Pouring the dram

Early July 2017, I visited Glenkinchie. But there won’t be a lot of pictures unfortunately.

Taking pictures is not allowed indeed… And actually, telephones even need to be switched off… I’ve been caught short there as I usually take notes on my telephone! It is allegedly purely for safety reasons. However, one can be sceptical. There might be a bit of alcohol in the air in the still room or in the warehouses for sure, but we’re far from being in a petrol station: is that enough to trigger a fire if there was a spark? It there some precedent of this actually happening? One could argue that you don’t even need to take a picture, carrying the electronic device, even switched off, in your pocket is risky… Ask Samsung Galaxy 8 users! Is that the full picture? It seems it’s pretty much the case in all Diageo distilleries and if we compare to the previously visited distilleries, this is quite extreme: Glengoyne prohibit pictures inside the still room but you can take pictures of the stills from outside the still room (and you can leave with a very decent picture to be honest, so this is not a big issue in my opinion considering the configuration of the still room), Auchentoshan was open bar (but I cannot recall if this was because it was because it was not in operation that day) and for sure Glenfarclas was open bar everywhere with everything running flat out. It seems to be, unfortunately, a recurrent visitor’s complain when distilleries are prohibiting the use of cameras.

It would have been easy to sneakily take pictures but accepting the rules is a matter of respect and there are plenty of pictures around the Internet. Anyway, I can see only two other contributing reasons, this is however pure speculation. The first is trade secret. Well, there’s not much secret in the actual whisky making process, wheel cannot be reinvented. And a ‘spy’ would not need to take pictures to see what he wants to see as the visits are opened to public. The second reason could be commercially and marketing driven. Visiting distilleries has become a commercial activity, so by making available a lot of pictures to be shared on social networks, it could prevent visitors to visit: one could think ‘I have seen it in picture, I don’t need to see it for real’. Well, taking on purpose an extreme example, visitors are still coming to Le Louvre for the only purpose to see Mona Lisa (The Jocund) and I am pretty sure they all saw it in picture before! So this would be a highly debatable point of view. But hey, it’s the way it is! I dare to dream that at some point my name will be circulating and I will be invited for an ‘open bar / open picture’ visit in all the distilleries… Even those who officially don’t welcome visitors!

The distillery, home to the so called Edinburgh Malt, is pretty well hidden on the South East of Edinburg. It’s pretty hard to find to be honest, the satnav was highly useful and I actually saw the building only when I was 25 meters away, it’s like it’s buried in a little cirque, in the middle of farmland (some of it is owned by the distillery). Glenkinchie means ‘the valley of the Kinchie’ as it’s built along the Kinchie Burn, its original water source. However, the water is coming from the nearby Lammermuir Hills Spring as it needs a bigger debit nowadays. Kinchie is a Scottish contraction of Quincey, the name of the landowner at the 14th century.

The distillery history is going back to 1825 when two brothers, John and George Rate, acquired it. Well they actually acquired a distillery called Milton Distillery and it’s unsure if it was renamed to Glenkinchie or if it was another (inexistent now for sure though) nearby premises. The licence to produce whisky was granted in 1837 at Glenkinchie, a lot of distilleries were also operating under the radar at this time in the area. The brothers went bust in 1853 and the distillery had to close. It’s was a widespread phenomenon, there are only a handful of distilleries that has survived in the Lowlands, there was more than 100 of them in the middle of the 19th century, especially in the Lothian area. The distilling business was changing and demand (including international) was growing, from a side business to farming it became a real autonomous business and a lot have struggled with the transformation. The whisky production only restarted at the very end of the 19th century. First World War came and production stopped as barley was rationed, to prioritize it for food and it came with tougher regulation and whisky export control… Then, once again Glenkinchie didn’t survived. Tough to blame them, it was not the only one, there were 25 whisky brokers in Glasgow in 1924, only 4 of them remained 6 years later, it says it all. Glenkinchie recovered between the two World Wars and resisted during the Second World War as it was part of the 44 distilleries still authorised to operate (barley rationing was in place once again). It survived despite the tough taxation (war effort and recovery): higher duty, higher taxation, production caps. It really took off again at the end of barley rationing and at the end of the barley import ban. However, it took a few decades and a few changes in the ownership for Glenkinchie to make a real comeback and for that matter, the integration by United Distillers (the owner at the time) in the classic Malts range surely did help. With the lack of competition in the Lowlands, the solid corporate structure (Diageo is the biggest distilling company in the world) and the current growth of Scotch Whisky market and industry, tough to imagine Glenkinchie disappearing from the landscape from now on!

