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Launching Homage To First Glenfiddich Malt, William Grant Eyes More Opportunities Ahead

November 7, 2014

With enthusiasm around single malt Scotch whisky reaching new heights, one of the segment’s chief progenitors, William Grant & Sons, is hearkening back to the earliest days of the category, launching a “replica” of the first single malt marketed by its Glenfiddich distillery. William Grant & Sons family member and director Peter Gordon recently visited with SND to discuss the efforts of his father Sandy Gordon and uncle Charles Gordon in developing Glenfiddich as a single malt brand in an era when the industry was firmly focused on blends.

Taking over the William Grant family business from their deceased father in the 1950s—when both were in their 20s—Sandy and Charles Gordon were seeking ways to better compete with the dominant Distillers Co. Ltd, a forerunner of Diageo, which at the time had an 85% share of the U.K. Scotch market and effectively dictated pricing in the blended sector, Peter explains. While William Grant had sold 5,000-10,000 cases of a young Glenfiddich malt in northeastern Scotland for years, that product was deemed too strong to have wide appeal in the broader market. But, sensing that visiting buyers from England were interested in Glenfiddich as a standalone whisky, the two brothers began setting down stocks to age for longer periods beginning in 1959, aiming to create a more approachable dram. By 1963, they were ready to bottle the resulting blend, which was a mix of mainly 8-, 10- and 13-year-old whiskies, and was labeled as having an “average age of 10 years.” They had initial expectations of selling 40 cases a month—priced at around a 20% premium to blended Scotch—but demand soon far outstripped that estimate.

“The impetus to export it came as people realized you could derive a premium from the product, and at the same time there was a movement—as there is now—toward better food and drink, greater quality,” Gordon says. “Charlie brought it to the U.S. and found that it was hitting a chord. Very soon both the U.K. and U.S. were pillars to the Glenfiddich brand. Still, it took about 10-15 years before it reached 100,000-200,000 cases.” Along the way, other companies began to see potential in single malt as a category, among them Macallan, Cardhu, Glenlivet and Glenmorangie, all of which were early entrants.

Over time, single malt’s margin advantage compared with blends expanded. But just as importantly, Gordon asserts, was the fact that the creation of the category gave Scotch marketers “permission to innovate. That extended to other areas like gift packaging and travel retail and more evolved liquids. It enabled Scotch to start thinking of itself as something broader than the standard blended sector,” he says. Today, Glenfiddich remains the top-selling single malt worldwide at 1.1 million cases, up 1.4% in 2013, according to Impact Databank. Second-ranked Glenlivet, though—owned by Pernod Ricard—has been closing the gap, rising 8% to 975,000 cases last year.

To create the 1963 replica whisky, Glenfiddich malt master Brian Kinsman pulled from various casks to match the archived liquid and ledger notes from the original. The finished product is 80 proof, with packaging styled to echo its ancestor, and retails at a suggested $100 a bottle. The limited edition is now hitting the U.S. market on allocation with a supply of 2,000 cases. The launch is being backed by print and digital executions—including full-page spreads in major newspapers—recreated from the original whisky’s advertising materials.

Meanwhile, fresh off of the addition of Drambuie liqueur to its portfolio in September, Gordon says William Grant & Sons may not be done on the acquisition trail. “I think we have a reasonable breadth, although we still have a few holes. But in the medium- to longer-term we should be able to fulfill those either organically or through acquisition,” he observes. “We’re also continuing to expand the Glenfiddich distillery this year. Up to a point you can expand in small modules, but we’re not far off now from a big-module moment there.”


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