Situated a short distance from Aberdeen. Glen Garioch (pronounced ‘Geery’) can be found in the town of Oldmedrum slap bang in the middle of the rolling hills and fields of the Aberdeenshire countryside. The word Garioch means ‘Granary’ and the area in which the distillery is located is known as The Garioch due to the fertility of the local farmland. With such rich agricultural land perfect for growing barley it wasn’t long before someone in the area had the bright idea of having a go at a bit of whisky distilling. Two such men were brothers John and Alexander Manson and in 1797 they founded Glen Garioch distillery.
Having survived the upheavals of the early twentieth century when many distilleries had fallen by the wayside, Glen Garioch looked to have finally run out of luck by the late 1960’s. Ironically it was the increase in demand for whisky that looked to be Glen Garioch’s downfall as the distillery's water source was not up to the task of supplying enough water to produce the amounts of whisky needed to run the distillery profitably. Like an episode of Bob the Builder, it was local man Alec ‘Digger’ Grant (so called because he owned his own JCB) who discovered a suitable spring close by and was tasked to divert the spring water to the distillery with his digger, saving Glen Garioch from possible closure.
Distillery Road, situated off one of the main streets of Oldmeldrum gives you a big clue as to where you’re heading but if it wasn’t for the road’s name you would have no way of knowing that this unassuming residential road had a distillery at the end of it. Located on a slight bend in the road where it converges with another street, Glen Garioch is a classic looking Victorian built distillery, with its granite stone malting floors, kilns (with iconic Doig style pagodas), dunnage warehouses, visitor centre and little Excisemans bothy all located around this little crossroads. The only thing slightly incongruous was the distilleries location, being hemmed in on all sides by houses with a public road running through it, as our tour started various groups of children passed by on their way home from school.
|Malting Floor - Last used 1994|
We were met by distillery manager Kenny Grant (son of distillery saver and JCB owner Alec ‘Digger’ Grant) where he took us across the road to the old maltings floors and kilns. Disused for nearly 20 years this area of the distillery was by far the most characterful and atmospheric area of the distillery, with the sunny day seeping through the window attempting to illuminate the long empty spaces of the gloomy malting floors, the groaning of the big iron doors between rooms interrupting the silence as our tour passed through the long abandoned spaces.
It was only until relatively recently that Glen Garioch stopped malting their own barley using the traditional method of malting floors and kilns. In 1995 after Suntory took over Morrison Bowmore it was decided to stop the process and buy in pre-malted barley. Previous to this Glen Garioch was medium peated and so expressions that predate the mid nineties are often a little smoky. The 1994 and 1986 Vintages I tried while I was there had a definite wisp of peat smoke. Going back further it seems Glen Garioch was much more heavily peated as very old expressions are often quite prominently smoky.
Having looked at the dark, brooding old kiln, we moved into the working part of the distillery. We were going up ladders and down staircases, into one small room, then the next. Like a lot of older designed distilleries everything that had been modernised and updated was still crammed in to the old spaces provided, as always (to me anyway) it always seemed a bit disorientating going around the distillery and trying to work out the layout.
First up Kenny showed us the mash tun. This was a modern full-lauter mash tun (meaning that as the stirring equipment goes round the circumference of the mash tun the stirrers twirl around as well as up and down). After the malted barley has been ground into grist with the mill in the next room it is deposited into the mash tun and infused three times with hot water in order the extract the sugars from the starch in the barley. The thorough stirring mechanism of the full lauter tun allows the maximum amount of sugars to be extracted from the barley which are needed for the yeast to feed on during the fermentation stage. The resultant liquid is rather attractively called the wort.
Glen Garioch has eight washbacks, all made of stainless steel and all tightly crammed into the old Victorian space provided. The washbacks hold the wort. 21,500 litres of which are filled into these huge shining stainless steel tanks after which yeast is added and is left alone to do their thing for 48 hours (72 hours during the weekend when the distillery is closed). A 48 hour fermentation time is quite short compared to some other distilleries, whereas 72 hours is quite long and would allow the development of more fruity flavour compounds. It would be interesting to know if the whisky in your single cask Glen Garioch bottling consisted of whisky distilled from a wash fermented for 48 hours or 72 hours and if there is any noticeable difference between the two types of whiskies after maturation or does the wash being mixed with the previous still run’s foreshots and feints negate any difference?
