Trip to Scoland April-May 2022: Glengarioch, Brora, Clynelish, Mannochmore, distilleries and other
For the photo gallery, click here
Planning and preparation phase…
With the travelling restrictions partially lifted in the UK, I could find return to Scotland for a short trip. The main purpose was to take photographs of the refurbished Brora distillery for a new version of my book. With the flight connections from Switzerland to Inverness being limited, I decided to fly to Aberdeen and to drive then by car. As of my favourite distillery, Glen Garioch, is located close to Aberdeen airport, I planned to stop there on my way North. Furthermore, the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival was taking place during that week. Most tickets were sold out, but managed anyway to get a ticket for the Mannochmore distillery and Bill Morgan, who spent all his career in the distilling industry was organizing a photographic exhibition that I wanted to see too.
Organizing this part was rather straightforward, but finding accommodations and car rental reserved some surprises.
All accommodations around Dufftown were full, my usual B&B at Brora was closed due to sheep shaving, the Royal Marine hotel was closed due to refurbishment and the prices for car rental went through the roof due to the Covid (about 4x higher than pre-covid!). I finally managed to get everything and was ready to fly to Scotland. For my last night, I wanted to stay at Oldmeldrum, but all accommodations were booked out, so I booked for a hotel at Aberdeen Airport. This turned out to be a wise decision, as 10 days before my travel, British Airways cancelled my return trip and I had to take an early morning flight instead of the planned late morning flight, if I did not want to spend over 5 hours at Heathrow.
Traveling to UK and Scotland
My trip to Scotland started rather badly, as I had not noticed that due to Brexit, entry requirements to UK have changed, so I went to the airport only with my ID. This was declined, as now Passport are required. Thanks to the help of the desk officer at British Airways and a helpful Swiss border officer, I managed to get an emergency passport in less than 20 min. The flight to London went rather smoothly and we landed at the different gate than planned, so we had to wait for an extra 20 min in the plane to disembark. The flight to Aberdeen was delayed and the pilot touched the ground rather heavily at Aberdeen, resulting in a plane to tilted towards the back and the impossibility to fix the ladder to the plane. Thus we had to wait for 30 min in the plane until they emptied the luggage containers. Well, this was far from being a relaxing start. Fortunately, everything when better afterwards!
Distillery touring and visits
|Glen Garioch distillery after its renovation|
Arriving at the Glen Garioch distillery, I was kindly guided by the knowledgeable Catherine through the distillery to see the latest changes. In March 2021, Beam Suntory announced an investment of £6m to upgrade the distillery, by converting the stills to direct fire and to reduce the carbon footprint. This work was completed in March 2022 and included the restauration of the floor maltings as well! This was a very good surprise, as the malting floors were in a bad condition. The plan is to produce about 25% of the malted barley on site and to mix it with 75% of commercial malt. Not only floor maltings were partially restaured, but a new kiln drying the malt with a new type of fan was installed and production of lightly peated Glen Garioch, in the 1980s style, is starting soon. With the conversion of the stills to direct fire, BeamSuntory wants to recreate that 1980s style of Glen Garioch. According to Catherine, the direct fire is bringing more complexity and weight to the sprit. The new energy system allows a reduction of the energy consumption of circa 15% and the water requirements of over 40%. These are excellent news for the fans of the distillery and I am very curious to taste this lightly peated Glen Garioch when it will reach the market.
|The floor maltings are back into operation|
To celebrate the completion of this work, you can “bottle your own” Glen Garioch from a 1991 single cask. An excellent old style of Glen Garioch, very complex, balanced, with a lovely moderate aromatic peat smoke, as well as some grassy flavours. I loved it.
