Whisky Magazine’s first visit to Glenglassaugh - from the Gaelic for ‘glen of the grey-green place’ -was in 2008. The distillery – silent since 1986 - had just been acquired by The Russian-backed Scaent Group fronted by former William Grant & Sons distilleries manager Stuart Nickerson.
Our visit was the first half of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ experience, designed to highlight the work required to bring Glenglassaugh back to life.
‘Before’ was quite a shock, with a jagged tear in the copper canopy of the mashtun, the pair of stills darkened and dirty, with sections removed, derelict stone warehouses, and a general air of lack of love. Given that the distillery fronts the beach of the Moray Firth two miles west of the historic harbour village of Portsoy, there were large quantities of seabird droppings in evidence, too.
That evening, over dinner in the nearby Seafield Hotel in Cullen, the late Jim Swan – acting as consultant on maturation – discussed the distillery’s future wood policies and poured some drams of Glenglassaugh single malt that had been laid down as long ago as the 1960s. The whisky, classified as a Highland single malt, was astoundingly good, and all the work ahead of Stuart Nickerson and his team suddenly seemed very worthwhile.
The team took on the task of reviving Glenglassaugh with gusto, and during the next few months around £1 million was spent refurbishing the distillery. Finally, on 4th December 2008, spirit flowed from the stills once more.
The distillery had been built at Sandend Bay under the auspices of The Glenglassaugh Company, founded in 1875 by local businessman James Moir and coppersmith Thomas Wilson.
The distillery was sold to Glasgow whisky blenders Robertson & Baxter Ltd in 1892, and subsequently they sold it to their close business ally Highland Distilleries Company, later Highland Distillers, at a price of £15,000 later the same year. Production continued until 1908, when the lack of vitality in the Scotch whisky industry forced Highland to close the distillery. It operated again in 1931-32, and 1933-36, before closing for another 24 years.
With the fortunes of the whisky industry taking a turn for the better in the 1950s, principally due to increasing demand from the USA, Highland Distilleries embarked on an ambitious programme of reconstruction at Glenglassaugh in 1957. Only the original malt barns and warehouses were left in place, with an entirely new production building rising on the site of the Victorian original. Whisky-making recommenced in 1960.
A decade later, Highland Distilleries acquired the Famous Grouse blended Scotch brand when it purchased the Perth company of Matthew Gloag & Son, and from then onwards, much of the make from its distilleries was destined for the ‘Grouse’ blending vats.
Key to the Grouse blend was Glenrothes distillery on Speyside, and Highland Distilleries’ blenders struggled to find a place for Glenglassaugh in their recipes due to its individual style, influenced by the hard water used in production. The company even went so far as to transport Glenrothes’ process water by road tanker to Glenglassaugh to see if that made a significant difference, but it came as no great surprise when Highland Distilleries chose to close Glenglassaugh as overproduction became a pressing issue during the 1980s. Glenglassaugh, without any profile as a single malt to earn it a reprieve, fell silent in 1986.
Until the Scaent Group came along, it looked as though Glenglassaugh would be one of Scotland’s ‘lost’ distilleries, but the Group not only restored the distillery itself, but also its financial fortunes, selling casks of new make spirit to the public, as well as youthful ‘spirit drink’ and a range of expressions pre-dating the 1986 closure.
So successful was Scaent, that The BenRiach Distillery Company came knocking on Glenglassaugh’s door in 2013, with the distillery becoming the third in the company’s portfolio, alongside BenRiach and GlenDronach. Three years later, however, The BenRiach Distillery Company itself was acquired by Jack Daniel’s brand owner The Brown-Forman Corporation.
Stewart Buchanan is global brand ambassador for Brown-Forman’s trio of Scottish distilleries and a former production manager. He notes that “The distillery is really quite untouched since the 1957 refit. It operates with manual steam valves on the stills, which have shallow, broad-diameter bases.
“They’re quite tall stills, with slightly declining lyne arms, so you get a relatively pure spirit. We run the stills very slowly, just a gentle simmer, so you get plenty of copper contact. Both the stills are actually wash stills, rather than one being designed as a wash still and the other as a spirit still. Why? Did they just happen to have two wash stills from another distillery that was being updated in the 1960s?”
