The curious case of Byway Makalaga


James Espey OBE told me that when it comes to selling aspirational products such as whisky, it is necessary to sell the sizzle before you sell the steak. What would be the equivalent sizzle for brandy to the curious case of Byway Makalaga (below) I present in Business Day this morning?

byway 615x795 The curious case of Byway Makalaga

“Major” James Grant inherited the Glen Grant distillery in Speyside from his father when he was 25 years old in 1872. Dad James and Uncle John had founded the enterprise in 1840. Confirming the relatively short commercial history of the Scottish stuff.

In his first year, the Major doubled production and the locals thought him as mad as a brush. A Victorian playboy, he was a big game hunter of note and Africa was his playground. Travelling on months long hunting expeditions, he was responsible for the introduction of Glen Grant whisky into SA.

On one of his many hunting trips, he encountered a young boy by the side of the road and took him back home to Elgin. Biawa Makalaga, knicknamed Byway as a result of their roadside meeting, became his batman and castle help – essential as the Major went through three wives and sired eight children.

When the Major cashed-in in 1931, he left a bequest to ensure that Byway would enjoy lunch in the local hotel every day of his life. Byway never returned to Africa, never married but did play soccer for the Rothes football team. He died in 1972 and is buried in the local cemetery.
They don’t make them like the Major anymore. The first to own a new-fangled motorcar in the Highlands, he electrified his distillery and provided Rothes with streetlights. Ahead of his time, he embraced renewable energy and generated his own electricity using hydropower from the water used to cool his distillation process.

He was also an innovator in the distillery, introducing a purifier that resulted in his being able to sell spirit after five years maturation instead of the industry norm of 10 years. The result was a fresher and fruiter spirit that took hotter climes by storm.

Italy was a popular holiday destination for the Major’s grandson and his five year old single malt was much appreciated. It soon became top selling whisky in Italy – surpassing even the big blends of Johnnie Walker – and so when brand owner Pernod Ricard were forced to divest a distillery for anti-monopolistic reasons in 2006, Campari snapped it up and started investing, big time.

Quite a change of corporate style to the swashbuckling operation of a thoroughly modern Major, with a habit of collecting human tourist curios – the Madonna of his day, if you will. But who will deny that Byway most likely had a far longer and healthier life than if the Major had taken the left fork in the road?