Let me begin by declaring that I am firm sceptic of Glenallachie Distillery’s recent releases. As a distillery it existed in almost complete obscurity, somewhat like Glendullan or Miltonduff: a huge factory distillery producing uninteresting whisky filled into knackered old casks for bulking out cheap blends. I can imagine it was short fermentation and quick distillation. There might have been one or two interesting casks in the warehouse… but not many, and nothing to get excited about. So things remained for much of its life between its founding in 1967 and 2017.
There was a brief release of Glenallachie single malt by Chivas around the time they sold the distillery in 2017, which is still available for £35, but mostly retailed between £20 to 25. If you want to get an impression of pre-2017 Glenallachie, this will fit the bill. What changed in 2017 was blender and distiller Billy Walker and a consortium buying the distillery from Chivas.
Billy had grown a cult following due to his influence at Glendronach, where he had preimmunized the spirit through consistently high quality cask usage. The other distilleries in the portfolio at the time did not quite get the same attention, however BenRiach and Glenglassaugh have had a bit more of rebrand under Brown Forman since that company bought them in 2016.
Billy Walker is a fascinating character: the master of getting the most out of high quality premium casks. The dark Glendronach hand fills are legendary, and aficionados regularly debate the merits of specific casks and certain vintages such is the popularity. Billy Walker, however, eschews the superstar blender look. He does not spend time posting photos in first class flying around the world to launch new products; he does not post photos of his high-end watch draped over his latest release, or his fancy cars.
In fact, Billy Walker looks like your pal’s Da: familiar and approachable. You will often see him in his trademark old leather jacket in publicity shoots, looking as though he and the wife were out for a nice drive and stumbled across the distillery, not the Master Distiller of a growing single malt brand. Perhaps that is part of what makes his legend and causes fans to warm to him.
What Billy Walker has achieved for the stock of Glenallachie – which he purchased along with the distillery – is nothing short of a miracle. Taking that unloved malt and turbo-charging the spirit with cask finishes has unlocked lashings of flavour. Helped on with a core range at 48%, many of the ‘Dronach fans were immediate converts to the new releases. There were some absolute gems, for example the Aberdeen Whisky Shop Premier Grand Cru cask, which was good reduced all the way to 40%. But most releases were a little flat. I absolutely applaud the skill of Billy Walker to transform the spirit using good casks. But, I can’t stop imagining my 94 year old granny opine, “All fur coat and no knickers.”
The cask management programme was not the only change that Billy Walker changed immediately. The most significant thing was cutting production by 75% and massively increasing fermentation time, from what was probably about 55 hours to 160 hours. 20% of the new production was heavily peated. By 2023, the production will have crept up to 1 million litres, with about 10% being heavily peated. My question to those mad “old” Glenallachie spirit fans, “Tell me: if the spirit was great, why change almost everything about its production?”
The first exposure to the new spirit came with a 4-year-old release from the Past, Present and Future releases, made to mark 50 years of Billy Walker’s whisky career. I chased and missed the new spirit then.
In 2023, a new release burst onto the whisky Scene. The Meikle Toir is peated single malt distilled at the Glenallachie distillery, a distinctive new brand to distinguish from the revved up old blending stock under the Glenallachie name, perhaps. Glenallachie fans were well aware of the development and, on the day of release, it was hard to find these new whiskies in stock. However, I was extremely grateful to be sent a set to review (per Malt editorial policy, this will not affect my notes or score).
The first release included three core releases and a special limited run. All the releases use standard peated malt from the maltsters which is usually brought to about 40 ppm, the final spirit in The Original, the Sherry One, and the Chinquapin One has settled at 35 ppm. These are presented at a punchy 50% and all have a proud bold 5 year age statement.
5 years is often the year where the peat notes in whisky are regarded as the most prominent, with the phenols gradually becoming less prominent through interaction with the cask and development of other flavours from the wood.
I was fortunate to briefly visit the Glenallachie distillery during a recent Speyside trip. A few things about visiting the distillery site surprised me. Firstly, the distillery is quite bearable in comparison to some of its contemporaries built in the 1960s with a rather brutalist approach, function over form. The gardens and ponds to the front are quite attractive, and Ben Rinnes stands boldly behind.
