Distillery Focus

A very regal distillery (Strathisla)

David Stirk visits Strathisla Distillery, the home of Chivas Regal and a fine single malt. Additional words by Martin Betts
By David Stirk
You wouldn’t be far off the mark describing Strathisla as the Queen Mother of distilleries. Old, dignified and surviving its advanced years with a certain amount of style, the distillery is also a key member of a very regal royal family.Only a very small amount of the malt that Strathisla produces is available as a single malt because the majority of their spirit strengthens the heart of the Chivas family. One of the best-loved blends in the world, Chivas Regal has relied on the help of Strathisla’s deliciously oaky whisky to create its blend since Chivas Brothers bought the distillery for £71,000 on the 14th April 1950. However, this association of over half a century may well now be thrown into a state of flux with the imminent arrival of Pernod Ricard – they have bought Chivas Brothers as part of their recent deal with Seagram. Campbell Distillers, the distilling subsidiary of Pernod Ricard, have an excellent history of promoting their single malts: it remains to be seen whether Strathisla will retain its place in the Chivas Regal family.The distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland (only Glenturret, Littlemill and Bowmore are older) and is generally accepted as the oldest distillery in the Highlands. George Taylor and Alexander Milne founded the distillery in 1786 under the guise of the Milton Distillery in Keith, a small Scottish town that was well renowned for its linen mills. On site was a rather convenient water source, the Fons Bulliens Well, which is still used today. It had been previously used in the 11th century by monks, the previous occupants of the land on which the distillery stands. They used the water, by all accounts, to brew a rather potent heather ale as a sideline to religious enlightenment and spirtual well-being. One can only speculate on whether frequent consumption of the ale was the reason for the rather eccentric pudding-bowl with bald-spot tonsure and ill-fitting habits. After George Taylor’s reign, The Milton Distillery went into the ownership of a Mr William Longmore. Longmore enjoyed spending his money and became the town’s philanthropist: his financial input helped build a town hall, a bowling green and enabled the church bell of Newhill to be fixed.It is probably more likely that Longmore will be remembered by whisky enthusiasts for his work on the distillery than for his generosity in other spheres. It was he who helped keep Strathisla operational even after two fires: if someone with less financial resource had been in charge it’s likely that the distillery may have ceased to exist. The first blaze took place on 22nd January 1876: 30 cows died (at a loss of £700) and a substantial amount of barley was destroyed. On this occassion, the fire did not interfere with the operations and the whisky did not exacerbate the flames, although the damage was a staggering £3,800. Fast-forward to 1879, a year before William Longmore retired, and a Saturday morning in July. It was on this particular day a small piece of stone came into contact with the cylinder of the mill and created a spark that ignited the fine, powdery and very explosive substance left over from the milled grain. Although no cows died, one John Taylor was severely burned in the face.It was after these unfortunate incidents that William Longmore was forced into changing the face of Strathisla: from its original workman-like design that was susceptible to fire it became the romantic stone creation it is now. Today it is generally regarded as one of the prettiest distilleries in the world, not many visitors fail to turn doe-eyed at its neat courtyards, twin pagodas and waterwheel. It scares me to say that, with genuine sincerity, it is without a doubt the cutest whisky factory in Scotland.William Longmore, on his retirement, handed the distillery to his son-in-law John Geddes-Brown. he in turn set up William Longmore & Company offering the public 7000 shares at £5 each. Milton was then renamed Strathisla (meaning the river of Isla) in 1850 but then reverted to the name Milton-Keith in 1870. It was not until 1880 that the distillery used the name Strathisla on a permanent basis, however you may still hear some of the older locals still referring to the Milton Distillery in Keith.Strathisla Distillery is one of the few distilleries that can claim to have an almost perfect distilling history. Since the single stills were first fired back in the 18th century, it has only stopped distilling once when ordered to do so during World War II as British industry was under an intolerable amount of pressure. However, this proud history of distilling was spoilt somewhat when a Mr Jay Pomeroy, a financier from London, took control of William Longmore & Co.Mr Pomeroy’s skill was not in distilling, he was once quoted as saying: “…I may not know much about whisky, but I can tell you one or two things about finance!” His astute financial skill led him to buying out the majority of the distillery’s shares before he proceeded to cut off all business with the locals and send all of the whisky to London where it is believed to have been bottled under spurious names and sold on the black market. The locals were