Pouring the dram

After a Highland Single Malt (Glengoyne), a Lowland Single Malt (Auchentoshan), it was time to head north towards the river Spey, widely known for the salmon fly fishing (MacAllan distillery owns a fishing spot by the way, it’s told to be amazing!) but also known for being one of the 5 producing regions recognised by the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), the largest in terms of variety of Single Malts: Speyside Single Malts. One will be spoilt for choice to decide which distillery to visit first! I chose Glenfarclas which I visited at the end of June 2017.

Just a little note on the producing regions recognised by the SWA, there are 5 indeed: Highlands, Lowlands, Speyside, Islay and Campeblton. Islay is the only island that has its own official region, Scotch produced in all the other islands are technically Highland Single Malts, but it’s in the commonly accepted to refer to them as Island Single Malts. However, this mention won’t appear on bottles, but rather ‘Single Malt Scotch Whisky’ with a reference to the island it’s distilled on but funnily enough, it can be a challenge to find ‘Highland Single Malt’ on bottles of Abhainn Dearg, Arran, Highland Park, Jura, Scapa, Talisker, Tobermory or Ledaig. Most probably to avoid confusion in the consumer mind. I will certainly ask this each time I have the opportunity, similarly to the ‘Lowland Single malt’ issue. Also, the boundaries of the regions were formally defined in 2009 and the Highland region is defined as follows: the “part of Scotland that is north of the line dividing the Highland region from the Lowland region”. Technically, the Speyside region is a subdivision of the Highland region so it is up to a Speyside distillery and its tradition and marketing to choose which one to display on the label. But Glenfarclas is in the boundaries of the Speyside region as it is defined by: “the wards of Buckie, Elgin City North, Elgin City South, Fochabers Lhanbryde, Forres, Heldon and Laich, Keith and Cullen and Speyside Glenlivet of the Moray Council as those wards are constituted in the Moray (Electoral Arrangements) Order 2006”.

Back to the Speyside. When coming in the Spey valley, one will understand why a lot of distilleries chose, back in the 19th century, to settle around: this is remote and hilly, a very efficient way to operate under the radar of HMRC… Back in the days! There’s a clear reason why the area is the world’s largest concentration of distilleries but nowadays, there are strict controls and procedures. If a cask is lost or if the tank is leaking during the transit to the bottling plant, duty will be payable anyway to HMRC. The only discrepancy between volume of alcohol distilled and volume bottled HMRC accept is the Angel’s Share. So it’s heavily controlled, that being said, I have already seen a spirit safe operating with no lock but I won’t be a snitch!

The drive to the Speyside is quite beautiful (but can be dangerous, a lot of traffic, trucks and bus, some drivers can be frustrated and overtake in dangerous conditions, the number of accidents is very high and there are recurrently some car wreckage on the border of the road waiting to be picked up), very scenic, very green. However, it sometimes looks pretty sad and lugubrious on a bad day (well, quite often to be fair!) as some hills are virtually bald as the timber and cooperage industries are very active: casks are the last but essential link of the production chain: if there’s no cask, there’s nowhere to fill the freshly distilled spirit and the distillery would have to stop. That being said, to be fair, the wood cut is probably mainly going to traditional industry as the cooperage industry will use second hand barrels and foreign wood. The Forestry Commission of Scotland is obviously enforcing some sustainability programs, notably with replanting.

However, the cooperage industry is important indeed in the area and very skilled by the way: casks need to be built, repaired, reassembled,… An employee of Speyside Cooperage actually holds the world record for the fastest assembly of a 190 litre barrel! Just over 3 minutes… Speyside Cooperage is well worth a visit, no excuse, difficult to miss for visitors making their way from Aberlour distillery to Glenfiddich distillery!

Glenfarclas is basically in the middle of the fields, on the foot of the hill, it really feels like, on a foggy day, a bit like discovering a hidden gem in the mist. Glenfarclas actually means ‘the valley of the green grass’. If there wasn’t any sign on the main road to advertise, it would be easy to miss. The ground of the distillery is much bigger than previously visited Glengoyne or Auchentoshan, we’re now talking about a distillery three times bigger in terms of output (something like 3M litres per year), and it gives straight away the impression of another scale.

