Less than an hour from Aberdeen and I'm in a different environment, one which fits around the age-old rhythms of agriculture, one where the roads are happy to meander rather than hurtle in straight lines. You don't so much arrive at Oldmeldrum as sneak up on it, wondering quite where your destination is located before the road spits you straight at a still house, before a right-angled bend takes you up the side of thick-walled maltings. Quite how there haven't been more trucks parked next to the spirit still in beyond me.
From that first, startling, moment, Glen Garioch seems to say: ‘What kept you? Look at me. Look at my size, my heft, my age. I’ve been here forever,’ which when you ponder on it for a little while is pretty much the same story for its whisky. This is a single malt which has been available, but you were always somehow surprised to find it in front of you. It’s us who have been slow on the uptake though, not the distillery.
After all, this is a place where whisky has been made since 1798 and there’s belief in some quarters that it’s even older, conceivably the oldest distillery in Scotland. The fact it is on the roadside means that there’s no hint of the illicit hanging around it. The site was, it is said, a former tannery and then a brewery before being converted to whisky-making 213 years ago. Like I said, what kept you?
Like most old distilleries, its history has been inextricably bound up with blends, in particular Vat 69 whose creator, William Sanderson became a partner in 1886 and sole owner in 1904. Sanderson’s firm then joined forces with Booth’s (of gin fame) before being absorbed into DCL in 1943.
Glen Garioch then quietly provided beefy smoky underpinnings for a number of blends until 1968 when DCL, looking to up its production of smoky whisky, looked at it and Brora and plumped for the latter because they felt there wasn’t sufficient water at Glen Garioch. Two years later they sold it to Stanley P. Morrison (now Morrison Bowmore) who used a water diviner to find a new source. The water flowed; so did the whisky.
It was closed again in 1995 but, amazingly, reopened in 1997 although this time without the on-site maltings though, as manager Kenny ‘Digger’ Grant shows me, these are still in almost-perfect condition. The days when the reek of the peats from New Pitsligo hung over the village have long gone. Since its re-opening, Glen Garioch has been unpeated.
Inside, little appears to have changed. The mashtun, though with a Lauter system, sits in a tiny room with just enough space for an old control panel and, uniquely I reckon, a cast-iron spiral staircase. The eight stainless steel washbacks are crammed into the space in the room next door.
Only in the still house, with its conservatory-style windows at the road end is there space to breathe, allowing the lyne arm of the wash still a hugely extended run to the shell and tube condenser.
Like any old distillery it’s a place when you are ducking and diving and minding your head, doubling back on yourself, squeezing through doorways, a place of hidden secrets. This twisting nature is reflected in the spirit; whose new make character has a mix of bread dough/cereal, beef suet, a heavy waxiness. In the cask more fragrant fruity and honeyed notes emerge, but it’s a spirit that is always bedded down in the middle of the tongue with that cereal undertow. Glen Garioch is never quite what you think it should be.
At its most lifted, it flies into some wild, honeyed, herbal areas, but it can also stay heavy and move into an aroma like tallow candles; both are equally intriguing. Personally though, I miss the peat. I know it was ultimately only there because of blenders’ demands and since it’s no longer a filings malt there’s no need for it, but it helped define this dram as being apart from the norm.
Whatever the case, this is a malt which you’ll be seeing more of in the future. Glen Garioch is small, it has undoubted quality, there are stocks - extraordinary stocks dating back decades and, for MBD’s master blender Rachel Barrie (who hails from nearby Inverurie), its time has already come. “It’s now almost 15 years since the distillery reopened, so its 'house style' is firmly established. MBD has invested significantly during the last 20 years in the highest quality oak casks which is reaping benefits in the quality of the whiskies available today. We are of course experimenting in small batches for future expressions, which I can't tell you about just yet.” And that peat? “Since reopening, we’ve distilled with peated malt on a number of occasions, so watch this space!”
We might have taken a while to arrive, but now we know what we’ve been missing.
From Simpsons. Unpeated.Mashing:
4.5 ton mash in a Lauter tun. Eight hour cycle giving “a hint of cloudy wort”.Fermentation:
8 stainless steel washbacks each holding 22k litres. Anchor dried yeast, two bags per washback. 48 hour ferment.
Longer at weekends.Distillation:
Three stills, but only two used. Wash still charge 20,000 litres.Spirit still:
14,000 litres. Plain shape with very long lyne arm on the wash still.Cut:
75% ABV to 69% ABVCurrently filling:
100 casks per weekAddress:
Distillery Road, Oldmeldrum, AB51 0ES, tel: 01651 873450Visitor centre:
11.00, 13.00. 15..00 Mon - SatWebsite: www.glengarioch.com
Founder’s ReserveNo Age Statement 48%Nose:
Fragrant, sandalwood and a lightly herbal/heathery rootiness. Becomes a little honeyed and creamy with a citric hint: orange crème brulée and pine sap.Palate:
Dry crunchy start. The solidity of the spirit gives good feel. With water, buttered biscuits. Finish:
12 Years Old43%Nose:
Toasted cereal. The draff-like sweetness carries through here. Fleshy with a touch of nutmeg and that heathery note. Palate:
Brazil nut, some pepper. A chunkily fruity rich mid-palate. With water a light beeswaxy note then the herbs come back.Finish:
Long and lightly nutty.
Pre-release tasting of the next small batch release.Nose:
Bready, yeasty and vinous. Oiled paper, burning rosemary, tarragon, thyme. Fleshy soft fruits. Complex.Palate:
Fat to start, reminiscent of white pudding. Becomes lighter with time. Dried flowers, moss and even a hint of bubblegum. Finish:
Long and full. A killer.