understandably not happy at having their whisky taken away from their community and eventually convinced the Inland Revenue to investigate – they gleefully took the opportunity to turn Pomeroy’s financial world upside down. In 1949 he was prosecuted for avoiding tax returns with some regularity and fined £111,038 – an amount akin to the national debt of a third world country in 1940s Britain.Thankfully for whisky enthusiasts everywhere, Mr James Barclay, on the orders of Chivas Brothers, purchased the distillery and the business returned to normality and, indeed, legality. The distillery today encapsulates all of the romance and mysticism that surrounds Scotch whisky. It’s a perfect distillery to visit, with intimate tours that allow you to back-track and talk to distillery workers and learn whatever you want to know at a relaxed pace – which is appropriate considering the River Isla ambles past the distillery. There’s also the opportunity to sample the distillery’s excellent spirit in a room that can only be described as having the rich feel of a library in a stately home. Here you are given the chance to nose several malts and different ages of Strathisla. This is a must for any discerning drinker, as being able to nose different ages of one malt whisky will allow an understanding of how whisky progresses in the wood. This will help you also understand why Strathisla is made available at 12 years old. It’s not just a pretty distillery, a very palatable whisky is made here too – by very knowledgeable folk.Gordon & MacPhail have, for some time, been bottling a range of ages with vintages going back to the 1950s, however the extra years in the wood tend to mask the distillery character that makes Strathisla whisky so drinkable. Recently I had the chance to try a 34-year-old Strathisla bottled by Gordon & MacPhail. Unfortunately, the nose was completely two-dimensional so a little water was added in an attempt to open the bouquet. This only made things worse, a sentiment that was shared by some Norwegians who were also tasting the spirit – they said it had a nose reminiscent of cow muck. It was at that point that I decided that my tasting notes for this particular expression may just start and finish with the nosing.The distillery now has no cows (thankfully for all Norwegian whisky fanatics who appear sensitive to the aroma of our grass chewing, bovine chums), is extremely well maintained as the showpiece for the Chivas Regal blends and will play host to Chivas Brothers bi-centenary celebrations. These are likely to be mainly trade orientated but look out for an on-line auction in the near future on their website (www.chivas.com). If Strathisla abdicates from Chivas Regal’s family they may well find that their blend has lost its backbone – I’m sure that Colin Scott will have sleepless nights if he gives that serious thought. What it does mean is that more single malt enthusiasts will be able to praise a truly regal whisky. The town of Keith was on Sunday night the scene of one of the most destructive conflagrations that has ever been witnessed in the district. The fire took place at the buildings connected with Milton Distillery, the property of Mr Wm. Longmore.About ten minutes past nine o’clock Mr Sellar, the Distiller, went to walk round the buildings as usual before he became alarmed at a lurid glare and on turning into the Square [of the distillery], he saw flames issuing from two windows of the straw room next to the threshing mill.In a very short time an immense concourse of spectators gathered, and applied their energies to the saving of property. Out of the 66 cows in the byre [a shelter for cows], 30 perished in the fire, at a loss of £700: along with 500 quarters of barley, an excellent threshing machine and a steam engine were destroyed. The premises were supplied by gas, but this had been judiciously shut off.The fire, however, did not interfere with the operations at the distillery – no one was injured and no one was thrown out of work. The damage was estimated at £3,800.Excerpt from the Banffshire Journal Tuesday, 25 January 1876 Michael Jackson’s Strathisla tasting notesStrathisla Aged 12 Years, 43%
Colour: Full, deep gold.
Nose: Apricot. Cereal grains. Fresh, juicy oak.
Body: Medium, rounded.
Palate: Much richer than previous bottlings. Sherryish, fruity. Mouth-coating. Then Strathisla’s teasing sweet-and-dry character.
Finish: Smooth and soothing. Violets and vanilla.Strathisla 1982, 40% Gordon & MacPhail
Colour: Full gold.
Nose: Dexterous balance of dryish oak, almondy sherry and light peat.
Body: Medium but rich.
Palate: Honeyed. Light, dry oak.
Finish: Nutty. Slightly woody. Warming.Strathisla 21-year-old, 40%vol, Gordon & MacPhail
Colour: Rich yellowy gold.
Nose: Pronounced sherry. Very complex indeed. Some fruit. Good cereal-grain maltiness.
Body: Surprisingly light. Soft and smooth.
Palate: Astonishingly honeyed, but less complex than the nose suggests.
Finish: Very delicate late oak and peat.Strathisla 1972, 62.6% Gordon & MacPhail ‘Cask’ series
Colour: Full gold to bronze.
Nose: Sherry. Almonds. Perfume.
Body: Medium to full. Syrupy, then drying.
Palate: Sherry. Violets, flowery, grassy, woody. Dries on tongue.
Finish: Dry. Woody. Hint of peat.Tasting notes taken from Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion, 4th Edition, published by Dorling Kindersley