Distillery Focus

Sole Survivor (Glengoyne)

John Lamond visits Glengoyne Distillery – an enduring whisky landmark in an area littered with the remains of over 20 distilleries that didn't withstand the tests of time
By John Lamond
My ‘local’ is Glengoyne. Just a short hop across the centre of Glasgow and a wee drive out towards Loch Lomond and the Trossachs and there it sits, nestling snugly under the beautiful and impressive Dumgoyne Hill. From my home I can see the line of the Campsie Hills, with the volcanic plug which is Dumgoyne Hill seemingly detached from the rest of the ridge at its western end and the oft snow-covered Ben Lomond behind and to the left. So, if I say that I can see Glengoyne Distillery from my bedroom window it is only a wee bit of an exaggeration. In an area that formerly boasted in excess of 20 distilleries, Glengoyne is the sole remaining survivor with even the ruins of its local competitors being long ago razed to the ground. The surrounding area had been a lawless one, with distillation and smuggling of the spirit into nearby Glasgow’s many bars an everyday part of rural life. The local hills and glens, although close to the city, could be very inhospitable to outsiders if the inhabitants so decided, making it relatively easy to hide in the area. The Campsies were criss-crossed by a network of drove roads along which cattle were driven from the more remote areas to the north and north-west, southwards to the cattle markets (or trysts) of Glasgow and Falkirk. One such road followed the route of the modern A81 which passes between the distillery and its warehouses. Another crossed the top of the Campsies near Dumgoyne Hill, although this would have been a very difficult route to travel over the winter months. The remains of a roadside inn are still to be seen near to the ridge of the hill and it is certain that these routes, and their hostelries, were enjoyed by both the law-abiding and lawless.One such was Rob Roy MacGregor, who became an international movie hero when portrayed by Liam Neeson in the screen adaptation of Sir Walter Scott’s romanticised account of the Highlander’s life. On one occasion he escaped certain capture by hiding in a tree close to Glengoyne. The stump of the tree remains but Rob Roy and his sons (one of whom was hanged for theft, while the other was exiled for the same crime in 1754) left their mark elsewhere. They were cattle rustlers and the local cattle which they stole were small, sturdy black beasts. The ransom that they demanded has now entered common usage in the English language – as blackmail.During my days of working within the whisky industry in the early 1980s, I flew with some Portuguese distributors from Edinburgh to Elgin in a small ’plane. Coming from a sun-baked and thirsty country, the Portuguese were amazed at the deep green colour of the Scottish countryside they were flying over. Glengoyne’s environs enjoy sufficient rainfall to prevent their water supply drying up and to keep the surrounding area magnificently verdant. This rainfall is filtered through old red Devonian sandstone for 40 years or more and is clean, sweet and very soft.Glengoyne’s situation is logical. It has a good and constant water supply: the distillery burn drops over a 16 metre high waterfall some 50 metres upstream of the distillery and this would have been the source of the illicit distiller’s water. The volumes required for modern distillation mean that the distillery burn is now used only for cooling purposes, while the water for mashing is gathered from a spring up on the slopes of Dumgoyne Hill. Originally hidden in its small glen, the location would have been known only to those who needed to know, remaining secluded from the prying eyes of excisemen.Dumgoyne Hill saw legalisation when George Connell openly built a distillery and took out a licence to distil in 1833. He named the new distillery Burnfoot. In the fullness of time, this was renamed Glen Guin and latterly Glengoyne. It must be borne in mind that precise and ‘correct’ spelling is a relatively modern practice.There are two understandings of the meaning of Glengoyne. One is ‘the valley of the geese’, the other is ‘the windy valley’. For me it seems such a sheltered spot down in the glen, surrounded by trees, must have been flocked by geese in the past.George Connell’s buildings of 1833 are, even now, still recognisable. His tall chimney was demolished in 1967 when the distillery’s fuel source changed from coal and coke to oil. It is now gas-fired. The customs officer’s house – a statutory requirement until 1987 – came down to make way for a stillhouse extension and staff car park, while some farm buildings to the south were demolished in the late 1980s. Other than these, the changes have been minimal. By a spooky synergy, the replacement boiler installed in 1999 saw a modern and lower chimney erected on almost the exact spot of George Connell’s original. Relatively unusually, Glengoyne has always been matured before sale so that the 1915 Immature Spirits Act, which gave us a three year old minimum ageing, gave William McGeachie, the Manager at the time, no problems as an on-going source of quality casks had been set in place many years before.Hugh Lang and his sons – Gavin, Alexander and William – owned a public house in the Broomielaw at the heart of Glasgow’s bustling port. In the 1860s, it must have done a roaring trade. Glasgow was the second city of the Empire and all imports and exports passed through the Broomielaw. At this time, it was not uncommon for publicans to sell their own blends of whisky, sourcing casks and often carrying out the bottling themselves.
