Glengoyne distillery sits above the A81, which marks the old Highland Line that divides the Highlands from the Lowland. Consequently, the maturing spirit sits in the Lowland, but was distilled in the Highlands. Today the A81 is merely a lively road in a beautiful setting, where tourists gamble as they seek to safely make their way across to the gates of Glengoyne. Indeed, this location is very attractive.
I visited Glengoyne about a month ago, on a gloriously sunny day, to take part in their Malt Master tour. This two-hour tour encompasses a welcome dram, a full tour around the distillery site, and finishes with a special blending session afterwards in the old manager’s house.
There is a great deal to like about Glengoyne distillery. Founded in 1833 originally as Burnfoot distillery, it was later changed to Glen Guin and then eventually Glengoyne – “the valley of the wild geese”. Since 2003 it has been owned by Ian Macleod Distillers. Primarily its heritage was one of providing whisky for blenders and a significant amount of its production today, due to the legacy of old contracts, means that a good amount still goes towards blends. However it has since the 1990s, and especially in the hands of Ian Macleod Distillers, really pushed its profile as a single malt producer. And with a lot of success. The day I visited saw plenty of tourists making the pilgrimage to the site, many of them great fans of the distillery. It probably does no harm to be so close to Glasgow, either.
It’s a fine site for a distillery. It gets its water from nearby sources – Loch Carron for process, Blairgar Burn for cooling. The latter sits alongside the distillery, making for a rather picturesque scene. Glengoyne make a point of showing visitors that here things are very unhurried. It’s part of the branding that extends further afield, but here you can see it for yourself. Whilst Glengoyne could increase many elements of its production to increase yield, the people here, led by primarily concerned with producing good quality whisky. They use Concerto barley from Simpson’s, and their fermentation time is long – up to 56 hours. There are also no computers here, no convenient shortcuts, meaning the distillation process, which is the slowest in Scotland, relies upon the judgement of people. Glengoyne uses six Oregon pine wood washbacks and curiously three stills, not one or two pairs. There’s a single, larger wash still, and a couple of smaller spirit stills, all of which are the products of a rebuild in the 1960s.
A great amount of the tour emphasis at Glengoyne is on the impact of different wood types on whisky. I think, for some newcomers to whisky, this subject can be a bit mind-boggling, especially heaped on top of all the other information a tour may provide. However, at Glengoyne they have a fantastic display tucked inside warehouse number 1. Bottles of whisky are displayed, year by year, for four different cask types. The colours indicate the influence of the different wood types as well as the impact of the angel’s share on the level of the spirit. It is simple, but a remarkably effective visual educational tool. And it’s this sentiment that’s at the heart of the Malt Master tour, too.
We were taken into the old manager’s house in the centre of the site at Glengoyne, which has been converted into a facility to accommodate tasting, blending and other functions. Glengoyne, up until recently, used to sell private casks, and those who owned one are able to visit this room and taste a sample each year. On the other side of the long table, seated just in front of a massive cabinet rammed full of sample bottles, we were faced with a selection of Glengoyne’s single cask whiskies. The object here was simple: make your own whisky to take home with you.
Keep in mind that this is an extension of Glengoyne’s education on the impact of wood on whisky – which, I should say, is not their complete focus, as the distillery does a good job of stressing the impact and importance of everything else too. But straight after being confronted with the big array of differently coloured whiskies, the final assemblage boiled down to just a few to choose from.
The sample bottles contained whisky that had spent time in refill remade hogsheads; first-fill American oak bourbon barrel; first-fill American oak sherry hogshead; and two first-fill European oak sherry butts (which were different colours despite being otherwise identical in filling time and storage). And the idea was very simple: using the tools provided, mix them in the ratios that appealed, and then scale up to fill your own sample bottle. A fun exercise, and one that I’m sure hits home the notion of wood influence. It’s also a very good way to get to know and appreciate Glengoyne’s whisky – not merely sampling them individually, but observing how they interacted with each other. As for me, the only cask I did not use when making my 17 year old whisky was the American bourbon. The refill hogshead whisky formed a reliable base, into which a sold amount of sherry butt whisky made its way.
After that, and after I had consumed a little bit of whisky in blending my own, the tour finished in the shop, where I purchased a bottle of the fabulous Glengoyne Cask Strength Batch 3. Thanks to the folk at the distillery for inviting me along to the tour whilst I was in the area. I think it’s safe to say, having tasted a good amount of their whisky and seen how they go about the production process, I’m thoroughly a convert. There’s a great mood about the place and its people, as well as their approach to making whisky. I like that they’ve gone to a great deal of effort to educate visitors. The Malt Master tour is a brilliantly fun experience; the way it’s put together has been properly considered, and I’d very much recommend it.