Pouring the dram

Glengoyne had to be the first field report of what will be a series of visiting all (well, let’s target ‘most of’, it should take a good couple of years) the Scottish distilleries, focusing on Single Malt. #SingleMaltTour hashtag has been only used once and #ScotchTour only 81 times on Twitter, so I will use them.

So Stage 001 of this tour is Glengoyne Distillery Indeed. I have visited Glengoyne on a number of occasions (as far as Facebook remembers it, my first visit was back in August 2011) as it is right near to my Scottish base, and as a matter of fact it is the first Scottish distillery I have ever visited (the first distillery ever being probably the Jameson Distillery in Dublin). And over the past 7 years, I have seen it evolving and feel like I’ve a connexion with it and it led me to purchase a first fill of European Oak Sherry Hogshead (£2,400 back in 2012, bottles, VAT and duty will be added to the bill at the time of bottling). Filled with 250 litres of spirit, it will still be more than 150 bottles at cask strength after 30 years (2.5% yearly Angel’s Share), this might be enough to cater for my personal consumption during my retirement, make a couple of present and maybe sell a couple of bottles to amortize the investment. Their 35 years old is £2,850, so 30 years, Single Cask, Cask Strength, without a fancy bottle or wooden box, could be in excess of £500 (their 25 years old is £260), although this wasn’t the objective, no need to resale a lot of bottles to be at breakeven! And there’s a bit of ‘cask lottery’ component, not all cask are making outstanding Single Cask bottles. This report may be updated in the future as I should be back eventually in the next few years, for example, I have never done the Cask Owners Day and their Masterclass is very appealing…

Glengoyne Distillery is situated in Dumgoyne, between Kilearn and Strathblane, just at the north of Glasgow, on the edge of the Campsie Fells. One can see the distillery hiking on the mythical (almost mystical) West Highland Way as the path is a few meters away from the warehouse, so this is a perfect opportunity to have a break… And a dram! Glengoyne means in Gaelic ’the Valley of the Wild Geese‘. It is with Auchentoshan the easiest distillery to visit from Glasgow.

The landscape surrounding the distillery is very stereotypical, making it perfect for Scotland visitors: green countryside, with trees, hills, cows, sheep,… Strategically situated to operate under the radar for tax avoidance back in the days! It was indeed, due to hills and forests, a very popular area to operate illegally until the beginning of the 19th century! Those days are obviously over. It’s said that Rob Roy MacGregor managed to escape law enforcement by hiding in a tree just 300 meters away from where would later be the distillery.

The only downside is the A81 road, the distillery is on the east side of the road and the warehouses (and visitors’ parking) on the west side of the road, people are driving fast and one has to be extremely careful when crossing the road. It’s actually one of the 5 most dangerous roads in Scotland!

For sure when it was established (officially, illegal distilling was probably going on before that date, but there is no record of it) in 1833, the road (probably still a path) was not that fast! But let’s talk about its situation. The frontier between Highlands and Lowlands is supposed to be the Highland Boundary Fault. There are geological challenges especially approaching the Loch Lomond, so the frontier is not that clear but it seems accepted that at this level the A81 is the frontier (in contradiction with the geological map though). That would mean that Glengoyne is distilled in the Highlands and matured in the Lowlands. Phew!  It is the place of operating the distilling that is taken as a reference, so Glengoyne is a Highland Single Malt. It’s now owned by Ian MacLeod Distillers.

The basic visit costs £9.50 and gives a discount in the shop. The visit is starting with a little movie and one can enjoy a little dram (usually the 12 years old) during the movie. To be honest, it is the only thing I’d change in the tour. I’d do the tasting after, in a bid to create a convivial moment and share impressions with other guests, to concentrate more on the tasting and not disturb those who have never seen the movie. And if you do the tasting at the end in the shop, the visits actually ends in the shop, giving a subliminal message to visitors: the bottle is right there if you want to buy it! However, on the more expensive tour (the so called Wee Tasting Tour, £12.50), there is additional tasting is at the end of the visit, of the 18 years old. If you want to dip in a cask in the warehouse, there’s a tour for that, the No.1 Warehouse Visit and you can even go further with a Malt Master Tour (assembling your own Single Malt) and a 5 hours Masterclass.

