Distillery Focus

Natural born distillers (Aberlour)

Dave Broom visits Aberlour Distillery, built in a magical location that's home to some of the most knowledgable whisky folk in the world.
By Dave Broom
Aberlour Distillery’s colourful history began in 1826 when it was built by the laird of Aberlour. He was the very man who gave John Smith, Glenlivet’s founder, the pair of pistols used to great effect when repelling disgruntled smugglers. The distillery then passed through a number of hands, as distillers took advantage of the newly relaxed laws, before the Grant brothers leased it while waiting for the baronial pile of Glen Grant to be built in Rothes. They then passed the lease on to James Fleming, a grain merchant who had the lease on Dailuiane and had a mill in Aberlour. Fleming moved his operations to Aberlour, demolished the original plant and in 1879 built a new distillery on its current site. These days it is owned by Pernod-Ricard, who bought it (as part of Campbell Distillers) in 1974. There you have it. Another Speyside distillery that sprang into being in the 1820s, blossomed with the coming of the railway,
benefited from producing the style that blenders wanted and which is now making waves on the single malt market. End of story. That is until you meet manager Alan Winchester. For him, Aberlour was possibly entering its old age by the time it became legal in the 1820s. He sees it as tapping into the ancient history of the Highlands, back to a half forgotten, semi-mythic Celtic past. “When you look at the history of whisky you realise it was the Celtic monks who knew the secret of how to make it,” he says. “Now, if you accept that it all started in Islay, then the knowledge would have spread up the Great Glen to the great monasteries around these parts like Pluscarden and Fort Augustus.” And, you could argue, to Aberlour itself. There’s a good reason to play up the ecclesiastical connection as an early Celtic saint, Drostan, had a chapel in Aberlour and and is allegedly buried under the stillhouse. The detour into the past gives you a quick insight into Alan’s character and his approach to whisky. For him, Aberlour isn’t just the product of a mash of barley distilled in a set of special copper stills it is part of its environment, part of a secret which has been handed down from father to son since who knows when. What separates Aberlour from its neighbours? I ask. “I’ve always said it’s down to a magical location,” he replies with a broad grin. But surely chance is as likely a reason, or maybe James Fleming simply wanted to build his distillery next to his mill. It might not be romantic but it makes sense. Alan is less than sure: “You must remember that distillery sites come out of a process of natural selection,” he says, “the old guys would have found a site and distilled there. If they didn’t like it, they shifted. Now quite why they chose this spot I don’t know. We know that Fleming was trying to recreate a whisky in the same style as Dailuaine or Glenlivet here but he ended up making something different. Why? The water plays its part I’m sure. I know it’s not fashionable to say so these days but if water wasn’t an issue, then we all might as well have mashed out of the Spey and not had the worry of water running out. That’s the magic of this location.”This talk isn’t to do with fairies dancing round the well or the strange myths which were only spun because the industry didn’t understand quite what happened when whisky was made. It is part of a deep-seated belief that this spot, indeed area, is home to so many great whiskies not just because the conditions were right but because there was an interface between that ‘magic location’, natural resources and people that are, what Alan calls, “natural born distillers.” He looks around the courtyard before saying: “It’s a secluded spot. You can go way back into Ben Rinnes from here: the haughs over there on the flood plain of the Spey were very early with the barley every year. You were hidden, you had water, barley and peat ... and time. It gave the old guys time to find the best site and perfect their craft. Did you know there was illegal distilling in this area even during the war?” He grins before continuing: “Guys would steal the wash from Dailuaine and distil up there under the falls and sell it for £1 a bottle in Elgin.” Old habits die hard. Even today the distillery is in a secluded spot – it’s a big plant with its entrance on a major road but still manages to be hard to find. You can flash by the smart red gates without even seeing them. If you manage to make the turning you still have to trek up a little glen with a burn on one side to reach the still house. Aberlour keeps to itself, shoehorned into its little glen, getting on with the job. Alan is somehow like his whisky: affable, approachable, big hearted, yet not showy. He’s proud of his whisky but will always answer a question about Aberlour by talking about another distillery and the people who work there. This habit of deflecting praise and talking of other people isn’t just natural modesty but an insight into how the industry functions. Distillers not only work in different plants during their career (he has worked at Glenfarclas, Glen Grant, Caperdonich and Glenlivet in his 25 year stint) but they trade whiskies with each other as fillings for blends. There is an interdependence that runs through the trade which means, despite what the marketing of single malts may suggest, no distillery is on its own. “If you speak to me about a distillery I think of the people who work there,” he says. “Whisky is about the folk who make it. You say Bowmore, I think of Jim McEwan, not the whisky.” Aberlour is a typically modern distillery. Indeed, at one point in the 1960s it was ahead of the game. Steam replaced direct firing in 1960, the last floor was turned in the maltings in 1962 and the wooden washbacks came out around the same time. “In those days the private firms were quite progressive,” says Alan, “it was the big guys who were much more conservative.” And these days when automation is the norm? “That’s a
