Obituary: Alexander (Sandy) Grant Gordon CBE – The founding father of Single Malt

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Alexander (Sandy) Grant Gordon CBE the founding father of the Single Malt category and the quiet leader of the family-owned whisky distiller William Grant & Sons, died on the 21st of December at the age of 89. 

Sandy was the man who launched Glenfiddich Straight Malt in 1963 and who is credited with creating the global malt whisky market when he decided to sell it outside of the UK. It was the world’s first Single Malt and became the best-selling. It remains the No 1 Malt whisky in the world today. 

Sandy Grant Gordon joined the family business in 1953 to fulfil a sense of duty to his dying father. Ten years later, encouraged by his Uncle Eric and brother Charles, he launched Glenfiddich Straight Malt in the now world-recognised green triangular bottle. His contribution changed the shape of the Scotch Whisky industry in which he worked for his entire career.

He was the leader of the family firm from 1968 to 1996, either as Managing Director or Chairman. He was Vice Chairman and longest-serving Council member of the Scotch Whisky Association, Chairman of the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, Trustee and Director of the Scottish Seabird Centre, Fundraiser and Trustee of the National Piping Centre, Trustee of the National Museums of Scotland, and Trustee of the Museum of Flight.

Perhaps a reluctant and somewhat idiosyncratic businessman, more comfortable in an anorak than a blazer, his heart lay in the mountains and hills of Scotland out with his beloved golden retrievers, all referred to as ‘Chookie’.

Sandy’s introduction to the family business was at the Glenfiddich distillery that his great grandfather William Grant had built on the outskirts of Dufftown in Speyside, North East Scotland. Then, nearly all Scotch whisky was blended to the supposed tastes of drinkers, most of whom would be unable to name the particular distilleries from which it came. But Sandy witnessed how the visitors from the licensed trade who visited the Glenfiddich distillery were intrigued by the spectrum of flavours offered by its whisky, un-obscured by blending. In 1959, Sandy requested an allocation of just twenty cases (240 bottles) a month of “Over Eight Years Old Glenfiddich Straight Malt” for a product trial in the Scottish Lowlands and North of England sales areas.

In 1963 the company board agreed to launch Glenfiddich Straight Malt, an eight-year-old single malt whisky although bearing no age statement on the bottle, with an advertising campaign budget of £10,000. It came in a striking green triangular bottle at a premium price over blended Scotch whisky. In the world of dominant Scotch blends, this was an audacious rule-breaker.

The now world-recognised and highly distinctive label featuring a stag was developed by Sandy’s brother, Charles, for the US market, and was adopted globally in 1970 as a direct influence of David Grant, who was appointed Glenfiddich Global Brand Manager in 1969. The brand has enjoyed a steady path of growth ever since.

Still, in the mid-sixties, the William Grant family business was up against the power of the industry giant, the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) which held a 75% share of the UK market and was keen to squeeze out the independent producers. Sandy, his uncle Eric Roberts, brother Charles, and Finance Director, Walter Maclean, formulated a plan. The idea was to form a joint venture with some brewers, called Wm Grant & Sons (Standfast) Ltd, which would own the Grant’s brand in the UK, pay for its own investment in whisky stocks and use William Grant & Sons Ltd for all production. In a stroke, this gave the three largest Brewers (Allied Breweries, Charrington United Breweries and Whitbread) greater profits from their own Scotch whisky brand and some independence from DCL. For William Grant & Sons Ltd, it offered a solution to the conundrum of how to survive the competition of the home market and most critically allow investment into Glenfiddich. Sandy was chairman for all the 27 years that the joint venture worked and flourished under the executive leadership of Roy Trustram Eve.

In 1969, in another industry innovation, the Company opened the first public visitor centre at Glenfiddich Distillery. Today, most of Scotland’s distilleries have a visitor centre, forming an important pillar of Scotland’s tourism sector. Latest figures show that in 2018 over two million visits were made to distilleries in Scotland from tourists from all over the world.

In 1974, Sandy was thrilled with the rest of the company to be presented with the Queen’s Award for Export Achievement, but such was his deep care and commitment to the workforce, he was perhaps equally proud of the Fit for Work award in 1984 recognising the company’s outstanding achievement around the employment of people with disabilities.

When Sandy retired in 1996, Glenfiddich was the world’s top-selling malt whisky with global sales of over 800,000 cases. Grant’s, with an enormous contribution from his cousin David Bremner in France, had grown to be the fifth-largest blended Scotch whisky in the world, and The Balvenie was beginning to thrive.

Born on May 6th, 1931 in 194 Renfrew Street, Glasgow, Sandy Grant Gordon was the younger son of William Grant Gordon and Doctor Janet Gordon. He was the great-grandson of William and Elizabeth Grant, the founding partners. His brother, Charles, was born four years earlier.

He was educated in Dufftown, Ardvreck in Perthshire, Rugby School, and Cambridge University. Whilst at school in Dufftown, Sandy sat at the back of the class. He recalled that his eyesight was so poor that he could not see what was written on the blackboard. Only at the end of class he would finally approach the board and decipher the chalk marks and thus the lesson was committed to memory.

From the many letters written to his parents throughout his school career, one can see the character traits and passions that would later define him. Firstly, no letter was complete without mention of the birds seen that week: “On Friday we had a very good lecture by Captain Knight who brought Mr Bamshaw his golden eagle with him and it flew around the Crabbie Hall.” Secondly, aged eight, a letter to his mother illustrates his preoccupation with figures and measurement: “A few days ago, instead of a walk, we carried logs for the gardener. I carried up about seven logs, some of which were quite large. In fact, some were about eleven inches by seven. The others were about three by eight inches.” And finally, his quiet determination: “You will notice in my mark-sheet that I beat Findlay but only by six marks, but I was very glad for I had made up my mind to beat him.”

