Distillery Focus

Alike in dignity (Ardmore and Glendronach)

Ardmore and Glendronach have much in common but at the moment their experiences are very different.Dominic Roskrow visited both
By Dominic Roskrow
They are blood brothers, sharing a common geography and history; close cousins with a (not so) common uncle.Misfit distilleries operating on the furthest borders of Speyside, close to Scotland’s blessed region but adamantly not part of it, despite what some writers say. And both are traditionally producers of maverick malts.Glendronach and Ardmore. Two criminally neglected distilleries which produce fine, and in certain circles, much-loved Highland malts.Two distilleries that have worked side by side but independently, their development intrinsically linked Now though, that’s all starting to change.And like the West End musical Blood Brothers, fate has intervened to guarantee that for the time at least their paths are going on very separate routes, one uncertain and directionless, the other ever upwards.The shared uncle is William Teacher and for 45 years the two distilleries were part of the same company and produced the bulk of the malt in Teacher’s Highland Cream. But the association goes back much further, to the 19th century. And the change in fortunes for the two of them began when that relationship was ripped apart with the Allied break up, and Ardmore went with Teacher’s in to the stable of Beam Global, leaving Glendronach to await its future.Glendronach is the older of the two, and helped give birth to Ardmore. Founded in 1826 it would work closely with the Teacher family and would eventually provide the first distiller for Ardmore, which was built by William’s son Adam.It was a long and prosperous relationship and on a still summer’s day at Glendronach you can sense the hurt from that divorce. It’s a pretty, meticulously kept distillery, clearly loved and cared for. Behind the distillery are verdant fields that lead up to the original farm buildings. The Dronac Burn runs through its heart, its deep grey brick buildings ordered around a pretty courtyard with original stone floor. Ordered, impressive, and as quiet as amuseum.In some ways that’s what Glendronach seems to be. Walk around the distillery and you’re struck by its quaint charm, its other and older worldiness. But at the same time it’s a sad, empty experience, too. You can almost feel the ghosts here, waiting to move on but not quite knowing how to do so.Here the low-roofed floor maltings are eerie and empty, cardboard cut out figures attempting to show what a maltster at work looked like.The four great coal ovens that once fired the stills are still here, too, but to reach them you go down pristine walkways and it’s hard to imagine what it would have been like down here when production was at its peak.“People are very romantic about the era of coal-fired stills,” says my guide, Lorna Sheriff, who is clearly in love with her place of work.“But there was nothing romantic about working here. This was dirty, hot physical work as the men moved between the ovens.” If there is a sadness caused by the reminder of the past, it’s not helped by the fact that nobody seems too sure about the future.Glendronach passed to Pernod Ricard in the Allied break up two years ago. With the French company already owning a number of distilleries nearby there were rumours that ‘The Glen’ was to be sold and at one point Duncan Taylor’s Euan Shand, who grew up here, was interested. And with a chequered recent history – Glendronach was shut between 1996 and 2002 – and the loss of the Teacher’s link two years ago, no-one’s taking bets on what’s next.“The distillery had long been linked to Teacher’s so when the break up happened it was very sad,” says Lorna. “They came and took everything linking us to Teacher’s. The only thing they left was a mirror in the visitor centre, which they couldn’t get off.” Further bad news then – a week later ‘they’ say that they have every intention of coming back for the mirror, too.Ah, the visitor centre. This was one of the first of its type in Scotland. It opened in 1972 and obtained a licence to sell whisky to take away the following year. And it looks like it; all dark polished wood, grandiose paintings, big chairs. You can almost smell the cigar smoke in the masculine dining room. And the ghosts are here, too.Framed on the wall is the distillery’s oldest bottle. It was distilled in 1884 and bottled in 1913 before being bought the following year by a group of young men. With the start of the First World War they decided to sign up and to keep the whisky for their return a few months later.But the war didn’t end in a few months and when it finally did, only one of the friends came back. He didn’t have the heart to open the bottle.We’ll never know what he did with it: whether he held it in sad moments and thought of his friends, and contemplated opening it, toasting his fallen comrades with a dram, before putting it back unopened.Perhaps it remained untouched, its owner unable to ever bring himself to look at it again.Whatever, it stayed sealed until he died in old age a few years ago and his family gave it back to the distillery where it is framed today.Passive. Brooding. Dead.It shouldn’t be like this. Someone should open it in 2014, a century on from the Great War and the year that the new 12 year old will come on line. Asmall amount of it should be put in to 100 bottles and then they should be sold at a premium price to raise money for the Poppy Appeal.For the time being Pernod Ricard continues to produce malt here, about 1.5 million litres of it, some of which goes to Ballantine’s and some of which goes in to the single malt, which has appeared in various guises over the years and is set for further change in a few years time. It’s currently known as Glendronach Original and is 12 years old, though next year there will be no 12 year old whisky to use because of the closed period from 1996.Since 2002 the barley has changed, too. The traditional peated barley has been replaced by unpeated barley for the last five years and will massively alter the whisky’s taste when it is bottled a few years hence.Other changes are needed if the distillery is to stay efficient. The copper-domed mashtun needs replacing and has inefficient low yields.There are nine wooden washbacks