Speyside Whisky festival and tour in the North-East of Scotland 26th Sept- 02 Oct. 2007
Speyside and Highlands tour 2007
I initially planned to have a relaxing and hopefully sunny Sunday, with only a visit at the Glenlivet distillery, but on my way, I decided to change my plans and headed towards Royal Lochnagar distillery, with a quick stop at Breaval distillery, which is still closed. The road leading to Breaval is going through Tamnavoulin, where I had the pleasure to see the smoke coming from Tamnavulin distillery, which is now back into production. The landscape from Tomintoul to Royal Lochnagar was majestic and the roads sometimes very steep. If you are in this region and the visibility is good, I can only recommend you to drive on this road. You will not regret it. Royal Lochnagar distillery stands at the vicinity of Balmoral Castle. It is a very well kept old fashioned distillery, used as a training centre, not only for whisky production, but also for sales forces of the Diageo group. The week before my visit, the Greek sale forces were on training at the distillery. The production of Royal Lochnagar is only 4000 LPA per week. It a small sized distillery, with an open mash tun, wooden wash back and two small stills. When you go to the filling station, your first impression is of visiting a museum, and I was quite surprised to learn that it is still in use! The distillery shop offers a very nice range of single malts, of which some are very difficult to find. I left Royal Lochnagar with a copy of the two first books from Classic Expressions, “Smuggling in the highlands” and “Reminiscences of a Gauger”. Afterwards, I drove back to Dufftown in time for the Whisky auction organized as part of the whisky festival, with the highest bid reached by a bottle of Glen Garioch Bicentennary edition (£550).The lots were quite interesting and prices quite correct.
|Royal Lochnagar distillery|
Monday started with the visit of the Mortlach distillery, which is only open to the public as part of the Speyside whisky festival. Mortlach is working at full capacity, 7 days a week since last year and now producing 3.5 mio LPA. The most intriguing feature of Mortlach, in addition of using worm tubs, is the distillation process. There are 3 wash and spirit stills, and all are of a different shape. The distillation process is a partial triple distillation, with the wash and spirit still n°3 performing a normal double distillation. The two other wash and spirit stills are “combined” together in order to perform a triple-distillation. The system is quite unique and rather complex. In the afternoon, I went for a tour at the neighbouring distillery, Dufftown. Although Dufftown is a very compact distillery, it is the largest distillery of the Diageo group, producing 5 mio LPA. Dufftown distillery will become a dwarf by the new distillery in construction at Roseile (capacity: 15 mio LPA). Interestingly, we have been informed that since 5-6 years, the style of the whisky has changed from nutty to grainy-grassy. The details of the changes are however confidential. It will be interesting in the future to compare the “old” and “new” Dufftown style. In 1999 a stone in the mill caused an explosion, destroying a large part of the distillery. Following this explosion, a vicker’s mill, the only one in the Diageo group, was installed and with new washbacks. With 12 washbacks, Dufftown is the Diageo distillery equipped with the largest number of washbacks. In addition, the Dufftown distillery is equipped with an evaporator, allowing to make syrup from the pot ale.
In the afternoon, I had my last appointment of the day, at the Headquarters of Gordon & MacPhail at Elgin. The offices are nice and modern, but then you go and visit the bottling hall, you have the impression of stepping back in time and you almost think that you are seeing a bottling chain from 50 years ago. The bottling process at G&M is very process intensive, everything done manually, at the exception of bottle filling. If sales of G&M and Benromach will continue to increase, I have no doubt that the bottling hall will be modernized. I was told that 6000 casks are lying now in the warehouses of G&M at Elgin and about the same amount in other distilleries. The oldest cask that I have seen was a Mortlach 1938. Of note, they have some very interesting and old casks from Strathisla and Glenlivet, but also a sherry cask of Macallan from 1940. With the current situation of the whisky market, I am wondering if G&M do not have serious problems in purchasing new casks. Visiting G&M was a very pleasant experience and I was surprised that this company is so much anchored in old-fashioned processes, guarantying the same standard of quality. This was the last day of the Speyside. And thank you, Juliette Buchan, for showing me around the G&M warehouse and bottling facility.
