with whisky and coke, then they drop the coke and move to blended whisky, and then malt whisky. But in the UK in the last few years everyone’s been drinking vodka.”

Having said that, Grant recounts the tale of meeting a 22-year-old Brit with impressive whisky knowledge. When asked why he had developed an interest at such an early age, and chose not to glug white spirits, he said, “because my father drinks vodka”.

Grant chuckles: “It seems we have gone full circle.” But it’s also due to the fact, he adds: “People are more hungry for knowledge, and with the smartphone and iPad generation, you can get the information straightaway, whereas before you had to go away and get a book.”


Looking elsewhere, Grant acknowledges that Glenfarclas has “not really developed” the Far East. The brand does have a strong following in Taiwan, where it has “great distribution and a fantastic clientele”, and a market for its older expressions in Japan. However, its business in China is only just beginning.

By the end of 2011, Grant records: “We have just sent our fourth order, and the potential is huge, but they can’t read the label, and until they recognise the brand we have a long way to go.” In India, on the other hand, Grant is more positive – although he mourns the high percentage of counterfeit Scotch – while Russia he describes as “going like a freight train”.

Interestingly, Grant joined Glenfarclas in 2000 after two years in Hong Kong working for Fine Vintages Far East, the brands distributor in this market. “I sold everything aside from beer,” he says,“and it was fantastic.” Nevertheless,circumstances were far from ideal. “ There were 800 importers of alcohol and only 4.5 million people and I was there following the handover when there was a recession,” he recalls.

The tax on imported spirits was also “astronomical” but Grant enjoyed “trying to educate the local Chinese in how to drink our products” and, although he was “only supposed to go for six months”, he managed to “spin it out for two years”.

But since his installation into the family business over 10 years ago, what’s he doing differently from his father, John? “My father is from a completely different generation,” Grant begins, before exemplifying the fact with a gentle tease. “He has a cellphone, but his idea of using it is to turn it on, make a call, and then turn it off again.”

Needless to say, Grant states, “I’ve brought a more modern approach.” With this new outlook, Grant intends to reduce the amount of Scotch sold by the Glenfarclas distillery to blenders, and hence increase bottlings, while also raising the brand awareness, citing Highland Park or The Balvenie as labels he would like to emulate in terms of recognition and positioning.

Loyal Glenfarclas drinkers don’t need to worry – there won’t be drastic changes. Indeed, Grant recalls just how minor the visible developments have been. Apart from switching the packaging 10 years ago from a “tall ugly bottle”, the only alteration to the distinctive red Glenfarclas branding was a more defined “r”. “It used to look like an ‘n’,” explains Grant, adding, “and that was because it was the way my great grandfather actually wrote it – the branding is effectively his signature”.

The style won’t suffer from any major changes either, although Grant speaks of a part-modernisation of the distillery in 2011, which includes computercontrolled operations for the first time.

Before this, Grant jokes, “Our master distiller Ian Millar didn’t know how to work a mouse.” Further, unintentionally highlighting the responsibility that arises from running a family business, Grant sums up his aim for Glenfarclas: “We’ve just celebrated our 175th anniversary year, and I want to make sure we’re around for another 175 years.”

With his joviality, dedication, and keenness to promote the business internationally, there’s little doubt Grant will play an important part in the history of this brand, while his birth into the business, coupled with the family control – and lack of sibling rivalry – will, one can be certain, ensure it retains its charming feel and timeless appeal.

Biog: George Grant

  1. George is the sixth generation of the Grant family to act as custodian for the Glenfarclas distillery.
  2. George joined the family business in 2000 after working for Inverhouse Distillers and Fine Vintages Far East, Glenfarclas’s distributor in Hong Kong.
  3. George is also the third generation of his family to be inducted into the Keepers of the Quaich and has just been inducted into the Worshipful Society of Distillers.
  4. George is married with two daughters, one aged four years and the other four months.

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No