For every Talisker and Lagavulin in Diageo’s inventory of distilleries, there are many more lower-profile plants making spirit that rarely sees the light of day away from the blending vats. Think Glenlossie, Glen Spey and Inchgower. Think Inchgower in particular as this distillery, located on the far north-eastern fringes of the Speyside region, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year. Celebrations are likely to be suitably low key, but the style of malt created at Inchgower is an important component of many Diageo blends and the role of Scotland’s lesser-known distilleries should never be underestimated.
Inchgower distillery was founded in 1871 by Alexander Wilson & Co, beside what is now the A98 Fochabers to Fraserburgh road, half a mile south of Buckie, in an area once renowned for illicit distilling. The town is situated on the Moray Firth, and remains a lively and productive port despite the difficulties faced by the Scottish fishing fleet during the past few decades. When fitting out Inchgower, Wilson used equipment from Tochineal distillery, which the firm had also operated, located at Lintmill, near Cullen, some eight miles east of Buckie.
Tochineal was built by Alexander Wilson’s predecessor John Wilson in 1825, but by 1871 the Tochineal site had become too cramped and the enterprise, which had begun in 1825, was also in need of major upgrading, with some sources suggesting water supply was also an issue. Remains of the distillery can still be seen today, with buildings having been used subsequently for agricultural purposes. Inchgower remained in the hands of Wilson & Co until the company went bankrupt in 1936, when the site and the owner’s house were purchased by Buckie Town Council for £1,000, thereby becoming the only council in Scotland ever to own a distillery.
There's more than meets the eye to Inchgower
Not only did their intervention safeguard jobs at Inchgower, but it also profited greatly by its investment, selling the distillery on to Perth-based Arthur Bell & Sons Ltd for £6,000 just two years later. Not that Bells was complaining, as it had spent no less than £56,000 acquiring Blair Athol and Dufftown distilleries four years previously. Bell’s greatest years in terms of sales were still ahead of it and were largely driven by Raymond Miquel, who died earlier this year at the age of 89. Miquel joined Bell’s in 1956 and rose to the position of managing director in just a dozen years. Something of a martinet, he was loved by some and loathed by others, and reputedly once insisted that senior executives accompany him on a training run in Perth on Christmas Day!
Under Miquel’s leadership, however, Bell’s grew to become Scotland’s leading blended Scotch by 1970, and in 1978 it was the best-selling blended Scotch in the UK, with sales growth in terms of value increasing by around 800 per cent during that decade.
the role of Scotland’s lesser-known distilleries should never be underestimated
Inevitably, such growth required more spirit and Inchgower’s capacity was doubled in 1966 by the installation of a second pair of stills, while Dufftown was doubled in size two years later, followed by Blair Athol in 1973. The next year, Pittyvaich distillery (now demolished) was built in Dufftown and Bell’s total malt spirit capacity grew from 4.75lpa to 13.44lpa. Miquel saw that his distilleries were worked as hard as his staff and, in order to maximise output, short fermentations and rapid distillation were the order of the day, which dictated the nutty, spicy house style that’s still favoured at Inchgower.
When Guinness acquired Arthur Bell & Sons as a result of a hostile takeover in 1985, Inchgower was one of the five malt distilleries included in the deal, along with Blair Athol, Dufftown, Pittyvaich and Bladnoch, with Bell’s having acquired the last-named Lowland plant two years earlier. Guinness went on to take over The Distillers Company Ltd in 1986, forming United Distillers, which was the forerunner of present owners Diageo – hence Inchgower’s inclusion in Diageo’s 28-strong portfolio of malt distilleries.
When it comes to creating Inchgower’s malt whisky, Ewan Gunn, senior global brand ambassador for Scotch whiskies at Diageo, declares that, “The key character we’re looking for in Inchgower is ‘nutty’ with an oily background. We operate a fast production regime to achieve that.
“We create a cloudy wort in the mash tun, which is rapidly drained, allowing more suspended solids to be carried through. We do short and long fermentations, with the short ones being very short at 39 hours. This gives cereal, nutty and spicy characteristics. We don’t give it time to develop estery notes,” explains Gunn. “During the first distillation, cereal oils are carried over, and we distil hard and fast to reduce the copper conversation and allow the heavier elements to carry over…there is little reflux, little copper contact.”
Esters give fruity characteristics to spirit and are created when alcohol and acid molecules interact, with lengthy fermentation producing banana, pear and apple aromas and flavours, which are not desirable in Inchgower spirit. Lack of reflux also inhibits the development of esters and, in order to avoid them as much as possible, the ‘middle cut’ begins as high as 70% ABV, but continues until as low as 55% ABV to capture heavier compounds late in the run. The lyne arms are also quite steeply angled to assist collection of these compounds.
You can find Inchgower Distillery within the rolling landscape of Speyside
When ascribing stylistic characteristics to whiskies, one epithet often applied to Inchgower is ‘salty’, in common with other distilleries located near the sea, such as Pulteney and Diageo’s Oban. However, according to Ewan Gunn, “There is certainly not enough sodium chloride present that you could detect. Inchgower is not chemically ‘salty’. It’s probably the extreme spiciness and heavy nuttiness which imply that style. It’s not about any aspect of production... It’s about flavour association. It’s not really been explained, and it’s not about the casks being matured beside the sea because some Inchgower is matured at the distillery and some is not.”
When it comes to ‘salty’ Oban, Gunn notes, “From a scientific point of view, it’s operated differently to Inchgower. Long fermentations are the order of the day, producing a spirit that is floral and sweet, then citrusy, with orange oil notes.” He continues, “Inchgower is used in quite a lot of our blends, including Bell’s and J&B. It adds a richer, nuttier flavour, adds body and rounds off other flavours well. It’s got a lot to do with mouthfeel. It plays an important role at a high age in Johnnie Walker Ghost & Rare Glenury Royal. It’s respected and admired by our blenders.”
In operational terms, Inchgower has worked a five-day week since 2017, making 2.1 million litres of pure alcohol (lpa) per year, but working 24/7, the distillery could deliver 3.1 million lpa per year. As the site is fully automated, one man per shift can operate the entire whisky-making process, if required. All the new make is filled into tankers and taken away to be filled into casks – principally refill Bourbon – in the Central Belt, but a significant amount goes back to the distillery to mature, along with various other Diageo whiskies. The dunnage and racked warehousing at Inchgower can hold 65,000 casks and 61,000 are maturing there at present.
Inchgower is, as may be expected, elusive as a single malt, with the principal ‘house’ expression being Inchgower 14 Years Old (Flora & Fauna series), while independent bottlers currently offering Inchgower include That Boutique-y Whisky Company (14 Years Old) and Signatory (12 Years Old). Earlier this year, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society released an intriguing 13-year-old expression (No. 18:33) that has been finished for two years in a first-fill ex-rye whiskey cask. Diageo included a superb 27-year-old expression among its 2018 Special Releases, which served to showcase just how good Inchgower whisky can be when this low-profile ‘workhorse’ gets the chance to shine.