INDUSTRY INSIDER: DENNIS MALCOLM
Scotland’s longest-serving distiller
Born on-site at Glen Grant distillery, perhaps it was inevitable that Dennis Malcolm would grow up to work there. But what started as an apprentice cooper’s role straight from school led to a remarkable 60-year career. Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan caught up with Dennis to find out more in his diamond anniversary year
Glen Grant’s distinctive turreted facade
It’s hard to imagine in this era that you can still find someone who’s been working in the same industry for 60 years. But Scotch whisky is a world unto itself, where there’s every possibility that if you started out as a 15-year-old apprentice cooper, you could still be going strong as a master distiller six decades later.
That sums up the remarkable career of Dennis Malcolm, master distiller at Glen Grant and now officially Scotland’s longest-serving distiller. Not bad for a wee boy who was simply intrigued by the apparent sorcery of how a wooden cask was constructed.
“I jokingly say to people that I couldn’t go on to further education because I was too thick, so I had to do something with my hands,” says Dennis. “I always wanted to be a cooper, to make a cask, because I found it completely baffling how it could hold something. I knew there was no glue, and the liquid it holds is thinner than water. So I wanted to be a cooper and I started out my apprenticeship [aged 15] on the third of April 1961 at Glen Grant.”
Dennis outside Glen Grant distillery
Glen Grant’s dunnage warehouse
READY TO RUN THE WORLD
Dennis’s youthful curiosity and thirst for knowledge extended beyond making casks, however. While he was bending staves into shape and hammering the cask’s rings, he was also considering how the spirit that filled them was being produced. By the time he was 26, he’d become what was then known as an operating brewer, or what we’d now call a production manager.
“I was interested in how distilleries ran and if I’m honest enough now, I used to say: ‘I want to run a distillery myself’. When you’re young, you’re quite naïve, you think you can run the world! So I was promoted as an operating brewer, reporting to the manager and running the distillery. It was a big step for me, but I didn’t see it that way because I was just a young boy. All the other guys in the distillery were twice my age, maybe almost three times my age. They’d hundreds of years of experience. With my energy and their experience, I couldn’t have failed. It was unbelievable!”
A WHISKY-MAKER AT HEART
By 1979, Dennis was manager of The Glenlivet, part of the same group of distilleries under Seagram’s ownership, before moving back to Glen Grant in 1983. That period lasted until 1992, when he assumed a general manager’s role across what was then a Chivas-owned stable of nine distilleries. When Pernod took over in 1999, Dennis found himself in more of a brand ambassador role – but his heart was always in production.
“I was asked at that point to go up and run Balmenach distillery for them when Inver House bought it,” says Dennis. “I did it for two reasons – I wanted back into production hands-on, and secondly, my wife’s great-grandmother was Jeannie McGregor, who was the daughter of the founder of Balmenach, so it was basically going up the family tree.”
Balmenach appealed to Dennis’s old-school approach to whisky making, where if something needed doing you used your hands, not a mouse and computer programme.
“It was like when I started at the [Glen Grant] distillery, if you wanted to move a cask, you’d have to push it,” he says. “There were no forklifts, and if you needed to turn the steam on, you had to go and open the valve. Everything was done by hand, and it was great.”
If you want to move a cask, push it
A bird’s-eye view of Glen Grant distillery
Glen Grant’s whisky has retained its signature light and fruity notes throughout Dennis’s 60-year association with the distillery
READY TO RUN THE WORLD
Fortune was calling, however, and when the Campari Group bought Glen Grant distillery in 2006 and were looking for a manager, they knew exactly who to turn to.
“I didn’t need to think about it, I said yes right away,” says Dennis. “The biggest part of my life was here, and my heart was mostly in Glen Grant.”
Having an Italian owner brought the distillery back to its heady days of the 1960s and 70s, when it was the number one selling malt whisky in Italy, shifting half a million cases a year. That was due to the relationship between Italian whisky importer Armando Giovinetti’s relationship with the distillery, as well as Hugh Metcalfe – son-in-law of owner Douglas MacKessack – who, as Dennis says, “made Glen Grant shine in Italy”. But Campari’s ownership also brought fresh investment, including new more environmentally-friendly hot-water recovery systems, revamped warehousing and most notably the distillery’s own botting hall. These developments were welcome, but Dennis says that the consistency of the distillery’s character hasn’t changed in more than 100 years, and that’s what made it such a successful dram in the Italian market.
“The distillery’s purifiers were installed around 1873, about a year after the ‘Young Major’ [Grant] took over the distillery,” says Dennis. “He was 25 when he took it over from his father. And he wanted to make his mark on the distillery, like his father did, so he immediately went about doubling the plant and also changing the style. Adding purifiers to both the wash and the spirits stills made the spirit much lighter and fruitier. He popped the purifiers between the neck of the wash still and the spirit still and the condenser, running cold water over the head of it all the time, so when the light vapours rise, they hit that cold head and the heavier ones reflux back into the still, and only the lighter, purer ones go over. So that DNA has been here since 1873, and for the last 60 years that I’ve been here, it’s never changed. I am a great believer in protecting the DNA and having consistent quality.”
A WAY OF LIFE
Having the opportunity to chat to someone who’s been working in the same industry for 60 years is such a rarity, and a privilege, that of course I have to ask Dennis the obvious question: what are the biggest changes he’s seen since he stepped into the cooperage at the age of 15?
By way of an answer, he picks up his automatic pencil sharpener. “I’ve always modernised when I had the chance,” says Dennis. “Everything was hand-operated when I started and then gradually automation came in. And do you know something? I encouraged that, because it was another tool for the men to do their job.
“The pencil became a computer, and that couldn’t be better for consistent quality, because once you’ve been through the process and you’ve set the parameters, that computer holds it there, it doesn’t lose it.”
Dennis certainly doesn’t sound like a man who’s ready to slow down. Plans are in place later this year for a special ‘diamond anniversary’ 60-year-old Glen Grant release to celebrate his remarkable career. But as for retirement?
“I’m not a good speller, so I don’t think I can spell retirement!” he says. “It’s never been a job to me, it’s been a way of life. I don’t like my actual birthday because that makes me a year older. But I like my birthday with Glen Grant because I’m a year longer there. That’s all it is. Not a year older, it’s a year longer. It’s just a way of life, really.”
“I like my birthday with Glen Grant because I’m a year longer there. That’s all it is. Not a year older”