difficult one,” he says pausing for about the first time. “Automation has saved a lot of problems and consistency has improved, but the other thing is the guys have a lot of pride in their product. They will all be looking to see if Aberlour is on the shelf of the pub, in the shop or if they’re abroad on holiday.” It comes down to the born distiller again. “Any good manager is aware of his workforce,” he says. “You can train a stillman in a few weeks, but a month later when something goes wrong he won’t have seen it before. The old training regimes were long ones and you learned at the side of an older guy. You have to have that mix of youth and experience. This is a traditional industry and change can be fraught with risk.”There is a balance between technology and tradition, between old skills and modern management practises that some distillers are hitting and others are missing ... badly. Alan is delighted to have recruited Hamish Proctor, ex-manager of Bunnahabhain and one of the great distillers (and characters) in the trade, as brewer. Taking experienced people on isn’t something that other firms would ever consider these days. “You’ll find the big firms are down to six men per distillery and a manager off site,” he explains and while he’ll never criticise other players in the trade he says it with a regretful expression there for all to see.Wandering through the plant you wonder quite where the processing stops and Aberlour begins. Is it with the spring water from the granite bulk of Ben Rinnes? The lightly peated malt? Possibly it’s the semi-lauter mash tun or the 48-hour plus ferments? Maybe it’s in those fat, ruddy, onion shaped stills? “The way you drive the wash still is very important,” Alan explains, “it’s one reason why many old distillers didn’t change the wash to steam because the way you cook the wash is important. We give it a quick run in the wash still then a slow spirit run to keep it all together. That’s the way we do it, but the beauty of this industry is that there are so many different ideas. As to when Aberlour starts to appear? It’s when the water bubbles out of that spring. Magical location, remember?” The question of direct firing on the wash was intriguing. At that point I was slightly obsessed about the benefits of direct firing but Alan calmed me down. “It depends on the type of spirit you’re trying to produce,” he says. “Major McKessock wouldn’t put in steam in at Glen Grant because he was scared he’d make Caperdonich and Mr Grant at Glenfarclas thought steam took the guts out of the spirit but Aberlour seems to have improved with steam.” It’s different ideas again – in every company you have an identity which often in the private firms is the owner’s identity. So, do big firms have a tougher job to differentiate between their brands? “I think so,” he says, “though that doesn’t mean that big guys aren’t necessarily bad. UDV, for example, should be applauded for keeping worm tubs in so many of its distilleries.” As part of Pernod-Ricard, Aberlour is neither a small independent player or part of a huge malt portfolio and despite being one of the first single malts on the market, it was available during the 1960s, it only began making significant moves recently. Until then you’d catch sight of its strangely Gothic label – a solitary light burning in a lonely castle window with a tree standing threateningly nearby seemingly waiting for a gibbet to be hung from its claw-like branches – and you’d wonder quite what the hell was going on. Aberlour was dark, mysterious and weird. That mystery has now disappeared. At the last count there were 11 Aberlour variants on sale, all of which show the benefits of a radical improvement in wood policy and a notable upping of the use of Spanish oak sherry butts. Sometimes the malts lean a little too heavily on the sherry for my liking and the fragrant, minty, spicy distillery character is swamped by the sweet sherry notes, but on drams like the 15-year-old sherry finish the mix of mint, toffee, cream and spice is superbly balanced. You could argue that Pernod-Ricard is making up for lost time and is releasing too many versions but, unlike UDV, the firm doesn’t have the luxury of a portfolio of malt distilleries so it has to make an impact by offering as many distinct examples of Aberlour as possible. That situation may change if Pernod’s joint bid (with UDV) for the Seagram drinks division is successful.It seems alien to think about high finance in such a setting and the talk turns to football, local pubs, hill walking and the possible etymology of ‘Aberlour’. Alan’s theory goes that ‘Aber’ comes from the Norse term for a river crossing, while ‘Lour’ is Gaelic for noisy. The village therefore was on the cusp between two cultures. Even now its malt is in the middle: halfway between the delicate, creamy Speysides and the big boys. The best of both worlds.