Glen Garioch holds a special place for me among the distilleries of Scotland. I was captivated by the way the spirit holds the fruitiness, spiciness and in the older versions, also the peat. Combine that with a minimal standard bottling strength of 48%, and you’ll get a distillery that usually gets overlooked, but is well worth your effort.
A little over a month ago, I visited Glen Garioch, and took the VIP tour. From being greeted by Jane at the visitor center we went over to the bothy, which used to be the excise office. There we had a nip of some new make and enjoyed a dram of the Vintage 1995, all while we spoke a little bit about the area, the Garioch, and its local dialect, the Doric. This is the area to the north and west of Aberdeen, and was described by Alfred Barnard, in his monumental 1887 tome relating his visit to all distilleries in the United Kingdom thus:
The Distillery takes its name from the celebrated valley of the Garioch, called the Granary of Aberdeenshire, which begins at Old Meldrum, and extends for upwards of 20 miles. It is a fertile, highly cultivated, and well sheltered valley, bounded on all sides by a range of hills, which command extensive views of the Foremartine and Buchan districts, and the lofty Bennochie. On the summit of the Barra Hill, which is 600 feet in height above the sea level, and about one mile from the Glengarioch Distillery, are to be seen the remains of a camp, of circular form, with three ditches, called “Cummins Camp,” which probably belonged to the Danes before the Cummins took possession of it.
The name comes from Glen Garbh ach – Gaelic for ‘valley of the rough ground’. The area was staunchly in the Jacobite camp in 1715 and 1745. In the second uprising, Aberdeen was held by both government and rebel forces, with the rebellion being finally squashed at Culloden. This war set the stage for the song in which a bonnie lass from Fyvie, a mere 8 miles from Oldmeldrum, catches the eye of the captain of Irish Dragoons, and he falls in love with this girl Peggy. So much so, that the Garioch is mentioned as having many pretty girls, but only Peggy from Fyvie is for the Captain. Here are the first three stanzas, and a recording of the original song (as this song was also the inspiration for Simon and Garfunkel’s Peggy O as well as Guns and Roses’ rendition of the same song):
There once was a troop o’ Irish dragoons
Cam marching doon through Fyvie-o
And the captain’s fa’en in love wi’ a very bonnie lass
And her name it was ca’d pretty Peggy-o
There’s many a bonnie lass in the Howe o Auchterless
There’s many a bonnie lass in the Garioch-o
There’s many a bonnie Jean in the city of Aiberdeen
But the floower o’ them aw lies in Fyvie-o
O come ye doon the stairs, Pretty Peggy, my dear
Come ye doon the stairs, Pretty Peggy-o
Come ye doon the stairs, comb back your yellow hair
Bid a last farewell to your daddy-o
Yours truly, though, cares not for Peggy of Fyvie, but has eyes for another bonnie lass who IS in the Garioch 😉
From the bothy, we went into the old maltings. Honestly, if there was any way to bring back the maltings to one distillery, I’d choose for it to be at Glen Garioch, for a few reasons: First, everything is still in place (although sadly it’s slowly decaying) and getting the maltings going again wouldn’t be that hard, although some structural maintenance is needed in the malting building and on the passage from it to the kilning floor. Second there were actually two separate fires feeding smoke and heat to the same kilning floor, a setup I think is exclusive to Glen Garioch. Third, the mild peating worked SO WELL with the Glen Garioch spirit, and demand nowadays for peated whisky is so high, that it just makes sense.
There are two malting floors beneath the grain loft, which had two steeps. They emptied to the floor below, the malting floor.
In 1993, the last year malting still took place at Glen Garioch, half of the barley used was malted at the distillery.
From the malting floor, the grain was taken to the kiln, which was in the next building. As I mentioned before, the kiln setup at Glen Garioch is very peculiar as a single 10 ton kiln floor is fed by two separate fires – a feature quite unique, and is ventilated by two pagodas (slightly less unique). As I mentioned before, despite being out of use for the past 23 years, it seems that the maltings could be brought back online quickly and rather inexpensively. You could say that there’s no need for it, but then that would be true for Bowmore as well, and at Bowmore they malt a significant percentage of their own malt. I guess it has to do with the peating, and I asssume that MBD figures that if you’re not dealing with peated barley, there’s no point in doing it to your own specifications. Nevertheless, one may dream….
