Distillery Focus

Distillery Focus: Glen Garioch

Glen Garioch Distillery in Oldmeldrum, Aberdeenshire, is turning back the clock on its whisky-making process
By Gavin D. Smith
Kenny Grant, former Glen Garioch distillery manager and son of Alec 'Digger' Grant
Kenny Grant, former Glen Garioch distillery manager and son of Alec 'Digger' Grant
With sustainability one of the hottest topics in the whisky world right now, it is interesting to reflect that, back in the 1970s, one Scottish distillery was almost half a century ahead of the curve.

In order to balance the impact of ever-rising fuel costs – something that’s become all too familiar again today – Glen Garioch distillery at Oldmeldrum in Aberdeenshire, some 17 miles from Aberdeen, adopted a waste heat recovery system that redirected energy to the malt kiln and pre-heated the wash prior to distillation. Then, in 1977, owner Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd grew more ambitious, with waste heat being used across an acre of greenhouses and a further acre of poly-tunnels; inside were grown tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, aubergines and flowers. In 1982, Glen Garioch became the first Scottish distillery to use North Sea gas for heating purposes, though the produce cultivation venture was ultimately discontinued.

Fast forward to 2021, and Glen Garioch is again setting trends. This time, however, it’s in an altogether more retro way. Current owner Beam Suntory has invested £6 million in a programme involving the reinstatement of malting floors and the installation of a directly fired wash still.

When the project was announced, François Bazini, Beam Suntory’s managing director for Scotch, gin and Irish, declared, “By reinvigorating Glen Garioch distillery and tapping into the brand’s rich history, we’ll be able to build on the quality and complexity that Glen Garioch is already known for. Although we’re looking to the past for inspiration, we’re opening the next chapter in Glen Garioch’s future.”

The first ‘chapter’ at the distillery – the name of which is pronounced ‘Glen Geery’ – began in the late 18th century. As is often the case, there is a degree of doubt about the actual date when distilling commenced on the site, but the owners of Glen Garioch have nailed their colours to the mast and declared 1797 to be the year in which brothers John and Alexander Manson founded the distillery.

A particularly significant moment in Glen Garioch’s history came in 1884, when it was acquired by the Leith blending firm of J G Thomson & Co. Two years later, fellow Leith blender William Sanderson took a 50 per cent share. Sanderson had launched his Vat 69 blend in 1882, and Glen Garioch went on to become the ‘heart malt’ of this extremely popular brand.

In 1922, Sanderson gained full ownership of Glen Garioch, and 1935 saw a merger with Booth’s Distillers Ltd. Glen Garioch ultimately became part of The Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) when it acquired Booth’s two years later.

Glen Garioch used peated malt in its production, but when DCL decided it required more peaty malt spirit for blending purposes, it chose to expand peated malt production at Brora rather than at Glen Garioch. This was due to what a company report described as a "chronic water shortage and limited production potential" at the Aberdeenshire facility. The distillery was mothballed in July 1968 and, two years later, it was acquired by Bowmore distillery’s owner, Stanley P. Morrison Ltd, for a mere £100,000.
Malting and mashing

Stanley Morrison had heard rumours that the water issue was not as serious as DCL had concluded, and, having restarted production, the services of water diviner and local excavator operator Alec ‘Digger’ Grant were engaged, with a spring soon located on the neighbouring Coutens farm.

This invaluable additional water source was nicknamed ‘The Silent Spring of Coutens Farm,’ as it could neither be seen nor heard. Its discovery allowed distillery output to increase tenfold. A third still was installed during 1972, the year in which the first official bottling of Glen Garioch single malt appeared, and a fourth in 1973.

Bucking the industry trend of the day toward centralised malt production, the distillery’s floor maltings were operational until quite recently, closing sometime around 1994–95. During the mid-1980s, the floors yielded 47.5 tonnes of malt per week, and requirements were supplemented by commercial suppliers. The on-site malt was peated, but it was mixed with the bought-in unpeated malt, and over time the peating levels were gradually reduced to almost zero. Thus, the character of the bottled single malt changed significantly over the years, morphing into the sweet, fragrant and fruity style we know today.

In 1994, Morrison Bowmore Distillers Ltd came under the total control of leading Japanese distiller Suntory Ltd, now Beam Suntory, which had owned a 35 per cent stake in the company since 1989. However, Glen Garioch was silent from October 1995 to November 1997, ultimately reopening after a £700,000 upgrade. In 2006, a new visitor centre was established in the former cooperage, and several tour options are currently available to guests.

