I’m asked many questions, some tend to appear on a regular basis including my favourite whiskies or distilleries, and then there is the query how many distilleries have I visited? In all honesty, like so many others, I’ve stopped counting of late. It’s easier to focus on those that have escaped my presence so far and this list is starting to grow thanks to the current Scottish vogue for owning a distillery.
One serious omission was Glen Garioch, mainly due to its location just north of Aberdeen; a region of Scotland I rarely visit. A gap in the July calendar offered the possibility of a trip north including a stay over in Aberdeen, before reaching Glen Garioch and then looping back through Speyside and down the A9 back to the Kingdom of Fife. Aberdeen actually offers the ideal base camp for such an expedition. Just 15 miles or so from Glen Garioch, the availability of accommodation around its growing airport ensures a comfortable start to the day. Sadly, we can never guarantee the weather and thus even in July, a sizeable downpour of rain greeted our departure.
Situated in Oldmeldrum, Glen Garioch sits within the town that has grown and prospered around this old distillery. It’s a rare example of a fairly intact distillery that still resides within a town and given the listed status of many of its buildings is well protected from any dreaded improvements that have blighted other producers. The imaginatively named Distillery Road dissects through the site and visitors have to be aware of local traffic when exploring its various outbuildings.
Stretching back to 1797 and arguably beyond, Glen Garioch was originally owned by a local farming family and supplied whisky locally and to the regional centre of Aberdeen, which was home to blenders such as Cadenheads in the mid 1800’s. For whatever reason, whilst other distilleries floundered and vanished from the distilling landscape, Glen Garioch quietly went about its business. I’ll save the historical chapter for another review, whereas here we’re focusing on the standard tour option followed by 2 whisky reviews. Namely their entry level No Age Statement Founder’s Reserve and then one of several bottle-your-own options at the distillery. During our visit, we opted for the 1st fill sherry butt, where normally you’re taken off to extract from the cask and label it yourself. However, here the cask was down to the last 3 bottles, which had to be decanted in advance. Fortunately, the whisky drums had told me in advance the sherry butt was the option to go for, although I looked longingly at the 1978 at £495 a bottle.
The rain was persistent as we crossed from the former cooperage building that in 2006 was converted into a cosy visitor centre featuring the current official range of whiskies and memorabilia. There’s a timeless atmosphere around Glen Garioch with its imposing stone buildings that have faced the centuries and survived, whilst harbouring many whisky tales. The area around the kiln is directly across from the visitor centre and was reminiscent of a section of Dalmore, where things now sit idle and collectively without purpose. For those on tour no videoing is permitted, but photography is encouraged in all areas except the small warehouse towards the end of the tour. I’ve forgotten the name of the young lass who took our internationally flavoured group featuring England, America, Holland and Venezuela, but she did a marvellous job. During these tours, I tend to take a backseat and observe. We had the usual rookie and beginner questions followed by someone who seemed intent on asking about the yeast on a regular basis. All of these were handled with aplomb and the pace of the tour was just right. Rather than being flushed through the buildings in an overly ruthless efficient manner that I’ve seen elsewhere. We were allowed to explore, take photographs and soak up the Glen Garioch atmosphere.
As this was part of its silent season, Glen Garioch was eerily quiet and still. It is worth booking a slot on your tour given the limited confines of the production rooms. Tours seems to be tight knit and limited to a maximum number in the teens. For £7.50 our basic tour also included a dram of the Founder’s Reserve, and it was good to see drivers being catered for with proper take home labelled samples; none of this ineffective plastic cap nonsense that has been seen at some Diageo distilleries.
Standing in the redundant kiln area, you’re faced by these two massive furnaces that helped create the distinctive flavours of Glen Garioch prior to 1995. They also peated barley here for its sister distillery Bowmore, before the parent company Morrison Bowmore was acquired by Suntory in July 1994.
Floor malting at Glen Garioch was stopped in 1993 – fairly late by Scottish standards – although it was used experimentally thereafter (for the last time in 2001) and more changes were incoming thanks to the new owners. Buildings were sold and the distillery was closed by the end of 1995. Their plans changed as Glen Garioch as revived by 1997, but sadly with numerous new features including indirect heating of the stills and most visibly as an unpeated malt.
