I have previously written about the revamped Fettercairn core range of whiskies, which were good if not exceptional.
The branding itself was a big step forward. All the established requirements for modern whisky branding were achieved: bold definition of the name, clearly identified age statements, a clear brand identify through the liberal use of colour, heavy custom bottles with fat stoppers, inspiration from a specific unique aspect of the distillery, and a limited edition well priced non-age statement range named after one of the warehouses on site.
Loads of distilleries now use specific warehouses to help identify a premium nature of some specific whiskies. For example, at Bunnahabhain visitors to the distillery are taken to Warehouse 9, representing the best of all the warehouses, where single casks are hand bottled into a premium range available at the distillery and online. Glen Moray promote Warehouse 1, and Fettercairn celebrate both Warehouse 2 and 14. In an age where most whisky is matured offsite for many distilleries, the one tangible advantage of a range such as this is that they are likely to have been matured or finished for a period on site… if that matters to you.
The purpose of this article, however, is to highlight that the brand renewal at Fettercairn has now extended beyond the bottles to the distillery visitor experience itself. Lying closed to visitors for an exceptionally long time after COVID, Fettercairn is again welcoming visitors. A significant improvement on the previous rendezvous outside of the tiny shop, visitors can now relax in a trendy lounge, replete with all the colour coding and brand identify you’d expect at Macallan. Fettercairn experience is housed in an existing building on site, so does retain a sense that tradition underpins the modern revamp. There are still rough stone walls, however they are now brightly whitewashed, alongside the modern custom bar and tasting table.
Fortunately, the visitor centre pricing remains traditional, with a full tour and two drams coming in £15/visitor. This is very welcome as whisky is not an elite product only for those high-end travelers, something Macallan could do well to remember. For your £15 you get an exceptionally well-informed tour of the production facilities, to which I will shortly turn. You begin this tour with a short walk around the newly landscaped grounds complete with sculpture designed to describe the sense of place, nature of the whisky, link with the land and brand identity all in one. As always an impossible challenge, but certainly one to include on any visitor centre bingo board. You will also get a view over to the recently planted Scottish Oak woodland which is apparently the prerequisite for a future onsite cooperage. Although I doubt parent company White & MacKay really have a 100-year business plan to bring such a thing to site, it’s a nice thing to imagine.
The tour itself is great. As I mentioned, being well informed is something worthy of particular note, because often it’s the stories and anecdotes around the people and the distillery that bring the spirit to life. This has been mastered by Balvenie’s Stories series of drams. I have experienced a very poor tour at Royal Lochnagar where the tour guide clearly didn’t know the basic script and filled the gaps with made up nonsense. The importance of a good whisky distillery tour to the brand is significant too, as these experiences create a lifelong emotional connection to the brand and the whisky that is more valuable than any marketing campaign.
Despite all of the spit and polish, and investment in the distillery visitor experience, the overall condition of the distillery process equipment is reassuringly natural. This is no theme park, but an interesting walk through the stages of mashing and distilling that go on at site. The list is short, as most of the processes including cask filling and most maturation happens off site, but the general process is well described. There are parts of the distillery site that have had zero attention for years and are reassuringly shit; as such the tour retains quite a bit of authenticity too.
One aspect that stood out for me during the tour, that I had certainly misunderstood, was the action of the water that runs down the neck of the wash stills. Perhaps as a result of this often-mentioned and much-celebrated unique feature, I had assumed that this feature was on both the wash and the spirit still, and that it was a permanent flow that occurred throughout distillation. However, despite the stills being on during our visit the water feature was dry. This novelty is only used sparingly at the discretion of the stillman to help manage the boiling liquid and help avoid the liquid boiling over and spoiling the low wines. The impact is greater consistency and a more controlled distillation, but the overall contribution to flavour and character is of less significance.
The distillery is running 24/7 due to the strength of the whisky market therefore visitors will have a higher chance of seeing the feature in action.
Returning from the tour very much better informed than when I started, we were offered a pour of each of the two whiskies reviewed before. I enjoyed my sample at the time and took a second home to write the review upon which this article rests. I have written in the past about how much the environment in which you drink the whisky can impact on your enjoyment and impression of the whisky, your mood and emotional all playing a part. I’ve also covered how packaging can influence your view of a whisky, too. There is a good reason why £20,000 pound whisky always comes in a custom crystal decanter and box with an elaborate mechanism, because it sets the scene for the liquid you are about to taste and helps justify the price. These whiskies are never worth the price on liquid quality.
Having completed my tour, and tasted these samples in the classy, stylish tasing room I can state comfortably that I would have scored the Fettercairn a huge 2 points higher than my final conclusions here, and probably even given the sherry forward version an extra point too. But the scores below are comparable across all my reviews.
I have to add that the dubious history of the Gladstone Family, historical owners of Fettercairn distillery, is still not actively acknowledged during the tour beyond saying “the Gladstones are sometimes controversial figures” without going to the extent of actually mentioning the controversy emanates from the vast profits made by enslaving people and further profiting through reparations given at the abolition of slavery. Surely there is a place for some visitor information and an interpretation panel so that interested visitors can read at their leisure after the tour. This can be easily rectified during the phase 2 development of the visitor experience that is due to be concluded by 2024. I understand this will include a revamp of the old exciseman’s office and creation of a hand bottling distillery exclusive option for visitors.
Fettercairn 12 Year Old – Review
40% ABV. £45 RRP*.
On the nose: Nice and fruity, vanilla, fresh apple and tinned pears, juicy, nicely juicy, then notes of honey, sponge cake crusty, peach skin, and more dusty vanilla.
In the mouth: fruit and a little soft slightly sharp spirit, green apple bitterness, dusty wood staves, fruitiness grows across the back of the tongue, dry finish.
Perhaps a little brighter than the last time I reviewed it in 2022, it’s refreshing and light, but a little boring. It would never be a go-to dram in the cabinet.
*Can be still found for around £39, which is similar to the February 2022 price.
Fettercairn 12 Year Old Pedro Ximinez Finish – Review
40% ABV. £66.49 for travel retail.
Colour: Deep gold.
On the nose: Dark treacle toffee, vanilla fudge, dates, golden raisins, a little spirit character but largely cask driven notes.
In the mouth: Thick, sweet, sticky molasses, Lucky Tattie sweet, Worcestershire Sauce, spicy spirit, dark chocolate, dried shitake mushroom. Some cask char and burnt sugar.
I’m not sure if it’s batch variation or the circumstance of the tasting, but the savoury notes that occur alongside the sweetness at this tasting do elevate this whisky to a level of interest beyond the 4 I gave before. Still not my preferred style, but worthy of additional recognition.