Half a Century in Scotch: Glenfiddich's Legendary Coppersmith, Dennis McBain
The Scotch industry is brimming with tales of unsung legends, Heroes of the Hebrides, men and women who have dedicated their lives to the whisky world, and as such, have dedicated their lives to ensuring that the rest of us have good whisky to drink. One such man is Dennis McBain, who spent half a century plying his trade as a coppersmith with William Grant & Sons.
"I began working with the company in 1958 when I was 16 years old," says McBain, who officially retired in 2008 but is still associated with Glenfiddich and The Balvenie as a living legend brand emissary of sorts. To put that into perspective, McBain's coppersmith career has lasted from the invention of the microchip and the founding of NASA, to a time with iPhones and Mars Rovers.
McBain spent his first several months working in maltings, before being offered an opportunity to train as a coppersmith under Willie McLachlan. Coppersmiths are charged with making the stills and other associated pieces of distillation equipment, along with repairing and maintaining them, so this wasn't exactly a quick on the job training program. "I had to serve a five year apprenticeship and then another year having to make a still, which allowed me to get the full rate for the job," he says.
The company stopped making their own stills in 1979, however, McBain was always on hand as an in-house expert, a rare case. How rare? "We are the only Scotch whisky distiller to have had a resident coppersmith since 1957 to the present day," says McBain.
Even without new construction, McBain found himself in an ever-expanding role. "Due to the company increasing production capacity over the years, there is much more copper equipment to look after," he explains. "Continuing maintenance to be done, and parts to be replaced, in order to keep everything in good shape."
The past six decades have seen plenty of ups and downs in terms of the business of Scotch as well, from downturns spiked by waves of shuttering distilleries, to today's world of rapid expansions and new distillery construction. McBain has been through it all and has managed to come away with a special appreciation not only for the industry as a whole, but for the company turned family he was able to join.
"We have had a few downturns in the industry ... but all credit to the company rather than lay off the surplus workers — like some other companies — we created other work so that we were able to keep them on," says McBain. "That brought home to me how lucky I was to work for this family owned company who valued their employees. The company has grown very large but the family remain the same ... My work colleagues are just like an extended family to me and are always there should I need them."
Beyond the typical bumps in the road, there have also been the downright strange ones, too. "The most unusual event was the roofs of seven of our whisky warehouses collapsing due to extreme snow conditions," recalls McBain.
Of course, there's been the unimaginable upsides as well. "Being presented with my 50 year service awards by Charles Grant Gordon and Peter Grant Gordon at two special dinners would be the most memorable," says McBain. "I also have great memories of our first whisky event at the Smithsonian Festival in Washington which led to me visiting Europe, Asia, Canada and America again. I have also been presented to members of the Royal Family when they visited the distillery. It has been a great journey for me with the company and I have been very lucky."
Dennis McBain's career in Scotch has lasted from the invention of the microchip and the founding of NASA, to a time with iPhones and Mars Rovers. (Photo: William Grant & Sons)
Dramming at the distillery
In today's climate, in which the merits of shift drinks for bartenders are debated, perhaps the best way to look back at a bygone era is to hear McBain expound on the subject of dramming at the distillery.
"Dramming at the distillery was looked upon as part of your pay as the workers could not afford to buy it as it was so expensive back then," explains McBain. "The normal working day began with you joining the line of workers to get your glass of around 70 milliliters of 63.5% ABV new make whisky. You got another glass at lunchtime and another one when you finished work."
"If you were asked to do a very dirty job or a very heavy job about the distillery you would also get a glass of whisky," McBain continues. "In the odd occasion when a worker over-indulged by helping himself when he had the opportunity, his workmates would hide him away until he sobered up. I could say that for around 20 years up until the dramming was stopped around 1979, the only days that I was completely sober were a Sunday or when I was on holiday from work.
"Visitors to the local bars used to think that distillery workers could not hold their drink as they would come in to the bar after work, order and drink a pint of beer and then walk out with a stagger, the visitors not knowing the amount of alcohol they had already consumed at work," McBain jokes.
But it gets better, too.
"One of my favorite stories concerns a dear friend of mine sadly no longer with us," says McBain. "He had been working in one of our whisky warehouses and he came marching in to see me in the workshop and complained that the warehouseman had accused him of helping himself to some of the maturing whisky. I could hardly keep a straight face as he had a black ring around his mouth caused by him removing the bung from the barrel and tipping it over so that he could have a mouthful of whisky. I told him to go and have a look in the washroom mirror. Needless to say a lesson was learned."
Let us all take heed and learn the same lesson. Cheers to one of the true Heroes of the Hebrides, Dennis McBain.