Distillery Focus

Lowland Perfection (Auchentoshan)

Auchentoshan is the nearest distillery to Glasgow but it is often criminally overlooked. Dominic Roskrow explains why it warrants closer inspection.
By Dominic Roskrow
I was visiting a distillery recently when two tourists came in and asked if they could be shown round.Actually they didn’t so much ask for a tour but demand one.And when they were told that the distillery was shut they kicked up a fuss.This being Scotland, they were generously accommodated and a tour was arranged.The opportunity to walk around a working distillery should never be taken for granted and nor should it be considered a right. It is a privilege that we should cherish.How many other places of work would allow people to wander round the production areas?And while some other businesses permit organised tours, not many accommodate thousands of nosey enthusiasts throughout the year.I’ve been thinking about this a lot,because it wasn’t always this way.Distillery tours didn’t exist before the late Michael Jackson bowled up one day and asked if he could look round.I have an endearing mental picture of this Pythonesque moment. Michael,who at the time would have looked like a hippy version of Worzel Gummidge, walks in to the distillery office and asks to look round.“What do you mean,look round?”replies the stillman suspiciously.“Well, you know, like a distillery tour,” offers Michael.“I don’t think we do tours. Jock, do we do tours? No, sorry mate, there’s no such thing.” “Well couldn’t you invent them so I could go on one?”says Michael optimistically.“I suppose we could…” I don’t know where this encounter took place, but I like to think it was at a distillery like Auchentoshan. Sure, there are some far prettier candidates.Many, set in rural splendour or on rugged shorelines, offer themselves up as prime tourist locations, ideal for visitors.Auchentoshan’s the opposite.Sited on the edge of Glasgow by a mass of motorway feeder lanes and under the shadow of the Erskine Bridge, with road and air traffic all around it, it could have been a biscuit factory, but it’s not.Perfectly situated to pump out standard malt to serve the export markets, it could have been one of those faceless ‘factory’ distilleries, but it’s not.In fact it’s an oddball distillery packed with personality and loaded with its own idiosyncratic quirks.Once you’re through the gates and in its own little bubble, it has as much charm as any Speyside or island distillery, and despite the hustle and bustle of the district, there’s a timelessness and old world atmosphere about it, accentuated by the location.Read most whisky books and chances are you’ll learn little about the place. It’s correctly described as a Lowland distillery, but nowhere are regional descriptions more inadequate than here. It’s Glasgow’s distillery, but Glaswegians rarely come here, visitor figures revealing the greatest proportion travel from overseas. Nor does the Lowland tag sit comfortably with a Glasgow distillery:how many Glaswegians do you know that could be described as light, floral and perfumey? Not among the men anyway.The history of the distillery is vague.There may have been whisky production here as early as 1800 but the distillery as we now know it was founded in 1823.Whisky writer Barnard noted that there were two stills here when he visited, but records are vague as to when a third still was installed.The distillery was heavily bombed during the Second World War, and had to be rebuilt.An old bomb crater on the site today serves as a pond for cooling water.More recent changes to the site include a new ditch to drain excess water away from the distillery after two floods in as many years – an indication of a changing climate.Two things strike you about Auchentoshan early on: firstly,how beautifully it is kept, its still rooms in pristine and showcase condition, the reception area and bar perfectly in order.And second, that the function rooms and entertaining areas give the place the feel of a modern conference hotel, testament to the fact that the distillery’s owners are reaching out to Glasgow’s business community providing state of the art facilities for company events.Whisky production here is pretty much unlike anywhere else in Scotland.Although location dictates that it is a Lowland distillery, the water for making whisky comes from Loch Katrine in the Highlands, some 35 