At Rugby, when Sandy was 14 years old, his parents seem to have been sufficiently worried that they sent him to see an educational psychologist in London, a Dr Simmonds of 1 Regents Park Terrace. His conclusion was that “Gordon, Alexander, is a boy of quite exceptionally high intelligence with special ability in mathematics…. any attempt to divert him to any other sphere of study might have a very discouraging and depressing effect. I foresee a very brilliant career ahead of him in this field.”

Subsequently, he secured a place at Queen’s College, Cambridge and gained a double first in Maths and Law. After graduating, Sandy swithered between pursuing a career in law or aircraft design engineering, but this was all abandoned when his father was diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer. His father expressed his wish that Sandy enter the family business to join his brother Charles and Uncle Gordon Grant. Sandy, wishing to please his father, accepted.

By this time, he was engaged to Linda Stobart, whom he had met through a cousin while he was studying in Cambridge. Linda was the antithesis to her quiet and socially awkward fiancé. She was considered a ‘looker’ and appeared to have no end of admirers. However, they were entranced with each other; she by his quirky charm such as his use of a one-pedalled bike and he by her grace and mischievous blindness to rules and authority. She would laughingly recall that when she accepted his marriage proposal, he produced his little black book with a meticulous record of all his ‘courting costs’ which amounted to somewhere in the region of three shillings. It was a marriage that lasted for over sixty years. Her effervescence and vivacity when she accompanied him to endless corporate events made them a great team.

More one for the carrot than the stick, it was observed that “Sandy was a curious boss!  Somewhat unstructured… he kept me on a very long lead and didn’t often say ‘no’.” This did not mean that Sandy was blind to what was going on. His meticulous and constant taking of notes in his famous black books and his brain’s encyclopaedic ability to retain the data, meant that whenever the export manager required a comparative sales statistic the quickest way was to call Sandy. Noted for his frugality, a request to his secretary to take only one of the shoes he was wearing to the mender went around the office like lightning. In a similar vein, Sandy refused the offer of the best room in the luxury 5-star Pittodrie House which the company had taken over to host guests from around the world for their centenary celebrations in 1987. Instead, he stayed in his trusted Ace Ambassador two-berth caravan which he had parked at the back of the hotel. It also enabled clandestine escapes to the nearby hill of Bennachie.

As a boy Sandy had developed what can justly be described as a passion for birdwatching. His choice of honeymoon venue in Majorca with Linda in 1955, at a hotel adjacent to a sewage farm, was reportedly not unconnected with the facility’s attraction to birdlife. He later joined the golden eagle population auditing group covering the West of Scotland. The group results were not in the public domain for fear of illegal egg hunters. The statistics produced from the Scottish surveys were used to highlight the perilous plight of Scotland’s golden eagle population as it struggled to recover from near extinction in the 1960s. Bagging all 282 Munros within just a few years was to Sandy just a logical by-product of his ornithological visits to the Highlands. Sandy assisted with the fundraising for the Scottish Seabird Centre at North Berwick and worked enthusiastically on the board as a Trustee and Director. The bronze sculpture on the rocks by the Seabird centre is named ‘Sandy’ in recognition of his support and wise counsel.

Sandy was also an important supporter of Scottish piping over five decades. He led the company’s sponsorship of the annual Glenfiddich Piping Championship at Blair Atholl from 1974. His humility, integrity and capacity for wise counsel enabled him to engender trust and to mediate intractable disagreements – whether business, family or elsewhere. This and his personal support, fundraising and donations were critical to the establishment of the National Piping Centre in Glasgow. His support for numerous other Scottish heritage initiatives include, amongst many others, the National Museum of Scotland, the Museum of Flight in East Lothian and the Gordon Highlanders Museum in Aberdeen. He was recognised for his contribution to Scotland’s culture and heritage by St. Andrew’s University, from whom he received an honorary degree.

In 1988 Sandy was awarded a CBE in the New Year’s Honours list. He retired from the business on his 65th birthday 1996. He now had the time to pursue some of his other interests, notably a weekly round trip with Linda every Monday evening to sing in the Greenock Philharmonic Choir. His annual bird watching trips took him further afield to remote places such as the Macquarie Islands, Ethiopia, India, the Faroe Islands to name but a few.

In 2009, after a fall on a bird-watching trip to Peru, Sandy suffered a bleed on the brain. Whether his fall precipitated dementia that followed is unclear. He spent the last ten years of his life with Linda on the farm of his elder daughter. There, they were lovingly cared for by Maggie, their son-in-law Bob and a dedicated team of carers. Even as his understanding declined, he was always ready with a naughty tale ending with his wheezy chuckle to the delight of those around him.

Linda died in October 2019, aged 88.

Sandy is survived by his four children: Maggie, an organic farmer; Bill, a clothing entrepreneur; Peter, a distiller; Sally, a psychotherapist; and nine grandchildren.

For all Sandy’s business achievements and his charitable works, he will always be remembered by his children as the humble, humorous, enthusiastic and brilliant man devoted to his wife, family, and pets. No doubt, if asked how his achievements might be judged, he might well have responded, with a twinkle in his eye: “not as good as Chookie!”

Alexander (Sandy) Grant Gordon – 6th May 1931 – 21 December 2020.

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