Distillery Focus

Edinburgh's old haunt is in fine spirit (Glenkinchie)

Ian Buxton braves the ghosts and investigates the roots of lowland malt Glenkinchie
By Ian Buxton
It’s hard to believe that just 15 miles from Edinburgh Castle you can find a real live distillery.I left the city behind and seemed to move to a more timeless place as I passed through the rolling East Lothian countryside.Just out of the little village of Pencaitland, virtually hidden in a fold in the land, I found Glenkinchie. It likes to style itself ‘the Edinburgh malt’ but – as we shall see – it has its very own virtues.This, of course, is that rarest of beasts – a Lowland malt. Misunderstood; for too long unloved and often damned with faint praise (a “ladies malt” seems a favourite, if particularly patronising, description)Lowland malts are now finding favour amongst more discerning drinkers for their subtle charms and beguiling personality. I spent a considerable time discussing a variety of spirits at Glenkinchie. These, however, were of a particularly elusive and evanescent nature and quite impossible to bottle. I am referring, of course, to the various shadowy apparitions said to haunt this fine old distillery.Manager Charlie Smith, a no-nonsense engineer, reckons there are three ghosts at the distillery – though I counted four.It’s perhaps not surprising that Glenkinchie is home to some restless wraiths. Scotland’s Lowland distilleries, after an all too brief flowering in the late Victorian era, soon fell on hard times and most have now closed.Few will open their doors again, but Glenkinchie at least is in safe hands.Now one of the six Classic Malts, its parent Diageo has invested steadily in the brand and its home, as demonstrated by the impressive visitor centre.I began my tour from there, a trifle apprehensively, as it’s also home to two of the ghosts – the benign “Gentle Tam”, a former maltman, and “Mrs Redpath” who is heard from time to time opening long blocked doors.According to Charlie Smith, they’re no trouble but I’m not sure I’d want them as lodgers, let alone the more mischievous “Willie” who is said to have thrown one distillery guide across the floor.Phantasms and poltergeists apart, Glenkinchie is a joy to visit. It lies in pleasant, rolling farmland described by Robert Burns as “the most glorious corn country I have ever seen.”Today, the immediate surroundings are still largely agricultural, lending a calming air to Glenkinchie’s honest Victorian brickwork, and it’s hard to imagine that Edinburgh is really so close.Upon arrival, you stroll past a bowling green. Little more exciting seems to have happened in years, though the old pavilion has played host to vintage car rallies, theatre productions and no doubt much else beside.Glenkinchie plays its part in both community and corporate life, though the days of the manager keeping a herd of prize-winning Aberdeen Angus beef cattle are long gone.The visitor centre will probably be your first arrival point. Though centres are all the rage today, these former floor maltings were converted to a museum of malt whisky as early as 1968, a particularly far-sighted decision.Diageo make a modest charge for the centre and tour though, as normal, it’s discounted off a purchase of a bottle from the attractive shop.However, unusually, the highlight of the centre is not the handsome new graphics or video show, but a wonderful model distillery built in 1924 for the Empire Exhibition. This magnificent piece is fully 60 feet long (about 18.5 metres for younger readers) and taller than a professional basketball player.When you go (and you certainly should), I’d recommend adding 10 minutes or so to your visit to ensure you give the model very careful study: the more you look, the more there is to see.You won’t, for example, find a double rake mechanism on a mash tun on any operating distillery I can think of but there’s one on the model.Naturally, Charlie reckons this is authentic for a Lowland distillery in the period following the First World War and, if you think about it, why would the makers invent something for the model?Look out also for the riveted stills and worm tubs – all delightful period details and quite beautifully detailed.It looks as if this small but perfectly formed model distillery might spring into life at any moment, real Lilliputian spirit running through its veins.You can linger in the centre for half an hour or so, taking in the historical information and admiring the superb illicit still that forms the centre piece of the first room. After that, your guided tour of the distillery awaits. It’s immediately obvious that they’re very busy at Glenkinchie; a welcome sight and one that argues a robust confidence in the future.Around 1.8 million litres of alcohol flow annually from the single pair of stills.That’s a remarkable output, explained