The Girvan distillery is one of largest facilities making whisky in Scotland, yet remains one of the country's best kept secrets. The distillery is located on the outskirts of the coastal town of Girvan, which is about an hour's drive south of Glasgow, and sits on the picturesque Ailsa Bay overlooking the isles of Arran and Ailsa Craig. The Girvan distillery is owned by William Grant & Sons, who also own the Speyside single malt distilleries of Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie. Girvan produces single grain whisky that is used as the heart of the Grant's popular range of blended whiskies and forms part of a massive 380 acre site that includes the Ailsa Bay single malt distillery, the Hendrick's gin distillery, William Grant & Sons offices, a cooperage and over 40 warehouses! Amazing statistics, so how is it that this place is so unknown among whisky drinkers?
The distillery is named after the neighbouring town of Girvan and was founded in 1963. It was the idea of Charles Grant, one of the descendants of the original William Grant, and Girvan was constructed to produce the grain whisky which forms an important part of the Grant's range of blended whiskies. The brand was growing and their older distilleries couldn't cope, so the need was there to produce significant volumes in order to meet demand. Charles' idea was to have the first spirit running from the stills on Christmas Day, in a recreation of what had happened at his fore fathers first distillery at Glenfiddich in 1886. Construction work was swift and the site was completed in just nine months. More recently, the Ailsa Bay single malt distillery was added on the site and its construction programme mirrored that of Girvan and was completed in nine months.
Our tour of the Girvan distillery was taken by Ludo Ducrocq - the global brand ambassador of the Grant's blended whisky range. Girvan is not open to the public and little general knowledge is known about it. So when Ludo invited us for a tour, we had to accept especially as we had never been to a grain distillery or a distillery with a continuous still before. It turned out that we were one of the first whisky blogs to be shown around the distillery - we thank Ludo for the opportunity and the detailed information given and for taking time out of his busy schedule to conduct our visit. This was to be a distillery visit with a difference ...
We began our tour of the facility by visiting the new Ailsa Bay distillery, which produces around six million litres of single malt whisky which is destined for use in the Grant's blends. To read our review of Ailsa Bay - click here.
Following this, we turn our attention to Girvan and the world of the grain distillery and continuous distillation. This is an alien concept to us and Girvan is unlike any other distillery that we have seen to date. We begin by standing next to the huge milling tower (this can be seen on the image at the beginning of the post - it is the tall white building standing centre right). Ludo explains that we cannot see inside as there are large amounts of grain dust and this is highly volatile and combustible. However, he does explain the milling process and this differs significantly from that of single malt production.
Grain whisky at Girvan is produced using a mix of 90% wheat and 10% malted barley. The wheat has naturally high levels of sugars and therefore does not need to go through the malting/germination process. This saves approximately one week of time and this fact, coupled with the lower initial price of wheat compared to barley, helps to keep the production costs and therefore the final costs of grain whisky down. The barley used in the process has to go through the malting process and this is used because the enzymes in the malted barley help to break down the sugars in the wheat more easily.
The wheat and malted barley are ground down separately in the mill to the require size - this is done to increase the surface area of the grains and therefore make it easier to extract the soluble sugars. The process is called wet milling, as water is added during the grinding to produce a watery paste or slurry. The wheat and barley remain separated and are treated in different ways. The barley remains as a paste and allowed to cool while the wheat is cooked - this converts more starch to sugar. This process is completed in one of the three large cooking vessels at Girvan and the milled wheat is added to preheated water and cooked under pressure for approximately one hour. Basically, Girvan has three of the biggest pressure cookers you will ever see!
Following this, the two parts are mixed in huge conversion tanks - the cooled malted barley grist is on the bottom and the warm cooked wheat is then poured over, with the temperature then increased to get the enzymes working to draw out the maximum amount of sugar from the grains. Once completed, the whole solution including all the husks and other debris are pushed through to a series of fermentation tanks, which are housed outside. Here the yeast is added and the fermentation begins, turning those soluble sugars in to alcohol. They use yeast which they cultivate themselves at Girvan. There is only one word that describes each of the fermentation tanks - MASSIVE. Each one holds liquid at different stages of the fermentation process (this gives constant fuel to the stills) and has a capacity of half a million litres. There is at least 20 such tanks and the sight and sheer scale of them is awe inspiring!
