William Grant - The Man Who Started It All

17 October 2014

By Mitch Bechard

I work for one of the few independent family owned and run distilleries still in existence within Scotland today. So as you can imagine, the history of Glenfiddich and William Grant is something I am very passionate about.  When sipping on a dram of the world’s most awarded single malt I often think back to how hard it must have been to build the distillery back in the 18th century—how tough it would have been enduring the harsh winters and putting complete faith into doing something that, at the time, was a very new business within the commercial world.  In this piece I will look back on the history of the founding father of the Glenfiddich distillery—William Grant, the man who started it all.

Our story begins in the Highlands of Scotland in Dufftown on December 19, 1839, with the birth of William Grant. This took place in the family home on 52 Conval Street, still in existence today. His father, also William Grant, had enlisted in the First Battalion Ninety-Second Regiment of Foot (later to become the Gordon Highlanders) where he had fought in the Napoleonic Wars. He was a small man at 4'11", later boasting that “All the bullets went over my head,” after being discharged in 1817 from Newcastle. He then set off on the 320-mile walk to Dufftown where he was always called “Old Waterloo.” His wife Elizabeth Reid Grant was 26 when she gave birth to William Grant.

As a child growing up in Dufftown, William Grant’s main task was herding and education, very much secondary. After his school years William apprenticed to a cobbler; he finally gave this up to become clerk at the Tininver Lime Works at Crachie. At this time we get the first insight into his aspirations to be independent and have his own business. Our records show that in 1859 he walked to Balmoral to study outcrops with the idea of purchasing them. William completed this in two days and the journey consisted of 120 miles. William also looked at excavating limestone from the surrounding area in Dufftown. However, at the last moment, the laird refused him the concession, for fear of the kilns setting fire to his game woods.

At 27 years old William Grant took his first step into the whisky business by becoming the bookkeeper at the Mortlach distillery. His knowledge and passion for distilling grew and he later became the distillery manager. During this time he became a major in the Volunteer Movement, the highest rank which could be attained by a non-professional soldier, as well as a cornet player in the Dufftown Volunteers’ Band.

With nine children to clothe and educate, and earning less than £100 a year, William knew he had to do something more. He managed to send five of this sons to university while Charles went to sea and Bill joined another distillery as part of a farsighted plan—a plan that consisted of William Grant and his children building their own distillery and creating the best dram in the valley.

William Grant had been working exactly 20 years in the Mortlach distillery when he saw his opportunity for independence. The family had been saving every last penny to create their dream when William Grant received news that Mrs. Cumming of the Cardhu Distillery was about to install new equipment. Jumping on the opportunity, he walked 12 miles up the road and purchased the equipment for £119. William then used his local knowledge to secure a prime water source, a necessity for producing Scotch whisky. This source came in the form of the Robbie Dhu spring—the water source that is still used to this day in all parts of the Glenfiddich process. It consists of 7 springs running from the Conval Hills that converge at the distillery. William Grant had fantastic foresight as not only is this an incredibly pure water source, it has never run dry in 126 years of use by the family.

In 1886 William Grant and his seven sons, along with one stone mason, set to work on building the Glenfiddich distillery. Almost exactly one year later on Christmas day 1887 the family dream came to life when the first drop of Glenfiddich runs from the stills. The whisky was very popular, and due to its success William Grant was able to purchase The Balvenie House and turn this into The Balvenie distillery in 1892.


*Early 1900s shot of the Glenfiddich Distillery with Balvenie House on the right

The business of distilling Scotch whisky has always been a turbulent one. The industry saw a huge downturn in the form of the Patterson crash, a firm that had been “riding high” on the whisky boom. Its bankruptcy on 6 December, 1898, ruined many firms. Fortunately William Grant and his sons had taken steps three months prior and moved from being solely distillers to also blenders and the Grants Stand Fast blend is born—a blend that still exists today in the form of Grant’s Blended Whisky, now the third largest blended Scotch in the world.

The First World War saw severe cutbacks enforced on distilleries around Scotland. This was closely followed by the severe blow of prohibition introduced in the U.S., the largest market in the world in 1919. This period in time saw many distilleries close their doors forever. William Grant and his sons had laid strong foundations to ride out these storms and is one of the many reasons Glenfiddich still prospers today.

William Grant died in 1923 at the age of 83, passing on the craft of distilling Glenfiddich to his sons. This craft continues to be maintained and passed down through the family, today marking 6 generations of family ownership. It is amazing to think that there are over 100 distilleries operating in Scotland to this day and only a handful of them, including Glenfiddich and The Balvenie are still owned and run independently by their founding family; something I think William Grant would be very proud of.

So next time you have a dram of Glenfiddich, raise your glass to your family and the traditions they have passed down to you.

Slàinte mhath, from the Glenfiddich family to yours.