In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Glen Grant distillery in Rothes, Speyside.
A particular challenge during boozy expeditions to faraway lands is the Sunday syndrome. You’re excited to see everything in a precious few days, but the locals have (deservedly) taken the day off. Places are closed! With strategic planning however, you can avoid the dreaded “Sorry, we’re closed!” disappointment, which is how Mrs. Wonk and I came to visit Glen Grant, one of only two Speyside whisky distilleries open on a snowy January Sunday.
The Glen Grant distillery dates to 1840. During the last several decades it’s experienced a series of ownership changes: In 1953 it become part of the Glenlivet group, and by 1978 was part of Seagrams, which used part of Glen Grant’s output for blending in Chivas blends. The distillery came to Gruppo Campari, its current owner, in 2006 in a purchase from Pernod Ricard.
Today, Glen Grant is one of largest producers of single malt whisky in the world, with a yearly capacity of around 6.2 million liters of pure alcohol. Known for its unpeated, very light, and drinkable style, it’s quite popular in Europe, especially in Italy–not surprising since Campari is Italian. Here in the U.S., Glen Grant is readily available but less in vogue among hardcore single-malt aficionados. Their core range includes ten and sixteen year expressions, as well as The Major’s Reserve – also ten years’ aged. Independent bottlers like Gordon & MacPhail and Berry Bros. & Rudd have been selling Glen Grant-made whisky for ages.
Driving through the slushy, virtually empty streets of Rothes, we arrive at an empty visitor parking lot, our first sign that we’ll have the distillery all to ourselves. A short walk away are the Glen Grant gardens, which we’re told are quite beautiful and well maintained. However, with the daylight diminishing and everything under a light layer of snow, we follow the signs for the distillery. A short path leads through the woods until the distillery pops into view, alongside a creek, aka “Glen Grant Burn.” A green, modern-ish bridge traverses the creek, leading to the distillery compound. The initial impression is a blend of old-school stone buildings alongside newer, factory-like structures. Even in the winter, the grounds look well-maintained and are likely very colorful in the summer.
Stepping into the visitor center, we see that we are indeed the only hearty souls on a whisky mission that day. The open-concept gift shop and tasting room appear to have had a relatively recent renovation, and now resembles more an art museum gift shop than the more traditional dark-woods-and-tartans visitor’s centers at other distilleries. Only two employees are present and, in fact, were the only two employees we saw the entire time.
Since Glen Grant purchases their malted barley (as do most distilleries), there were no malting floors to see. Upon entering the distillery building we head up a set of stairs to an elevated level where we set eyes on the verdigris-colored mash tun. It’s freshly cleaned and not yet back in use, providing me a good shot of the stirring rakes inside. Nearly all the other equipment is painted the same oxidized green color, giving it the look of a power plant control room, circa 1954.
A door leads to the fermentation room, filled with ten washbacks made of Oregon pine, each holding 91,176 liters. Because the distillery is doing maintenance, there’s no frothy, bubbly mash for us to poke our fingers in, and nothing being filled or drained. Onward!
The money shot at Glen Grant is the still room. Entering from a door high above ground level, we see all eight stills (four wash and four spirit) aligned along one side of the giant room. Receiver tanks and the spirit safe are along the other wall.
Glen Grant’s stills are all steam fired and most unusual in shape. The necks are tall and slender, which induces a lighter, “cleaner” whisky than you get from a squat still like we found at Lagavulin. The wash still has a particularly odd shape, with a short, cylindrical “boil ball” section between the kettle and swan neck portion, making it resemble the lid of the world’s largest cobbler shaker.
Each wash still has a capacity of 22,730 liters, while its partner spirit still each holds 11,500 liters. The downward facing lyne arms enter an unusual chamber known as a purifier. The whisky vapors must pass through the purifier before they arrive at the condenser columns, which are outside the still house. The exact effect of the purifier is difficult to describe in a few sentences, but the net effect is that the heavier, less volatile elements of the vapor condense there, and drain back into the still kettle. Only the lightest vapor elements make it all the way to the condenser. Glen Grant is reportedly unique among single malt distilleries in having purifiers on both its wash and spirit stills, and the resulting whisky is indeed very light and approachable, as we experienced later in the tasting room.
Glen Grant ages a bit of their output on-site, but the majority of their whisky is aged elsewhere. Our guide took us into a stone-walled dunnage warehouse, but since photos aren’t allowed, I’ve nothing to share here other than an outside photo. (Mrs. Wonk would be the first to suggest that once you’ve seen the interior of one dunnage warehouse, you’ve seen them all.)
Glen Grant bottles on site and our final stop was to peer down onto the bottling lines, housed in a modern, cinder-block structure. In the grand scheme, it seems a fairly small operation after having seen the colossal bottling facilities at Wild Turkey and Heaven Hill. Alas, there was no steady stream of bottles going by on our visit, and no Laverne & Shirley theme song in Mrs. Wonk’s head. Ah, well.
Back in the visitors’ center, we tasted through the core Glen Grant range, finding them straightforward and not overly challenging, like say…a Lagavulin or cask-strength Aberlour. I’d have picked up a bottle of the sixteen year, but our suitcases for carting bottles home were already nearly full. All in all, Glen Grant provides an average single malt whisky distillery visit that’s reasonably easy to find in Speyside, with the bonus of glorious gardens in the warmer months. You’ll see the basics of whisky production there, but beyond the picturesque grounds, the hardcore whisky tourist may struggle to find a wow factor.