From the Best Dram in one Valley to the Best Bar in Another

The Scots have made whiskey for centuries, and back in 1887, a man called William Grant, who was once a distillery manager, set up his own distillery called Glenfiddich. It is today one of the top premium brands globally. To continue and to introduce this proud legacy, Mr. James Pennefather, the distillery’s managing director, is here in Kathmandu to inaugurate the Glenfiddich Bar at GG Machaan, Jhamsikhel. Friday sat down with him to know more about William Grant & Sons and his own journey with the brand.

Text By: Shreeti Pandey

Is this your first time to Nepal?

Yes, this is my first time and it's been great. The weather is lovely and I am moved by the hospitality.

What are your plans for Glenfiddich in Nepal?

These three days we were in Kathmandu, we opened a new bar called Glenfiddich Bar in GG Machaan. It was a great ceremony.

Tell us a little bit about William Grant & Sons.

William Grant started his own distillery with his nine children, called the Glenfiddich Distillery, and his vision was to create the best dram in the valley. So, with the help of his children, he became very successful, and then they built more distilleries: The Balvenie, Girvan, Hendrick's, Monkey Shoulder, and so on. It’s now in the fifth generation of family ownership, and they still hold strong family values.

How long have you been with William Grant & Sons?

I have been working in whiskey since 1999. I worked for two companies, one called Diageo, which is the Johnnie Walker company, and that took me to East Africa, where I was living with my family. Then, I was called by someone asking if I would be interested in moving to Delhi with my family to run William Grant's business there. I was delighted to do that because my passion in spirits is single malt whiskeys, and the heart of William Grant is in the single malt category.

What is the best thing about William Grant & Sons’ liquors?

What marks William Grant & Sons stand out is that it is still a family company and the family is always thinking in the long-term. They do not make any short-term or cost-cutting decisions. They are very passionate about preserving the same quality that William Grant started with in 1887 and keeping that in the traditional method today. If you go to our Glenfiddich distillery, you will find that we have a team of people who are making and looking after our own casks. Most distilleries don’t have their own casks or coopers, as they tend to be very expensive, but the family believes that, keeping the coopers in the company means we will get the best quality casks. Likewise, we have our own coppersmiths, who look after the copper work, and in case of the Balvenie distillery, we actually grow our own barley and malt in the traditional way.

How is William Grant & Sons different from other liquor brands?

First of all, its family ownership makes William Grant & Sons different from other liquor brands. If you visit our distilleries, you will find lots of modern technology, and you will also see traditional ways of making scotch. That's what family ownership brings to a company, the ability to keep on doing the right things for maintaining the quality.

How do you define quality in a drink?

When I drink a single malt whisky, there are four things that I look for. The first is complexity. Are there lots of different flavors that you can taste in the whiskey, or are there only one or two flavors? For example, in a glass of a Glenfiddich12 Year Old, you will get apples, pears, vanilla, honey, and floral sensations. The second is balance. Are those flavors well integrated together, or is one flavor predominating over the others? The third is length. When you swallow the whiskey, do the flavors stay in your mouth afterwards, or do they die off very quickly? An example would be, if you are drinking a carbonated soda or fizzy drink, the flavor is gone immediately after you finish the drink, whereas, with the best single malt, you will feel the flavors lingering in your mouth for 10-15 minutes. Lastly, what I look for in a drink is expressiveness. When you drink a glass of whiskey, does it tell you about the people who made it and where it is made? Glenfiddich means “valley of the deer”, which is a beautiful green valley, and what William Grant wanted to recreate was that sense in his whiskey. That’s why it has this wonderful fresh fruit flavors, and when I drink it takes me to Fiddich valley, which is an amazing place.

What is the most unique aspect of what you do?

If you look at William Grant, what we are doing is, we are selling premium whiskeys, and we are very much at the top end of the market. We are probably only playing in, maybe, 10% of the total spirits market around the world, so my passion is to get the people who are drinking the other 90% to what I call trade-up to our premium products. So, telling people the story of single malt whiskey is something that I would do to endorse them into our wonderful category.

Which is your best-selling drink?

Globally, Grants Blended Scotch is our biggest brand, followed by Glenfiddich. Grants is a blended scotch whiskey, while Glenfiddich is a single malt whiskey. We also have The Balvenie, and the brand that is most trending at this time amongst younger consumers and bartenders is a brand called Monkey Shoulder, which is a blend of three single malts.

What other drinks do you produce, apart from whiskey?

We have a gin brand called Hendricks and a rum brand called Sailor Jerry.

Do you also make wines?

Our distributing partners in Nepal do wines, and they have got some very good wines, but not from William Grant, so they take wines from other suppliers. Also, in the UK market, we do distribute some champagne; however, we are not the producer, we are just the agent for them.

Which whiskey do you prefer the most?

For me, it depends on my mood and the occasion. Before dinner, I like to drink Glenfiddich 12 Year Old, because the fresh fruit flavors of apple and pear make it very approachable and easy to drink. I also enjoy The Balvenie 12 Year Old, which goes particularly well with dessert, and it is slightly rich in flavor. After dinner, I would usually go for one of our more smoky whiskeys, as I do like a little bit of peaty-ness in my whiskeys at the end.

What do you think is the best liquid accompaniment for whiskey?

We genuinely encourage people to drink whiskey the way they prefer. A lot of people like to drink single malt neat, or with water. A little bit of water brings out some more of the flavors, because when it is drunk neat it is 40% alcohol, but when you put some water, maybe its 20%, and that allows some of the asters, which are the fresh fruity flavors, to get released in the whiskey. But, in terms of mixing it, I love ginger ale and a little squeeze of lime, I find it very refreshing.

Does whiskey have any health benefits?

I don’t think we can claim any health benefits. Well, what I love about the whiskey category, or in fact, working in premium spirits is that, the world where we work is a world of sociability and celebration. Alcohol can help enhance social occasions and that’s a very good thing. I come from Europe, where loneliness is a big problem now. Lots of people are living by themselves and going to a bar and meeting people, and getting to enjoy a couple of pegs is a very good thing. So, I am not going to claim any health benefits, but I do strongly believe that if drunk responsibly, whiskey can encourage sociability, which I think is beneficial for mental health.

Is there any moment with William Grant & Sons that you are particularly proud of?

Yes, I would say the night when we introduced our whiskey in Kathmandu. William Grant would never have dreamt that there would be a Glenfiddich bar in Kathmandu. He could never have imagined that! He started with a vision to have the best dram in the valley, and now there is Glenfiddich Bar in Kathmandu, which I am really proud of.

Pull Quote: What I loved about the night we opened Glenfiddich Bar in Kathmandu is that, if William Grant had ever believed that what he was establishing in 1887 as Glenfiddich Distillery would one day lead to a Glenfiddich Bar in Kathmandu—from the best dram in a valley in Scotland to the best bar in a valley in Nepal—he would have been extremely proud.