kilometres away.The distillery’s producing about 1.6 million litres of spirit from its small still room,with about 600,000 litres of that going to single malt.Production requires working seven days a week.Each mash is of 6.825 tons and takes place over a six hour period, producing 35,000 litres of wort.The distillery has eight wash backs, four inside and four outside,and fermentation takes in the region of 50 hours.What makes Auchentoshan stand apart from nearly all other distilleries is the employment of triple distillation.There are three stills: a wash still with a capacity of 17,500 litres,an intermediate still with a capacity of 8,000 litres and a spirit still of 11,500 litres.The process is a complex and finely tuned one.The wash is distilled as normal in the wash still (still one) and the process is carried out twice.The low wines produced from the two distillations have an ABV of about 18% and are transferred to an intermediate still (still two).Here the low wines are mixed with the rejected spirit from the spirit still (still number three).Two batches of the mix are distilled at the intermediate stage to provide the make up of the spirit still. Only a small fraction of the second distillation, with an ABV of about 54%, is passed through to the spirit still for third distillation.The rest is put in to a holding tank for redistribution. In the third stage distillation again a very narrow cut is made.The rest is sent back to still two.The final, elitist spirit has an ABV of about 82% and this is reduced to 80%.At its best it is light but flavoursome, with a lemon zest note. It is of the highest quality. It is matured mainly in American oak hogsheads but a proportion is stored in European sherry butts and other cask types.The process is a complex one and has been fine-tuned over many years.The team at the distillery is justifiably proud of their show piece distillery and the whisky it produces.But you sense there might be just a smidgeon of frustration that the complexity and diversity of the whisky isn’t more widely appreciated.And there can be no doubt that it is misunderstood.An industry colleague tells a story about sitting at a bar, sipping a malt and listening to a barman explaining whiskies to an American guest, which he did with considerable aplomb.Eventually the American set his eyes on the Auchentoshan Three Wood, named due to the three types of cask used for maturing.“What’s that one there?”said the American.Without missing a beat, the barman said:“Oh that’s part of a series the distillery is doing celebrating golf.“There is another one called Auchentoshan Seven Iron,and next year they’re going to do one called Auchentoshan Putter.” This malt deserves better than that, as our tasting demonstrates.And I can’t help feeling that this distillery’s time is still yet to come.If you haven’t visited and you’re passing through Glasgow, then really you should.It deserves respect.If you do go, though,be polite.It’s a privilege to be allowed in.Tasting Notes:
Nose:Light,sweet fruits,zesty grapefruit
Palate: Light fruits,sharp and quite woody with sherry notes
Finish:Pleasant,relatively shortAUCHENTOSHEN 10 YEARS OLD
Nose:Citrus and grapefruit
Palate:Sparkling bitter fruits,clean malt,pleasant but quite sharp
Nose:Much fuller and richer
Palate:Altogether fuller mouth feel,with over-ripe melon and
sweet barley
Finish:Warming and full.Quite a surprise

Nose:All sherry,some cherry,Christmas cake
Palate:Rum and raisins,rich and full.Pretty unsubtle and all
enveloping but that’s okay
Finish: Lovely long characterful finishAUCHENTOSHEN 18 YEARS OLD
Nose:Sweet,grapefruit once more very much in evidence
Palate:Sweet,then quite spicy,a dose of liquorice,some pleasing
malt and then a touch of oak
Finish:Orange and spice,quite long. Very nice
Nose:Citrus,glace cherries,lemon and orange peel
Palate:Rich,full malt,wine cask influence comes through with
sharp hit. A surprising experience all round
Finish:Very rounded,very long,lots of bourbon vanilla and fudgeAUCHENTOSHEN 21 YEARS OLD
Nose:Rich full honeyed,over-ripe fruit
Palate:Mellow,rich grapefruit but not sharp in the slightest. Very rounded from the age.
Finish:Warming and wonderful. An excellent whiskyAUCHENTOSHEN 1973
Nose:Rich and deep,polish,wood,spice,prunes.
Palate:Strong wood dominates to the detriment of the malt. All age and not a lot of beauty.
Finish:Oaky and nutty,sharp and abrasive.