Once fermentation is compete you are left with what is essentially a non-hopped beer of around 8% abv, known as the wash, and this is sent to the wash still. From the outside the still room at Glen Garioch is one of the most striking features of the whole distillery with its large window overlooking the street outside and the distilleries logo proudly emblazoned on the side in big gold letters. It’s a beautiful old granite building. The inside is much more functional and utilitarian, all white metal floors, fluorescent strip lights, pipes going here there and everywhere and of course, at the centre of it all, in pride of place the shiny copper pot stills.
There are three stills in the still room at Glen Garioch but only two of them are used. During the boom years of the 1970s once Alec ‘Digger’ Grant had saved the distillery, Glen Garioch was able to increase production considerably and installed another pair of stills which were used up until the mid 1990’s. One of them (the spirit still) remains, sitting between the two operational stills like a gooseberry. Its partner, the wash still has been sent off to sit outside one of Morrison Bowmore’s other distilleries Auchentoshan and watch over the A82 motorway. Maybe it should have a big sad face painted on the side of it.
|Big spirit still - 25,000 litres|
The wash still is a regular “onion” shape and quite large in comparison to most distilleries at 25,000 litres capacity. Once the wash has been pumped into the still it is run for 7 to 8 hours. The size of the still and the length of time of the first distillation allows for a lot of copper contact and reflux (where the alcohol vapours condense back into liquid higher up the still where the temperatures are lower and fall back into the still to be re-distilled) which helps to contribute towards making a lighter style spirit.
Once this stage has been completed what is now called the low-wines is pumped into the spirit still. Also a regular “onion” shape still, the spirit still is considerably smaller than the wash still (there’s less liquid after the first distillation) with a capacity of 12,000 litres. The striking thing about this still is the length of its lyne arm. It’s a great long thing that stretches half way across the room in order to meet the condensers. This extra long lyne arm ensures the alcohol vapour gets plenty of copper contact, helping to add lighter, fruitier characteristics to the finished spirit.
At Glen Garioch, once the still is up and running the still man waits until the alcohol running off the still reaches 75% ABV before collecting what is called the middle cut (the spirit destined to matured into whisky). As the second distillation process takes it’s course lesser and lesser strength alcohols run off the still and the still man waits until the alcohol reaches 69% ABV until he stops collecting the middle cut. This takes around 2 ½ to 3 hours.
The middle cut at Glen Garioch compared to other distilleries is quite early in the whole spirit run (a total of around 8 hours) being taken after only an average of 10 minutes. It is the alcohols that run off the still early that have more fruitier, estery characteristics as oppose the alcohols later in the spirit run that have a more savoury and robust character. This fresh and fruity whisky is definitely something that comes through with some of Glen Garioch’s vintage releases matured in bourbon casks, namely the 1995, 1997 and distillery only 1999.
|8000 casks stored at the distillery|
After showing us the stills, Kenny then led us outside, across the road and around the corner to the warehouses. There are four warehouses of the traditional dunnage style keeping a total of 8,000 casks of Glen Garioch within their walls. The majority of the distilleries 1 million litres per year output is tankered down to the central belt and matured there. The casks used are a mixture of mainly bourbon barrels and hogsheads with a fair share of sherry butts as well. After 1995 is was decided that a lot more first fill bourbon casks were to be used for maturing Glen Garioch (part of the process of changing the character of the whisky post Suntory takeover) presumably because this would best compliment the fruity style spirit being produced .
After touring the distillery we were invited to try the various expressions of Glen Garioch available at the moment from the standard expressions; the full bodied and spicy Founders Reserve and the toffee apple tasting 12 Year old, both bottled at a brave 48% ABV, to the various vintage expressions. What really came home to me on tasting these various whiskies was the sheer diversity that Glen Garioch has displayed over the years. It is one of the few distilleries that has changed is production processes considerably in the last 20 years when they stopped using medium peated barley and these pre-1995 whiskies offer another dimension to Glen Garioch that is very interesting.
Later expressions of the Vintage releases show the distilleries more recent big fruity style, especially my personal favourite the 1995 Vintage – bags of apples, pears and bananas, lots of vanilla, grassy and a lovely distinctive liquorice characteristic which I found throughout most of the range. The two standard bottlings, offer a bit of everything with the sherry casks complimenting the spiciness of the spirit and the bourbon casks working well with the fruitiness of the spirit.
Glen Garioch is well worth a visit especially if you’re are coming to or from Aberdeen on your way to Speyside as it is not much of a diversion. It’s a fascinating and characterful distillery with an equally fascinating and characterful whisky to go with it that’s well worth exploring if you haven’t done so before, especially the Vintage releases some of which are excellent quality for the price.