Having attended the UK launch of the Glen Grant 50 Year Old a few months ago and being inspired by the man who literally created the whisky, Dennis Malcolm, I just had to have a chat with him. Here's what he had to say.
GreatDrams: Fifty years is an incredible time to spend in with one company, something incredibly admirable… how would you say the whisky category has changed over that time?
Dennis: The change has been dramatic, in the half century I have been there there were key number one brands then blends. Companies are now putting out different expressions to go down different avenues to see what appeals. Single malts were pricey and very similar in style when I started out but in the last fifty years they have seen the opportunity for diversity within the category.
One of the biggest changes really is that whisky is no longer an evening drink, it is an any time of the day drink.
GreatDrams: How about the whisky consumer? How have they evolved?
Dennis: They are getting more knowledgeable and inquisitive, like you, they see something and want to find out more and try new expressions. Nowadays they are interested in the history of the brand, no longer old man drink, getting younger.
When you drink whisky when young it is complex and harsh, easier to drink vodka as a neutral flavour, but now they now want to experiment more, they know whisky is different and they themselves are all different so are on a journey of discovery. I hope they enjoy the ride.
GreatDrams: The fifty year old is gorgeous by the way, both the liquid and the overall bottle design – incredible. What role did you play in the design and what role do you think design plays in the overall whisky category? I sometimes think it is a shame that packaging plays such a big role as the liquid should really be the hero but it is a great way to convey brand and product stories – and looks lovely in the cabinet!
Dennis: At Campari we are a multi-national company so when it came to the design the global creative director at the time involved me in it by taking me to Glencairn, and kept me up to date throughout as to how the design and packaging was evolving.
My work was done when I filled and matured the cask but I feel very proud to have been a part of this special project.
When you pick up a whisky to enjoy it, you hold it by the base so the crystal decanter should be treated in the same way hence the gloves you saw as part of the packaging.
GreatDrams: Speaking of packaging, what are your views on its place in the whisky world?
Dennis: I tend to say the single malt needs lovely clothes, Glen Grant is huge in Italy without any carton but the packaging does attract you to it so consumers buy on visuals often the first time but the liquid makes you buy the second time.
The fifty year old needed unique packaging to tell a story, copper from the stills, oak box to represent the ageing process and the crystal decanter to reflect the pride and momentous nature of the release.
GreatDrams: Trying desperately not to ask obvious questions, I cannot help myself ask how it feels to have been the guy who filled the casks that went into the 50YO we are trying today – it is testament to a fine career and recognition for all your efforts over half a century.
Dennis: Very fortunate, I don’t think many can say they have done the same thing, my father and grandfather were here before me so it may have been them if it had not been me.
It has been quite a tense moment to be honest.
When you get nearer the fifty years it is nerve-wracking, hoping the quality stays true and no wormwood gets in so you lose the liquid. That would have been a disaster, been nurturing for all these years then something goes wrong at the last minute but fortunately everything went right.
Pleased to say Glen Grant is the biggest volume in Italy for just five years old but now we can say we have quality liquid right up to 50 year old.
GreatDrams: What’s next for the whisky category do you think?
Dennis: I’m a distiller, you should be asking the marketing people!
My remit in life is to make the best whisky I possibly can and maintain the quality in everything I do, if you do that you will always be there to tell the story.
Maybe we should look to different types of expressions, I say this as Campari bought Glen Grant in 2006, 10 Year Old only sold in the distillery, 5 Year Old in Italy, NAS in UK but since they bought the brand they have invested heavily in new expressions (Decades, Major’s, 170th and single cask bottling for the visitor centre only) in specific markets.
Campari have opened the door to reveal the true Glen Grant, from young to very old.
Bear in mind between 1978 to 2006 when Chivas were at the helm there was no marketing spend at all, just Chivas blend fodder and to support Italy.
GreatDrams: What has shocked you in the world of whisky over the years?
Dennis: You will be surprised.
I have never been shocked by anything in the industry, I think it has been appreciating people and growing well.
The projections worldwide never meets what the production should be, industry needs to cut back a bit but other than that it is going from strength to strength to meet demands of quality and inquisitive nature of consumers nowadays
Never shocked, just pleasantly surprised it is opening up to markets.