Whisky tales: Captain William Grant and the revenge of the fairies

whisky regions


Before we even get onto this incredible whisky tale, let’s take a moment to think of how great Captain Grant and the Revenge of the Fairies would be as a schlocky, B-movie horror film.

Read this aloud in your best voice-over voice:

Captain William Grant arrived back from the military to continue life as a humble farmer.

He had dodged typhus and malaria while he was away.

Now, he was back on Scottish soil and ready to continue his life.

Then he saw an opportunity to start making whisky.

But there’s one thing he didn’t anticipate…

[Screeching 80s synth music]

The wrath of the fairies.

[Sirens, screeching music, pounding drums.]

This summer, catch the film that critics are calling ‘terrifying’.

Captain Grant and the Revenge of the Fairies.

Never has a fairy been so scary.

See what we mean?

(Ahem, sorry. We got a bit carried away there.)


When we read this story, we knew that we had to tell you.

It has all the elements of a classic whisky tale.

Heritage, smuggling, Scotland, entrepreneurial spirit, tradition and, erm, fairies.

So, before we go off on another 80s-horror tangent, let’s get to it:

Captain Grant and the Revenge of the Fairies.

Our story begins in 1809, when our hero, William Grant of Auchorachan, left his parent’s farm to serve in the British Army. (This wasn’t as noble as it sounds, his parents’ had bought him a lieutenant’s commission.)

Once enlisted, he was deployed to the Netherlands to take part in the Walcheren campaign, a failed British expedition to help the Austrians in their battle against the French. Sadly, the expedition ended in tragedy when the soldiers were struck down by an illness dubbed Walcheren Fever, a combination of typhus and malaria that wiped out 4,000 British troops. (In comparison, only 109 died in combat during the campaign.)

Panicking at the thought of losing her son, Grant’s mother begged his superior officer (later to be the Duke of Gordon – remember that name, it’s important) to send him home. Grant was retired on half pay, given the title Captain and sent back to return to farm life as Captain William Grant.

The Glenlivet he returned to was a hotbed of illicit whisky production.

The law prohibited the production of illicit whisky, but the local lairds were actively encouraging their tenants to produce whisky so they could pay their rent. (The local Justices, including our hero – once he’d cottoned on, were known to be lenient on any distiller caught.)

However, in 1823, the Duke of Gordon (remember him?) encouraged small distilleries in his glen to pop up legally and with a license, effectively putting an end to the illicit production of whisky. (There’s always one person who ruins the party, isn’t there?)

But ol’ Dukey boy was forgetting one thing: the smugglers.

And do you think the smugglers were happy about these distilleries popping up and taking their custom?

Of course, they weren’t.

In true smuggler fashion, they threatened these legitimate whisky producers with violence and scared them out of business. The ones that weren’t intimidated often fell to the pressures and demands involved with running a whisky business.

Captain William Grant sees an opportunity…

James MacPherson was one such distiller put out of business by the smugglers. He threw in the whisky-soaked towel in 1826.

And our hero, Captain Grant, was there to buy it off him, setting up Glenlivet Distillery.

Now, how was Grant going to succeed where MacPherson failed?

How does any successful businessman with low scruples get off to the best possible start?

A good dose of nepotism, of course.

Let us think: who might Grant know personally who would want to buy enough whisky to keep him in business through the rough early years of a distillery?

Oh yes, the Duke of Gordon.

For the first few years, the Duke filled his cellars – and the cellars of many of his friends – with Captain Grant’s whisky.

But Grant wasn’t satisfied with that. He began a marketing campaign to advertise his whisky in Edinburgh.

Here’s a little snippet from his oh-so-modest ad:

‘try his present stock of pure Glenlivet, eighteen months old, made by Captain Grant in his small still at Aucherican [sic], centre of the glen. It will be found very superior to what is made in the neighbourhood, and sold under the name of Glenlivet.’

(We’re thinking of adopting that tone in our Whisky Foundation ads. What do you think?)

It worked.

Business boomed, and Captain Grant, emboldened by his success, decided to open more distilleries in the glen.

But, sadly, these whiskies weren’t as popular. Some said it was the water, but the truth was far simpler: Captain Grant was a skin-flint who had penny-pinched on the equipment for his new distilleries.

And speaking of being a skin-flint…

When building a new property, Captain William Grant needed a piece of stone crucial to the structure. Rather than wait to purchase a new one, he decided to remove a standing stone from a hill at Auchorachan.

A stone believed to have been erected by fairies.

A stone that his friends warned him not to take because folktales told of the vengeful nature of the fairies and of the plight of men who trifled with their kingdoms.

But Captain William Grant was having none of that nonsense, thank you very much.

He took the stone, confident in the fact that fairie curses didn’t exist.

Well, that was until his cattle began to die of an unknown illness that nobody could cure.

Then he decided that maybe fairie curses weren’t to be trifled with, and returned the stone.

But, he should have known, the fairies aren’t the kind to forgive and forget.

His cattle were cured (we guess that fairies like cows?) but his run of bad luck wasn’t over.

First, he was fined a huge amount for breaking regulations at the distillery.

Then, when travelling in a carriage, his horse bolted and threw him onto the ground, shattering his leg.

Not long after that, his wife died tragically.

And then, to rub salt in the wound, his leg failed to heal properly. Unable to get around, his business fell into disrepair (along with his reputation) and he left the region to live with his daughter.

He died shortly thereafter.

The moral of the story? Don’t mess with the fairies of the glen.

Huge thanks to ScotchWhisky.com for finding this story. We’ve retold it in our own way, just like if we were around a campfire with a nice dram together. We’ve added in a few other historical sources, too, but all credit must go to their initial telling of the story.

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