The Langs founded Lang Brothers Limited in 1861 and, in order to ensure continuity of quality supplies of malt for their blended whisky, the company bought Glengoyne Distillery in 1876.Fiercely independent, Langs formed partnerships with Robertson & Baxter, Macallan, North British Distillery, Berry Brothers and Highland Distillers to protect themselves from the predatory nature of, in particular, The Distillers Company Limited. Each of the partners held a shareholding in the other companies, making a hostile takeover extremely difficult to execute.
In 1965 the company became a wholly-owned subsidiary of Robertson & Baxter, whose public persona is now the Edrington Group. Edrington has since amicably taken over Highland Distillers and is, itself, a company which is 100% controlled by The Robertson Trust. This charitable trust is funded to a considerable degree by dividend income from Edrington and supports a wide variety of charitable causes, largely in Scotland. In short, the purchase of every bottle of Glengoyne is a donation to a worthy cause. Another reason to feel good about drinking Glengoyne!Glengoyne famously advertises itself as “Scotland’s Unpeated Malt Whisky”, but that wasn’t always the case. During the years that malting was carried out on site, drying was carried out using the fuels available locally – coal and peat. With the closure of their maltings it became easy to specify that the green malt be air-dried only, allowing the flavour of the whisky to surface over the mask of peat smoke. With two wash stills, one spirit still and an output of a mere 1.5 million litres of alcohol per annum, Glengoyne could be called cute. This is not a disparaging term. Expansion is, quite simply, not an option. With the sides of the glen imposing on the existing buildings, space is already tight, which is why the maturation warehouses were built across the main road where there is more open space and where the former railway line passes. The bed of the old train line is now The West Highland Way, a long-distance walking route which runs from Glasgow to Fort William.However, there are innovations at Glengoyne. They have recently put a different spin on the finishes which are in vogue at the moment. A stand of oak trees (Quercus Petraea) was kindly donated to the distillery by its chairman, Brian Ivory, for a special project. The total volume of oak claimed was 21.3 cubic metres, of which only 14.5 cubic metres was of sufficient quality for cask production. Then the skilled coopers at Clyde Cooperage took over and created 31 hogsheads. After seasoning the barrels with North British grain spirit for 16 months, 15 hogsheads were filled with 15-year-old Glengoyne for 13 months. The whisky has now been bottled at 53.5% abv and the company is advertising it as Glengoyne Scottish Oak, with a retail price of around £38 per bottle. It is quite sweet with hazelnut, leafy, apple and banana fruit notes with dark, burnt tablet and toffee aromas. The palate is drier than standard Glengoyne, it has a touch of spice and a solid, smoky note with definite brazil nut and walnut characters. It finishes dark, long and quite solid and dry.The distillery has also recently taken to bottling single casks. Two examples of this were two consecutive casks, numbers 103 and 104, which were distilled in February 1985. Cask 103 was bottled at 57.8% abv and is the darker-coloured of the two, with a definite ruby hue to it: its aroma is warm, rich and full-bodied with a dark, Brazil nut character. The flavour has Glengoyne’s inherently rich sweetness, nice, gently chewy tannins and a long, powerful finish. Cask 104 demonstrates admirably the unique individuality of each cask: it is more lightly coloured with a definite fruity sweetness and a herbal note, the nuttiness is less pronounced and the flavour is more delicate, although still showing that lovely, soft sweetness. Small quantities of these bottlings are now to be found in some of the world's more enlightened specialist whisky shops. However, these bottlings were originally available exclusively at the distillery: a wonderful excuse, if one were needed, to visit Glengoyne.