The 12 years old is surprisingly colourful, smooth but powerful (43% ABV), citrus and toffee notes are obvious as well as a spicy note and a finish woody and sherry. It’s not the stereotypical Highland Single Malt, the distillery could not be more on the south of the Highland producing region, so climate is milder and it has for sure an impact on the maturation (to start with, Angel’s Share is bigger) and it has a kind Lowland touch on the taste: one should do a blind taste with for example Auchentoshan and Dalwhinnie, it’s the best way to notice who’s the closer cousin. The 18 years old is much richer and spicier, a clear touch of gingerbread and nuts, there’s also a touch of cooked and caramelized apple taste. It’s really enjoyable as a night cap next to the fireplace. The assembly is made with a decent proportion of first fill of Sherry. It’s even more obvious on the 21 years old. What I like with the range, the Glengoyne touch is recognizable from the 10 years old to the 21 years old (I haven’t’ tried older), the intensity is obviously gradually higher and more powerful, but it’s not a different whisky, there’s a constant approach, it is richer and older. The entry, the 10 years old (a bit more than £30) feels obviously younger, apple taste is much fresher, sweeter, smoother, a touch of liquorice and vanilla. Perfect as an aperitif, with a standard 40% ABV, however, this doesn’t feel diluted by any means and it’s more interesting than a lot of some other 10 years old or undated flavoured entry point of ranges. Funnily enough, I haven’t ever tried (yet) the 15 years old.

What is appreciable with the range, they don’t mock about: 10, 12, 15, 18, 21, 25 years old as a standard, 30 years old, 35 years old and 40 years old as limited editions (in the old range, they used to have a 17 years old and a 14 years old if I remember correctly, but the range as been totally remarketed back in 2012 or 2013). What is really appreciable with Glengoyne, they don’t compromise on quality to rotate their stock more rapidly. It’s actually one of their marketing bullet point: ‘we take time’, ‘patience’,… The special editions aren’t going to be well marketed young diluted third fill of American Oak, special editions are really special, either old vintage as mentioned previously, either Single Casks. I did try a Single Cask edition years ago (when I purchased my cask, they give a bottle to patiently wait for the real deal in a ‘few’ years’ time), but I was probably too novice still to appreciate and the fact it is bottled at Cask Strength (usually between 55% and 60% ABV, it’s usually undated but matured for more than 14 to 25 years) make it very difficult to drink for a beginner. I must dig into the cellar to give hit another try! Another special (but recurrent) edition is the Teapot Dram, which I did taste once. It’s a tribute to the workers that were ditching discreetly (to ‘save face’, fearing the shame) their daily allowance in a copper teapot at the canteen because they would not drink it (especially the younger staff that don’t drink before breakfast… Yet!), the word spreaded, and those who were keen on drinking more than their daily allowance were funnily enough found of this ‘tea’. One has to expect a spicy and sweet edition, very flavoured but young and powerful as daily allowance of workers was picked from rougher and younger casks. So this is an assembly of first fill of Oloroso, kept at cask strength. One could argue we’re very close to a ‘cask flavouring’ marketing move. It has certainly a bit of ‘Sherry bomb’ component but, although undated, colour wise, it’s obvious there’s some pretty old cask in the assembly. The taste is not diluted or artificial and it is close to 60% ABV. Rumour has it the third batch of the edition was 8 Butts (500L casks) around 12 years old, and a Hogshead (250L) of 8 years old, so technically an 8 years old. A quite limited batch so we’ve seen better for stock rotation, and the fact it’s £90, it’s clearly not to make quick bucks with high stock rotation. It’s more about the story, a genuine homage. It won’t be anyone’s taste for sure, but it is a very good and interesting alternative to a Single Cask for those who like the power of it. And the bottle tells a story.

Anyway, back to the visit. After the movie, Glengoyne staff is explaining very well the rules and regulations governing Scotch whisky, the different meanings of whisky labels: Single Malt, Single Grain, Blended, Blended Malt, Blended Grain,… Highland, Lowland, Speyside, Islay, Campbelton,…  The actual visit is starting on the back deck, with a view on a giant sculptured bottle the small waterfall, which used to be their source of water, but with a production above 1.1ML, it’s a lot of water needed, and it is now sourced from Loch Katrine (like notably Tennent’s beer and Auchentoshan Scotch).