The basic visit cost £10 or £14, the difference was the number of drams to taste: 2 or 4. In other words, the 10mL measure is priced £2, that’s £140 for the equivalent of bottle… Both are coming with a £5 discount on the bottle in the shop. Talking about the shop, it kind of takes the dream away… No doubt it’s owned by a big company as it is basically a whisky shop with a lot of brands owned by Diageo rather than what I would describe as a ‘traditional distillery shop’. As a matter of fact, they had run out of Glenkinchie miniature and as far as miniatures were concerned, only Johnny Walker and Singleton were available. It loses the ‘craft’ feel, especially considering the size is still human, only two stills capable of outputting at least 2.5ML of alcohol per year. Back to the tasting, if I took the £14 version, I would advise to stick on the £10, especially if one has a friend to share the experience with. It’s not about the price but about what is on offer: the Glenkinchie 12yo, the Double Matured and the 15yo. That’s about it for the Glenkinchie range… So for the fourth one, it has to be something else coming from the Diageo’s range (I tried the Singleton Spey Cascade). So a couple will be offered one taste of the 12yo by default and then will take and share one of the other each and will save £4 (each) by the meantime! Very responsibly, it was offered to take the drams away for the drivers.

As a matter of comparison, in Glengoyne distillery, there’s a tiny little corner (almost hidden) with a couple of other Ian MacLeod brands but no tasting is offered, in Auchentoshan you won’t be able to taste or buy some Laphroaig or any other brand… It keeps the things real but it’s a purely personal and subjective opinion. It may sound like a paradox, but to participate to an extensive and diversified whisky tasting session, I think there are better place to go than a distillery.

Diageo owns the 12 self-proclaimed (self-branded should we say) Classic Malts. As previously mentioned, it was originally marketed by United Distillers in 1988 which was later acquired by Diageo. Originally, it was 6 Classic Malts: Dalwhinnie, Talisker, Cragganmore, Oban, Lagavulin and Glenkinchie. Diageo extended the ‘classism’ to 12, adding Clynelish, Calo Ila, Knockando, Royal Lochnagar and Cardhu… To basically cover – arguably – the most famous single malt of their range. Diageo owns close to 30 distilleries in Scotland and only those 12 producing the Classic Malts are officially opened to visitors. Visitors can get a passport, the ‘Friend of Classic Malts’ journal. Get a stamp in the 12 distilleries and you’ll get a Quaich! It also comes with perks: from the second visit, it becomes free, and there’s an additional welcoming dram. I will get my Quaich… I will…

Before the visit starts, there’s a little exhibition on what used to be the old malting floor with notably a scale model showing off the full distillery process. Only the stills are exactly replicating (1/6 scale) Glenkinchie. To be honest, it’s so thorough that the actual visit could be seen as redundant! This is a bit harsh, and the tour guide, Keith, was really making it worthwhile, he was the joker type, very corporate (Diageo) focus also.

  • The barley is received;
  • The barley is malted;
  • The malt is dried in the kiln;
  • The malt is milled;
  • The malt is mashed, creating the wort;
  • The wort goes in the washback for fermentation in the tun room;
  • The distillation is happening in the still house;
  • The spirit is flowing through condensers and the safe;
  • The spirit goes in the cask.

