The town of Tain in Easter Ross has long been a place of pilgrimage. At Morangie, on the outskirts of the burgh around the 8th century, a Celtic church was built which was one of the centres of the Columban Church.The sanctuary of Saint Duthac, an Irishman who became the Bishop of Ross, was established within Tain itself in the 11th century. He died in 1065 and the sanctuary containing his relics was destroyed by fire during the 16th century.Fearn Abbey was founded about 1223 when Fearchar, the Earl of Ross was challenged by the English Court Champion to a duel. Fearchar made a vow to found a religious house in the event of his victory. To Fearchar and Alexander II’s (the Scottish king) relief, he won. The ruins of the abbey can still be seen close to Glenmorangie House.During the 15th century, James IV of Scotland made regular pilgrimages to the shrine of Saint Duthac – rumours suggest that he actually went there to see a local girl instead! His grandfather, James III, had collaborated with the Bishop of
Ross in giving the sanctuary formal constitution and such conspicuous royal favour went a long way towards further promoting the popularity of the shrine.
“Yes, enough!” you cry. “This is Whisky Magazine! What has all this to do with Scotch?” Patience, patience.People continue to make pilgrimages to Tain, but the object of these modern day pilgrimages is not an ancient ruin, nor a sacred pile of bones, but the cathedral like still-house at Glenmorangie Distillery, the roof of which, like many Scots Presbyterian churches, is lined with red pine. The religious comparisons are further promulgated by the distillery’s tall, slim, still-necks that resemble organ pipes. Glenmorangie has arguably always been an innovative company whether in the past, as Macdonald & Muir Ltd, or now as Glenmorangie plc. Macdonald & Muir, or, as they were known within the whisky industry of Leith, “Mac Muir”, was established in 1893 when two stalwarts of the Edinburgh trade, Roderick Macdonald and Alexander Muir, entered into partnership. The tendrils of family connection spread into other companies including Macdonald, Greenlees & Co Ltd, one of the early member companies of The Distillers Company Ltd.Mac Muir’s prudency was evidenced in 1901: despite a downturn in the whisky business they moved to more commodious (palatial in relation to their previous premises in Kirkgate) premises at Queen’s Dock. Their success was also underlined by their purchase of Glenmorangie Distillery. It had been established by the conversion, in 1843, of a brewery on the site into a distillery by William Matheson, who had been a partner in Balblair Distillery at nearby Edderton. Roderick and Alexander had originally been shareholders in the business established by William Matheson and they bought it in 1918.Alfred Barnard writes of the distillery, following his visit in 1885, that the distillery was “certainly the most ancient and most primitive we have seen and now almost in ruins.” William Matheson had, since 1843, kept it “renewed and repaired to keep it together”. Matheson’s hand to mouth existence is probably the reason for Glenmorangie’s distinctive pot stills which were originally purchased, second-hand, from a London gin distillery. These beautiful, sleek and elegant pots differentiate it from its peers: at 16 feet and 10 inches, or 5.14 metres tall, the present stills are very feminine and sensual, with none of the dour presbyterian masculinity one associates with some of the distillery’s neighbours. William Matheson was laying plans to rebuild the distillery in 1885 and, more recently, in 1990 the new stillhouse was constructed on the site of the old No.1 Warehouse. One of the stillmen swears that the stills talk to him. All stills make strange noises from time to time, but the shape and height of those at Glenmorangie do mean that, at certain times, the sounds emanating from them could quite easily be the chatter of voices. In his favour, out of politeness, he doesn’t talk back to them.The old stillhouse has been converted into the distillery’s visitor centre, an essential accoutrement for such a