The visitor centre is one of the first of its kind (Glenfiddich’s is widely recognised to be the first one): the distillery is indeed opened to visitors in 1973 (while Glenfiddich did it in 1972). Indeed, the whisky industry realised at the end of the 19th century the true potential of revenue of the tourism and adopted a proactive approach to promote the whisky industry in general, their product and Scotland. The Malt Whisky Trail is now a world famous attraction, investments have been done and whisky distilleries have now become prominent tourist attractions. In 2012, 1.1 million visits were recorded in Scottish distilleries. The most visited single malt distilleries in 2013 were Glenfiddich, followed by Glengoyne and Edradour. However, traditionally, the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre in Edinburgh is by far the most visited whisky attraction and The Famous Grouse distillery in Crieff is the most visited distillery (it’s a malt distillery but there’s barely no output of Single Malt Scotch Whisky, the bulk of the production goes to The Famous Grouse,.. There’s a bit of Glenturret Highland Single Malt produced to be fair making the classification awkward!). We’re digressing, back to Glenfarclas, which is by the way the starting point of the Dramathon, a marathon where runners can stop for a dram in a few distilleries!

The distillery is the family heritage of the Grant family. That’s another famous Grant family in the whisky industry (however, the Grant family name is particularly common in the northern part of Scotland) but there is no link between them and the Dufftown’s Grants (who notably own Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie). When asked during the tour, the guide distanced the Glenfarclas’ Grants from the Glenfiddich’s Grants, giving the impression there’s some kind of rivalry (at least on the Glenfarclas side). But tough not to be envious indeed as Glenfiddich is the most sold Single Malt!

John Grant purchased the Glenfarclas distillery in 1865 but it was operating legally since 1836 (under Robert Hay) and under the radar since at least 1791. John Grant actually had no particular interest in whisky and was buying the land for the farm as a he was a cattle breeder. But hey, there was a distillery on the grounds so why not operating it on top of the farming activities? Good call! The distillery was managed by John Smith (a distant cousin), who later left (in 1870) to found Cragganmore. John Grant then gave the management of the distillery to his son George Grant in 1889 who passed the distillery to his two sons… John and George! George himself had two sons… George and John! And George took the distillery over and took it through a rapid expansion phase and production drastically increased in the middle of the 19th century. When demand softened, he took the decision to keep the production at the same level and lay down stock rather than massively selling to blenders. This philosophy explains the sustainable range of the very diversified Glenfarclas aged range: no risk of stock gap! The range of 8, 10, 12, 15, 17, 18, 21, 25, 30, 40 years old is really stable, it’s said that there’s close to 100,000 casks maturing with no stock gap until the 1950’s! George’s son (have a guess… John!) is the current Chairman and his son (have another guess… George!) is the sales director and will with no doubt have more responsibilities in the future. The historical pitch was quite well done and with a bit of humour… But for reporting purpose, a bit of help with the website was needed, it was a lot of Johns and Georges!

The ground is pretty vast, it implies walking outside so a jacket is widely recommended! On the way to the malt discharging bay, we’re stopping at a water wheel and the tour guide explains the slightly acidic water (pH 6, quite common for mineral water) was perfect to make whisky. If it’s scientifically recognised that a low pH is better for fermentation (because of the higher level of salts), the actual impact on spirit quality is still to be proven. Bottom line, distilleries are taking the water where it comes from and were built purposely next to water sources without any specific chemical analysis, especially at the start of the 19th century! Water is coming from Ben Rinnes (841m).

The malt consumption was said to be 100T per week… Quick rule of thumb, the strict minimum PSY (Predictive Spirit Yield) for any good quality malt is 400L of alcohol per T: 52*100*400=2,080,000 litres of pure alcohol per year, which roughly adds up to a 3ML of fresh spirit at 68% ABV. Their storage capacity is 330T (through 11 hoppers) which is more than 3 weeks of production, this is very comfortable and are clearly preventing them from a supply disruptions, week-end deliveries or night deliveries (which are more expensive). The storage capacity is actually huge considering their consumption and not sure there’s some economy of scale there as a truck won’t take more than 28T anyway. However, they can certainly double their production in the future without any storage capacity issue, investment is already done indeed. As a matter of comparison, some distilleries cannot go through the week-end without malt deliveries. Most of Glenfarclas malt is imported: Sweden and Danemark are widely known indeed to provide good quality malt with high PSY. The malt they used is non-peaty. The subject is still the source of a lot of arguments: some love it, some hate it. But as far as modern production is concerned, especially when it is outsourced to big companies, the use of peat is highly artificial as it comes in addition to the use of gas, cheaper and cleaner. That’s another debate.

