The Mad Men behind The Balvenie and William Grant & Sons...

Since I started to explore the world of whisky I always enjoyed The Balvenie... Actually it is quite fair to say that I haven't met anyone in the whisky community who didn't like The Balvenie. I know a few who don't care about the brand but no one actually hates it. The Balvenie has a pretty firm fan base all around the world. Besides how good their whiskies taste, how solid their permanent line up is compared to many other brands in the industry with the 12yo Doublewood, 14yo Caribbean Cask and 21yo Portwood and besides being one of the pioneers of double maturation the brand has also an unmatched warm and friendly reputation among enthusiasts. Its image is extremely artisanal, crafty and old-school. Both the bottle shape and color scheme on the label make the whisky look like a relic from a Victorian-era pharmacy. The sepia-toned photographs in their campaign ads and the elderly craftsmen posing in them, look like they were taken out of a photo album from your local mom and pop shop. The brand always looks trustworthy, non-corporate and small scale... How did The Balvenie so successfully created this image, and how do they keep it still today, while actually being one of the largest distilleries in Scotland and one of the four pillars of the William Grant & Sons empire?

Spirit of Place by Charles Maclean

According to their website what makes The Balvenie so unique among hundreds of other Single Malt Scotch distilleries are their five rare crafts: their home-grown barley, malting floor, copper stills, cooperage and malt master... Let's scrutinize this statement a little more in detail: they are certainly not the only Scotch distillery who grows a portion of the barley they need or contracts local farmers to do so to begin with... Even though they are one of only a handful of Scotch distilleries that still keep their own malting floors they actually malt only 12% - 15% of the grain they use there. The rest is outsourced. Yes, they do own their own cooperage but I don't think that was a decision made for the sake of authenticity. It is just a smart business move to build your own cooperage when you own three distilleries within walking distance of each other with an insane amount of combined distilling capacity. The fourth craft emphasizes that they distill their spirit using copper stills. Well, the rest of the entire country does exactly the same thing and yes, every distillery thinks that the shape and size of their stills make a difference. But the fifth they have David Stewart... You simply cannot argue with this one. The man is a true legend and he is definitely a name to brag about. I'll give this to them...

But let's step back for a moment and take a closer look at work and combined distilling capacity of William Grant & Sons I mentioned above, studying some numbers this time. Thanks to the amazing Ingvar Ronde for his invaluable yearly publication Malt Whisky Yearbook for all the info we need:

Malt Whisky Yearbook 2020 by Ingvar Ronde
William Grant & Sons owns one grain and four malt distilleries in Scotland but I will leave Girvan grain distillery out of this discussion and focus only on their four malt distilleries which are Ailsa Bay, Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie. It looks like a small family-owned and run business operation with only four distilleries from a distance but if you zoom in and pay more attention to some numbers it is far from that. William Grant & Sons actually achieves a striking combined sum of distilled pure alcohol per year with only four distilleries to clinch the title of being the third-biggest owner in the Single Malt industry after Diageo and Pernod Ricard in the world. Yes, with four malt distilleries only... These four distilleries have the capacity for distilling a total of 37.5 million liters of pure alcohol per year, while Diageo manages to reach a sum of 121.3 million liters with 28 distilleries and Pernod Ricard 76.5 million liters with 13 distilleries. In other words, William Grant & Sons holds 9.3% of the entire industry with only four distilleries within a stone's throw of each other, while Diageo holds 30% with 28 distilleries and Pernod Ricard 18.9% with 13 distilleries spread all over Scotland. Isn't it stunning?

Let's dive even deeper into the numbers. How do these four distilleries contribute to those 37.5 million liters? Balvenie has a distilling capacity of 7 million, Glenfiddich 13.7 million (soon to be 20 million though), Kininvie 4.8 million and Ailsa Bay a whopping 12 million liters of pure alcohol per year.

TheSchweppes Guide to Scotch by Philip Morrice

It is hard to believe that Caol Ila is treated by whisky enthusiasts as Diageo's giant whisky factory, pumping alcohol for Johnnie Walker day and night but see Balvenie as a traditional and artisanal distillery, although Balvenie produces half a million liters per year more than Caol Ila does. Balvenie is the ninth largest malt distillery in Scotland. Another odd observation: Do you remember when Diageo opened Roseisle? Do you remember when we all nicknamed it "The Death Star"? Almost everyone hated even the idea of building a distillery at that scale. But, again no one said a word about Ailsa Bay. They were already distilling when Roseisle fired up its stills, and no one was even aware of that, or if they were they weren't bothered somehow. We celebrated the first bottlings from Ailsa Bay like the first releases of a niche local craft distillery. Roseisle's capacity is only half a million liters more than Ailsa Bay. They are both gigantic modern-era alcohol producing factories. I see virtually no difference between them. Speaking of factories... Lately Macallan found themselves at the center of blame after opening their new distillery increasing their capacity to 15 million liters of alcohol per year. Well, Glenfiddich is in the middle of their own expansion which will elevate their already huge capacity to an unprecedented total of 20 million liters. Don't see anyone criticizing this expansion. Kininvie was always known as the "other still room" or "experimental back-yard" distillery. In reality they are far from experimental. Are you aware that their capacity of 4.8 million liters of pure alcohol per year puts them in 27th place among all other Scottish malt distilleries..? We forget easily that William Grant & Sons owns both Monkey Shoulder and Grant's blends and that they need continuous malt whisky supply to feed those brands.

So, how do they manage to keep this artisanal and crafty image for all of their brands? How do they look so warm and non-corporate? There is some serious genius behind all of this... This must be taught as part of regular curriculum in marketing schools.

World Whiskey by Charles Maclean

Let's take a closer look at The Balvenie's "The Week of Peat" project. When you hear of a distillery distilling peated malt for only one week in an entire year it makes it sound like it is a limited and rare product. Doesn't it..? But if you sit down and perform very basic math here you will see that Balvenie distillery's weekly production capacity is close to 135,000 liters of pure alcohol. It is almost equal to Wolfburn distillery's yearly capacity. Springbank was distilling only 125,000 liters of pure alcohol per year before they increased their production recently. Kilchoman just reached a capacity of 460,000 liters after the completion of their recent expansion which literally doubled their capacity. So it is not a limited production at all. Its scale is minuscule compared to the yearly capacity of the distillery but it's not small at all.

I think William Grant & Sons should add a sixth rare craft on their website and give credit to their impeccable marketing department. I have never seen a better image created by a marketing department to represent an industry giant. They totally look like a family-owned small business for most of us. This takes decades of immaculate planning, dedication to stay on course, avoiding all the distractions from different sources throughout all those years and a huge investment both financially and psychologically. I wish I could find more info about how it all started, who came up with this "craft distillery" idea and they made it work so well for years and years. Who are the true "Mad Men" behind this successful marketing and PR story? It is truly unbelievable and incredibly inspiring... Kudos to everyone who chiseled this image and helped to create this invaluable portrayal for all William Grant & Sons brands. They all deserve to be acknowledged...

The World Atlas of Whisky by Dave Broom