Reluctant Whisky Baron Launched a Global Hit, Glenfiddich

Reluctant Whisky Baron Launched a Global Hit, Glenfiddich

Sandy Grant Gordon sensed the appeal his family’s Glenfiddich single malt would have in the U.S. and other foreign markets. Photo: Gordon Fa

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Sandy Grant Gordon sensed the appeal his family’s Glenfiddich single malt would have in the U.S. and other foreign markets.

Photo: Gordon Family

Sandy Grant Gordon led a wildly successful product launch—the 1963 introduction of Glenfiddich, creating a global market for single-malt whisky—but claimed little credit for it.

Mr. Gordon, who died Dec. 21 at the age of 89, was a great-grandson of the founder of the Scottish distiller William Grant & Sons and a reluctant entrant into the business. As a young man, he was more tempted by a career as a lawyer or aircraft designer, until his father, near death, persuaded him to help run the family whisky business.

In the early 1960s, virtually all Scotch exports were blended whiskies, and single malts were little known outside Scotland. But foreign visitors sometimes discovered them and asked why they weren’t sold overseas.

With encouragement from his Uncle Eric and brother Charles, Mr. Gordon introduced Glenfiddich single malt to the U.S. and other foreign markets. It was the first single malt “actively promoted” outside of Scotland, according to the company, and became the leader in a booming new category. Sales vastly exceeded early expectations.

Sandy Grant Gordon at his family’s distillery in Girvan, Scotland, in 1968.

Photo: Grant Family

Glenfiddich was the largest-selling single-malt Scotch by global volume in 2019, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis.

“Through ignorance we did the right thing,” Mr. Gordon told the Scotsman in 1993.

The appeal was to would-be sophisticates. “Sit when you drink Glenfiddich, you may never stand for a blended Scotch again,” instructed an early Glenfiddich ad. (The name means Valley of the Deer in Gaelic.)

Single malts account for about 10% of all Scotch exports by volume, according to the Scotch Whisky Association.

Family members described Mr. Gordon as quiet and far more interested in bird-watching than in marketing. He seemed most at ease wearing an anorak and hiking with his golden retrievers, all called Chookie.

Yet Mr. Gordon, known to employees as Mr. Sandy, ran the company as managing director or chairman from 1968 to 1996 and preserved family ownership at a time when much of the industry was falling under foreign control.

Sandy Grant Gordon in a family photo taken in Scotland.

Photo: Gordon Family

Alexander Grant Gordon, known as Sandy, was born May 6, 1931, in Glasgow. His father was chairman of the distilling company; his mother was a medical doctor.

As a schoolboy in Dufftown, where the company had a distillery, he sat in the back of the classroom, despite poor eyesight that prevented him from seeing the blackboard. After classes were over, he made his way to the board to memorize the remaining chalk marks. As a teenager, he was sent to the Rugby School in England.

An educational psychologist concluded that he was “a boy of quite exceptionally high intelligence with special ability in mathematics” and advised his parents: “Any attempt to divert him to any other sphere of study might have a very discouraging and depressing effect.”

At Queens’ College, Cambridge, he earned a degree in math and law. While studying in Cambridge, he met Linda Stobart. When she accepted his marriage proposal, he showed her a little black book in which he had recorded his costs of courting her.

While he was trying to decide on a career, his father was diagnosed with inoperable bowel cancer and talked him into sticking with the family firm. As a newcomer in the family business, he was given responsibility for sales to one of the most diverse and difficult markets, Africa.

During one three-month trip, he made 513 sales calls. “It became clear to me that my talents did not lie in selling,” he said later. Still, Africa had its advantages: “It was a most enjoyable tour from the bird-watching point of view because you can see more species in one day in Africa than you can in a year in Scotland,” he reported.

Most of his career was in Scotland, where he found time to climb all 282 Munros, defined as mountains of 3,000 or more feet.

One of his biggest challenges was to anticipate demand trends. In the early 1980s, the Scotch business slumped deeply as alcohol taxes rose, laws against drunken driving grew stricter and many people switched to other drinks. In more recent years, the television show “Mad Men,” featuring hard-drinking advertising executives, helped revive demand among young people for Scotch.

Because Scotch is aged in oak casks for at least three years and often much longer, “you can’t turn the tap on and off the way other businesses do,” Mr. Gordon told an interviewer in 1981.

Sandy Grant Gordon celebrating an award at William Grant & Sons in 1984.

Photo: Grant Family

After retiring in 1996, Mr. Gordon made bird-watching trips to Macquarie Island, Ethiopia, India, Peru and the Faeroe Islands, among other places. He supported charities protecting endangered birds and promoting bagpipe competitions. Once a week, he and his wife, Linda, sang with the Greenock Philharmonic choir.

She died in 2019. Mr. Gordon is survived by four children and nine grandchildren.

He liked to drink his Glenfiddich with a little water “to bring out the flavor.”

Write to James R. Hagerty at [email protected]

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

This post first appeared on wsj.com

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