A delivery of quality casks was rolling off the curtain sided lorry and the distillery workforce was heading in to begin their day. It’s setting, nestled in a side glen off the main Aberlour burn valley next to the small village of Glenallachie; it’s a lot more homely than I expected, and so incredibly calm on the day I visited. How does this new approach to whisky at Glenallachie distillery perform when consumed?
Glenallachie Meikle Toir The Original – Review
Bourbon, American virgin oak, and rye barrels. Aged 5 years. 50% ABV. £50.
Colour: Yellow gold.
On the nose: Sweet creamy smoke, like a nice clean Caol Ila, light toffee, cinder coffee, vanilla, slightly sour lactic note, baking spices, smoky honey.
In the mouth: Warming buttery peat, malt drink, coconut Laska, salted caramel cream, a little zest, oily texture, shortbread rounds with smoked sugar rim, green apple skin good cigar smoke with a good lick of salt.
Very tasty, a good alternative to Caol Ila now the prices are going daft. Very competent whisky at a fair price.
Glenallachie Meikle Toir The Sherry One – Review
American ex-bourbon with PX and Oloroso Sherry Second Maturation. Aged 5 years. 48% ABV. £50.
On the nose: Smoky toffee apples, treacle toffee shards, sticky toffee pudding, dark chocolate with smoked sea salt, steam engines, soot, a little Branston pickle.
In the mouth: Furniture polish, a swept hearth, brulee tops, peppery spirit, a hint of industrial dirty engine oil, coffee grounds, roast nuts, fabric sticky tape and antiseptic. A little salt and a lingering peat spice finish.
This will be a real crowd pleaser, very tasty, great price, could be a Laga 16 beater. Maybe that’s too controversial.
Glenallachie Meikle Toir The Chinquapin One – Review
American Oak Ex-Bourbon with a Chinquapin Virgin Oak Finish. Aged 5 years. 48% ABV. £50.
Colour: Yellow gold.
On the nose: Sweet lemony smoke, big vanilla, double cream, malty grist, a salty mineral note, some white balsamic toffee.
In the mouth: Smooth, soft, and a little bit of fruit, crisp malt, smoky sawdust, iodine and liquorice, cashew nut butter, bonfire, freshly rolled tobacco, charred lemons, wood fired oven bread.
Despite being slightly confused about how similar this sounded to the original, there are some really distinct notes, and this has a good value in the lineup.
The Special 2023 release is interesting as it is produced from exactly the same peated malt at 40 ppm, but the cut points have been tweaked to turbocharge the spirit and get the peatiest cut, at a punchy 71 ppm in the bottle. Again, it’s 5 years old and 50% ABV. Billy Walker decided that after describing this whisky as “the turbo” throughout its maturation, it was a fitting name for the final release too. There is something quite 1990s about these naming conventions, like Friends episodes. I think Billy Walker’s style is also giving that Ford Capri XR2 Turbo vibe to the Meikle Toir Turbo.
Glenallachie Meikle Toir The Turbo 2023 – Review
Three American virgin oak casks and five oloroso hogsheads. Aged 5 years. 50% ABV. £50.
On the nose: Rich nutty sherry, furniture polish and cigar smoke, slightly sharp, thick bearing grease, soft woody heathery smoke.
In the mouth: Thick luxurious fruity sherry, gun smoke, followed by a nice spice from the peat, mesquite, fruitcake, ginger loaf cake, cherry, espresso, and guajillo chilli that lingers on the lips. Rich warm lingering smoke builds gradually in the finish to become quite punchy.
This turbo spirit cut has clearly seen some of the best of Billy Walker’s casks. The sherry is punchy and modern, but without any of the off notes of poor seasoned sherry casks. The virgin American oak gives a nice maturity beyond the 5 year age. This is the outcome of good spirit and good casks and I am sure it’s a great statement of what is to come from Glenallachie in the future, now that the quality of the spirit has been sorted out.
Samples provided courtesy of Glenallachie. Photos and opinions our own.