One can also admire old equipment and memorabilia. Old bottles showing names (and pictures) of the whisky pioneers are in display: Arthur Bell (Bell’s), James Buchanan (Black & White), Tommy Dewar (White Label), Peter Mackie (White Horse), Alexander Walker (Johnnie Walker). Good to see a non-Diageo owned brand in the lot! Dewar is owned by Bacardi indeed… However, the brand was owned by Diaeao until 1997, so should the cabinet be older than this, one could feel there was a bit of ostracism in the arguable list of names to show! This reinforce the feeling that you’re visiting a Diageo owns facility rather than Glenkinchie.

There’s also a selection of malting shovels, wheelbarrow, cooperage bench and tools, scale. One can touch peat, there’s also a spirit safe with water flowing so one can move the tap! Very ludic. There’s also an old engine, a steam pump, a malt washing machine and an illicit still and worm tube. This is a great exhibition, very worthwhile and free should one want to only pop around for it.

The malting process is always a bit tough to conceptualise without a movie or ‘live action’ but the fact it was taking place in the old malting floor was a good thing, and the kiln has been kept in great condition, it is the second kiln I ever saw (the other one was in Balvenie, and it’s even better as it is still in perfect working conditions as there’s still some malting happening in the distillery. The impressive machinery to blow the hot air is still in place, but hey, tough to visualize without picture…

The malt milling process was explained in the mill room, there’s some pretty modern machinery there. The tour guide showed the usual sieves to split husks, grits and flour, doing a little smooth shaky dance move to show how it was actually done. And next to it, probably for sampling and testing purpose, there was an actual sieve shaker, it helps to visualise how a bigger scale layer of sieves would work. It’s basically a vibrating plate that is shaking a pile of sieves. There are more than 2 sieves on the machine as for actual analysis, measurement can be more The usual ratios are used at Glenkinchie: 70% grits, 20% husks, 10% flour.

Then it is sent to cook, 2 batches of 9T per day. Quick maths, should it work 365 days per year with a 400 PSY on malt, this is 9*2*365*400=2.628M litres of alcohol… It adds on and makes sense! So, as usual in is sent to the mash tun, it’s a stainless steel tun, 30,000L capacity. The second water is only a third of the volume (10,000L), the third water is usual looping in the process.

In the next room stands the yeast tank. This is liquid refrigerated yeast. Temperature control is really important in yeast, should the temperature rise too much, yeast would die and by keeping it at a low temperature, yeast is staying dormant. There is, as often, a picture of old staff and the guide pointed the fact that there’s a family spirit as some of the staff are working at Glenkinchie since 5 generations! There’s also a bell: every morning and every night, back in the days, the distillery manager was ringing the bell to gather staff and give them a free dram… But the bell and the free dram was said to be a sneaky way to gather staff and count them! There are 2 pipes leading to the next room, one for yeast, one for the wort.

There are 6 fermentation vats (washback), in pine. It’s always nice to see the fermentation going on, the first ‘magic’ step of the process. It’s always surprising to take a big breath above the opened vat!

Then it obviously ended up with the still room… Only two stills (a wash still and a spirit still), it’s easy to differentiate them: a wash still will always be bigger as the volume of wash will always be bigger than the volume of spirit. A giveaway is also the window, and the guide mentioned it: the wash needs to be monitored as the pace of boiling will have an impact on the quality of the distillation and because it requires a higher temperature it’s more subject to overflow and needs to be visually monitored to adjust the temperature if needed. It is supposed to be the biggest wash still in Scotland – 30,963 litres – and described as sexy lady shaped… I’d add muffin top! The spirit safe principle was quite well explained and the tour guide confirmed that contrary to Auchentoshan, it was distilled only twice as actually all other Scotch whiskies. I challenged him just for the sake of being a pain: if you reintroduce the foreshots in the low wines of the next batch, technically, there’s a part of the new low wines that has been distilled more than once before! He did not really get it, must be the French accent!

The warehouse visit was a bit like ‘kid on you are on the warehouse’. It’s basically an anteroom with a view of the warehouse behind a glass… Looks like you are in the bank! But it’s fine enough, although you cannot touch a cask, it gives a pretty good idea and the view is really good. I am just being picky, some basic visits are not even including the warehouse.