Recently (pre-covid), they bottled the American oak trilogy, a series of 3 ex-bourbon casks exclusive to the distillery, with a very sweet Minnesota oak, a more spicy and intense Missouri cask and a Kentucky one, a version close to the Missouri, but slightly more on vanilla and oak spices. The visitor remained has not changed much since my previous visit and I was happy to see copies of my book with the Glen Garioch distillery exclusive cover available for sale. The Glen Garioch 2009 from a sherry butt was a very good example of sherried whisky, with a strong round sherry influence, on leather, sultanas and dried fruits, without being rubbery or astringent.
|The shop, with a large range of hand filled single casks|
It is nice to see all these positive changes at Glen Garioch and I hope this whisky will get soon more visibility, as it is still a rather confidential product.
|The fan propulsing the warm air to dry the barley in the kiln|
While making some purchased at the shop, I was surprised that they had stopped the tax refund. Catherine explained me, that since the Brexit, they needed to be registered as a retailer in order to propose this service to the client. Due to the complexity of the procedures, they decided not to proceed with that. Not only Glen Garioch is not doing it, but all the distilleries that I visited. Thus, for all foreigners in Scotland, have to pay the 20% VAT in UK, plus the duty and VAT at their home country (i.e., you are taxed 2x). This is a rather unfortunate situation, as standard bottling at the distilleries will be markedly pricer than on the home market.
As the time was running short and the journey in direction to the Speyside longer than expected, I had to skip Bill Morgan’s exhibition at Rothes and drove straight to Mannochmore distillery for the tour. Mannochmore distillery can only be visited during the tours organised as part of the Spirit of Speyside whisky festival.
|Inside the Mannochmore-Glenlossie Distilleries|
Mannochmore distillery was built on the same complex as the Glenlossie distillery. The tour started at the Glenlossie still house, where we were welcomed by the former distillery manager, Alyssia (?). We went through the entire Mannochmore distillery, from the malt bin, to the mash house and the still house. Mannochmore distillery was extended in 2013 and the proceed to a long fermentation of 120 h compared to 75 h at Glenlossie. The Mannochmore distillery has the typical “glass door” architecture of the Diageo distilleries built in the 1970s, like Caol Ila. Contrary to the distilleries with visitor centres, the still were rather black and mat, and not polished. The tour lasted for about 1 h before we moved to the training hall for a taste of the Mannochmore and Glenlossie Fauna and Flora, as well as the new Travel Retail Johnnie Walker Speyside Malt, a blended malt containing malts from several Speyside distilleries, including Mannochmore and Glenlossie. In addition, we had a cocktail. Compared to previous editions, the price of the distillery tours for the Speyside whisky festival went up markedly, from circa £35 to £60. This is rather pricey, but the group was small (10 persons, including some Diageo staff) and this a rather unique opportunity to visit this distillery.
|The old Mannochmore still house|
I left the distillery to drive in direction of Golspie, with a short stop at the Inverness Tesco to buy to Irn Bru and to get some food, as I only had a yoghurt at 5.00 with no time to get lunch. I arrived at Golspie early evening, dropped my bag in the room and got my first proper meal of the day, before driving early evening to Brora for taking some evening photographs of the Brora distillery.
After a Scottish breakfast, I drove to Brora, walked around the distillery for taking some photographs, before joining the Clynelish tour at 11.00.
|The new bar at the first floor of the visitor centre|
The new visitor centre as an external appearance that is rather unusual, but inside, it is very nice, with the shop on the ground floor and the a nice bar on the first floor with a beautiful view over the beach. The tour has been redesigned, to be more didactic with well-made signs. After the tour, we had a tasting of the Clynelish 14 YO, Clynelish Distillery exclusive and the Johnnie Walker platinum, matched with 3 chocolates. As they are short on staff, they had to hire a contractor guide, Valerie, who did a very good job. I stayed there for lunch, where I could enjoy a cold platter of cheese and venison salami. It is very appreciable to get some food at the distillery, especially considering the limited number of restaurants at Brora open. After this, I indulged myself, by ordering a glass of the Clynelish Hand Filled batch 1, Clynelish 20 YO 200th Anniversary and the 16 YO Clynelish Corner of Scotland. The prices were not displayed, but I paid £40 for a 25 ml measure of whisky, which is more than fair.
