I ’d landed. Following a journey from Whisky Magazine Towers that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tolkien novel, finally I arrived in Portsoy. Overcast, the sea air offered a chilly embrace. Good to finally be here.
Beforehand, I really didn’t know what to make of Glenglassaugh Distilery. When it was announced that Brown-Forman would be taking over control of The BenRiach Company’s three distilleries, I was perhaps guilty of only thinking about what this might mean for The GlenDronach and The BenRiach, paying little attention to this third party. Here I was though, asked to board a RIB as we would venture to the distillery by sea. Probably best not to mention my lack of knowledge on that day’s subject – the swim looked chilly.
Captain for the day was Rachel Barrie, who might prefer to be known by her proper title of whisky maker. Barrie, it turns out, has an extraordinary talent for making chemistry interesting to someone who switched their Bunsen-burner off a few years ago and hasn’t looked back since. She explained that the coastline we were passing possesses such a unique minerality (70 mineral parts per million roughly) and that this in turn is the water source used by the Glenglassaugh Distillery.
The distillery motto, (yes, that’s a thing), is Per Mare Per Terras, which my never-studied Latin translates as ‘By Sea By Land.’ If I make the motto sound like a gimmick, it really isn’t. Stepping out of the sea breeze into the distillery, it becomes clear how the spirit is shaped by its land and sea surroundings. I should point out that a dram of Evolution, a part of Glenglassaugh’s core range, was enjoyed aboard our vessel on Cullen Bay; so it would seem that Per Mare Per Terras also applies to the drinking habits of the gathered whisky-press that day. As an experience, that is one that will live long in the memory.
A word that Barrie uses a lot is ‘elemental’, and there’s a certain old-school charm built into the fabric of the distillery. Even its mill room fits with this, Alan McConnochie, distillery manager, whose sense of humour works brilliantly with Barrie’s, tries unsuccessfully to dampen enthusiasm, “The mill room is not exciting. It’s got a big red box in it. It’s noisy.” You won’t buy it, there’s something special about looking at the Porteus mill from 1962, whom McConnochie says, “They made the mills so well they went out of business eventually.”
If our trip to Glenglassaugh by boat gave us a glimpse of the Per Mare, perhaps, Barrie explains the Per Terras and the elemental nature, “The water locally is full of minerals, 200 parts per million of minerals, compared to 10-20 parts per million of a Speyside distillery. If you think of elements – calcium, magnesium, they’re in the water even before we start, coming from the landscape. Then we have the traditional mashtun, which is copper lined cast-iron. You can see the verdigris inside. It’s all reactive elements. It’s quite different to a lauter tun which is for efficiency. This is slow and steady, it creates a great filter bed and very clear wort because of that.
Barrie continues, “I’m a strong advocate of keeping the traditional mashtuns. It’s the start of the elemental process. We then have the wooden wash backs, so you have wood and copper. Some distilleries just have stainless steel, before more stainless steel.”
If patience is observed in almost all whisky distilleries, at Glenglassaugh it’s a celebration. Perhaps this is a results of more than 20 years of mothballing, that only ended in 2008. McConnochie stresses that fermentation time at Glenglassaugh adheres to this patience as well, a minimum of 48 hours, but typically 52 hours.
Stepping our of the sea breeze into the distillery, it becomes clear how the spirit is shaped by its land and sea surroundings
Back to elements, and Barrie proudly stands by the distillery's wash backs, in situ since the 1960s. “Through its very nature, these wooden washbacks have absorbed the microflora from the environment. Every washback encourages more complexity. Natural products and elemental characteristics.”
Stepping outside and overlooking Cullen Bay, it’s now time to taste the remaining products in the Glenglassaugh core range, Revival and Torfa, along with some of the new make spirit. Revival (46% ABV), the distillery’s first expression post-mothballing, has a lovely Christmas cake taste, while Torfa (50% ABV), the peated expression in the range, was perfectly befitting the sea-breeze with its slightly briny palate.
The new make is something special, it has an eau de vie quality and offers big hits of tropical fruits.
What next for Glenglassaugh? Stepping into the warehouse, a few cask samples were shared that I would challenge any whisky lover not to swoon at. These form the basis of the Batch 3 Rare Coastal Casks, released from Glenglassaugh in late 2017. The range of eight whiskies, each distilled between 30-50 years ago offers a glimpse into the distillery’s history. With casks ranging from PX, Massandra sherry and Bourbon, each is unique but harbouring the fresh, open, elemental distillery character that Barrie has been demonstrating throughout the distillery.
The highlight of the range will undoubtedly be the 50 Years Old Hogshead for those who like big numbers, but there’s a real charm about the 38 Years Old 1978 Pedro Ximénez Sherry Puncheon, which has lots of fresh fruits and a very rich finish. 38 is also a big number too.
If the Batch 3 range was a look back at the distillery’s history, fans can look forward to a new chapter in its Wood Finish range.
Each bottled at 46% ABV, the range includes Port Wood finish, Peated Port Wood finish, Pedro Ximénez finish and Peated Virgin Oak Wood finish.
Alan McConnochie takes a sample