|Gordon & MacPhail headquarters at Elgin|
Autumn whisky festival, which the closure being the Dregs party, where all the bottles opened during the festival are put on a table in the whiskyshop in Dufftown. During this party, you can help yourself to whisky as you wish no limits. No need to say that some heavy dramming took place. During that evening, I have the opportunity to sample a cask of Kinivie from 1990. At that time, I was also informed that the new malt distillery in Givran is in production since two weeks. The malt distillery at Girvan was built in a record time, since construction started only November last year. Since we are talking about news, Tamnavulin is not anymore a silent distillery and it is back into production since some time. It is also planned that Glenglassaugh will resume production in August 2008. At Balvenie, if you attend to the Connoisseur tour, you are entitled to purchase a new limited edition of Balvenie, the Balvenie Rose, which is a 16 YO cask strength Balvenie matured in Port Pipe. The name was given according to the colour of the spirit: Rose. The price is £60. Starting next week, a special edition of Glen Grant Cask strength will be available at the distillery shop.
|The bottles available during the Dreg's Party|
On my last day, Gordon Dey, the production manager, was my guide for my visit at the Autlmore distillery. The distillery is definitely modern, shining and in excellent condition. It is pleasant to see that some companies are not only increasing the price of the end product, but also investing in the production tool. As mentioned in the last book of Robin Laing “The Whisky River”, the mash tun looks like something out of Star Wars. The new full-lauter mash tun was installed in 2003 and because of its size, it had to be housed in a new building. The distillery is full of state-of-the art technology, but the old steam engine can still be seen in the building. The tour was most interesting and many thanks to Gordon for his kindness and answering all my questions.
With some time left before taking my plane, my last journey was to the small village of Knock, where I spent almost 2 hours at the Knockdhu distillery. From the outside, it looks as bucolic as Balbair distillery. The mill and malt dresser are the complete opposite to Aultmore distillery. A very old mill and an old wooden malt dresser. The same is true in the still house, with the intermediate spirit received being a wooden vessel like at Ardbeg and worm tubs are used with the stills. But don’t think that Knockdhu is a distillery in ruin. Everything is very clean and neat, like at Balmenach, and in excellent condition. Inverhouse is investing quite some money in their distilleries and here you notice it immediately. I was surprised to learn during my visit, that a medium peated Knockdhu is produced (25-27 ppm) 6 weeks per year, representing a bit less than 10% of the total production (30’000 LPA/week). All the medium peated production goes to blending. As in Ardmore, the peated spirit run smoother in the stills than the non-peated spirit. Since last Christmas, the distillery is working 7 days a week to meet the demand. My tour ended with a dram of the AnCnoc 1975, a 30 YO AnCnoc made of Sherry and Bourbon casks. AnCnoc is the name of the whisky produced at Knockdhu distillery. Very pleasant and quite different from the 12 YO. The staff at the distillery was most friendly and I highly recommend a visit to this distillery if you have the opportunity.
|The wooden intermediate spirit receiver|
The tour in the North-East of Scotland was most enjoyable and memorable. During some of my tours, I heard some tourists complaining about the prohibition of taking photos. I can understand their frustration, since I am always disappointed when photography is not allowed. Some companies claim that it is for Health and Safety reasons, and some for confidentiality reasons. Flash might be a potential hazard and since 90-95% of the camera’s users do not know how to use their cameras correctly (e.g., switching off the flash manually), it is easier for the distillery to ban photography. Having visiting a large amount of distilleries over the past years, I can only hope that more and more distilleries will offer different type of tours, one for the normal tourist coming and visiting for the first time a whisky distillery, and a second one for the more educated visitor. During my stay, I had the privilege of visiting many distilleries normally closed to the public and it was a real pleasure to be guided and talking to the men actually producing the whisky. I really enjoyed the dialogues I had with them and I wish to thank all of them for their kindness. These are the men in the shadow producing this lovely water of life, whisky, and they deserve all my (our) gratitude. However, the marketing people should make sure that the prices are fair enough so that it is possible to purchase the whiskies at a reasonable price, since the prices are now getting crazy and many whiskies are out-of-reach for the majority of us.
www.whisky-news.com ©15 October 2007