Distillery Focus

Stepping in the right direction (Glengoyne)

Glengoyne,close to Glasgow and not quite Lowlands or Highlands,is a charming but under-rated distillery. Ian Buxton returned there 30 years after he first visited it
By Ian Buxton
Imust confess an unnatural fondness for Glengoyne. It was, after all, the very first distillery I ever visited and, as that happened during my first and, so far, only honeymoon, it left quite an impression.So going back after nearly 30 years, I was prepared to be disappointed. It surely wouldn’t be as charming, or as memorable. I was expecting Glengoyne to have been spoilt by progress.On the face of it nothing, however, seemed to have changed. But closer observation revealed that there had been changes – and generally for the better which is, to say the least, an unusual phenomenon.Take the little glen in which the distillery sits. Memory recalls it was lush and verdant, which probably means it was rank and overgrown. The waterfall was best observed from a distance due to some thick undergrowth.That’s all been cleared away and a rather tasteful gravel path laid to the base of the waterfall. You can gaze into some pools of limpid water and then realise, as you look back to the distillery, that a second ‘river’ of chipped slate which subtly echoes the path of the water course as it tumbles down the glen, has been cunningly incorporated into the gravel.As you admire this artifice, drams appear and are served at a stone table, closely resembling an altar, that is at once elegant and practical. Such little touches seem to be quite commendable innovations.There is also a great air of confidence and energy about the distillery. Folk seemed to move about with a spring in their step, with a sense of purpose that appeared both immediate (in that there was a task to be accomplished) and yet derived from the resolute pursuit of a greater goal.It’s not fair to criticise the previous owner, the Edrington Group. It never stinted in its efforts at Glengoyne; it always appeared smartly maintained and there was a steady stream of interesting new products. Yet, with giants such as The Macallan and Highland Park to compete with, not to mention the demands of The Famous Grouse and its Glenturret ‘brand home,’ Glengoyne always felt a little bit like the poor relation.Well, now it’s receiving some tender loving care. Since it was acquired by Ian MacLeod Distillers, a long established firm of blenders, Glengoyne has gone from strength to strength.Apart from the very fetching work of the landscape gardeners up by the waterfall, around £750,000 has been spent at the distillery in the last three years. Output has been doubled, and now approaches one million litres of spirit annually, elegant new visitor facilities have just been unveiled (with more in the pipeline) and the product range has been completely overhauled.Again, there’s more to come here – you begin to understand some of the excitement that you can feel around the place.“We’re convinced that the best is yet to come,” says Leonard Russell, the company’s managing director and grandson of the eponymous founder. “We’re delighted with this purchase and have exceptional plans for the future.” Before describing these, a brief tour of the distillery is in order.Founded in 1833 it often appears in the reference books for the remarkable fact that it straddles the ‘Highland Line’ – that point on the map separating Highland from Lowland whisky. The distillery itself lies in Highland territory, while the low-lying dunnage warehouses are all in the Lowlands.The distinction doesn’t end there for, as the distillery’s history records, “the geological Highland fault line runs under the road in front of the distillery itself” thus confirming the work of the 19th century cartographers. It might be a spot to avoid in the event of any earthquakes, however.Thankfully, all the present disruption is the result of more benign forces. This spring the finishing touches were being put to the new ‘club room.’ This is a luxurious facility housed in the old manager’s house, right at the heart of the distillery.Along with conference equipment and rooms for private hire, the venue includes a spectacular sample room where a huge array of actual cask samples will be available for blending demonstrations and for some privileged visitors to blend their own unique dram.