Distillery Focus

Heart of glass

Luxury glass specialist Lalique turns its attention to the Highlands
By Gavin D. Smith
We are all aware of the many threats posed to wildlife in our increasingly fragile world, but who would have thought that grouse would cease to inhabit an area of Perthshire just a couple of miles from Crieff?

Yet the 20-feet-tall grouse, okay, a statue, that presided over the car park entrance to Glenturret Distillery is no more, along with The Famous Grouse Experience, that nested at Glenturret from 2002 until earlier this year. However, visitors to the distillery remain most welcome indeed.

The reason for this departure of all things grouse-related is due to the sale of Glenturret Distillery in December of last year by owners Edrington to Glenturret Holding, a company formed by luxury glass specialist Lalique and its second-largest shareholder, Hansjörg Wyss of Switzerland.

Lalique’s chairman Silvio Denz owns the Bordeaux wine estates of Château Faugères and Château Lafaurie-Peyraguey, and this is not his first venture into the world of whisky, as Lalique has a longstanding relationship with The Macallan, pairing its finest crystal glassware with the Speyside distillery’s oldest and most valuable single malt.

Now Lalique’s attention is turning to the Highland region, and the team at Glenturret could not be more delighted. Distillery manager Ian Renwick is Crieff born and bred, and has been at the distillery for 23 years. “I trained as an engineer, and got a job here as stillman and engineer initially,” he says. “I worked on the production side, becoming production supervisor for 10 years before being appointed manager two years ago.

“I love the area and the distillery, so I was very happy to stay when I was offered the chance. A big change since the distillery was sold is the positivity of the staff. Edrington is a great company to work for and they made it clear they wouldn’t close the distillery, that they would wait for the right buyer to come along.”

When Edrington put Glenturret up for sale, the company received around 100 ‘notes of interest,’ which were whittled down to some two dozen by the Edrington team, with presentations being made to the ‘finalists’ by Glenturret general manager John Laurie and Ian Renwick. “They had to prove their worth to Edrington,” says Renwick.

John Laurie notes that, “From the very start of the process one thing that came over loud and clear from Lalique was their keen interest in the history and heritage of Glenturret.

"You knew early on they were going to be respectful custodians of this really beautiful site. The added benefit was Lalique having a presence in the spirits world through their brand associations with Patrón, Beluga vodka and, of course, The Macallan. It isn’t a huge leap for them to play in the single malt whisky world themselves.”

The much-vaunted history of Glenturret is reputed to have begun in 1775, which is the given date of establishment, and certainly illicit distilling was taking place there at that time. However, Glenturret was first licensed to John Drummond, under the name Hosh, in 1818, with the Glenturret name being adopted during 1875.

The distillery closed in 1921, and eight years later, the equipment was dismantled, with the buildings subsequently being used for agricultural storage.

Glenturret remained silent until businessman James Fairlie acquired the premises in 1957 and proceeded to re-equip it for distilling, utilising the mash tun and stills from Tullibardine distillery, which was being upgraded at the time. Production recommenced two years later.
Ownership passed to Rémy-Cointreau in 1981, with Highland Distillers taking over nine years later. In 1999 The Edrington Group and William Grant & Sons Ltd purchased Highland Distillers for £601 million, operating as The 1887 Company, with Edrington owning 70 per cent of the shares.

Glenturret is arguably as well known for a cat as for its single malt, and a bronze bust commemorates the achievements of Towser, the former distillery mouser, who earned herself a place in the Guinness Book of Records by apparently accounting for a remarkable 28,899 mice dispatched during her 24 years at the distillery. Today, the tradition continues with a pair of felines, named Glen and Turret.

Both were included in the sale to Glenturret Holding, which handed over £31 million for the distillery and stocks, including in excess of one million litres of maturing Glenturret single malt, the oldest of which was filled to cask back in 1987, along with 2,400 cases of bottled whisky.