here, with a 56 hour fermentation. Each batch is made up of 18,200 litres distilled in two wash stills of the same size as each other, and two spirit stills each holding 6,000 litres, but of different shapes. The spirit comes off at 68.5% and is casked at 63.5%.About 25,000 cases are bottled as single malt but it’s an impressive whisky. You fear for it, though. Will it have any personality when it’s produced with unpeated malt? And what does fate have up its sleeve for the more unfortunate of the two blood brothers?To reach Ardmore you travel across the sort of terrain you occasionally see in Wild West films, flat farming plains surrounded by imposing looking bens. It’s not native American Indians that occupied these high places though, but Picts, and there are several impressive forts and settlements in the region.But the Wild West theme is reinforced by the eagles which occasionally sweep majestically through the valley.The distillery itself is ostensibly a sleepy and placid one, nestling contentedly in the village of Kennethmont. Arail line runs next to it but is disused now, helping to further reinforce the idea that this is a sleepy backwater.Don’t be fooled – Ardmore is a distillery bursting at the seams, producing flat out and aiming to break records. There’s also an excitement about the place – this is a distillery on the move.Ardmore moved to Beam Global with Teacher’s as part of the Allied deal and the company immediately upped production.This year the aim is to pass five million litres of alcohol, putting the distillery in an elite group of malt giants, and all this despite the fact that Ardmore is working with inferior and lowyielding malt as a result of last year’s back to front summer when it was dry when rain was required and was wet when the sun was needed.Quantity’s one thing, but all it means for the distillery staff is lots of hard work. What’s fuelling the excitement though is the launch of Ardmore Traditional, a single malt matured first in American bourbon barrels and then finished in quarter casks.Allied tried this method with whisky from a few of its distilleries and at the time the view was that it only worked for Laphroaig and Ardmore. Lucky for Beam, then, that they are the two distilleries it inherited.The launch of the new whisky has attracted a stream of visitors and journalists, and there’s a definite sense among the enthusiastic staff that Ardmore’s time has come. And it’s a view reinforced in one of the warehouses, where an area has been set aside for experimental casks.These include 60 huge 400 litre puncheons, whisky that is effectively being triple-matured and will yield 25,000 bottles for a special release in the future, a range of different styles maturing in casks quarter cask and a number of casks with varying levels of peat.Expect, too, some older bottlings next year, perhaps at 25 or 30 years.The distillery, itself, decorated in trademark Teacher’s livery of red on dark grey, is sizeable.It has 12 malt bins capable of storing 1,280 tonnes, enough to allow it to rest the malt for two to three weeks and to see it through the roughest of winters when snow can cut off the distillery.It includes a proportion of peated malt, typically 12 to 14 parts per million, enough to significantly impact on flavour. Barley is resourced locally and peated within the county.There are other idiosyncracies that set Ardmore apart. It’s unusual mash tun, for instance, the body made of cast iron and the semi-lauter mashing gear of stainless steel.The distillery mashes in batches of 12.48 tonnes, producing 60,000 litres of wort, and in all there are 23 cycles a week. It is mashed using a second wash at an exceptionally high 95 degrees centigrade, the third at nearly 100.It is fermented in washbacks made of Douglas fir, which Ardmore insists imparts flavour to the brewer’s beer.It is an artisan-like operation, curiously quaint and traditional, curiously at odds with a distillery producing so much whisky.Fermentation lasts for up to 60 hours.There are eight stills at Ardmore, and much has been made of the fact that they were converted from direct coal fired stills to indirect steam some six years ago.Production is split between distillation of the peated Ardmore, and an unpeated version known as Ardair, which is named after some local standing stones and which is mainly used for blending.It’s an impressive operation, and Ardmore seems comfortable in its skin.After years as playing second fiddle in a company without a conductor, and it’s moving forward.Will Glendronach have the same chance?Both these distilleries are Highland gems, great whisky makers deserving of a bigger audience.They’re blood brothers at the mercy of fate and their respective owners.Let’s hope their future has a happier ending than the brothers in the West End musical.TASTING NOTES Glendronach Original double matured
Nose: Over ripe fruit, sweet barley and a touch of smoke
Palate: Wow, left hook, right hook, left, as first a rich distinct sherry-ish plummy fruit hit and then an oak-smoke combo kicks in, with a rounded and satisfying final punch to finish off
Finish:Medium, with a surprisingly gentle and rounded exit. Very pleasant Ardmore new make
Nose: Toffee and mint, but with water much fruitier. Apples
Palate: Crisp and sharp with distinctive spice. With water it takes on an added richness, with noticeable smoke coming through the fruit Ardmore Traditional
Nose: Surprisingly shy. Some wispy perfumey notes, like an old handbag. Some spice
Palate: This is a grower and initially is a bit of a shock. It doesn’t punch very hard for a starter, and when you do absorb the flavours there are some strange earthy, almost mushroomy notes to it. But this is very complex, a savoury whisky with a late sweet burst, and a tanginess from the peat that reminds me of olives of all things. One for pre-dinner nibbles? The longer you go with it though, the more you get from it.
Fruit is there and richness too, but you may need a drop of water to get to them. Shame really, because the whisky isn’t robust enough to reduce the alcoholic strength further
Finish:Ah that’s better. The best kept for last, with all the strange components in the flavour coming together to leave a reasonably long and pleasant.Certainly this is like no other whisky I have ever tasted and is growing on me. Intriguing