Of all the Scotch whisky companies which own multiple distilleries, John Dewar & Sons Ltd has arguably done less than any other to develop a portfolio of single malts from its five malt-producing sites. True, Aberfeldy single malt has been available in 12 and 21 Years Old expressions for some years and there have been a number of other very limited releases of late, but when did you last see a bottling of Aultmore, Craigellachie or Royal Brackla? However, all that is changing, and changing in a major way.
Highest profile of Dewar's distilleries, partly due to the availability of its robust, sweet and fruity 'make' and partly because of its popular, interactive 'Dewar's World of Whisky' visitor centre, is Aberfeldy in Perthshire. It was built by the Perth based company of John Dewar & Sons between 1896 and 1898 to supply malt for their increasingly successful blends, and through ownership by Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) and its successor Diageo, Aberfeldy and the Dewar's name have remained inextricably linked. This relationship continued when Bermuda based Bacardi Ltd acquired the Dewar's portfolio in 1998 for the sum of £1.15 billion.
The creation of Diageo by the merger of Guinness PLC and Grand Metropolitan PLC led to a requirement for the vast new organisation to sell off the Dewar's section of the business to avoid infringing monopolies legislation and a bidding frenzy ended with Bacardi being triumphant.
Along with the US bestselling blend Dewar's White Label blend, and Aberfeldy distillery, Bacardi also took possession of Aultmore, Craigellachie and Royal Brackla distilleries in north-east Scotland, to add to Macduff distillery, which it had owned since acquiring the Martini Rossi business, including the popular William Lawson blend, in 1993.
The single malt produced by Macduff is marketed as Glen Deveron, and in 10 Years Old format outsold Aberfeldy for some years. While Bacardi's other four Scotch whisky distilleries all boast 19th century origins, Macduff was built in 1962-63.
When Bacardi decided that it really was time to do something about its overall lack of single malt presence, it turned to Glen Deveron as the brand to begin the evolution. According to Dewar's Global Marketing Manager Stephen Marshall, "In 2010 we started reassessing single malts, and got funds from Bacardi to buy back older stock of our malts and began laying down stocks. We stopped selling anything over 12 years of age. Historically, we have been a blending company which sold most of what it made."
In 2013, Glen Deveron 16, 20 and 30-Years Old expressions were released into the travel retail sector as exclusives, under the 'Royal Burgh Collection' title. Future plans for the brand include re-christening it The Deveron, presenting it in blue frosted glass bottles, with a 12 Years Old due in the domestic market next year, with 16, 20 and 30 Years Old expressions to follow in due course.
Although Glen Deveron saw the first new aged bottlings, as Stephen Marshall notes, "We actually began working with the Aberfeldy brand, repackaging it for the first time in years. We launched an 18 Years Old exclusive to travel retail in April and plan to release a 16 Years Old matured in first fill Pedro Ximinez sherry casks next summer. A 30 Years Old with a Marsala finish is also on the cards."
In terms of the chronology of new releases, Craigellachie features next, with its hard to find 14 Years Old bottling being replaced by 13 and 17 Years Old expressions which are now on the market, along with a travel retail exclusive 19 Years Old. 23, 31 and even a 51 Years Old bottling are marked for future release.
Craigellachie was established in 1891, at the height of the Victorian blended whisky boom, and one of its founders was Peter Mackie, who used the spirit in his White Horse blend. Today the bulk of it goes into Dewar's blends, and the distillery has a typical DCL 1960s appearance, with large stillhouse windows to showcase the four stills, which are linked to worm tubs, rather than shell and tune condensers. Dewar's are keen to stress the influence of these worm tubs on the slightly meaty, quirky nature of the whisky, and they feature prominently on its eye-catching, retro packaging.
In line with Dewar's overall maturation policy, no spirit is aged on site, but is tankered to the company's Westhorn site in Glasgow, where blending and bottling are also undertaken, or the Poniel warehouse complex in South Lanarkshire.
Following hard on the heels of the new Craigellachies are three expressions from Aultmore distillery, near Keith. An official 12 Years Old bottling has been available since 2004, but now a revamped version of that will be joined by a 25 Years Old on global release, while a 21 Years Old will be exclusively available in travel retail outlets. According to Stephen Marshall, "In addition to these, 30 and 35 Years Old expressions of Aultmore will be launched next October. Aultmore is top class for blending; very balanced and smooth."
Aultmore has a longer association with the Dewar company than any other distillery apart from Aberfeldy, having been acquired by Dewar's for £20,000 in 1923 from Alexander Edward, who had established the plant in 1896-97. Like Craigellachie, few if any signs of the original distillery remain today, with the site having been totally redeveloped in the early 1970s, and the warehouses were demolished in 1996.
Completing the new line-up will be a 12 Years Old Royal Brackla, which is due next summer, replacing the existing low-profile 10 Years Old, introduced in 2004. Stephen Marshall describes Royal Brackla single malt as "Light and fruity, with a cereal note - ideal for blending." In the longer term there is talk of creating a visitor centre at the distillery, which dates from 1812 and was the first of three Scottish distilleries entitled to use the 'Royal' prefix or suffix.
While major reconstruction has been undertaken at Brackla, including a 1960s style DCL stillhouse, the site retains some 19th century buildings, including warehousing, and would certainly lend itself well to welcoming the public.
One point to note about the new Dewar's expressions from its five distilleries is that all carry age statements, contrary to the current trend for 'no age statement' (NAS) bottlings, with even the trio of travel retail exclusive Glen Deverons bearing ages.
According to Stephen Marshall, "As far as Dewar's is concerned, the Scotch whisky category is already a large and sprawling beast, and single malt drinkers often navigate it by age, so why should we make it more complicated by taking age statements off?"
The radical overhaul of Dewar's single malts portfolio and the release of expressions from the organisation's lower profile distilleries have certainly met with approval by the workforces at those sites.
Mashing: Lauter mash tun
Fermentation: 8 wooden and 2 stainless steel washbacks - 65-85 hour fermentations
Distillation: 2 wash stills and 2 spirit stills (onion shape)
Distillery capacity: 2.7 mla
Mashing: Steineker full lauter mash tun
Fermentation: 6 wooden washbacks - 56 hour fermentations
Distillation: 2 wash stills and 2 spirit stills (plain shape)
Distillery capacity: 2.95 mla
Mashing: Steineker full lauter mash tun
Fermentation: 8 wooden washbacks - 56 hour fermentations
Distillation: 2 wash stills and 2 spirit stills (Bulb shape)
Distillery capacity: 4mla
Mashing: Lauter mash tun
Fermentation: 9 stainless steel washbacks - 49-55 hour fermentations
Distillation: 2 wash stills and 3 spirit stills
Distillery capacity: 3.2 mla
Mashing: Full lauter mash tun
Fermentation: 6 wooden and 2 stainless steel washbacks - 68 hour fermentations
Distillation: 2 wash stills and 2 spirit stills (tall, with rising lye pipes)
Distillery capacity: 4 mla
Aberfeldy 18 Years Old, 40% ABV
Nose: Rich and spicy, with sultanas and sherry. Developing through to maraschino cherries.
Palate: Smooth and rounded; malt, nutty spice, honey, Seville orange and milky coffee.
Finish: Dark sherry notes, cocoa and liquorice.
Craigellachie 13 Years Old, 46% ABV
Nose: Over-ripe pears, peach skins, mildly savoury, with white pepper.
Palate: Bold fresh fruit flavours, spice, caramel, light smoke and cocoa powder.
Finish: Slowly drying, with persistent linger of ginger.