As well as a distillery and its stocks, Glenturret Holding has also acquired the services of two men who have been intimately involved in the success of The Macallan over recent years, namely Ken Grier and Bob Dalgarno.

Grier was formerly creative director at The Macallan, and has a strategic consultancy role at Glenturret, while Dalgarno – The Macallan’s whisky maker – takes on the same role at Glenturret, bringing more than 30 years of experience to the position.

“Bob and I are looking forward to not only continuing with our existing spirit style, but getting the freedom with our new owners to dedicate some time each month to Innovation,” says Ian Renwick. “We are both very excited about this opportunity. To have someone with Bob’s experience guiding this as well gives me great confidence about what we have to come. Bob is also very into the wood side of things, and we have an ambitious cask plan for the calendar year 2019, while Bob is already planning for 2020.

“We’ve filled a few sauternes casks from Silvio Denz’s vineyards, and we’ll definitely be doing more with wine casks in the future. We’ll be using casks from Spain, France and the USA. At present we are filling first-fill European and American oak sherry casks, refill casks and wine casks.”

John Laurie admits that, “The Glenturret portfolio has always struggled from a lack of attention and that shows in the figures. We sold 4,000 cases in 2018. Our existing Sherry, Triple Wood and Peated expressions have been around since 2015 and the 10-years-old since 2003. However, with a new budget for marketing spend, the 2019 pre-orders for the core range are almost triple that of last year, with orders being shipped out to Russia, Ontario and New Zealand. The new portfolio from Glenturret will be ready to present to the public in Summer 2020 and we are really excited to share with the world some of the jewels that have been sleeping in out warehouse.”

While Glenturret’s principal bottlings may not have set the heather on fire of late, the distillery’s limited edition and single cask offerings – including the 29-years-old Cameron’s Cut in 2017 – have received very positive reviews. Given the strength in depth of stocks acquired by Glenturret Holding, it seems a fair bet that more such releases will be a feature of the new regime.

Looking to changes to the distillery itself, Ian Renwick notes, “We are always going to be niche, so we want to do everything very well. There will be a major revamp of all visitor areas – the retail area, the tasting bar and the restaurant, starting first with the restaurant and bar.”

There are also plans to increase production significantly, and Renwick explains that “We will very much have one eye on tradition and one on quality as we step up production in the future. For the last few years we’ve been making around 170,000 litres per annum, and that figure is going up to 205,000lpa for this year, with 10 to 12 mashes per week, Eventually, our plan is to triple output.”

Glenturret is currently equipped with a unique open mash tun in which there are no rakes or stirring equipment of any kind. An ultra-low-tech wooden pole is used to turn the contents of the vessel by hand.

The pair of manually-controlled stills is run very slowly, processing around nine litres per minute, whereas some distilleries would double that rate of throughput. The wash still is equipped with a large ‘boil ball’ giving a significant amount of reflux and copper interaction. Combined with the slow rate of distillation, following lengthy fermentation in wooden washbacks, this makes for fruity, floral notes in the spirit being produced.

According to Ian Renwick, “As we increase production, there will be many challenges to face, but our objective is to remain ‘hand-made,’ whilst reducing energy and creating a commercially viable product. This process will see us engaging the services of many industry experts to help us interrogate our process and find ways to improve it, whilst protecting its style.”

Glenturret started distilling peated whisky – known as Ruadh Mhor, ‘Big Red’ – back in 2009, largely for inclusion in Black Grouse, now known as Smoky Black, and Ian Renwick says that “We won’t be making any this year, but we’ve got peated feints sitting, so we could soon start it up again, and we’ve got peated stock laid down still.”

One perceived advantage of the change of ownership at Glenturret is the fact that whereas previously, Edrington tended to use centralised suppliers and tradespeople, “We will be working with local suppliers more than in the past,” says Ian Renwick. “It allows us to get back to our roots again. It’s brilliant for the area and the town of Crieff. It’s the first time in a long time that Glenturret’s had an opportunity like this. The future’s incredibly bright.”