The malt is following its normal milling course: malt dresser, malt destonner, malt mill. The malt mill is more than 40 years old but still mills 8T per hour. Usually this stage is widely skipped during visits and explained more theoretically as it’s quite industrial (only geeks are interested and I am one of them) and noisy so it is pretty interesting to see the machine working and the size of their engine.

Also, as very often they offer some malt to eat to visitors, but also show the husks, grist and flour after milling, separated with a system of sieves. Finally, to show the importance of a destonner, there’s a sample of what kind of stones can be found in the bulk malt. It’s very important to avoid having rocks in the mill, it could block the cylinders, force on the engine or create a spark and lead to a fire as organic dust in suspension in the air is creating a highly flammable environment. It actually happened in Aberlour distillery in 1898. However, there was a bit of factual error as the tour guide told someone that the rock was in the still and created a spark when projected on the copper. It’s a nice story though!

The mash tun is an impressive one: 10 meters diameter with a capacity of 16.5T, made of stainless steel, it is one of the biggest in the industry and it was good to see it in action, the engine is quite impressive and needs a lot of power and torque to move the mash. As usual, 3 waters, the first at 60 degrees, the second (half of the volume) at 70 degrees, and the third one at 80 degrees to extract the last residual sugars and of course, it will loop: the third water is used as the first one on the next batch. The wort takes the direction of washbacks, the draff (husks and other insoluble residuals of the malt) is heading to a silo ready to be loaded on trucks for animal feed.

There are 12 washbacks, made of wood or steel for a capacity of 500,000L total. The wort is cooled down to 18 degrees, the yeast is added and fermentation lasts only 48 hours: quick fermentation for a light whisky. It is then piped to the still room, where the magic happens. It’s easy to follow the liquid paths on the distillery as there’s a colour code on the pipes!

This is an impressive still room visitors are discovering. Quite a change from Glengoyne (1 wash still and 2 spirit stills, 2 distillations) and Auchentoshan (1 wash still, 1 middle still, one spirit stills, 3 distillations): the setup is different, there 3 distillation stations running in parallel, each with 1 wash still (26,500L) and 1 spirit still (21,200L), so a total of 6 copper stills, gas fired, direct fired. The lifetime of a still is 20 years and direct fire requires more maintenance (more risk of copper degradation on the hot spots). First distilling happens in the wash still and leftover, the low wines, is kept aside. Then the second distillation will aim to harvest the middle of the distillation: the split between foreshots (head), heart and tail (feints) through the spirit safe was explained a bit quickly but the stills were running noisily as well as the engine of the mash tun! You can’t have it all! The process is automated. The magic of the distilling art is disappearing, the whole process is a function of the time to distil and the timing of the collection of the heart of the distillation and using technology allows to be more efficient and systematic. The timing of the taps move in the spirit safe will directly impact how light the spirit is and obviously how it tastes. It’s a bit trivial but a light spirit will have a head starting early, a heavy spirit a tail starting late. Everything goes in the receiver room. As usual, feints and low are reintroduced in the second distillation of the next batch. So in fact, in a batch, there’s some part of the liquid that has been distilled more than twice if it contains residuals of the previous distillation, and the previous one… The residual of the second distillation (pot ale) as well as other waste waters are sent to an on-site aerobic digestion plant to recycle water. The water is reoxygenated and sent in a tank with bacteria and is the water is then safe to make its way back to the River Spey.

On the basic tour, there’s also a visit of a warehouse which is nice. Someone asked about the colour of the wall (the typical black fungus) and the answer was interesting. The guide denied with humour it was due to the Angel’s Share (well, to the high concentration of alcohol in the air) as the multiplication of lawsuit scared them! In the warehouse, the usual wood and cask speeches took place.

Casks are used 4 times only (colour code: no paint for first fill, white for second fill, pink for third fill and the last one blue-ish). However, a cask used 40 years as a first fill probably won’t make it to 4 fills. The number of times it is used highly depends on the length of previous maturations. They use a vast majority of hogshead and butts, exclusively sourced in Spain, in a particular family run Bodega where John Grant is said to travel himself yearly to select the Oloroso Sherry casks (they can cost up to £1,000). The Sherry casks are matured traditionally, no rotation of the cask, no pressure in the cask (these methods can be used indeed for the wood to ‘suck’ the Sherry in a quicker manner). Sherry will spend 2 years in the cask and poor juice probably never drunk has the commodity is the wood not the Sherry itself. Not surprisingly, the taste of the whisky is very influenced by the Sherry. However, Glenfarclas manages skilfully the Sherry bomb effect, by playing on the proportion of refill in the recipe, but the higher range is really strong in terms of Sherry flavours for sure. They insist also on the stable taste, by mixing cask, they reproduce the same taste years after year for the same aged bottle (like everyone else, when you digress, it has to be a special edition in order not to confuse the customer). The mixing also tends to adjust the colour to the needs as they do not add caramel to adjust the colour.

