BEYOND THE RED DOOR: THE WORLD OF GLENFARCLAS
BY ANDREW MACDONALD LOCKHART
It is February. Arctic conditions. “Snow is just water waiting to be turned into whisky!” exclaims Callum Fraser, Distillery Manager of Glenfarclas, music to the ears of any whisky lover, at the start of my conversation with Callum about this legendary distillery.
The Glenfarclas distillery with its famous red doors is one of the most instantly recognisable whisky brands on earth, nestling in the foothills of the Cairngorms just a stone’s throw from the famous River Spey. Owned by the Grant family for five generations, Glenfarclas is one of whisky’s true superstars, with a unique approach which has made their products beloved by whisky drinkers for over 185 years.
What brought you into the world of whisky?
I’ve been working in whisky since 1st October 1990. I had trained as a baker but the distillery near my village, Deanston, was reopening and offering double wages, so I went for the money! I ended up at Deanston until 2012, working my way up through every stage of the whisky making process to become the distillery manager in 2006.
However, I was getting itchy feet and when I got a phone call from Glenfarclas in 2012, it was too good to resist. I had a four-hour lunch with the current John Grant (the fifth generation of his family to own the distillery) and his wife and knew that I wanted to work for these lovely people. When they told me the job was mine, I was over the moon.
Today, I’m as happy as I was on the day John Grant offered me the job. It’s a great family business where everyone is appreciated and everyone loves the brand, and I would never go anywhere else. I still describe myself as ‘a little boy from Kippen who makes whisky for a living’ and I can’t believe that I’m paid to work in this fantastic place.
What do you think makes Glenfarclas and its whiskies so special?
Firstly, it’s a family run business with a family run feel. John Grant lives on site, so there are no corporate bosses or boards of directors to contend with; John is always ready with a beer or a glass of wine, and no problem is too big. The Grants are wonderful people (they never forget my daughter’s birthday) and the kind of people that you aspire to be, as well as work for. For example, when we reopened our tours in July 2021 after COVID-19, John Grant donated all our takings between July and December – £16,000 – to a local foodbank. We have at least two team members who have been here for over 40 years, and I believe you just don’t feel that kind of loyalty unless you’re treated properly.
Another benefit of family ownership is the level of independence we have. This allows us to do all kinds of special bottles, one-off labels and unique editions for our customers, as well as make sure that we are making the best whisky we can.
Does this also feed through into the distillery itself?
Absolutely. We aren’t subject to production targets or quotas and so we can go at our own pace. This is particularly important for our fermentation process, which is much longer than most others and creates a huge, fruity flavour profile which is one of our signatures.
We are also the only whisky producer left in the world who direct fire 100% of our stills, which gives the whisky an incredible caramelised, burnt toffee character. Tradition is very important; we took away the direct fire in 1983 and within 6 weeks the character of the whisky had completely changed. So, we brought it back and we’ll never try that again.
The end of the process comes down to cask quality. We are renowned for only using old Oloroso sherry casks of amazing quality, which we source from one family producer in Jerez who we have used since 1982. We like to stick to working with other family businesses and it is just a beautiful combination.
It may be a little like choosing a favourite child – but do you have any favourite Glenfarclas drams?
I always like to say that when it comes to whisky, my next one is my favourite one.
However, for me the Glenfarclas 21-year-old is a real standout – it’s just incredible, quite literally the reason I go to work. The trouble is that everyone else thinks so too, so stocks are dwindling and we are having to limit supply to the market. I think the 12-year-old is also fantastic and another of my go-to drams.
Aside from those, I’ve tasted most of the Family Cask editions from 1953 onwards and they are just some of the best whiskies you will ever taste and an inspiration for me. I want people to taste the Family Casks we are making now in years to come and say yes, the manager got that right. A few highlights are the 1968 (my birth year) and the 1972, and the 2000 is one to watch too.
A great story on the 2000; as far as we know, we are the only distiller in the world who have a whisky from the last day of the old millennium and the first day of the new. On 31st Dec 1999, John Grant decided to fill 25 sherry butts with whisky whilst everyone was worrying the world was about to end. When it didn’t, the same team all came back in next morning and did the same thing again. As far as we know, we are the only distillery to do that and again it sums John Grant up – he’s just interested in creating special whisky. For anyone in the industry, it’s a privilege to work for someone like that.
What have been your biggest career highlights to date?
In 2018 I was nominated by the Grant family to receive the title of Keeper of the Quaich. It’s an honorary title which recognises people who have made a long-term contribution to Scotch whisky and it was a huge privilege to be acknowledged in this way.
However, for me the best moment so far was in 2020, when Glenfarclas won the Icons of Whisky Distiller of the Year award and I also received Distillery Manager of the Year. My award was very much the sideshow – Distiller of the Year is everybody’s award, from the office team to the distillery and sales team, and it was incredible for everyone to receive that recognition. We were voted for by both members of the public and the whisky industry, so it doesn’t really get much better than that level of acknowledgement. We even managed to celebrate before Covid hit.
What are your hopes for the future of Glenfarclas and the Scotch whisky industry?
My main ambition is simply to keep growing the Glenfarclas brand and laying down amazing stocks for the future. I want my children and grandchildren to visit in years to come, enjoy the amazing whiskies that I’ve laid down and say, “he got that right.”
In the wider industry, drinkers are increasingly looking for all kinds of whisky novelties, such as finishing in Champagne casks and boutique distillers. However, it’s key for us to stay true to ourselves. Our history and traditions are absolutely vital to what we do (we like to say that even our computers are powered by steam) and we have no need or desire to do anything differently. The Glenfarclas formula works, and we simply want to make a great product for the future that people can enjoy.
On a personal note, Glenfarclas will celebrate 200 years of distilling on 6th May 2036. I am going to be at that party, whether it’s on my own two feet, in a wheelchair or a wooden box. If I’m still going, then I will be well past retirement age and I think that will be a great date for my last working day.
I have also put away a book for my daughter. It was published for our 185th anniversary and signed by every single member of the team, including the Grants. It’s the only one in the world and I want her to have something to really appreciate in years to come. Having said that, at the age of 13 she is already helping me out in the distillery so who knows where she might end up.