popular place of pilgrimage. The remaining 14 warehouses hold 114,365 casks in various stages of maturation and finish. The company’s marketeers have created a ghostly, virtual warehouse (Warehouse No. 15) on their website. Bottlings such as the Malaga Finish are uniquely for sale from Warehouse No. 15.The leader of “the sixteen men of Tain”, as the advertising line reads, is presently Graham Eunson who, like his famous namesake, heralds from Kirkwall. A footballing 36-year-old, he is one of the Distillery Managers who really enjoys all aspects of his job but particularly his meetings with the pilgrims. Speaking in his Orkney brogue about his make is one of his favourite pastimes. And, somehow, he never seems to be short of an audience. Even virtual tourists can hear Graham on the distillery’s website.Unusually, Glenmorangie’s water supply is sweet and hard, originating up the hillside at the Tarlogie spring where the water, and trapped air, bubbles up through 250 million year old red sandstone from deep underground. Despite temperatures often dipping below zero, the spring never ices up and steam even rises from the pool in the depths of winter. Strangely, the stonework of the distillery buildings themselves incorporate examples of very many of the rock formations found throughout northern Scotland and provides a wonderful geological library for enthusiasts who would otherwise have to travel far and wide to accumulate such a selection.Distilleries have always attracted flocks of sparrows – and other small birds – which nibble away at the barley, which is spilt during deliveries, or else during its storage. At Glenmorangie, sparrowhawks regularly nest in the mash house. These smaller, scavenging, birds therefore provide an ample food supply for the carnivorous raptors.“Glenmorangie plc loves wood!” was the introduction to a recent wood management seminar by Dr Bill
Lumsden, the company’s Head of Distilling and Maturation (formerly Distillery Manager). Historically, the industry has taken little or no account of cask performance but recent research has revealed the vital importance of the cask in the final flavours of mature whisky. Wood is now very sexy.Within the 14 warehouses at Tain, casks for the single malt are used only twice. The company also fills the cask a third time, but only for malt which is intended for blending. Famously, the distillery only matures in ex-Bourbon (and ex-Tennessee whiskey) barrels. There has been innovation in recent years: a small portion of their whisky has been finished in casks from other sources. Port pipes, sherry butts, madeira drums and a number of other wine casks from around the world have been used. After 10 to 12 years in their traditional American oak barrels, the whiskies are racked off into a wine cask for a period of between 12 and 24 months, adding extra flavour layers from the European oak during this final part of its slumber.The importance of wood has, within the last dozen years, caused the company to re-examine its wood buying practices. It has now sourced a long-term supply of oak from a specific forest in Missouri’s Ozark mountains. These trees are planted on north-facing slopes and this results in the wood having more material between the growth rings, resulting in a more spongy, more porous wood. Once felled, the wood is air-dried for two years. The company has discovered that kiln-dried oak gives harsh, astringent flavours to the whisky. Bill Lumsden bemoans the fact that many US coopers use kiln-dried timber as a matter of course and that supplies of air-dried wood are now at a premium. Glenmorangie’s designer barrels from their own forest enhance the make’s delicate, floral character and add intense butterscotch, creamy coconut and banana aromas. Some five miles from the distillery, at Cadboll, the company own Glenmorangie House, a decadent country house hotel with surrounding farm. The farm produces enough barley, currently of the Prisma variety, to fuel roughly two weeks’ spirit production, approximately 700 casks. This production has been stored separately since 1994 and the finest of these parcels of casks will, ultimately, produce a separate annual bottling.The UK’s top-selling malt is the company’s flagship brand, Glenmorangie 10 years old. Much-maligned by many ‘connoisseurs’ as a starter malt, they do it an injustice. It’s fresh,
delicately floral with a steely character straight from the North Sea: it’s a great early evening dram and is also available at 15 and 18 years old.Their wood finishes are many. For me, the most memorable is the Côte de Nuits Finish where the whisky has been finished in Grand Cru Burgundy casks. Other finishes include the Fino Sherry Wood Finish and the Claret Wood Finish (finished in premier cru Bordeaux casks). There is also a hand bottling, available only to distillery pilgrims, the Glenmorangie Distillery Manager’s Choice 1983 (bottled at 53.2%abv).On a balmy spring or autumnal morning making the pilgrimage can be a joy, but when a North Sea gale lashes the driving rain in from the Dornoch Firth the distillery provides a sanctuary in a glen far less tranquil than the marketeers would have us believe! Yet when the sun breaks through the clouds the granite in Glenmorangie’s stonework sparkles in the light – brightening up even the greyest of east Highland days.