Glen Garioch distillery is nestled in the conservation area of Old Meldrum, on the edge of the old town. Oldmeldrum is a former market town and rural administrative centre that is now largely a commuter town for the large city of Aberdeen. So integrated in the town is Glen Garioch that a public road runs through the centre of the distillery, known imaginatively as Distillery Road. These constraints have created a rather charming distillery that is well worth a visit. The rich, fertile agricultural lands around the distillery are older than the current administrative boundaries and are known as The Garioch (pronounced “geery.”)
The distillery is small, with just two stills producing at their output of 1.5m litres a year. Although one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries (1797) it is the recent history in the past 30 years that is of most interest. The direct fire stills used to produce a lightly peated malt. Around 1994 the stills were changed to steam indirect fire. About the same time the floor maltings were used for the last time. In 1997 the distillery switched from peated malt to unpeated. Taylor reflected on the impact on flavour and use of heavy cask finishes in 2019 which rather sums up the general view of more recent output.
The “modern” Glen Garioch house style remained the sole output from the stills until last year, when the floor maltings were brought back into use. This year, direct fire heating of the wash still was reintroduced, requiring a slower distillation of six hours (up from three) and delivering a heavier spirit. There is also a suggestion that fermentation times will be stretched to deliver a fruiter spirit. The change marks a move by owners Beam Suntory to focus on flavour and quality rather than squeezing the margins to maximise profit; these projects cost over £6m.
One of the big advantages of direct firing stills is the significantly higher temperatures required on the outside of the still. These can reach 1,000 degrees Celsius. On the inside of the still, the increased temperatures and energy allow the Maillard reaction to occur. This is the same reaction that results in browning of a steak or burger. It creates the complex toasted malty flavours from the spent yeast within the wash.
The greatest disadvantage of direct firing has always been the difficulty in controlling the still, with the wash at risk of boiling over into the lyne arm and impacting the spirit. At Glen Garioch distillery this has been solved by modern technology which creates a feedback loop between
the internal behaviour of the still and the burners, allowing for more exact control and greater consistency. The developments offer both flavour quality and consistency.
I have spoken in the past about the pressure on the old established distilleries coming from the huge volume of new, high-quality distilleries releasing products onto the market. Glen Garioch Distillery is one clear example of the shift that has occurred to develop better spirit. I have to applaud Beam Suntory for focusing on flavour and moving back to more traditional methods. Hopefully the floor malting also allows for the inclusion of more peat in their products going forward; there are rumours of some recent trials that may lay groundwork for commercial volumes of peated spirit. The full return to a lightly peated style seems unlikely, though, as Beam Suntory already have plenty of peated stock from Ardmore. It seems most likely peat will only be used for a single annual run, like many other largely unpeated distilleries already do.
At Ardmore Distillery a few miles up the road, extensive refurbishment work has been ongoing this year. Perhaps direct firing could be reintroduced there in due course too? At Glen Garioch the whisky from the new maltings and distillation process will not filter through to the core range until around 2032, until which time we will not be able to determine the net benefit. However we can look back, before the changes, to pre-1994 spirit for an indication of the character that we can expect.
Turning now to the flavour of the spirit itself: I have selected a broad spectrum of official releases, from the lower end Founders Reserve through the 12 year old and then two distillery-only bottles which will interest those Malt readers who enjoy the rare finds.
Glen Garioch Founders Reserve – Review
Bourbon and Sherry casks. Coloured but not chill filtered. 48%ABV. £38.
On the nose: Initially vanilla and honey, raspy malt, a bit of prickly peppery spirit, pungent farmyard funk, prominent raw oak, wort, menthol, buttery oak spices, some fruit peeking through with soft apple and pear, but overall, the menthol dominates.
In the mouth: That pungent farmyard funk jarring with the menthol and oak spices, plus a jalapeno brine which is hard work. It has an oily texture that clings to the tongue with bitter oak notes and peppery spice, it finishes dry and tannic. With water a bit more earthy, some vanilla, and spicy; it does settle down with liberal H2O.