Casks are filled on site and I was lucky enough to be there on a filling day. Nothing is bottled on site but at Broxburn Bottling Plant near Edinburgh, they actually own a share. To get quick bucks they sell 30% of their spirit production to blenders. They also mature casks in their warehouse on behalf of customers (for a fee of course). And business must be going well as new warehouse were in process of being built. They also sell used staves, should anyone want a nice flavoured fire or barbecue!

The visit is obviously finishing with two drams. The corridor leading to the tasting room is full of memorabilia and special editions… One can dream about sipping a few of the family reserve single cask… Whether one can afford it or not is another story! Nice gesture, drivers can opt out and take a miniature instead… Well, even nicer I had little doses of the drams (and even better 3 drams of them instead of 2) plus the miniature. I’ll definitely come back! It’s always useful to taste different ages, not necessarily to assess good or bad, like or don’t like, but to see the impact of maturation but also the marketing and taste choice made by the distillery as far as the final bottled product is concerned. And here, the evolution is obvious between the 10 years old, the 15 years old and the 21 years old. The 10 years old is looking like one, especially in the context of no caramel added, it’s still pretty clear (and the transparent bottle increases psychologically the feeling, after 10 years old it is amber bottles) and while tasting it it’s pretty clear it’s more woody and grainy rather than a Sherry bomb, most likely assembled with a significant proportion of refills. It’s very light and feels slightly diluted (up to the 10 years old it is at 40% ABV, 43% for the older) but very enjoyable. The difference with the 15 and the 21 years old is striking in terms of colour and Sherry influence, the Sherry influence is growing proportionally. It’s almost unsurprising but very consistent but clearly, without being a real Sherry bomb, it’s for those who like woody and Sherry taste for sure!

Finally, I got the opportunity to see and smell (ok, and a cheeky sip) the difference between fresh distilled spirit, 8 years old (4th fills) and a first fill of sherry cask (15 years old). There’s great logic and consistence in the range.

What is likable about Glenfarclas (as an institution) is the fact there’s a full range of age, starting at 8 years old. There’s no marketing trick to forget conveniently the age statement and try to imply, by the marketing and the colour, that the whisky is older than it is for quicker bucks. Special NAS (No Age Statement) editions are really special (single casks, cask strength): it feels like it’s a very honest brand. And nice story always adds to the taste and enjoyment… Slainte!

Further reading:

Glenfarclas Website: http://glenfarclas.com

The Character of Uisge Source Waters: http://www.uisgesource.com/chemistry/

The Importance of Water: https://scotchwhisky.com/magazine/ask-the-professor/8216/the-importance-of-water/

Whisky Tourism – Facts and Insights: http://www.visitscotland.org/pdf/Whisky%20Tourism%20%20Facts%20and%20Insights2.pdf

The Malt Whisky Trail: The Tourism and Marketing Potential of the Whisky Distillery Visitor Centre: http://www.emeraldinsight.com/doi/abs/10.1108/eb008695

Scottish cooperage entertains visitors with barrel-building record challenge: http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/news/brand-or-agency/2017/5/scottish-cooperage-entertains-visitors-with-barrel-building-record-challenge-471216

Scottish townspeople take on drinks giant over black whisky fungus blighting their homes: http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/news/scottish-townspeople-take-on-drinks-giant-over-black-whisky-fungus-blighting-their-homes-9387440.html

Distillation – The Science of Distillation: https://www.diffordsguide.com/encyclopedia/198/bws/distillation-the-science-of-distillation

The Dramathon – The Speyside Single Malt Marathon – Dinnae Bottle It!: http://www.thedramathon.com

The economic contribution of forestry in Scotland: http://scotland.forestry.gov.uk/supporting/forest-industries/economic-contribution-report

The Whisky Exchange – Focus on… Highland Vs. Speyside: https://www.thewhiskyexchange.com/feature/focuson/highlandvsspeyside

The Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/uksi/2009/2890/contents/made

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Top