Knockdhu Distillery, home of the anCnoc brand, is a charming place. I visited it a couple of weeks ago, whilst in the region for the Spirit of Speyside festival – it’s a little off the beaten track, set in some wonderfully gentle countryside.
We met with Distillery Manager, Gordon Bruce, who is a breath of fresh air in the whisky industry – a far cry from polished, official-line-reading corporate employee. He had little time for things like health and safety restrictions, or not being able to take photos, which is the preserve of paranoid corporations worried about what their insurance companies might say. No. That just meant a warts-and-all, properly honest walk/climb about the site – and that therefore made for a memorable, fantastic trip.
My colleagues and I, who travelled incognito, are used to frequenting distilleries. Most distillery tours – even the higher price ones – tend to be basic affairs. So Gordon pretty much glossed over any of the sort of thing one might hear on a typical tour, and basically showed all the little nooks and crannies of Knockdhu Distillery. He even let one of our party climb inside an empty mash tun – then offered to turn it on while he was inside (we were very tempted – things would have got messy though).
Gordon showed us kind of things that the distillery ultimate owners, Thai Beverages, would rarely see or hear about (“Only on a need to know basis”, Gordon chuckled.) And that one line actually sums up life at Knockdhu: the place is geographically out-of-the-way, and it isn’t the headline brand in the portfolio of Inver House Distillers. So they do just pretty much get on with things in their own way – which means they’ve survived much of the nonsense that has blighted the whisky industry of late. They just get on with making good whisky, and selling it without much of a ridiculous story. (This isn’t grumpiness; rather, it’s highlighting those brands who do put their efforts into production, rather than hoodwinking drinkers with effervescent fluff.)
I’ve been drinking anCnoc – and enjoying it – for quite some time now, so I was surprised upon finally arriving at the home of the brand to find the site was quieter, smaller and less bustling than I had anticipated. The packaging looks tasteful and modern, and anCnoc releases all kinds of interesting whiskies, but in terms of sales and global reach the brand remains relatively small. I guess these things are a matter of perception.
Just a single pair of stills – unusual, flat, Japanese-onion-like things. Worm tubs (why did I never notice this place had worm tubs?) that we climbed up the side of, and which offered a lovely view across the scene. Dunnage warehouses on site, but not all of them utilised fully due to structural issues. And a main warehouse that had been refurbished after the roof fell in one winter, after excessive snowfall.
There were potential plans to create a proper visitor centre here; there is currently a small room or two, of sorts, but it’s not the flush thing one often finds now a distilleries. There are old buildings that can be refurbished, and clearly a lot of land on which to expand – Gordon suggested that a large, empty field within the site could be utilised for something more grand and impressive, but for now it looks like some of the older buildings will get the go-ahead.
After the walkabout we returned to the single tasting room on site – a compact, wood-lined affair – and we tucked into a wide selection of anCnoc whiskies. Gordon also brought out a rare cask sample – the kind of thing he honestly said the distillery should release more of, and I was inclined to agree with him. One of the whiskies I loved during the tasting was the anCnoc 24 year old, which – on the day – was available to purchase at a ridiculously good price (a rate for locals – cash only). It would have been rude of me not to come away with a bottle…
So today, after all of this rambling, I thought I’d compare two interesting drams – one that was sent as a sample just as I got back, and the 24-year-old that I bought at the distillery.
anCnoc 2002 Vintage Tasting Notes
Colour: deep gold into Amontillado sherry (slightly darker than the 2001 Vintage – more European Oak influence?).
On the nose: honey at the forefront, with toffee and fudge notes following. It’s very elegant indeed, with sweet apples, fresh peaches and apricots in golden syrup. There is vanilla there) but it isn’t dominant like many new whiskies). With time it really opens up to some lively grist quality: the barley plays a proper role. Haybarns. Floral and then a Champagne-like, bread-and-wine note.
In the mouth: oranges, dried apricots and sultanas, with a hint of grapefruit acidity. The barley quality – yeasty though – places a more focussed role, but it is an inherently more fruity affair than last year’s release. Less grassy. Slight wisps of fennel in the background. Rose’s Lime Marmalade. Baked apples or rhubarb, and golden syrup. Lovely sweet fruits and warming ginger on the finish.
It is similar to the 2001 Vintage, which I reviewed last year – but I though that was excellent too. I think my sherry-cask gene has kicked in, however, and I prefer the 2002.
anCnoc 24 Years Old Tasting Notes
Colour: russet, but a lovely vibrance.
On the nose: a gorgeously sweet affair – huge dried apricots and fresh ginger, with golden syrup. Sticky toffee pudding. Mixed peel. Blood oranges and grape juice. Incredibly perfumed too: notes of jasmine, honeysuckle and sandalwood. Pear drops and peaches, with a hint of vanilla custard.
In the mouth: Lovely light, oily texture. The sweetness is quite profound actually, echoing the nose with orange marmalade, dried apricots, sultanas and raisins (not so far down the figs route though – which is to say, not a sherry bomb). The layers of sweetness are kept in check with some warming notes of tobacco and black tea. Wood spices are ever so gentle. This is a very delicate and properly subtle whisky (subtle with a lot of layered, complex flavours, rather than subtle with a lack of flavour).
Well. It’s just a wonderful offering isn’t it? Great value, great tasting whisky. I think the 2002 is better than the 2001, and I bought a bottle of that so I’m probably going to have to buy a bottle of this too. And the 24 Year Old is fantastic value for money – a little richer, a little more special.
It is still a small brand – and, actually, perversely, long may it fly under many people’s radar. Because it’s one of those rare gems these days: a wonderfully charming site, great people involved in the production, excellent whisky without corporate corner-cutting – and you don’t feel as though they’ve emptied your wallet and stolen your watch when you walk away from the place.
(Thanks to Gordon for the excellent tour – keep on doing exactly what you’re doing.)