Whisky Advocate’s 19th Annual Award: Distiller of the Year
William Grant & Sons
“A 125 year old family firm.” The phrase often produces head nods, acknowledging survival in a world of consolidation. It can also easily be interpreted as meaning traditional, where “traditional” is shorthand for “hidebound.” Retaining independence is one thing; maintaining a fresh outlook and an ability to steer that tricky course between a retention of abiding principles and being flexible enough to be proactive is not something that many family firms achieve. William Grant & Sons is one of those exceptions. Here is a 125 year old firm in good financial health that isn’t just riding the whisky wave but helping to build the category globally: in blends, single malt, Irish whiskey, and craft distilling.
Being proactive isn’t a new discovery for the firm. The Glenfiddich story is testament to this, as was the building of the Girvan, Kininvie, and Ailsa Bay distilleries, all completed quickly and without fuss when extra supply was needed. The same principle is currently being replicated in Ireland with the building of a new $50 million distillery at Tullamore, which will bring whiskey making back to one of its ancient strongholds. This is a firm that understands the power of roots.
The company saw promise and possibilities for brands across their entire portfolio last year. Monkey Shoulder became a darling of mixologists and gained access to a new whisky-drinking crowd. The fact that it, Hudson, and Hendrick’s gin are all growing shows the firm doesn’t see the whisky boom as a time to keep their head down and the supply lines full, but as one for new opportunities, something seen by the emergence of Balvenie as a brand in its own right and the consolidation last year of Grant’s as the world’s number three blended Scotch whisky.
It is also seen in the Glenfiddich experience. The world’s number one single malt is continuing to grow because the firm understands the public. It’s not just that the new Malt Barn restaurant and whisky bar — which opened last year after a six-figure investment — has helped take whisky hospitality to a new level, but what the visitor sees when they take a tour. Here is a firm that retains tradition (the ranks of marrying tuns), embraces innovation (the giant solera vat), and understands the long-term nature of scotch: the wealth of old stock.
The hand on the tiller for much of the past 50 years has been that of master blender David Stewart, who celebrated his golden anniversary last year. But this award isn’t for sentimental reasons, nor is it simply for sales. It’s because of the fruition of the company’s vision for its brands and the whole whisk(e)y category.
Last year saw the launch of Janet Sheed Roberts, a continuation of the remarkable Balvenie Tun 1401 series, the arrival of the second batch of Balvenie 40 year old, a celebratory Balvenie 17 year old DoubleWood, the Glenfiddich 125th anniversary bottling, and a Glenfiddich 38 year old.
For us, however, the release that typified William Grant & Sons’ vision has been the Glenfiddich Cask of Dreams, which sees whisky lovers writing their hopes on a cask as it is rolled through their city. It’s quirky, it’s fun, but it is backed with great liquid. It looks forward, but is rooted in whisky’s heritage. Here’s a firm, 125 years on, symbolically continuing to move all whisky ever onward.
Join us tomorrow as we conclude Whisky Advocate’s 19th Annual Awards announcements with the Lifetime Achievement Award.