Distillery Focus

Rise & Shine (Glendronach)

Gavin D. Smith tells the story of Highland distillery Glendronach, which has a happy ending after all
By Gavin D. Smith
In May 2001, Paul Porter-Smith, managing director of Allied Distillers Ltd, re-opened Glendronach Distillery by ceremonially driving home the bung in the first cask of new spirit to be distilled on the premises after six years of silence.The re-commissioning of the Highland distillery at Forgue, near Huntly, is good news for whisky buffs and for the local community, but it also signals a welcome sea change in the way Allied perceives and markets its range of single malts.Allied currently owns 10 malt distilleries, and Islay’s Laphroaig is its biggest-selling single malt by far. It has received the lion’s share of the company’s malt whisky promotional expenditure and effort. There is a feeling within Allied, however, that not enough attention has been paid to some of its other single malts. According to director of brand heritage, Bill Bergius:“We’ve concentrated distilling efforts to meet the huge demands of our brands, and it takes many years to lay down and bring to market single malts.”Mothballed in 1996 due to a surplus of maturing stocks, the main impetus behind the resurrection of Glendronach is an increased demand for malt to contribute to Allied’s leading blends, such as Teacher’s and Ballantine’s. As Bergius notes,“Our Ballantine’s blend is doing very well in Europe and the Far East, so we do need more malt whisky. We value Glendronach in our blends, as do some of our competitors, but we also value it as a single malt. “We’ve looked after our big distilleries, such as Miltonduff and Ardmore, introducing technology to improve efficiency and reduce costs, and now we’re looking carefully at what flavours we want to preserve for the future. Glendronach is certainly one of them. Glenburgie is another. It’s the ‘heart’ of our Ballantine’s blend, if you like, and it’s a lovely single malt, too. We’ll be putting £4.2 million of investment into that distillery during the next few years.”Glendronach is close to Bill Bergius’ heart, as the distillery was purchased by William Teacher & Sons Ltd in 1960, when his father, Walter, was managing director. The Bergius family are direct descendants of William Teacher, and the success of the company’s Highland Cream blend from the mid-1880s onwards led to the construction in 1898 of Ardmore Distillery south of Huntly, at Kennethmont, guaranteeing the brand’s supply of malt whisky.Like Glendronach, Ardmore’s stills remained direct-fired long after most other distilleries had abandoned the practice, but sadly, for traditionalists, Ardmore switched to steam heating three years ago, as the distillery’s coal-hoppers had reached the end of their working life, and replacement of them would have been a very expensive option. There were also Health & Safety Executive concerns about their location close to the still house, with the potential to fuel any fire that might break out.Glendronach is now the only Scottish distillery with operational coal-fired stills.In any rural community, comparatively well-paid jobs are a precious commodity, and one of the satisfactions of Glendronach’s re-opening for Allied Distillers’ production manager Frank Massie is that it has enabled the company to increase the size of its warehouse team by seven, giving a total production team of 10.Between May and the end of last year, some 270,000 litres of spirit was produced, a figure that is set to increase to one million litres during the current calendar year.“Glendronach was doing around 300,000 litres of alcohol per year at the time of its closure, but it could do as much as one and three-quarter million if a lot of money was spent upgrading it,” says Frank Massie.The new make spirit sampled at the official distillery re-opening celebrations was from just the fifth mash, and its sweet, clean character bodes well for the future of the whisky. Although the single malt is associated with European wood, initially, at least, this new make is being filled into first-fill American oak bourbon casks.“We’re using these smaller casks instead of the usual sherry butts in order to experiment a bit,” says Bill Bergius.“If you’re making more Glendronach, you have the opportunity to offer various expressions, some without the extremities of sherry in future.“Glendronach from plain and sherry wood goes in to the Teacher’s blend already,” he notes, “so we do have an alternative to the current heavily-sherried versions available in less than 10 or 12 years if we want to use it. We wouldn’t need to wait for this new spirit to be ready.”For some years, Glendronach offered two versions of its 12-year-old single malt. One, called ‘Original’, was matured in second-fill casks, some of which had contained sherry, although the majority were American white oak. The second version was matured entirely in sherry butts.This brace of Glendronachs was subsequently replaced by ‘Traditional’, which was intended to embody the best characteristics of its predecessors, comprising spirit from a mix of sherry and bourbon wood. Today, Glendronach has committed itself fully to the influence of sherry, and offers only a 15-year-old, matured entirely in first or second-fill sherry casks. As well as its success in UK markets, this expression is notably popular in Germany and the USA. According to Bill Bergius, “The spirit stays in one cask for the entire duration of its maturation.”While the distillery itself was silent, the site was