Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Distillery Visit - Glendronach

It is not easy to find the distillery of Glendronach. The address is given as 'near Huntley' and as you drive along the busy A96 from Aberdeen towards Inverness you see a large brown tourist sign that tells the distillery is off to the right. But, then you drive. And drive. And drive, down and increasingly narrow and winding road.

You begin to wonder if you've gone wrong somewhere as the brown signs disappear, or if it even exists. But then you are rewarded - there nestled in a small valley is the padoga of a distillery. The picturesque scene means that you have finally reached your destination.

Glendronach was founded in 1826 by James Allardice and the name translates as 'valley of the brambles' from the local Doric language. The current distillery buildings date from the 1850s when the site was rebuilt, with the exception of the still house - this was added in 1966 as part of a major expansion plan. It is currently owned by American drinks group Brown-Forman, who purchased it in May 2016.

The distillery's layout from the 1850s onwards was very traditional and based around a central courtyard. Much of this remains today and you get a real sense of history as you step through the archway and in to the courtyard. Dark stone buildings surround you and in the far right corner stands the imposing kiln with its pagoda-shaped roof.

Inside the old kiln.

Of the other buildings around the yard, some are in use and some are not. Two sides were home to Glendronach's unusual L-shaped malting floors, which were last used in 2002. Now as your peer through the dull glass windows they appear cold, empty, damp and full of cobwebs. The third side houses the mashing and fermentation facilities and the fourth is where the stills were formally housed.

Essentially barley went in one end, worked its way around the four sides of the courtyard and new make spirit then came out the other end. Nowadays, the malted barley is delivered to the site and then the remainder of the whisky production process takes place. Firstly the malt is milled through the old Boby Mill, which has been working at the distillery since the 1920s. Concerto barley is currently used and one tonne yields 415 litres of new make spirit.

Upon entering the mash room, you get the sense that production at Glendronach is traditional and on a small scale. The body of the mash tun is made of cast iron and the domed top of copper. Each mash produces 18,000 litres of sugary wort and this is created by added warm water at three different temperatures - 65.5°C, 88°C and finally 98°C - to the milled grist. Next to the mash tun is the last remaining cast iron underback in Scotland. It too has a copper top an unorthadox square shape.

The mash tun and underback.

The fermentation room has a serene feel to it but is where the distillery character of Glendronach's spirit really begins to formulate. The nine wooden washbacks are made of Scottish larch and are filled one by one with wort cooled to 21°C following each mash. Cream yeast is added and starts producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. The fermentation time is 80 hours and the resulting wash has an alcoholic strength of 8.5% ABV.

The wooden washbacks.

Each 18,000 litre batch of wash is then split between two wash stills for the first distillation. This will eventually yield 1,800 litres of new make spirit once it has also passed through the second distillation. The two wash stills have an unusual 'goose neck' shape to their lyne arms and sit either side of the smaller spirit stills. These have no 'goose neck' but a very slight downward angle to their lyne arms. The combination is said to be what gives Glendronach new make spirit its oily and robust character. Total annual production is 1.3 million litres.

The still room.

The stills at Glendronach were the last in Scotland to be heated by coal. This practice was stopped in 2005 when the coal furnaces below fell silent and were replaced with more energy efficient steam heated coils. It means that the copper bases of each still is thicker than in most other distilleries as they had to combat a direct heat source. Luckily, we were taken down below the stills to see the old coal fire furnaces, which are a rare sight these days.

The disused coal fires below the stills.

The new make spirit is collected at an average of 68.7% ABV and then diluted slightly to 63.5% ABV before being put in to cask. Glendronach is well known and regarded for its use of ex-sherry casks and these are made of both American oak and European oak. The type of sherry stored in the casks previously is Oloroso but they also use a small percentage that have previously held Pedro Ximenez.

There are three traditional dunnage and three modern racked warehouses at the distillery and all whisky designated for bottling as Glendronach single malt is matured on the site. Our blatant schoolboy/girl error was to not ask how many casks that was in total. Apologies for that. However as luck would have it, the four casks that were to make up the recent Kingsman release were waiting to be emptied and we witnessed this happening. What a privilege. All were ex-Oloroso sherry casks and filled in 1991. Even a wee cheeky sample of the vatting was tasted.

Casks fit for a Kingsman.

Glendronach is a charming distillery. This feeling is added to by the fact that it is in the middle of the countryside and takes some time to find. Therefore, you really have to want to go there. You can sense the history at places like Glendronach and it is easy to enjoy yourself there as a result. The lack of computerisation, as is now so common at distilleries, and the use of traditional distilling skills only accentuates this. It seems a distillery from a bygone age and we like that.

Visitor information
  • May to September - Open Monday to Sunday. Tours throughout the day, on the hour every hour. First tour at 10am, last tour at 3pm.
  • October to April - Open Monday to Friday. Closed Saturday and Sunday. Tours throughout the day, on the hour every hour. First tour at 10am, last tour at 3pm.
  • There are a number of tours available, starting at just £5 per person. Please visit the Glendronach Visitor Centre website for further details.

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