by the substantial volume of the still house: at nearly 31,000 litres capacity the wash still is allegedly the largest in Scotland, serving a spirit still of around 21,000 litres that’s running week in week out to keep up.The still house can be observed very easily from a small platform, from where the lantern glass heads on the stills can be clearly seen.Manager Charlie Smith reckons the Lowland character can be attributed to the length of fermentation and the distinctive size and shape of the stills.Otherwise, the process is essentially the same as seen north of the Highland line and Glenkinchie eschews the triple distillation seen at Auchentoshan that some maintain was essential to the Lowland style.It was the whisky boom of the late 19th century that set Glenkinchie on its path to today’s fame and fortune. Afailed distillery on this site, dating from the 1820s, was revived and rebuilt by a consortium of Edinburgh and Leith wine merchants and blenders some 60 years later.The redoubtable Alfred Barnard passed through and observed that he was “much struck by the absolute cleanliness which prevailed”.In 1898 the distillery was remodelled, under the direction of the well-known architect Charles Doig of Elgin and expanded again in 1914.It’s probable that this investment, combined with Glenkinchie’s rural location yet immediate proximity to the great Edinburgh and Leith blending houses, was what preserved it from closure. One by one the Lowland distilleries folded – victims of recession; the blenders’ preference for more strongly flavoured Highland malts or simply because their urban location made the land more valuable for housing than distilling.These lost distilleries are my fourth ghost, haunting Glenkinchie’s stones as a silent conscience and a reminder of the legacy it must carry forward.By 1983, only Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan (now part of Suntory’s Morrison Bowmore group) survived though, in a welcome development, Bladnoch has re-opened for at least part of the year.Blending must have seemed the future just then and, indeed, much of Glenkinchie’s output still finds its way into brands such as Haig.But as UDV awoke to the opportunities in single malt, so Glenkinchie’s star rose again. The ‘Classic Six’ could hardly be complete without a Lowland malt and the potential competitive advantage to be derived from this all-but-unique representative of a near moribund style was not lost on the marketing team behind this inspired revival. (Would that UDV had owned a distillery in Campbeltown we might add, but that’s a different story.)Does it hold its own in company with the mighty Lagavulin? Can it stand up to Oban’s salty tang or the complexity of Cragganmore? Well, that’s a little like comparing Keane with Beckham, or an épée with a broadsword.They both perform different jobs, but both are superbly well fitted to their intended purpose.I might not finish my dinner with a Glenkinchie – but then I wouldn’t begin it with a Talisker – and Glenkinchie’s light, refined and delicate flavour makes the perfect aperitif.The distillery’s own nosing and tasting notes describe “barley-malt, green grass and wisps of autumn smoke”.I surprised myself by finding the smoke more pronounced than I expected – similar to the fading notes of a light but elegant Cuban cigar – but the grassy aroma is quite evident and I thought I detected an eluive hint of mint just lingering around the edges.With a dash of Edinburgh water, the taste opens up and is flowery and sweet. Delicate and refined, it’s more Morningside than Granton, with a long-lasting finish that offers just a ghost of liquorice root and mixed spices.Some tasters detect ginger and the light smokiness lingers pleasantly on.The signature expression is 10 years old and 43% in strength but looking around the distillery’s dunnage warehouse I couldn’t help noticing significant quantities of older Glenkinchie casks.These may, of course, be reserved for blending – and Charlie would not be drawn on their eventual fate – but I can’t help hoping that at least a few will find their way into an older Glenkinchie single malt.It’s frustrating to think we might be denied the chance to see how this most elegant of drams will develop, given a few more years in cask.Driving back to Edinburgh I kept thinking about Gentle Tam, Willie and Mrs Redpath. What would they make, I wonder, of the 40,000 curious visitors who flock to Glenkinchie each year?I concluded that they’re simply jealous of the chance to savour this unusual survivor. I don’t know that I’d walk through walls
for it, but I might push the guide to one side (ever so gently) if he got between me and my dram.Perhaps Charlie should take to leaving a glass out at night – what the angels don’t share, the spirits can have.Malt whisky as exorcist, now there’s a haunting thought.