A few weeks ago I went on a trip organised by Deeside Drinks/Dunnottar Wines to tour two north-east whisky distilleries with the promise of all refreshments and food for the day thrown in. Sounded like a great excuse for a blogging field trip!
We were heading to two distilleries – Glenglassaugh in Portsoy in the morning and Glen Garioch in Oldmeldrum after lunch. I joined the rest of the 20 or so whisky fans on the bus from Banchory and settled in for the long haul up to Portsoy.
We arrived at a pretty dreich Portsoy and pulled up at the Glenglassuagh distillery. A mix of old, neglected buildings and more recent neglected concrete buildings, the distillery was mothballed before re-opening in 2008. Our guide for the morning, Ronnie, is a man I’ve met before in his previous life on the retail side of whisky and he’s the perfect man to show us around an operation like Glenglassaugh. He really knows his whisky and is able to tell us about the distillery without sounding like he’s just repeating what the sales catalogue says.
The business isn’t quite run on a shoestring but they’re very much on an essential works only footing until they’re able to start selling bottles. Walls which have been damaged by the years of neglect still have paint peeling off them with any money spent going towards the important bits like boilers, heat exchangers and the stills themselves. There’s very little automation in the process with most operations controlled by hand. It really is amazing to see all the different steps and sheer scale of the machinery that goes into producing a relatively simple bottle of spirit.
As we were walking round Ronnie opened up the wash backs and invited us to stick our heads in for a sniff. I’ve tried my hand at brewing a little beer and am familiar with the strong, yeasty smell of fermentation. But nothing prepared me for the stench emanating from the huge wooden containers once I put my head over the edge. It was so violent it actually knocked my head back and I had to get my balance quick not to fall off the step! Much more pleasant was the taste of the wash itself. Like a very yeasty beer. Not something you’d want a pint of but surprisingly drinkable regardless.
After the distillery tour we had a quick look through the warehouse. Much of the space is given over to storing barrels from other distilleries as a means for Glenglassaugh to make money now and for the other companies to safeguard their stock against a total loss in their own warehouses. What there is of Glenglassaugh stock is part vintage, pre-mothball, and part new stock being aged for sale. We were lucky enough to get a sniff of some of the vintage stock and the new stock and they smelled delicious!
Finally we were led into a large room for the tasting and some lunch supplied by Cairn Gourmet. As the distillery has not been back in production for long it doesn’t have much actual whisky for us to taste. We’re given a dram of new spirit – the clear, unaged virgin liquid fresh from the still. This smells pretty horrible to me and I’m not keen on the taste either but it’s interesting to compare it to the finished whisky. We’re also given a wee nip of one of the vintage bottlings which is delicious as well as a glass of liqueur which smells like the new spirit but tastes syrupy sweet and fruity.
Unfortunately the distillery doesn’t have much whisky for sale at the moment and what they do have is well over my budget. But we did have the chance to buy a bottle of “spirit drink” which had been aged for 2 and a half years. A few of us took the opportunity and Ronnie invited us through to a house beside the distillery buildings where a small barrel stood in a side room with a number of empty bottles nearby. We each took turns to fill our bottle from the barrel before Ronnie stuck on the customs labels and sealed the bottles.
Back on the bus and more beer was passed around before Sandy from Deeside Drinks opened a bottle of the spirit drink to pass around. A few of our passengers chose this part of the day to rest their eyes a bit. No doubt saving their energy for the drams still to come and not feeling the effects of the ones they’d already drank!
Before too long we arrived in Oldmeldrum – a little later than Glen Garioch were expecting us. They weren’t ready for our arrival but we were happy to wait on the bus for a bit longer while they brought out a wee nip to try to get us warmed up for the tour.
This tour was a lot more polished. Glen Garioch is part of a global whisky brand (Suntory) and although the Glen Garioch distillery was also mothballed at one point it’s since reopened with a lot of investment from the parent company. While Glenglassaugh was a very manual, hands on process with little sign of a computer or much in the way of modern technology Glen Garioch is an incredibly precise operation.
Mostly this is a philisophical difference. Suntory prefer consistency and precision in their whisky brands while Glenglassaugh is looking for an individual expression from each batch. Glen Garioch boils the mash at the same temperature every time and uses incredibly precise amounts of ingredients.
I found it really fascinating to see the difference in approaches between the two distilleries. After all these were two companies producing essentially the same product – a bottle of whisky. But they’re both doing so in hugely different ways. One clear indicater was the huge wooden wash backs at Glenglassaugh and their stainless steel counterparts in Oldmeldrum. The Portsoy distillery wants the variations and character that the wood gives while Suntory owned Glen Garioch need to know that every time they put liquid in the container it will come out the same every time at the end of its fermentation.
Despite the more corporate feel this is still a small distillery and our guide for the afternoon quickly got the lie of the land. Correctly realising we were a bunch of whisky geeks in need of a dram she dropped most of the tourist guff and concentrated on the technical side of distilling while getting us round quickly so we could get to the tasting.
First up was the 1797 Founders Reserve. They deliberately left the age off this bottle as Americans won’t buy anything under ten years old. I think if I remember rightly they said it’s aged for 8 years but to be honest it doesn’t taste any the worse for its early bottling. I really liked it. We were also offered a glass of new spirit but after I didn’t enjoy the one in the morning I decided to pass on this one.
Next up we had the 12-year-old which is a smashing drink. I really loved it and I ended up buying a bottle to take home with me. Finally we managed to twist their arm into giving us a nip of one of the limited edition releases (I forget exactly which one). This one proved very popular and a couple of people were persuaded to part with the higher price after tasting it despite some confessing to setting budgets earlier in the day.
Once the glasses were empty (along with our wallets) we boarded the bus for the homeward journey. More bottles of whisky passed down the bus along with more beer and I ended up exceedingly well oiled by the time I stumbled off the bus back in Banchory. One last stop of the day saw me pick up a pizza from Franco’s before jumping in a taxi back up the hill to home.
Two hours later my fiance found me asleep on the sofa with an empty pizza box and a barely touched bottle of Flying Dog at my feet. Well it had been a long day!