“How do I become a ‘privileged’ visitor?” You may ask. Well, essentially by subscribing to one of the premium tours that are available.Glengoyne has taken the business of distillery tourism to new heights, with no less than six different tours ranging from a simple distillery tour (and dram) at £4.50 to the ambitiously named Glengoyne masterclass at £100.While the price may seem higher, it’s a halfday session with lots to learn and a number of goodies to take away. These include a 20cl bottle of your own unique blend and a personalised bottle of Glengoyne 10 year old malt to compare. There’s also an extensive tutored nosing and tasting session, a more detailed tour, several talks and presentations and, of course, a certificate.You could hang this in your ‘loo’, as is traditional, but it won’t compare to Glengoyne’s! There seems to be a mini arms race going on in distillery toilets. First Glenfiddich erected its magnificent and spacious facilities (the ladies’ is especially noteworthy), but their crown may shortly pass to the Glengoyne Crappers.This isn’t vulgarity. In their search for authenticity, the Glengoyne design team went back to the daddy of all water closets. Yes, they’ve installed ‘The Venerable’ model from Thomas Crapper & Company, combined with Crapper’s Valveless Waste Preventer and authentic Edwardian ‘beer engine’ handles.Fundamentally, however, the visitor wants to know about the distillery so the toilets should not detain us any further (in fairness, they are splendid).Regardless of which tour you take, every visitor spends time in the little distillery, with its unusual still house. With an annual capacity of just more than 1.1 million litres of alcohol annually Glengoyne is something of a minnow.Leonard Russell is particularly proud of the fact that they distil exceptionally slowly at Glengoyne – around five litres per minute when the stills are ‘on spirit.’ “It’s essential to the Glengoyne style,” he explained. “In fact, we may even have the slowest running spirit in Scotland, but we like it that way.” Other distillers wanting to dispute this claim are kindly requested to contact Glengoyne, not the author.Slowest or not, it’s certainly unhurried. The still room is notable for possessing one wash still and two spirit stills. By design, however, as this allows a perfectly balanced system, with one charge from the wash still providing just the right amount to fill the two spirit stills (3,750 litres each).The distillery was last significantly upgraded in 1966 and was perhaps fortunate in that. A few years later and the fashion was for modernisation, but in 1966 tradition still ruled. Thus visitors see Oregon Pine washbacks and a raked mash tun, all of which contribute their mite to a long consistency of style in the final spirit.Glengoyne makes much of the fact that its malt, partly the expensive Golden Promise of distilling legend, is unpeated claiming that this ensures ‘the real taste of malt’. (Again, please don’t write to me).Virtually all the wood in its system is former sherry casks, however, coopered to the company’s specifications in Spain and then shipped to Jerez. All of the casks reserved for single malt, a growing proportion, are warehoused on site in dunnage warehouses.If you get a glimpse inside the warehouses, a treat which is reserved for visitors on the higher-priced tours, you may also see the odd port or Madeira barrel awaiting a decision on its eventual fate. There is also a quantity of exbourbon casks which were filled some two years ago as a deliberate experiment.This followed the release of the ‘Stillman’s Choice’ collection, three individual casks personally selected by distillery employees Duncan McNicoll, Ewan Hendry and Ronnie Palmer.Ronnie’s was the odd man out, a 22 year old Glengoyne matured in Bourbon wood (numbered, limited edition, natural colour, non chill-filtered, £120). The acclaim with which this was greeted persuaded the distillery to depart from its signature styled and fill some bourbon casks for future releases.Right now, however, there is plenty to choose from. The range begins with the standard 10 Years Old (£23.99, widely available) and climbs through a 12 Years Old Cask Strength (£32.99), 15 Years Old Scottish Oak (£39.99), 17 Years Old (£35.99) and 21 Years Old (£46.99). Then there are several exclusive limited releases, culminating in a 37 Years Old Single Cask expression at £225.Coming along soon will be a follow up to the Stillman’s Choice. This time the mashmen have been given the keys to the warehouse and are keenly seeking to outdo their colleagues by finding some hidden gems.These should be released in September this year and, to judge by the maturing casks held back at Glengoyne, a 40 Years Old can’t be far behind.While the previous owners were careful and conscientious proprietors it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Glengoyne is flourishing under new ownership.It’s gratifying to see a small independent Scottish family company investing in its future, with a motivated workforce and a superb product. It proves that you don’t have to be big to carve out a niche in global markets and should encourage the various new independents that are such a refreshing addition to the world of whisky.So I arrived at Glengoyne during my honeymoon and, revisiting this charming place, I find it enjoying its own personal honeymoon. I have every confidence it will last as long and be as satisfying a journey.Glengoyne Distillery, Dumgoyne, by Killearn G63 9LB
Tel: +44 (0)1360 550 254
www.glengoyne.comTours daily including Sunday. Phone to book for premium tours and to check Christmas/New Year opening