This is dry, harsh, jagged, and a bit hard to drink really. Difficult to enjoy. The menthol, numbing oakiness is a theme in Glen Garioch modern spirit.
Glen Garioch 12 Year Old – Review
Bourbon and sherry casks with a greater proportion of sherry; non-chill filtered but coloured. 48% ABV. £45.
On the nose: Rich barley wort and layers of bright sherry fruits, baked apple, ripe pear drizzled in honey. Vanilla, then the oaky menthol notes that carry across this range. Some more bright white fruits bring balance and freshness.
In the mouth: Christmassy; soft sweet sherry, a little resinous, a whiff of smoke, apple and pear, aromatic oak spices, honey, fudge, the menthol note lingers. It’s earthy and nutty, fruity, and then very dry and quite tannic. On the finish there is crushed fennel seed and an oily texture that causes the flavours to linger on the tongue longer than is desirable. With water there is more balance, keep adding until you find it. Bright fruit then develops with some orange notes complimenting the festive spices.
The extra sherry and period maturing elevates this well above the Founder’s Reserve, the extra sweetness is welcome. From this along I would not call myself a Glen Garioch fan, the spirit seems to strip the oaky notes out of the cask.
Glen Garioch Distillery Exclusive Hand Fill Cask 1408 – Review
First Fill Sherry Butt, 2009 to 2022. 58.3% ABV. £130.
Colour: Diet Coke.
On the nose: Nutty rich praline, milk chocolate ganache, then dark dried fruits, raisins, dates, dried figs, some fresh apple and a hit of ‘house’ menthol. Some oak spices, more tannic oak, then woody baking spices. Water softens and allows some more fruity notes to develop.
In the mouth: Fruit then toasted, almost smoky oak, followed by spicy oak. Plump black raisins, baked figs with honey, chopped dates, minty, menthol, thick and oily. The finish is malty, tannic, and yet sweet, more crushed fennel seed. Water is welcome to soften things, give balance and adds a cream texture reminiscent of Grasshopper Pie (the cocktail inspired dessert).
The bold sherry cask is covering over the worst notes in the spirit. A big sherry bomb that just about works. I’ve reduced the score by one point due to the high price. For me this is a £75 whisky with a £55 premium for filling it from the cask. I think that’s too much of a mark-up.
Glen Garioch Distillery Exclusive Hand fill Cask 4556 – Review
Bourbon hogshead; this is direct fired spirit from the Glen Garioch maltings with some light peating. 1991 – 2022. 46.4% ABV. £325.
On the nose: Bright and fruity with ripe peach, juicy apple, and a farmy oxidised fruit that reveals good age. A toasty malty backbone. A hint of peat brining mostly richness but also a faint char. Always coming back to the beautify weighty oxidised fruits. It is a nose that grows in stature over time in the glass.
In the mouth: Soft fruity, pineapple, banana, gorse flower, pistachio powder, peat is farmy aromatic funk. The fruit notes continue to linger with the oily mouth coating texture. soft poached pear, natural cider, effervescent with just a tingle of oak spices and dry dusty peat and charcoal on the finish that is medium length.
This immediately gave me the memory of an Old Brora that Roy Duff shared with me. Those Brora notes are not as forward but they are definitely present. The gentle peat is definitely not spicy, or sweet, but very much funky. the fruity element to compliment the peat is a characteristic of the best well aged peated drams. There is none of the modern oak and tannic almost numbing character, nor the menthol which is a great thing. The only complaint would be a relatively short finish, but this can be offset by holding the spirit in the mouth in the first place. it’s well priced in comparison to the sherry cask above given the quality of the contents.
Thanks go out to my great whisky friends who bought me the 1991 for my birthday. They have got my palate down and this is exactly spot on. So, thanks JBro, CJ, Lutz, Rohit, Ian & Lama, Aryan and Petra, Lord Hotpants, Keiran, Gordan and Gordana, and Alasdair and Kelly. Love you guys. I’d recommend hunting down pre-1994 Glen Garioch as it is excellent spirit and excellent value for money. Continue to enjoy the old stuff whilst the new style spirit of Glen Garioch develops in the warehouse and cross your fingers for the reintroduction of some gentle peat.