The next stop takes us to the stills. These are unlike anything we have seen and are column stills that operate continuously, 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Between them they produce a staggering 75 million litres of grain whisky a year, making it one of Scotland's largest distilleries. These are again housed externally (see image, left) and tower above the rest of the complex. This type of still (also sometimes called a Coffey still) is used by all of the major drinks companies to mass produce the spirit of their choice, be it whisky, vodka, rum etc. At this point, Ludo tries to explain the process of column still continuous distillation to me and my brain starts to hurt! So here goes with the basic principals ...
Girvan has six column stills and they work in pairs - this is where the similarity to single malt copper pot still production ends. Each pair is made from stainless steel but contain copper plates at the top and these remove impurities from the spirit. Each column still performs a different function - the first (on the left of the adjoining diagram) is where the alcoholic fermented wash liquid is heated and the spirit fumes are then passed to the second still for condensing. The first still contains a series of plates containing mesh trays and these sift out the wheat and malted barley husks and dead yeast, while also making the resulting alcohol vapours work harder to get to the second condensing still. The stills are huge and tower above everything. All of the stills are operated under vacuum (Girvan is the only place in Scotland where this takes place) and this allows the spirit to be distilled at lower temperatures. This makes them more energy efficient and less messy to operate. These six stills are operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week and produce 75 million litres of spirit per year.
Girvan is one of the most energy efficient distilleries in Scotland and produces most of its own power through energy recovery. The stills are actually quite simple structures, but most of the piping that you can see in the image of the still above is for the purpose of this energy recovery. For example, the left over materials from the column still - this includes wheat husks, dead yeast particles and other debris - are collected and fed to bacteria. These bacteria then produce vast amounts of methane gas that is collected in a series of balloon-like structures. The methane gas is then burnt and this produces all of the electricity that is used on the whole distillery site. Girvan produces so much of this electricity that some is even sold to the National Grid, who supply the UK's electricity to homes and businesses.
Our tour moves to the cooperage which is adjacent to the large column stills. The cooperage is where the casks for maturation are constructed and Girvan has seven full time coopers and numerous other part time staff who carry out various associated jobs. A cooperage is a rare sight at a distillery, as most casks are constructed by external companies, so the chance to see one in action was a real treat.
We enter the workshop area and Ludo explains that the casks arrive at the cooperage, are checked and any faulty staves (the long strips of wood that make up a cask) or signs of leakage are replaced and repaired. Girvan uses casks that have been previously used in both the sherry and bourbon industries. A cask is held together by natural tension and a series of metal hoops - there is no glue, nails or sealant. The cask heads are sealed using dried, toughened thin reeds which are hammered in to the narrow space between the head and the top of the staves (see image, above). They also strip and char the insides of the casks in a kiln-like structure and this promotes interaction between the cask and the spirit which is eventually filled inside, giving the required flavours.
Finally, Ludo shows us a couple of the warehouses, where the casks and whisky spend their lives maturing. There are currently over 40 warehouses on the site, with more being built and planned, and they hold 1.3 million casks! Firstly, we go to a warehouse which is packed from floor to ceiling with marrying tuns - these are large barrels that are used to 'marry' the different whiskies together once the blending has taken place. It is an impressive sight and yet again demonstrates the vastness of the whole distillery complex.
Next, we move to another warehouse that contains endless rows of maturing whisky casks, mostly from Girvan and the other Grant's distilleries but also some from other distilleries whose whisky is used in Grant's blends. This place is like a whisky library and contains some very desirable casks, each of which will lend something to the final blend. For the final part, Ludo drives me to the back of the complex, passed a huge amount of empty casks produced by the cooperage, to show me some further warehouses. These overlook the lovely bay and are painted green in order to blend in with the surroundings. In the distance, there we new warehouses being constructed.
Wow - this is a long post! But it was so worth the visit and there was so much to write about. To get the opportunity to see the continuous column stills and the cooperage, learning about single grain distillation and the awesome scale of the whole Girvan distillery - these things, in addition to Ludo's knowledge and enthusiasm, will be the lasting memories of a great day. If you have any questions about the Girvan and Ailsa Bay distilleries or the Grant's whisky range, then contact Ludo on his Grant's Whisky Blog.