Craft is talked about a great deal these days, not only in making whisky, but in the making of anything. The world of luxury is all about objects and entities that have been made with craft, though “craft” itself is hard to define. Over the summer I visited Norton motorcycles in Donington with three of the craftsmen from the Balvenie distillery: distiller, Ian Millar, copper smith, Denis Macbain and cooper Ian McDonald. All owned motorbikes in their earlier years and Denis even owned a Norton.
Norton very nearly ceased to exist. It was founded in 1898 and in 2008, Stuart Garner bought the company, saving it from a very uncertain future. Stuart likes motorcycles, and used to watch the British Championships at Donington Park, next door to where he has based Norton. He remembers watching the Norton JPS bikes racing, the cheers and the Union Jacks waving. Stuart might like motorcycles, but he loves Norton.
Stuart grew up in Barrow-on-Trent and left Chellaston School aged sixteen without the burden of any qualifications. Stuart remembers his parents were incredibly disappointed. His brother was at university, but academia did not appeal to him. He preferred to be outdoors or playing snooker. It wasn’t long before he got into bikes and was scrambling. He held down a job as a gamekeeper for a few years, but was sacked eventually. It wasn’t until his girlfriend’s father insisted he have a job if he was going to take his daughter out, that he got a job in fireworks business, courtesy of that vexed parent. By saving money and earning extra mending bikes, Stuart began his own fireworks business and by his early twenties the company was valued at £1 million. It was clear Stuart had an entrepreneurial spirit coupled with a head for business.
Stuart’s fireworks business grew into one of Britain’s leading pyrotechnics firms. He also became a partner in the firm that regularly made frames for Norton bikes. He learned that the Norton trade name was owned by an American investment banker called Ollie Curme.
Ollie’s company suffered badly in the 2008 crash, so when he was looking to sell the Norton brand he asked whether Stuart would be interested. The call was on a Monday and the offer would be alive until the Friday, at which time he would be selling it to a clothing consortium. Stuart recounts that Ollie said, “If you agree to make bikes, we’ll shake on the deal.” Ollie himself was a biker and didn’t want to see it become just a clothing brand. So Stuart jumped on a plane that night and was in his office the following morning. Due diligence was conducted on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday, they signed the deal. Stuart wasn’t at all sure about buying the Norton name. There were no bikes, no facilities to make them, just a few CDs with the engineering drawings.
Stuart took on the biggest challenge of his career and by 2010 Norton was up and running again. It’s taken a supreme effort with Stuart working 100 hours a week – ‘I still do’ he states – and putting in extraordinary hours to ensure his bikes are, as far as possible, British-made. In addition, these bikes are all handmade. The frames are no longer made by an external company; they are welded and put together at Donington. Building a Norton motorcycle takes a huge amount of craft.
This was clear when the two Ians and Denis made their visit to the Norton factory. Ian McDonald gave a demonstration of how to raise a cask. The level of appreciation for this skilful craft from the Norton mechanics showed they understood straightaway why a cooper’s apprenticeship takes four years.
Denis toured the area of the factory devoted to welding. Now Denis has had well over fifty years at Balvenie as a copper smith, so his welding skills are pretty sharp. However, welding copper and aluminium are slightly different skills and with guidance from Bobby Teahan, Denis got to grips with the discrete techniques. The mutual appreciation between the old master and the younger specialist was clear to see.
Consistency must be one of the most impressive parts of the process. Although each bike is hand-built, the end result is as consistent as the every other item. Each bike might have its own quirk, design difference or bespoke quality and it was clear how much Ian Millar appreciated the consistency of engineering, akin to perfecting the whisky-making process to achieve consistent new make spirit. The spirit may well possess bespoke elements after maturation, being matured in Sherry, bourbon, Port or even Madeira casks, but the spirit must be consistent in the first instance. It is what makes Balvenie’s whisky dependable in the same way the unfailing engineering makes a motorcycle a Norton.
The three men in whose company I shared the visit to Norton comprehend the effort it has taken to revive the Norton brand. They understand the level of skill required to create something special. Denis McBain started working at William Grant & Sons aged 16 in 1958. Although he officially retired in 2008, he is still very much a part of their story. He has become a living legend, an emissary for the brands, and occasionally makes a copper dog. His working life spanned over fifty years, time spent honing his skill as a copper smith.
In 1969 Ian McDonald also started work aged 16, in the cooperage at William Grants. He completed a five year apprenticeship, refining his cask-making skills over the next forty years. He is now the head cooper, passing on these skills to future generations.
Ian Millar didn’t join William Grant & Sons until 1998, and was the distillery manager for both Glenfiddich and Balvenie. Before joining the company, Ian had worked for thirteen other distilleries in a number of technical and production roles and has well over forty years’ experience in distilling.
These three men, even though they have many years of experience still see the similarities in skill levels needed to create the motorcycle brand they all love and the whisky they all make.
Perhaps a craftsman appreciates the work of another more than other folk. Either way, the many years’ experience of all three men allowed them to perceive the similarities in skill required to create both the motorcycle brand they all love and the whisky they all make.
There are other similarities between the two brands. Stuart says that there is a certain type of person who buys a Norton. A Honda buyer, for example, will be interested in the numbers. How much, how fast, how many miles between services. When a person buys a Norton they are interested in the brand, the lifestyle. They are investing in an authentic, tangible brand experience. The same can be said of Balvenie, where there is a perceptible brand experience that has nothing to do with the strength of the whisky, its age or maturation process. These things are separate from the whisky itself. Neither of the two brands is owned by a faceless corporation. Stuart is as much a prominent figurehead for the brand he owns as the family who owns Balvenie. Similarly Kirsten Grant Miekle, sixth generation of the William Grant’s family, has reinvigorated the Balvenie brand in London and is now in the USA, promoting their whisky to an audience searching for something special.
The brand owners both have the same view about craft. There are very specialised skills each brands requires in its creation. These skills take time to perfect and consistency to allow their brands to thrive. Craft doesn’t have to be a scale issue. It is not simply small scale or limited by quantity, it is defined by skill, care and attention to detail. These qualities and disciplines allow the character of these much-loved brands to come to life.
By Colin Hampden-White