|My first and only lunch in Scotland|
At 14h, I met with Andrew Flatt, the Brora Brand Home ambassador and my friend Sandy Sutherland. Sandy has been key for writing my book, as he worked at Clynelish/Brora distillery from 1969 to 1986. I was very curious to get his views and opinions about the “new” Brora distillery. The old Clynelish filling store has been demolished, as well as the old oil store, old store and stable. The surroundings of the distillery are very nice and iron gates prevents any access to the distillery. Taking out the Clynelish filling store was part of the plan to keep only the original “Brora” buildings. The old floor maltings, old office and engineer workshop have been converted as hospitality buildings, with copies of the 1890s of the plans laying on a massive oak table. As mentioned by Andrew, the plan was to recreate the distillery as close as it was before its closure in 1983, and not to turn the distillery into a Disneyland. In the mill room, they installed an used Porteus mill and two malts bins are filled with lightly peated Barley and the third one intended for peated malt. The mash tun is a replica of the original semi-lauter stainless one.
|The converted old malting floor used later on for the storage of sherry butts|
The wort is then filled into Wooden washbacks and liquid yeast is used for a long fermentation of 120 h in order to have grass and fruity flavours. The original stills were polished and are used for the distillation, as the copper was still very thick. So far, 43 mashes have been produced as the mash tun broke out last year and repairing it was a long process. Although the initial plans were to produce a peated whisky, the objectives are now to produce 3 styles of whisky, i.e., to reproduce the triptych style: the lightly peated style of the 1980, the peated style from the late 1970s and the heavily peated 1972 style. Currently, they are only using only the lightly peated one (circa 1 ppm) to build up the grassy flavours in order to create the waxiness. Once this has been achieved, peated malt (Caol Ila levels) will be used. All filled cask are currently resting in a dunnage warehouse on site. The work done by Diageo is impressive, with lots of attention paid to recreate the original distillery (as it was in 1983). Well done!
|The renovated still house at Brora distillery|
This is also the first distillery I visited with a full wheel chair access, including a lift to the mash house! Operationally, the Clynelish and Brora distilleries, they are independent, with two separate teams. Five persons are working at the distillery, working 5 days a week. The objectives are to produce 800’000 litres of pure alcohol per year.
Tours have to be booked in advance via malts.com, with a “basic” tour at £300 and the full tour at £600. Both tours last for about 4-5 hours and are customised to the client. The distillery is made so that the visitor can have so “hands-on experience”. The full tour is the same distillery experience as the basic one, but with a chef coming to cook a warm meal instead of cold platters and to enjoy a tasting of the tryptich. This might be a lot of money, but compared to other exclusive tours in the Speyside, the full tour is good value. At the end of the tour, you can purchase the distillery exclusive, a 1982 39 YO single cask Brora, not available for sale at the Clynelish distillery. The 1982 was a mellow, waxy to very waxy, rather fruity expression of Brora with a nice mouthfeel, some heather and just a touch of peat. I also had the pleasure to taste the 1980 Prima & Ultima, probably my first 1980 Brora and it was absolutely excellent: Intense, peaty, waxy, mineral, slightly aromatic, austere and sooty. Very much in the style of the Clynelish 12 YO white label, as mentioned by Andy.
I was kindly proposed to have a wee taste to one of the tryptich and my choice was quickly made: the 1972, my favourite style of Brora: a stunning whisky, very peated, rich, intense, farmy and very complex. If you own a tryptich, a whisky worth opening!
Sandy was rather impressed by the work done, and summarized with one interesting work: “clinical”. When he worked at the distillery, it was an old fashioned distillery, with lots of activity, noises, flavours and dirt. At his time, the staff between the Clynelish and Brora distillery was over 40 persons and they did not have the pleasure of working in a very clean and freshly painted distillery.