Between the malting floors and the Kilning floor there’s a passage, now in disrepair. One of the distillery workers painted a mural on the wall of this unused passage and if you’re careful, you can pop open the door and actually stand inside the passage to take a picture of the mural:
The one really good thing that came out of the fact that the maltings are inactive is the fact that during the tour you can actually go into the kiln itself. The VIP tour actually takes you through the door on the side of the kiln into the back of it, and you get to have a look at a kiln from inside the firebox. The next stop is the kilning floor, where you can still smell, after over two decades, the smoke and the malt. The floor is large and was fed by two fires below, and could dry 10 tons of malt in a shot, in a 30 hour process, of which 10 hours were northeast peat smoke and the next 20 hours with coke. The far end of the kilining floor still has the rail mounted tumbling machine (it looks like the same machine Bowmore uses, which, of course, makes sense) from the 1980s.
Once dried, (or today, once delivered from Simpsons Malt) the malt would travel to the Porteus mill where 4 tons at a time are ground for a mash, in a process that takes 2 hours. Mashing is another seven hours and the wort is rather cloudy. By the way, the pipe leading the wash from the mash tun is cleaned once a week by passing a soccer ball through it. At one point there was a screw that got loose somewhere along the way, and it would tear the ball as it passed. Hence, a new ball had to be purchased every week. MBD’s Glasgow pennypinchers were baffled by the weekly receipt for a soccer ball, trying to understand why were employees playing soccer at the distillery, and why was the company expected to provide them with a new soccer ball every week. Once the pipe was fixed, soccer balls are purchased far less frequently. Since 1990, all 8 washbacks are made of stainless steel and hold 22,500 liters where dried yeast is added. The dried yeast yields a less floral wort, and every distillery in the MBD protfolio has its own type of yeast it uses. Fermentation takes at least 48 hours, and can run up to 60 hours over the weekend.
Unlike many distilleries in Scotland, where water is abundant, Glen Garioch faced recurring challenges to the water supply. The challenges were so serious that DCL gave up on the distillery in 1968, and sold it two years later to Morrison’s. Little known is the fact that the 1968 closing was tied to the creation of the legendary Brora distillery. Islay was having a drought, and DCL’s supply of peated malt for its blends was threatened, and it was determined that one of the highland distilleries in DCL’s portfolio was to be used for the creation of the heavily peated malt needed. Glen Garioch was considered, but given “chronic water shortages and limited production potential”, the old Clynelish distillery was recommissioned, first as Clynelish II, then as Brora. Having taken the decision not to use Glen Garioch for the heavily peated whisky, DCL decommissioned (not mothballed, but completely shut down) Glen Garioch, and two years later sold it to Stanley P. Morrison, who allegedly hired a water diviner to find a watersource on Coutens Farm. An underground spring was, indeed, found and the distillery has all the water it needs, and more. Personally, I think that that lack of water in the late 1960s is what saved Glen Garioch from being lost in the whisky loch, as the chances of it being brought back on line post 1968 would have been very slim had it not been sold to Morrison, and had it been DCL’s peated whisky producer holding the Johnnie Walker blends until Caol Ila came back on line, it would have not been sold. Hence, it’s only by the lack of water that we can still enjoy regularly produced Glen Garioch, as opposed to it being this highly coveted extinct Diageo distillery making its yearly debut in the Special Releases. Also, unlike the other distilleries that were sold out of the DCL portfolio and bottled as Rare Malt Selections after the sale (like the Benromach bottled as an RMS in 1998), Glen Garioch’s 1970 sale didn’t leave any stock in DCL’s hand close to 30 years later.
As I said, nowadays the distillery had all the water it needs, but I suspect that this would be cited as a reason not to go back to floor maltings. Glen Garioch was also a pioneer in energy saving and in going green, literally. In 1978 the distillery used the heat produced to heat two acres of hothouses for growing tomatoes (a method used by Bowmore to heat the local swimming pool), a fact that is celebrated on this That Boutique-y Whisky Company’s indie label:
Together with so many other beautiful things at the distillery, the hothouses were scrapped in October 1995, as the distillery was mothballed. By the way, the stillhouse has three stills – a wash still with a 25,000 liter capacity and two spirit stills (11,000 liter still number 1 and 12,000 liter still number 2). The active spirit still, spirit still No. 2, was just replaced and is the one behind the scaffolding. Spirit still 1 sits between the two active stills looking nice, but basically redundant.