Then the wee tasting took place, with a presentation of the Diageos’s range. One interesting thing was to visualise different labels whether they were single malt, single grain and blended Scotch whisky. The Glenkinchie 12 years old is very smooth, very light to drink, the tour guide was telling that it’s widely appreciated by women, making them liking whisky, despite being 43% ABV (to compensate the light taste?). Indeed, very Lowland, pretty oaky (a significant amount of refill most probably) but malty as well. The Double Matured cannot hide its sherry finish for sure and is quite interesting I have to say, not drastically different but with an additional touch of honey and sherry. As per the third Glenkinchie dram, the 15yo, it was a bit stronger, felt older and richer as well with probably a lower proportion of refills, with still sherry and honey, I really felt like it was less diluted. But there is one issue to my mind with the range indeed. I simply don’t get it… What is the core range? 10/12/15? Is it going further (24yo I believe)? Only double matured for NAS? It’s not really marketed properly in my opinion, even the websites are unclear. The 10 years old seems to be discontinued quite a while ago now and the 12 and 15 years old are the main component of the range but apart for special vintage editions, it’s tough to see if it’s going further up. As per the NAS range, the Double matured is basically finished in Amontadillo cask and is marketed as ‘distillers edition’ and I cannot find any reference to any other mass market NAS. Also the ‘Discover Distilleries’ website (kind of outdated) is redundant with the ‘Malts’ website, this is definitely not making the things clearer. There will be some enigma leaving Glenkinchie! I also tried as previously mentioned the Singleton Spey Cascade (coming from Diageo’s Dufftown distillery, fruity, oaky and spiced) and finally even a last dram on the house, a Caol Ila 12 years old… If I am potentially and gradually evolving in my dislike of peaty whiskies, it is so far, difficult to spontaneously enjoy for me as the peaty taste is dominant.

I did obviously ask about the issue raised at Auchentoshan: the guide had no clue why Lowland was not advertised on the bottle. And even worse, I haven’t found any mention of the Lowlands anywhere on the distillery grounds (while it was written on cask at Auchentoshan). The tour guide supposed it could be due to frequent changes in the region. It is very unlikely though, there’s so few Lowland distilleries that splitting the region would not be necessary, and there’s only some ambiguity on the northern ‘frontier’ and Glenkinchie is far enough to be ‘at risk’ of changing region. I am still convinced it’s bad for marketing as ‘Lowland’ starts by ‘Low’, should it have been ‘South’ or ‘Southern’ instead, it probably would have been more attractive on a marketing point of view! But interestingly, old bottles of 10 years old were labelled ‘Lowland Scotch Whisky’.

The bottling is happening in Fife, Diageo owns a bottling plant and has added a second hall back in 2012 after closing the Kilmarnoch bottling facility.

To conclude, there was a real disappointment on the no picture policy. There was a also a disappointment in the sense that there’s no ‘craft’ feeling and it’s kind of obvious it is own by a giant PLC. However, this is a beautiful estate and the team was great so it definitely worth a visit, and there are free shuttles from Edinburgh making it very easy.

Further reading:

Our Whisky Collection – Glenkinchie: https://www.malts.com/en-gb/our-whisky-collection/glenkinchie/

Discovering Distilleries – Glenkinchie: https://www.discovering-distilleries.com/glenkinchie/

A tour of Glenkinchie distillery: http://www.edinbug.com/a-tour-of-glenkinche-distillery/

Diageo’s ban on photography: Not the full picture? https://whiskymate.net/2015/03/10/diageos-ban-on-photography-not-the-full-picture/

Sieve Shaker OCTAGON 200: http://www.endecotts.com/products/sieve-shakers/octagon-200/product-specifications/

Fife Diageo bottling plant officially opens: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-business-20371630

The Glenkinchie – Story since 1723 – Craig Ward:

The Wash Still: http://www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/usfeatures/maltwhisky/washstill.html

Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit: http://cocktailwonk.com/2016/06/essential-highlights-of-a-scotch-whisky-distillery-visit.html

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