After almost 3 hours with Andy, it was time to take our leave and thanks to Andy for his time and enthusiasts. It is so nice to see the distillery back in life!
|Tasting a nice Dornoch single malt at the Dornoch Whisky bar|
I had then a lovely and chatty dinner with Sandy and drove afterwards to Dornoch for a visit to the Dornoch Castle whisky bar, tasting a very nice Dornoch Single Malt, cask 54, on a rather oily-fatty style, slightly mineral, oaky and nutty, with a rather nice complexity. The Cask 16 tasted younger, smoother, greener and less influenced by the wood. A nice one, but I enjoyed the additional complexity of the cask 54. I tasted then the Springbank 10 YO Local Barley bottled this year, and the profile shared many similarities to the Dornoch cask 54, with its oily, fatty and dirty flavours, although it was more costal and with a fair amount of vanilla. A good whisky, but nothing to justify the hype around this bottling. I could not leave the bar without tasting the Glen Garioch 1966 Moon, a lovely, round, grassy, moderately peaty and aromatic Glen Garioch, rather complex and grassy.
It was time for a solid night of sleep.
As the sky was still cloudy, there was no point of driving to Brora for taking photographs of the Brora distillery under a blue sky. Therefore, after my breakfast, I drove straight to the Speyside to visit Bill Morgan at Aberlour. On the way, I made a quick “pit stop and leg stretching” at Tomatin distillery.
|The Tomatin Distillery|
The road was under renovation and lots of tree were planted along the road. The distillery has not changed much since I visited several years ago, and some renovations would do some good. Passing by Grantown on Spey, I noticed on the right side of the road a very surprising distillery in construction. As there was no stopping opportunities, I unfortunately could not take any photographs. The distillery was rather circular, black, with a long slanted roof in the style of the new Macallan distillery, covered with vegetation. Talking later with Bill Morgan, this was the new Gordon & Macphail Cairn.
The distillery was impressive and well advanced. I would be very curious to visit it in the future. This is part of the redevelopment of Grantown on Spey.
After more than 2 hours of driving, I arrived at Aberlour to visit Bill Morgan. Bill Morgan has spent his entire career in the whisky industry, working at distilleries such as Highland Park or Cragganmore, but most of it at Thamdu. He is very active on social media and kindly invited me to consult the photographs he exhibited the previous days at Rothes. His father has been working most of its life at the Cardhu distillery, when the floor maltings were still in operation. The passion for the whisky is strong in this family, as his son, Ewan, is working at Diageo, as National Program Director for the USA. The collection of images from the whisky making, mainly in the 1960s was rather impressive and I wish that he could publish a book on it. As he is pretty busy with other activities, I am not sure if he will find time for it. Bill was a prime example of Highland Hospitality and after more than 2 hours in his company, I headed towards the Craigellachie whisky auction.
|An impressive amount of distilling photographic archives collected by Bill Morgan|
I was interested by some Manager’s dram, but the prices were rather high (£350+ for the Glenlossie). The few Macallan reached very high price, like a 18 YO Macallan distilled in 1983 selling for £2100 ex-premium.
|A rather large attendance at the Craigellachie Hall for the Whisky Auction|
As my stomach was rumbling, I decide to drive to Dufftown and stopped at Glenfiddich, which has an excellent restaurant. As it was rather late and I wanted to make a stop at Strathisla distillery, I continued directly there. I was surprised to see an impressive selection of Distillery Reserve, single cask bottlings from the Chivas sold directly at their distilleries. They also received last week two new expressions of Strathisla, a 9 YO sherry and a 22 YO bourbon with the new distillery reserve label. Exclusive to the distillery, they have a 15 YO Strathisla bottled at 48%.