Now these idle kilns engulf visitors and act as a gateway into the rest of Glen Garioch. As we drift from the glowing red mill towards the singular and encased mashtun, I’m reminded of distilleries such as Old Pulteney and Bunnahabhain where space is at a premium. Goodness knows how they would replace the mashtun today given the elaborate wooden beams that are layered overhead. The stainless steel washbacks themselves have a visible upright and compact presence, almost standing to attention they seem smaller and less dominant than those in other distilleries. We then negotiate the iron stairs back down towards the safety of terra firma before moving into the still room.
Blink and you’ll miss the spirit safe which sits at the back beside the stairs and much like Glen Garioch is small and confined. The stills stand uniform in line with the addition of a wash still in 1978. Part of the still house is grade listed and therefore like much of the distillery protected. Silent season meant things were idle and I quite like the opportunity to stick your head into a still and get up close and personal with the productive side of distilling. Photo opportunities galore we then stepped outside onto Distillery Road and many darted to the small warehouse across the road with a viewing platform to escape the rain. However, I just reflected on the environment and timeless quality of the small side streets and the age of Glen Garioch itself.
Re-joining the group, we were able to nose and taste some of the various cuts of spirit and an array of casks waiting patiently for their time to come. Within this warehouse are the bottle-your-own options including the 1978 and a wine cask. All it must be said, very tempting but I only have one to bring you below. After a conversation around maturation we returned to the visitor centre to enjoy a dram of the Founder’s Reserve, but as Speyside was calling, we left our group to their whisky selecting the driving option instead.
Back in the comfort of my whisky den, we have 2 Glen Garioch’s both dating from the resurrection of the distillery. To many enthusiasts these will be of inferior character, but Glen Garioch Mark 2 is a different entity now and should be judged on its own qualities. However, we’ll get around to reviewing more of the older stuff later this year.
Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve Review
Bottled at 48% strength, this No Age Statement expression is the entry level whisky. It does have colouring and will set you back around £36.
Colour: mellow gold
On the nose: a noticeable arrival of alcohol and vanilla bolstered by golden raisins and marzipan. A pungent presence of barley sugars followed by white chocolate and Caramac bar. A floral component and a citrus lemon quality and with water more honey, apples and cinnamon.
In the mouth: very malt and light, a lemon sponge cake and buttery quality. More vanilla, apple and caramel, in the background a wisp of smoke but I felt water didn’t’ unlock anything new.
A well sculpted nose I felt, very interesting but the palate in comparison is a bit flaccid and watery even at 48%. A very inoffensive whisky, which upon reflection the entry level malt should be so not too shabby.
1997 distillery hand filled cask 008 review
A first fill sherry butt filled on 9th September 1997 and bottled just under 20 years of age. This was 1 of 3 remaining bottles, this is number 556 and we know from the butt in total there are 558 bottles harvested. At a strength of 58.3%, this cost £130.
Colour: cherry wood
On the nose: a rich vanilla laced with cherries and undercut with a mint dark chocolate array. There’s sweetness and a sticky sense with maple syrup followed by fennel, Hovis biscuits and a wholemeal earthiness. With water more nuts and varnish qualities appear.
In the mouth: blackcurrant jam, baked figs with vanilla, more of the dark chocolate but hold the mint. Midway there’s bitterness from the wood, assisted by cherries and a touch of chalk. A touch of charcoal, a black Scottish breakfast tea blend specially into the peppery finish. The addition of water brings out more raisins, a creamy aspect and leather with aniseed on the finish.
A proper dominant 1st fill sherry bottling, arguably turbocharged as this was some of the last liquid extracted from the butt. It’s intense, robust and delicious. Interestingly this on paper would have been just the 8th cask filled at Glen Garioch after its closure.
I’m glad to have ticked Glen Garioch off the list and chances are I’ll be back later in the year for more of the same. A lovely traditional distillery with bags of character and enthusiastic staff armed a variety of whiskies.