If you’re wondering, there are three stills not because of triple distilling, which is, of course limited to Auchentoshan (and some runs at Springbank and BenRiach). There was a fourth still, a wash still, which was removed. Don’t despair, as you can still visit it, as I did on a rather misty morning last year:
Glen Garioch character is very special in several aspects. Obviously, that character changed when the distillery came back online in 1997 and the Renaissance bottlings have been designed to highlight the new unpeated character, which is what you get in the 12 year old, the staple Glen Garich bottling. Aside from the unpeated Highland style, Glen Garioch has some interesting features which make the whisky special:
- Hard water. Glen Garioch’s water supply is different to most of Scotland’s distilleries as it’s from an underground spring that’s very rich in minerals and is quite hard.
- The use of dry yeast, producing a cerealy and green fruit type cloudy wort (as opposed to the more floral wort you get in Auchentoshan or the more tropical one you get at Bowmore) with those fruit coming through clearly in the new make. The cloudy wort also promotes the creation of more fatty chains (lipids) adding later to the beefiness of the spirit.
- No bacterial carryover from fermentation past. One can debate the desirability of that (indeed, Bowmore went back to wooden washbacks after switching), but the wash coming out of the washbacks is 100% the product of one run of the mash tun, and that one only.
- The stills have no reflux ball, are relatively large and have short necks, which you would expect to produce a rather heavy spirit. Glen Garioch whiskies are, in general, rather full bodied, but there are two features which mitigate the shape of the stills to give a lighter, fruity and spicy spirit:
- Unnaturally long lyne arms, with the wash still having to actually go across two rooms to get to the condenser (I estimated the lyne arm at over 6 meters, but did not have a tape measure with me). The joint on the lyne arm is raised a little, so that creates reflux above and beyond the effect of the copper contact in the lyne arm itself.
- Slim spirit cut, as the distillery only takes the cut between 75%-69% ABV, you’re really getting only the fruity and spicy notes in a robust yet delicate spirit.
All in all, Glen Garioch is the unsung gem in the Beam Suntory portfolio. On the one hand, that’s good for the small group of devotees the distillery has. On the other hand, this distillery has such great potential, that its almost painful to see how underrated it can be and how little attention it gets. If you need an illustration, here you go: The long anticipated Renaissance Chapter 2 was released in September, a year late (which is an entirely different issue). I tasted it at the distillery, and trust me, it’s good! Yet, it’s not available in any stores outside Germany at this time. You’d think they would want it out for the holidays, wouldn’t you? I assumed it would be out, and recommended it in my 12 Bottles to buy for Christmas post, but it’s just not in stores. I’m not sure why.
Anyway, get to Old Meldrum, you’ll have a great time!
Glen Garioch Visitor Center Bottle Your Own Vintage 1997, First Fill Sherry Butt 008 (58.3% ABV, NCF, NC)
Appearance: Bronze, very thin and slow legs running very slowly off a sturdy necklace.
Nose: Deep sherry, with loads of dried fruit, fresh tobacco, Christmas cake, with clove and cinnamon abounding. Yet, there is something fresh in this whisky, having been caught before it turned into “old sherry” with some fresh fruit under the sherry. After some time in the glass, the very Garioch-y chalkiness comes to the nose together with a hint of sourness and a hit of coffee. A few drops of water bring out a chocolate-y maltiness with a touch of vanilla and old leather.
Palate: Dried fruit, hot cinnamon and a dash of chili, cranberries and oak. This dram needs water, and becomes a hot spice bomb when added (could I have added too much? I’m so happy I have a whole bottle to play with). With spiciness being part of the distillery DNA, I’m not surprised. On the back end of that spiciness is more of the dry sherry with notes of chocolate.
Linger: Sweet red berries, dry leather and tobacco, high grade bittersweet chocolate, freshly ground cinnamon and a residual dryness and chalkiness on the tongue, with some tannic bitterness on the back of the tongue. The linger is long, spicy, dry and chocolate-y.
It seems required for the conclusion to refer both to the VIP distillery tour and to the dram. But if you weren’t convinced by the description and photos that you should get to Oldmeldrum and spring the £40 on the tour, I won’t convince you now. But I do want to recap my thoughts on the BYO cask. This is one robust and proper sherry bomb, and if you make your way to the distillery, you can have one to take home for £130!