Single-minded visionaries

This pioneering family-run distillery has adopted the beer barrel, writes Willie Simpson.

You've got to hand it to a company such as William Grant & Sons, which dates to 1886 and is now run by the fifth generation of a family that continues to drive innovations in distilling and blending.

It was the first distillery to launch a single-malt whisky brand - Glenfiddich - in 1963 and it is still No.1 in the global malt-whisky category. And while Glenfiddich and Grant's The Family Reserve are mainstays in Australia, brand ambassador Ludo Ducrocq was in town to launch an extended range of its whisky blends, including Grant's 12 Year Old, Grant's Sherry Cask Finish and Grant's Ale Cask Finish.

''Other single-malts have used cask finishing, but we were the first to experiment with cask finishing for blends,'' Ducrocq says.

''We were also the first to use ale cask finishing [2001] and, so far, no one else has followed us.''

Creating Grant's Ale Cask Finish was a challenge, Ducrocq says, because various Edinburgh breweries had to be commissioned to produce a ''strong ale'' to put in a bourbon cask for one month. At this point, the beer was poured ''down the drain'' and the cask refilled with blended whisky for three months or so.

''It's not an exact science, but we start with an elegant [whisky] blend and it's easy to overdo the cask finishing; we aim for something subtle. We tried the Family Reserve, but small amounts of peat don't work with ale, so we produced a special blend without peat.''

Along the way, a brewery tasting panel got hold of a sample of the wood-finished beer and gave it the thumbs up.

This led to a joint-venture company that bottled and marketed the ale under the Innis & Gunn label, which Grant's has since sold its interest in.

The Grant's distillery has a lengthy connection with Australia. ''[Founder] William Grant's grandson came to Australia in 1909,'' Ducrocq says. ''So our brands have been here for more than 100 years. We opened a new office in Sydney in 2001.

''[Our brand] is growing in Australia, with about 15 per cent growth in value over the past six months, which is very encouraging.''

When I met Ducrocq about seven years ago, he seemed precociously young to be a global brand ambassador and, at 25, he was younger than some of the whiskies he was representing. Born and raised in northern France, these days Ducrocq speaks English with a distinct Scottish burr and is the modern face of this family company, which remains the exception in an age of globalised spirit brands. ''Being a family company gives us an advantage when it comes to decision making,'' he says.

And it seems the Grant family isn't about to sell to outside interests any time soon. ''They see their role as looking after the business for the next generation and leaving it in better shape,'' Ducrocq says. ''[The company] is in better shape than ever, with expanding new markets like China and South America.''

Having a colourful family history is also part of the allure behind the brand. ''People drink whisky because they like the taste,'' he says. ''But then they like to hear the stories behind the whisky.''

Tasting notes

Grant's The Family Reserve (40 per cent), $36.95 Light golden-brown. Nose: juicy malt, fruit cake, wisps of peat smoke. Palate: chewy, sweet-tinged malt; dried fruit and delicate floral notes; heat and gentle smoke emerge later and come together in a satisfyingly long finish. Overall: one of the best blended Scotches around.

Grant's 12 Year Old (40 per cent), $54.95 Deep gold-amber. Nose: hints of dried apricots, sandalwood and pralines. Palate: dense malt upfront; mid-palate suggests chocolate-covered nougat, cinnamon and dried peaches; honey and delicate smoke intertwine in the finish. Overall: a marvellous balance of opulent flavours.

Grant's Ale Cask Finish (40 per cent), $43.95 Medium gold. Nose: gentle hints of linseed oil, honey and jasmine. Palate: crisp malt initially; hints of dried fruit and vanilla in mid-palate; sweet-laced finish. Overall: a novel concept but it's a struggle to detect any ale characters.