Established in 1892 by William Grant in a converted 18th century mansion, The Balvenie Distillery is one of the great success stories of Scotch whisky. Today the distillery is owned by the fifth generation of William Grant’s family, making William Grant & Sons one of the longest single family ownerships in the world.
Having spent his younger years learning the trade at Mortlach Distillery, Grant dreamed of one day running his own distillery. Through endeavour and thrift he saved sufficient money to realise his dream, and in 1886 Grant and his nine children laid the first stone of the Glenfiddich Distillery in his native Dufftown. The late 1800s was boom time for Scotch whisky and several other distilleries were moving into the Speyside region, later to become the biggest whisky producing region of Scotland. Grant was convinced this would threaten Glenfiddich’s water source. In response to this threat, and with the intention to build a new distillery, Grant purchased Balvenie House and its outbuildings, and the surrounding land comprising of a strong water catchment area with abundant springs. He acquired second hand stills from Lagavulin and Glen Albyn and the first distillation took place on 1 May 1893. The whisky was an immediate hit with the blenders, and Balvenie promptly found a place in Grant’s own range of blended whiskies. They must have been doing something right because today at 4,400,000 cases per annum, Grant’s is the fourth biggest selling Scotch whisky in the world.
It’s hard to stress the importance of the effect that William Grant & Sons had, and continue to have, on the industry. The 1960s and 1970s were difficult times for the industry with many small, independent distillers going out of business. In order to survive, William Grant & Sons expanded their production and innovated by introducing advertising campaigns and a visitors’ centre. During this period they also began marketing single malt as a premium brand in its own right, effectively creating the modern single malt whisky category. The Balvenie was first bottled as a single malt in the early 1970s, and in 1993 the three expressions that form the foundation of The Balvenie were first introduced: Founder’s Reserve 10 year old, Double Wood 12 year old and Single Barrel 15 year old. Today The Balvenie is the eighth biggest selling single malt brand in the world, with its older brother Glenfiddich dominating the top spot.
Despite the success little has changed at Balvenie Distillery over the years. Uniquely, it still employs all the traditional crafts of malt whisky making which is why The Balvenie tastes the way it does. Nowhere else will you find a distillery that still grows its own barley, malts it on a traditional malting floor, has its own coppersmith to tend the stills, a cooperage to maintain the casks and the longest serving Malt Master in the Scotch Whisky industry, David Stewart. By owning all the steps of the process, the distillery’s been able to keep a very tight control on quality, thereby protecting the brand’s reputation and remaining loyal to its followers by producing consistently marvellous whisky.
David Stewart is a living legend and deserves a few words. Born in Ayr on the west coast of Scotland in 1945, he joined William Grant & Sons in 1962, the year before Single Malt Scotch Whisky was first officially exported to England. He was appointed the distillery’s Malt Master in 1974 and his renowned ability to identify the finest casks of whisky for maturation has helped William Grant & Sons earn the Distiller of the Year accolade an unprecedented eight times. A keen innovator, Stewart was the pioneer of cask finishings when he developed the Balvenie Double Wood. Prior to that cask finishing, now a ubiquitous practice, was unheard of in the industry.