kept alive in a number of ways, with the beautiful Glen House, formerly known as Glendronach House, used by Allied for corporate hospitality purposes. The distillery visitor centre also remained open, and now that members of the public can actually see whisky being made, it is anticipated that the numbers passing through should increase substantially, despite the distillery’s location, away from the popular ‘Malt Whisky Trail’. Glendronach has a tradition of welcoming the public – back in 1976 it was one of the very first Scottish distilleries to open a licensed shop from which to sell whisky.An intriguing and poignant feature of the visitor centre is a bottle of whisky locked in a glass wall-cabinet and labelled as ‘The oldest bottle in captivity’. Shortly before the First World War, three friends each purchased a bottle of 1884 Glendronach. They agreed to meet after hostilities had ended and drink their whisky, but only if all three returned. Sadly, just one of the trio survived the horrors of Flanders and The Somme, so his bottle remained faithfully sealed, and was later donated by his family to the distillery where it had been made.In addition to Glen House and the visitor centre, activity continued in the site’s warehouses, a marshalling area for casks of malt spirit from various Allied distilleries. “Effectively, it’s where the malt part of the Teacher’s blend is put together, before being taken off in tankers for blending,” says Bill Bergius.Today, visitors can observe the coal-fired stills in all their glory, and smile at a sign in the still house forbidding smoking, while a few feet below, a veritable inferno may be raging. However, the old floor maltings have not survived the period of closure.According to Allied sources, the maltings, which had produced up to 15 per cent of the distillery’s malt requirements, were barely viable even prior to closure, and would now require disproportionate expenditure to make them operational once more. Instead, all Glendronach’s unpeated malt is sourced from Robert Kilgour Ltd of Kirkcaldy in Fife.At one time, Allied Distillers even boasted its own farm in the fertile Aberdeenshire countryside near Glendronach, where malting barley was grown specifically for distilling purposes.Heritage and continuity are evidently important to people associated with the distillery, which was founded in 1826 by the Glendronach Distillery Company, headed by James Allardes. He was an acquaintance of the Fifth Duke of Gordon, the man largely responsible for the 1823 Excise Act which laid the foundations of the industry as we know it today, and reputedly an enthusiastic imbiber of Allardes’ spirit.Glendronach’s second owner was Walter Scott, previously manager at Teaninich Distillery on the Cromarty Firth. He acquired the company in 1852, and, along with distilling, his other great passion was breeding Aberdeen Shorthorn cattle. When Alfred Barnard visited Glendronach in 1886, he seems to have been particularly taken with the collection of trophies and medals won by Scott’s cattle and displayed in Glendronach House.Barnard also noted the presence of a rook colony, which remains vocal to this day.The birds are said to bring good luck, and legend also has it that the rook colony was one factor that made the location attractive to illicit distillers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. They acted as an excellent early-warning system if any excise officers or other strangers approached.Barnard described the distillery as “this quaint and picturesque place,” notingGlendronach is planted in the Valley of Forgue, and the hills at the front and back are called the Foreman and Coulsalmond range. The Dronah [sic] Burn, which runs over rich beds of peat and mossy uplands, runs through the Works, and not only supplies all the motive power, but is also used for distilling purposes. This stream is of great reputation in the district, and its water, although tinged with a golden brown, is pale enough to delight the heart of a distiller, and is also bright and perfectly clear.The Glendronach make is pure Highland Malt, and held in high repute both in England and Scotland; we tasted some 1878, which was very much like liqueur brandy. The annual output is 55,000 gallons.In 1887, the Glendronach Distillery Company was purchased by a Leith-based partnership, and it passed to the Crown in 1916, subsequently being acquired by Captain Charles Grant, fifth son of William Grant, in 1920. Grant paid £9,000 for the silent distillery, and three months after
taking it over, he was making whisky. Glendronach remained in the family until 1960, when it passed from one whisky dynasty to another. William Teacher & Sons financed its purchase by issuing 150,000 Teacher’s shares, and proceeded to exchange large quantities of its mature whisky for new grain spirit from the
Distillers Company Ltd. In 1966 and 1967, they doubled the distillery’s capacity from two to four stills, and a decade later, it went to Allied Breweries Ltd, later Allied Distillers, along with the rest of the Teacher assets.In 1982, Glendronach, together with Edradour Distillery in Perthshire, featured in the BBC costume drama series King’s Royal. This is apt, considering its Teacher connection, since the John Quigley novel on which the series was based took as its factual model the rise of William Teacher and his whisky empire.For a while, Glendronach’s return seemed likely to remain the stuff of fiction, but it is pleasing to be able to report that the story has a happy ending after all.