After this focus on water, we’re switching to the grain, the malted barley. Glengoyne is proud not to use peat to dry the malt: ‘unpeated’ is actually one of their marketing bullet points. There’s a small semantic ambiguity on the website though: ‘we always dry our barley by air’. It could lead to believe malting is still done at the distillery, this is obviously not the case. However, during the visit, there’s no ambiguity and the staff is showing the old malting floor on the other side of the building and even mentioning Simpsons Malt as a supplier. Malting is well explained, transforming the starch into sugar being the objective, drying the malt to stop the germination to keep an optimal level of sugar in the malt. Then follow the process of grinding the malt to produce a coarse flour (also known as the grist), it is the first stage of the process actually done on-site.

The visit continues in mash tun, also known as lauter tun. What is great with Glengoyne is that it’s really compact, everything is basically happening at the same place, there’s just a couple steps away from the washbacks and the stills, so the whole visit is done in a warm an nicely smelly atmosphere. The mash tun is basically a big boiler with stirrer, water is added in three stages, raising the temperature each time in order to extract as much sugar as possible. The last water is too light in sugars and is used as the first water in the next batch, no wastage! No wastage as well on the ‘porridge’ (the malt mashed residual is called draff), it is usually sold to farmers as there are still a lot of fibres and proteins, perfect for animal feed. Scots don’t like to waste!

The sweet liquid, called wort, is sent to the washbacks. Two rows of 3 washbacks, in Oregon Pine, cheap, tall, with no veins, perfect to build basically a barrel with a capacity of more than 30,000L. Add yeast and the fermentation will kick-off. Everyone is invited to open the lid and take a deep breather… Ouch! Very strong! It’s basically like brewing a beer. As a math geeks, beer is the first derivative of barley (well of malted barley so that should already be kind of the second derivative of barley but let’s not complicate things), while whisky is the second derivative (similar to wine versus Cognac or Armagnac, cider versus Calvados,…). The yeast is consuming the sugar to transform it in alcohol, the liquid is getting hotter in the operation. It has to be stronger than a normal beer though, else the yield would be pretty low, this is why the level of sugar has to be maximised in the mashing process and measured in order to add an adequate quantity of yeast.

Then comes the stills room, 3 stills, 1 wash still, 2 spirit stills. There are two distillations, Glengoyne is arguing that these are the slowest stills in Scotland, the distillation process is very slow indeed, it has an impact on the taste of the spirit as the more the spirit is in contact with the still, the better it is, so in theory a long distilling process is better, but it uses more energy and decrease the capacity of production. They are in copper, best material for distillation. The first distillation in the wash still is producing the so called low wine, which is then distilled in the spirit stills, producing the spirit to be casked.

I have never seen anyone explaining better so far the spirit safe. Seeing it in operation and so closely clearly helps. Firstly, the ultimate goal is for HMRC to control the amount of spirit produced for obvious tax and excise purpose. The explanation on the use of taps to get rid of the first and last distillate (the head, too strong, the tails too light, they are also called the feints, reintroduced into the wash still, once again, no wastage!) is excellent. It is still a manual process, the production team will control the spirit and decide when to divert the taps.

The visit is finishing in a ‘new’ (now a few years old actually) room. There are a couple of casks behind a locked gate, to basically give a sample of a warehouse as the standard visit doesn’t include the actual warehouse visit. There are also standing casks with their name on, to give the idea of the size: Butt and Puncheon (both 500L, a Puncheon is usually dumpier than a Butt), Barrel (200L), Hogshead (250L), also casks are remade from staves (selected old staves or dismounted for more efficient export). But the thing that really makes the room is the bottles on the wall, they are meant to show how the whisky is changing colour year after year. They are also showing the Angel’s Share in an interesting manner, the older it is, the less the bottled is filled. There are 30 bottles, the last one (29 years old then) is more or less half empty: it adds up, the rule of thumb is 2.5% per year for the Angels. So we have:

Quod Erat Demonstrandum!

