Elsewhere in this issue we explore how the economic turbulence which has blighted the 'Eurozone' during the past few years has affected Glen Grant single malt.
Another single malt brand, produced some five miles south of Glen Grant, which also has a strong reliance on European sales, is Aberlour. The distillery is owned by Pernod Ricard through its Chivas Brothers subsidiary. It boasts a lengthy 'French connection', and Chivas Brothers' Brand Director for Malts, Neil Macdonald, points out that "Aberlour was one of the first single malt distilleries to be acquired by a non-British company when France's Pernod started its acquisition in 1974. One consequence was that Pernod focussed on building the reputation of Aberlour in France and played a key role in building the single malt category there. To this day Aberlour is brand leader in this key market."
2012 saw a 25 per cent fall in single malt sales across France, partly due to a 15 per cent tax increase imposed that year, and Aberlour's overall six per cent growth in the same 12 month period implies a significant degree of ingenuity and energy in terms of promotion. In total, some 2.8 million bottles of Aberlour were sold in 2012, confirming the brand's position as the seventh best-selling malt in the world.
Part of Aberlour's ability to expand sales in times of adversity may lie in a 2010 makeover for the portfolio, described at the time by a Chivas Brothers' spokesperson as "…a move designed to better reflect the quality and richness of the whisky and clearly position the brand as a rightful player in the luxury spirits category."
Neil Macdonald added that "The new packaging for the Aberlour family of single malts strongly establishes the range's prestige credentials and helps the whiskies to become more visible without being ostentatious, which would go against the grain of our fantastic whisky. The result is a perfect balance between tradition and modernity - the sobriety of the new pack adds an element of timelessness to the designs, which reflect the whisky itself."
The expressions which benefitted from the makeover were the 12, 16 and 18 Year Old along with a'bunadh, and while ex-sherry wood plays a major part in the overall Aberlour maturation regime, it reaches its apotheosis in a'bunadh.
Launched in 2000, this cask strength expression which carries no age statement takes its name from the Gaelic for 'of the origin,' and, according to the distillers, "…is a respectful toast to Aberlour's founder James Fleming, and to this day is produced in the tradition of 19th century malts."
Only Oloroso sherry casks are used for a'bunadh, which is not coloured or chill-filtered prior to bottling. When the packaging revamp was announced in 2010, a spokesperson noted that "Acknowledging the desire for whisky knowledge among a'bunadh drinkers, additional technical information about the whisky's production process has also been added."
Neil Macdonald notes that "Aberlour's relationship with the finest sherry cask maturation has defined it as one of the best sherry matured whiskies in the world, with Aberlour a'bunadh attaining cult status amongst whisky connoisseurs."
Indeed, it goes head to head with the highly-regarded Glenfarclas 105 Cask Strength, with both offering excellent value for money. A'bunadh is released in numbered batches, each of which varies slightly in strength, and comprises between 80 and 100 casks, and there are deliberate variations in colour and character from batch to batch.
The success of a'bunadh may be gauged by the fact that the latest batch is number 48, and aficionados compare batches and 'sample flights' of a'bunadh in order to detect subtle differences, with earlier batches commanding rewarding prices at auction.
As previously noted, a'bunadh is Aberlour's stab at an approximation of what the whisky was probably like during the later decades of the 19th century, and the present distillery dates from 1879. It was established by local entrepreneur James Fleming, who acquired land on the western outskirts of Aberlour, including the all-important water source of St Drostan's Well, and proceeded to build a distillery.
This was really Aberlour's second distillery, since Peter Weir and James Gordon had founded one during 1826, but it was destroyed by fire while Fleming was constructing his rival venture. Fire was an ever-present threat in distilleries, due to the existence of so much flammable material, and 'Aberlour II' only survived until 1898, when fire severely damaged it.
The Elgin-based doyen of distillery architects Charles Doig was brought in to work on the rebuild, and by that time the distillery had been acquired by Robert Thorne & Sons. It remained in a variety of independent hands until 1974/75, when Pernod purchased its then owner Campbell Distilleries, though capacity was expanded in 1973 when two new stills were installed to complement the existing pair. Potential annual capacity now stands at 3.8 million litres, and around 50 per cent of output is earmarked for single malt bottlings.
The gates at Aberlour were closed to visitors until 2002, when a decision was taken to offer in-depth tours aimed at whisky connoisseurs, and today The Aberlour Distillery Experience includes a tutored sampling session and the chance to purchase and personally fill a bottle from an exclusive single cask. Even more focused is the Founder's Tour, which offers the rare opportunity to sample spirit produced with a variety of still 'cut points.'
For more information about the distillery, its single malts and visiting opportunities see www.aberlour.com
Aberlour a'bunadh, Batch 47 60.7% ABV
Nose: Sweet, with overt sherry, plus milk chocolate, almonds, maraschino cherries and Jaffa orange.
Palate: Voluptuous and very sweet with intense sherry and orange, then spices kick in.
Finish: Long, with stem ginger and plain chocolate.