I was informed that a new online shop managed by a third party is available at https://www.maltwhiskydistilleries.com. The selection is limited, but I hope it will expand in the future. As of Monday, the policies at Strathisla have changed, as they are allowed now to take groups of 10 (compared to 4 previously). So the situation is improving, but rather slightly.
|An impressive selection of single malts at the Strathisla distillery|
I decided to go and eat at Oldmeldrum and made a stop at the Old Meldrum house, but both the bar and the restaurants were fully booked. I managed however to find a table at the Redgrath, just in front of the entrance door. Not the nicest place, but I was so hungry that I was ready to accept that. After a most welcomed meal, I made a final drive to the Premier Inn at the Aberdeen airport. The hotel was spacious, very clean and comfortable. I prepared my luggage in the evening for the morning.
With a flight leaving at 9.35, I set up the alarm at 7.35.
After a quick shower, I loaded the car with my suitcases, refilled the tank nearby and handed the rental car.
I was at the airport by 8.10 with my suitcase, hoping to have a quick bad drop in, going back to the hotel to fetch my camera bag. Unfortunately, it seemed that I was too optimistic. There was a long queue at the checkin with 3 desks open and two desks not moving, one due to a foreign couple with children and one by a BA pilot with his attendant.
At 8.35, I had only moved of 5 m and I was started to stress. Then, on the last “working” desk, the employee disappeared for a couple of minutes and came back with her supervisor. By 8.40, the two “occupied” desks were freed and everything went much faster.
By 8.46, I dropped by two bags, and ran to the hotel to fetch my camera bag. I was back at the airport by 9.00 and was relieved to see a rather empty queue at the security check.
Unfortunately, all my 3 trays were put aside and a long queue of people were waiting for the additional security check. With initially only 1 person doing the checks, the progress were very slow. After a few minutes, some additional employees joined her.
The time was running and the operator working on my bag was particularly zealous, as he wanted to open every single pocket from my camera bag and to check every accessory 1 by 1. At 9.20 I told him that my plane was leaving in 15 min. He simply replied “ Do not worry, you have enough time, the gate is not far away”. Well, after he completed is check, I ran to the gate and was happy to see that it was still open. The plan was already full, with everyone seated. I was more than happy later to eat the cereal bar offered by BA, the first food from the day.
The flight from Aberdeen to London was rather memorable, as the passenger to my right was attending to a wedding in Africa. I was almost struggling to breath as he probably emptied half a bottle of perfume on him before his flight. In addition, he was rather anxious, fidgeting all the time and asking every 5 min about the gate number for his next flight, an information that the staff could not provide. To calm his anxiety, he ordered a substantial amount of alcohol, that he consumed during the flight. To conclude the flight, during the final landing phase, the plane suddenly changed sharply of angulation and pilot switched to full thrust, as there was too much traffic on the tracks and we were good for another 15 min to make a second and final landing approach. I left the plane by 11.35 and rushed to the board, as my final flight started boarding at 11.40. It gave me enough time to buy a quick meal at Boots. The final flight went smoothly, but one luggage did not make it through. So I had to fill a form at the Lost and Found, and was happy to learn that my luggage was stuck in London and that is would come in the next flight. The luggage was delivered by courier later in the evening. Most samples made the trip home pretty well, except the Glen Garioch 1978 completely empty, the 1982 Brora and Clynelish 4 corners of Scotland just enough for a wee taste if some water was added.
In terms of whisky and distilleries, I really enjoyed my trip to Scotland. It was so good to be back after the Covid, although the impact of the Brexit on the staff seemed to be rather pronounced in Scotland, not only in the hospitals, but in hotels, bars and airports. Furthermore, the complications linked to the new conditions on the tax refunds might affect whisky sales at the distilleries. I hope this will improve.
Also, in terms of travelling, I might have underestimated the time for all the security procedures. Compared to the pre-covid period, the staff at the airport seemed to have been reduced. So, please make sure to be well on time for any travel.
Concluding on distilleries, I was very happy to see the positive changes that took place the last years at the Glengarioch, Clynelish and Brora distilleries. I enjoyed very much these visits and with to thank all the persons I met during this trip for the courtesy and hospitality.
Patrick, 03 May 2022.