What is striking is the colour of European Oak Sherry Casks. This is by far the most colourful, and it gets the colour very quickly. This is mainly due to the liquid it used to carry and also due to the particular grain of the European Oak. Indeed, American Oak Sherry Casks creates a much paler whisky so the wood itself bring some colour and flavour, not only what it used to contain. Refills are paler, the whisky has absorbed the wood colouring and the old wines it had sucked in the past. While Bourbon Casks are obviously even paler. This is really a marvellous room, I have no other words.

Finally, those who are in the good books (that’s me! My name is even written somewhere!) or pay more, can go across the road in the warehouses. The new warehouse is very tall, the cask filling process is operated here (the bottling process is not done in smaller distilleries, cask are sent to specialised independent plants). It’s with concrete floor, basically a hangar, it is mainly used to store what will be resold to blenders, and casks are mainly butts, vertically paletted. Unlike a lot of distilleries, Glengoyne is not compromising on the quality to get quicker cash flow (like by producing young and diluted ‘cask flavoured’ whisky), and don’t produce gin either. The only lever is reselling fresh and matured distilled spirit to other distillers, blenders or bottlers. Fair enough. They aren’t producing other spirits either, like the very trendy Gin indeed.

The warehouse No.1 is the old one, the traditional one, mainly filled with Hogsheads, nice and mouldy. Why Hogsheads rather than Butts. The size of the cask actually matters, the smaller the cask is, the greater proportion of the liquid will be in contact with the wood (higher surface o volume ratio). So one can imagine to mature whisky in 5L casks! However, there’s a cost issue: 50 casks of 5L won’t be 50 times less expensive than a Hogshead. On the other side, on the whisky operations, it’s much easier to fill big casks and it’s also much easier to store big casks, small casks are a waste of space (the example of fifty 5L cask versus a single Hogshead makes it quite obvious). So Hogsheads and Butts (or equivalent other cask with similar sizes) are the most standard in the industry: Hogshead for better quality, Butts to optimize the quantity. In the warehouse, one can smell the spirit, the mould, it’s dark and quiet…  And there are some very old casks around, I have no doubt Gleygoyne will release some extraordinary unique bottles eventually. The kind of bottle you can just afford to have a look at!

Also, visiting the sample room is an experience, as it is absolutely unique. Every year, each cask is sampled, tasted, stored and followed by the Master Distiller, for him to decide when a cask has peaked, when it is ready to be used. A yearly collection of the samples is like the DNA of a cask and when it’s lost, it’s lost. I would encourage any cask owner to never have more than one little sip for tasting purpose, to keep this collection of little bottles alive and put it on a shelf on display in the future.

So a great little distillery, still human size, staff extremely welcoming and it clearly worth a visit. This is not the cheapest Single Malt by any means but it clearly worth it. There are some genuine fundamental reasons about the pricing: the distillation process is slow and energy consuming. Also there is no compromise on the quality so there is no cash flow coming from bottles were putting the age or distillation and bottling dates on the label would be a bad marketing approach (I am referring the young and undated ‘flavoured’ whisky trend). Glengoyne takes time and time is money! Goodies in the shop are very affordable and I particularly enjoy drinking whisky in their tulip shaped glass.

For sure, I’ll be back…

Further reading:

Glengoyne Website: https://www.glengoyne.com

The Scotch Whisky Regulations: http://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/media/12744/scotchwhiskyregguidance2009.pdf

A toast to the water of Loch Katrine: https://www.lochkatrine.com/a-toast-to-the-water-of-loch-katrine/

How is whisky made?: https://www.whisky-distilleries.info/Fabrication_EN.shtml

Pot still distillation: http://whiskyscience.blogspot.co.uk/2011/03/pot-still-distillation.html

Scotch Whisky – ’The Water of Life‘: https://www.scotchwhiskyexperience.co.uk/about-whisky/making

Casks (barrels, hogsheads, butts): https://www.whiskyinvestdirect.com/about-whisky/scotch-whisky-casks-and-barrels

Glengoyne Teapot Dram Batch 3: https://www.connosr.com/glengyne-teapot-dram-batch-3-whisky-reviews-3193

Collins atlas rates five Scottish A roads ‘high risk’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-highlands-islands-14590493

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