Buchanan points out a vivid ‘scar’ on the copper dome of the old cast iron mashtun, where a repair has been affected, and we remember the jagged tear, like a partly-opened can, from our initial visit. Buchanan explains that “Before the distillery was restored, an angle-grinder was used by copper thieves who were disturbed by a security guard just as they started their robbery. If the guard hadn’t driven in when he did, we’d have lost the mashtun forever.”
In terms of spirit character, Buchanan declares “We have very hard water here. Arguably, the highest minerality in Scotland. This gives a sweetness to add to the barley aromas and flavours. There’s a barley sweetness in the mash, and you get sweet tropical fruits created in the washbacks, with a heavier note. There’s a minerality on the back of the tongue after sweet fruits are to the fore. There’s a hint of tequila in the new-make spirit.
Maybe that’s why blenders struggled to find something to do with it. “The whisky is funky, with a unique character. The first thing people do when they nose it is to raise an eyebrow. ‘What is it?’ The ‘Glenglassaugh eyebrow,’ I call it. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what the character is.”
Under the previous ownership regime the sale of new-make spirit was a necessary part of balancing the books, but in the hands of of Brown-Forman there is no financial imperative to do so, and as Stewart Buchanan notes, “Everything we make is kept for our own single malts now and it’s all matured on site. We’ve repaired and re-roofed the old dunnage warehouse – which is actually split into two sections. Previously, it had no roof and had been used to keep sheep in! It was reinstated between 2013 and 2016, and first used again in 2016. We also have two very large racked warehouses.
“Most spirit is filled into first-fill Bourbon casks. It loves that. It loves port and red wine casks, too, and you definitely get a coastal effect in the maturing spirit.”
Glenglassaugh spends one week each year producing heavily-peated spirit, bottled as part of the core range as Torfa. Buchanan observes that “Asian consumers love Glenglassaugh. Whisky and tonic, made using Glenglassaugh Torfa, is becoming a big thing there on the back of the Highball trend.”
Torfa sits alongside Revival, matured in a mix of ex-red wine and fresh Bourbon casks, vatted and re-racked for double maturation in sherry casks; and Evolution, matured in first-fill ex-Jack Daniels barrels.
Alongside these three NAS expressions, the portfolio includes 30 and 40-year-old bottlings and a variety of limited editions, including Peated Virgin Oak Wood Finish, Peated Port Wood Finish, Pedro Ximinez Sherry Wood Finish and Port Wood Finish.
Additionally, Octave bottlings, both ‘Classic’ and ‘Peated’, are released from time to time, with Batch 2 currently being available. These are matured in octave casks, around 65 litres, resized from a range of Bourbon, Pedro Ximénez, oloroso and amontillado sherry and port casks.
Perhaps most prized of all Glenglassaugh bottlings are those that appear under the ‘Old and Rare’ banner. According to Stewart Buchanan, “These really are very rare. Extremely low volumes were made in the first place, and most went for blending. Very few casks are left. We’re talking here whisky from 1963 to 1985. Our master blender Rachel Barrie has to keep back stock for the ‘regular’ 30 and 40-year-old bottlings, which makes the whisky available for ‘Old and Rare’ even rarer.”
All of the above bottlings can be found in the distillery shop and visitor centre, which opened in 2010 and also has has a ‘bottle-your-own option,’ currently featuring a cask strength 8-year-old, matured in a Marsala cask.
Rachel Barrie declares that “In the next couple of years you will see releases showcasing some of the most exceptional stocks maturing through the decades. We source barley locally from maltings in the North East of Scotland, so the barley, peat (when used), water, environment and malting conditions are true to the ‘terroir’ of the distillery region. What continues to amaze me is how much distillery location appears to contribute to Glenglassaugh’s individual and distinctive character. Glenglassaugh is reaching new heights and awakening to a new age, there is much work to do and an exciting future ahead.”
For a distillery that was out of favour and endured periods of closure for so long, Glenglassaugh has made a remarkable comeback. Pour a dram and raise an eyebrow…