Distillery Focus

Northern Highland highlights

Gavin D Smith visits three Diageo distilleries in search of a sense of regionalisation.
By Gavin D. Smith
As most readers will be aware, there is an ongoing debate about the relevance of regionalised, geographical categorisation of single malts to overall spirit character. Is there any such thing as a ‘Highland style,’ for example?In the case of Diageo, each of its three northernmost distilleries – all producing ‘Northern Highland’ malts – is geared up to the distillation of spirit that offers different characteristics, intended principally to enrich the blender’s palette. However, the three distilleries in question also have many features in common.They are among Diageo’s lower profile plants, with Glen Ord being the southernmost, situated near the village of Muir of Ord, some 18 miles north-west of Inverness, while Teaninich is at Alness, 20 miles north of the Highland capital. The northernmost of the trio is Clynelish, on the east Sutherland coast, near to the town of Brora and a further 40 miles up the A9 from Teaninich.All three distilleries were established during the first half of the 19th century, with Teaninich being the oldest, gaining a licence in 1817, followed two years later by Clynelish, while Ord dates from 1838. Not that there is much sign of antiquity when you look at their almost identical, glassfronted stillhouses, each home to a single row of six pot stills. These are the result of 1960s reconstruction programmes by then owners the Distillers Company Ltd, who rebuilt and extended many of their sites during that period to help slake the growing thirst for blended Scotch whisky around the world.While Ord was significantly reconstructed in 1966, the surgery at Teaninich and Clynelish was altogether more radical. The Teaninich distillery you see today was built from scratch in 1970, being known as the ‘A Side,’ until the original ‘B Side’ distillery was finally decommissioned in 1999 and subsequently demolished. Clynelish was an entirely new structure, created in 1967 next to the original distillery, which was subsequently rechristened Brora before falling silent in 1983.The three distilleries share an umbilical connection in that each of them uses malt produced in the Glen Ord malting plant, adjacent to the distillery. It is lightly peated for Glen Ord itself and unpeated for Teaninich and Clynelish. The plants are of similar capacity, capable of producing between four and five million litres of alcohol a year, with each now working seven days per week. The potential output of both Teaninich and Clynelish has been boosted recently by the addition of two new stainless steel washbacks to add to their existing complement of eight larch vessels.The ‘make’ of the ‘Northern Highland’ distilleries is also comparatively elusive in single malt expressions, with Glen Ord largely being confined to export and travel retail markets, while Teaninich is principally available as a 10 Years Old ‘Flora & Fauna’ bottling. However, Clynelish 14 Years Old is now part of the extended ‘Classic Malts’ lineup, and gaining a slightly higher profile.Douglas Murray is Diageo’s manufacturing development manager, and he explains that “I led the team that worked to identify the key ‘building blocks’ that allowed us to understand what was important to the uniqueness of spirit produced by each distillery. It’s not about changing its character, it’s about being able to improve the consistency of that quality by knowing how we get the characteristics we do. “Glen Ord distillery is what we call a ‘light site,’ and these distilleries give spirit that is green, grassy, fruity, waxy and oily in character. We also have ‘heavy sites,’ which give nutty, spicy character, and ‘smoky, peaty’ sites. “Glen Ord makes ‘grassy’ spirit, while Teaninich produces ‘green, oily’ spirit, with the latter principally being used by blenders to ramp up Johnnie Walker output. It’s got a smoothness; it’s to do with mouthfeel. It’s a very complementary whisky in the blending process.” While Glen Ord and Teaninich are among several distilleries producing their specific styles, Clynelish is unique in being the only Diageo distillery to offer spirit with a ‘waxy’ profile. “It’s an important factor in a lot of our older blends,” says Murray, “and especially the Johnnie Walker range, most notably Johnnie Walker Gold Label. There are undertones of ‘grassy’ and ‘fruity’ in Clynelish, but these are swamped by ‘waxy.’ Waxy is all about mouthfeel in a blend.” The jury is still out on whether regional classifications have any real validity beyond grouping distilleries into convenient geographical categories, and as far as Diageo is concerned at least, significant variations in spirit style within each region are crucial to the continuing success of its best-selling blended Scotch whiskies.GRASSY GLEN ORD * “The yeast we use has the property of fermenting fast at the low gravity used in Ord,which inhibits the impact of bacterial infection at the start of fermentation,”explains Douglas Murray. “The bacteria that create acidity would react with the copper in the stills to create‘fruity’characteristics,which we don’t want.We get better alcohol fermentation with more ethanol,rather than the esteryderivatives of ethanol. This keeps it sharp and grassy.Ord is the highest level of ‘green,grassy’spirit wemake.” *Although alcohol is no longer created after around 40 hours of fermentation,at Glen Ord the process is allowed to carry on for 75 hours,as between 40 hours and 75 hours more green,grassy flavours are produced. * “The spirit cut is taken between around 75% ABV and 60%,”says Murray. “Ifwecame in earlier,for example at 78%,you would get more fruity notes, which we don’t want from Ord spirit,and similarly if weran longer,say down to 55%,you’d also get more fruity character,as well as phenols. *“We run the stills at Glen Ord about five degrees C hotter than normal.It’s a slow distillation with lots of reflux,so we are getting a great deal of copper ‘conversation.’We run everything as hot as wecan and rest the stills between charges to allow the copper to rejuvenate so it will have maximum effect.The condensers at Glen Ord are also run hot,to strip out all the sulphury and immaturenotes.This allows for pure,intense,grassy spirit.” GREEN, OILY TEANINICH *The production of whisky with a ‘green and oily’profile is facilitated by the presence of a mash filter,rather than the usual mash tun.Although commonly used in the brewing industry,Teaninich is currently the only Scotch whisky distillery operating such a filter. *“We use a hammer mill rather than the usual roller mill,and we are actually milling totally into flour,”explains Murray.“A roller mill would give you 10 per cent flour.When it is finely ground, everything is fermentable,so the system theoretically gives a high yield. “The milled malt is mixed with hot water to create wort in a mash conversion vessel,and is then pumped at pressure through the filter,leaving the solids in the middle.” *“The wort is significantly different to normal because the oils that are produced during mashing are carried with the worts into the washbacks,” notes Murray.“We want ‘green,oily’spirit from Teaninich,which is one of the reasons why the distillery was chosen for the mash filter experiment.” *The fermentation regime is similar in length to that at Glen Ord,but when it comes to distillation,cutting occurs at around 72% ABV in order to exclude the ‘grassy’character that would otherwise develop between 75% and 72%.According to Douglas Murray,“We cut again around 63% toavoid more‘grassy,’ which would come in between 63% and 60%.This gives the green,oily spirit werequire.”