To visit the Rothes distilleries Barnard travelled down the railway line from his base in
|Ben Aigan rising above the Rothes valley|
The first building he notes as his train steams out of the Glen and into the town was Glengrant House, the residence of Major James Grant, son of one of the founders and sole proprietor of the distillery from 1872. Grant is a name that we will hear many times through the Speyside distilleries as the region has been home to Clan Grant for many centuries. Their ancestral home is Castle Grant which stands just north of Grantown-on-Spey around 25 miles upstream from Rothes; the castle is now a private residence after being renovated over the last two decades. Glengrant House at the distillery sadly fell into ruin and was demolished in the early 1990s, the site now converted into a visitor’s car park for the distillery.
Barnard describes the Major as an “energetic and excellent man of business” and “a well-known sportsman and disciple of Isaac Walton”. I think he was here referring to Izaac Walton who wrote The Compleat Angler (sic) in 1653 and which still seems to be celebrated as one of the finest books on fishing. The subtitle to the book is “The Contemplative Man’s Recreation” and The Major would have had plenty of opportunity to practice the techniques described by Walton on the River Spey that he could see from his home, perhaps while enjoying that other recreation that inspires contemplation, the taking of a dram.
Barnard didn’t record having met the Major but he is portrayed by an actor in a video that is shown near the beginning of the current distillery tour. The character presented is confident, a little eccentric and quite outspoken, and in contrast to other distillery videos that are more soft focus, this one is more about the Major’s exploits than the distillery or whisky. His fishing and hunting pursuits are narrated, including expeditions to Africa and
The video also introduces us to another local character named Biawa Makalaga. Biawa had been found as a young boy at the side of the road during one of the Major’s hunting expeditions in
Glen Grant Distillery was founded in 1840 to take advantage of Rothes position on the trade route at that time. John and James Grant had been in partnership in the 1830s with John and James Walker of
The burn originally seems to have provided both mashing water and all the power required “until the distillery was so enlarged that steam had to be added”. Barnard called it the Glen Grant Burn but both current and older maps back to the mid 1800s have it recorded as the Back Burn running through Glen Grant, which is more of a ravine than a Glen as we would commonly know it. The burn begins high up on Brylach Hill on the north side of Rothes, named at this point as the Black Burn likely from the colour of the water where it drains from the Moss of Rothes. Brylach rises over 1000 feet and is also the watershed for the Glen Burn on its north side.
|Cooling water reservoir behind the distillery|
There were three substantial granary buildings when Barnard visited, two of them with three floors, and a single large kiln contiguous to them and fired by both peat and coke in two open chauffeurs. However, like nearby Speyburn Distillery, Glen Grant installed pneumatic drum maltings in 1898 to save space and also supply the Glen Grant No2 Distillery (later known as Caperdonich) that opened across the road that year. Glen Grant’s drums may have been electric powered to begin with while Speyburn’s were initially steam powered and converted to electricity in the 1940s. The malting buildings are all gone now and when they were last used in 1971 there was only a little peat used in the kilns. The barley is now brought in from industrial maltings near Buckie on the Moray coast is now completely unpeated.
|Glen Grant mash tun|
In 1886 there were eight washbacks at 31,800 litres each, now there are ten huge backs made from Oregon pine and each with a capacity of 91,176 litres. The fill level is around two thirds but they still use switchers to control the froth on the relatively short but very active two day fermentation. The switchers that Barnard observed were driven by a small steam engine and I don’t recall him mentioning a separate engine for this at any other distillery.
|Glen Grant's enormous washbacks|
|Glen Grant stills in modern still house|
The stills were originally coal fired, like all others of Barnard’s time, and the 1970s developments included a change to gas firing. However, after the distillery was taken over by Seagram’s in 1978 they reverted to coal firing due to developments in efficiency, using what were described as "Triumph" [the manufacturer] chain-grate stokers and with flues which used waste heat to heat the water used for mashing and other processes. The later redevelopment of the still house finally saw all the stills converted to steam pan heating.
|Now disused coal-fired furnace and flue around base of stills|
|Glen Grant stills with purifiers, No. 1 pair|
He comments on the still house being substantial and built with iron girders and an iron roof. A later photograph available on the RCAHMS Canmore website shows the outside of the old still house with a large iron worm tank and what appear to be two of the purifiers outside the building. One of the older spirit stills now stands in the courtyard and it can be contrasted to the shape of the current stills. This old still is affectionately known as Wee Geordie, named after an employee from the 1920s and also remembered in the same name being given to the 4th hole on the Rothes Golf Club course. They describe the hole as “a true test of skill and accuracy with a little luck thrown in at times” which might oft describe the process of making whisky as well.
|Glen Grant Distillery courtyard with Wee Geordie|
The current buildings and layout of the distillery are very different having been rebuilt a couple of times. An etching in Barnard is from an elevated view from around where the car park is now, possibly from an upper level of Glengrant House to get the elevation to show all the buildings and scenes of activity. This view is no longer possible due to the house having been demolished and the car park being surrounded by trees (which are in abundance everywhere around Rothes). The picture below is as near to that perspective as I could get.
|Glen Grant Distillery|
There were thirteen stone built warehouses holding nearly 2.3m litres of whisky which Barnard noted was nearly all to the order of customers already. Now there are 11,500 casks on site in 7 warehouses, all dunnage but built over 3 floors, with further warehouses in town. The casks on site are all bourbon with sherry casks matured offsite.
|Glen Grant warehouses, dunnage over three floors|
In the decades following the Major’s passing this family owned distillery began to change hands. In 1953 the owners of Glen Grant and Glenlivet distilleries merged to form The Glenlivet and Glen Grant Distillers Ltd. In 1970 this company merged with Longmorn Distillers and a blender called Hill Thomson & Co to form The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd which oversaw the main redevelopments and expansion in the 1970s. Glenlivet Distillers were bought by Seagram early in 1978 and from there followed a path into Pernod Ricard. Glen Grant was sold from the group to current owners Campari in 2006.
Throughout all these changes Glen Grant has become the only remaining distillery that is still named after its founders, most others being named after their town, the river that they sit beside, a local hill or feature or from the Gaelic for the landscape around them. The overall style of spirit has also been maintained - the sharp narrowing of the reflux bowl on the wash stills, the tall slender neck and the purifiers on all the stills all contributing to a light, fresh character in the spirit. This makes Glen Grant one of those very approachable whiskies - one you can share as an introductory whisky for a novice without scaring them away.
|Glen Grant gardens, orchard and the Back Burn|
|Glen Grant ravine, Back Burn and tasting nook|
|Glen Grant car park and monkey puzzle tree (middle left)|
Barnard signs off his report with a further two random verses from Burns poem Scotch Drink, unaccredited though and under the heading of just “WHISKY”, the second last line of which is:
“When wanting thee [scotch], what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!”
A sentiment I can fully concur with (see most of the above!). However, perhaps for his more sensitive readers, or more likely a decision by his editor, only the first letter of the final word was printed in the following closing line, where Burns expresses how much more lyrical he becomes after a dram or two:
“Thou comes – they rattle i’ their ranks,
At ither’s arses!”
I wonder what the well travelled and sociable Major would have made of it all - I get the feeling he would have laughed at such nonsense!
Information here includes research from the books Rothes 2001 and ‘Oor Young Days’ and Glen Grant: A Distillation of 150 years (an anniversary publication from 1989, Aberdeen University Press) and from the distillery tour.