A radical overhaul of the Glen Garioch range took place in 2009, with its distinctive ‘tartan and stag’ packaging giving way to a more modern, restrained appearance. The current core line-up consists of 1797 Founder’s Reserve, 12 Years Old, Renaissance 15 Years Old, Virgin Oak, and an array of vintage expressions, with the oldest being a peaty offering dating from 1978.
The landscape around Oldmeldrum

The dramatic changes that have recently taken place at Glen Garioch were carried out under the watchful eye of new distillery manager Kwanele Mdluli, a native of Zimbabwe. Mdluli previously worked for Diageo and held the post of site operations manager at Glen Elgin for more than four years. This was followed by secondment to a technical support function in Elgin, after which he moved to operational roles at Burghead Maltings, Roseisle Distillery, and the latter distillery's maltings for 18 months. He joined Beam Suntory at Glen Garioch in May 2019.

“I learnt so much about how whisky is made with Diageo, and I learnt how to make malt,” says Mdluli. “I had also been involved in major upgrading at Glen Elgin, and all of this stood me in good stead at Glen Garioch.”

According to Mdluli, Beam Suntory chose to revert to floor malting and direct firing by gas at Glen Garioch as part of its focus on spirit quality. “Back in the 1970s, there was a general move to indirect firing, and I think there was a certain loss of the benefit of direct firing,” he says. “Since reverting to direct firing, there is a distinct difference in the new-make spirit, which has more caramel notes and more body.”
The renovated still room at Glen Garioch

Inside the stills, this change of process has made a significant difference. Mdluli explains that steam was delivering temperatures of 130–140°C, but with direct firing, the temperature gets up to over 1,000°C. “You’re putting lots more heat in. Increasing the temperature even by just 10 degrees doubles the rate of chemical reactions, leading to more flavour compounds being created,” he adds, before explaining how the changes
were rolled out.

Reversion to direct firing of the wash still occurred in phase one of the project, which took place during the second half of 2020, when the unused third still was removed and the still house stripped back to a shell before being rebuilt. An automated control system was installed by Forsyths of Rothes, which also fabricated the new directly fired wash still. Interestingly, Mdluli states that the still house is now more automated than the mashing process, whereas in most distilleries it’s the other way around.

As it has to cope with a live flame, the wash still’s copper base is 40mm thick, twice the usual thickness. As is the case in other directly fired stills, such as those at Glenfarclas, the still is also fitted with a rummager: lengths of copper ‘chain mail’ attached to motorised arms that revolve across the still base to dislodge solids and prevent them from being burnt.

The presence of a new heat recovery system means that the stills are now pre-heated, reducing the ‘boil up’ time. In the case of the spirit still, this heating period has been reduced from 55 minutes to between 10 and 20 minutes, and a similar saving in energy is made by using pre-heating during mashing.

Phase two of the work at Glen Garioch involved restoring three of the four malting floors to working order and recruiting staff to operate the maltings, commencing with a period of training at Laphroaig and Bowmore distilleries on Islay. Some 24 tonnes of the total 72 tonnes of malt required per week is now made in house.
Inside the dunnage

“With floor maltings, the quality of malt you get is different from that in commercial maltings…you get fuller control in commercial maltings, both in the germination vessels and during kilning. That gives you greater consistency,” says Mdluli, explaining that the company’s decision to restart the floor maltings is based on the view that malt produced in-house will add an extra dimension to the spirit. “In floor maltings…there’s greater potential variation.”

According to Mdluli, this means that there may be a degree of ‘under-modification,’ so more proteins get into the process. When protein breaks down, amino acids are created – this means more amino acids end up in the wash still. A Maillard ‘browning’ reaction – the same as that which takes place in browning food – occurs in the wash still, producing volatile flavour compounds that ultimately carry over into the new-make spirit. The ‘ingredients’ of the Maillard reaction are amino acids and residual sugars from fermentation. The protein is broken down by enzymes during mashing and also at the end of fermentation, when the yeast cells degrade and release their content (including protein-digesting enzymes) into the wash.
Distillery manager Kwanele Mdluli

“You get greater intensity of flavour with floor maltings and direct firing – the two elements are inter-connected,” Mdluli asserts, explaining that Glen Garioch was chosen for this unusual project both because it operated floor maltings until so recently, but also because the wash still was direct-fired until the 1980s.

“We have spirit samples from that time which we can compare with what we’re doing now,” Mdluli notes, sharing that this is another reason why the company chose Glen Garioch. “It’s about stepping back in time in a sense,” he concludes, “but we also need to be as energy efficient as possible. It’s a case of finding a happy medium… The best of the old and of the new.”