Distillery Focus

Technical perfection

The Glenrothes is one of Scotland's biggest distilleries but is an enigmatic one too,its doors generally closed to visitors and its malts relatively unknown.Dominic Roskrow visited it.
By Dominic Roskrow
Iam halfway up a stairwell in semi darkness and all I can smell is…how can I put this politely – horse dung.In front of me is Ronnie Cox, Whisky Magazine’s Scottish Ambassador of the Year.Behind me is former Whisky Mag editor and industry jack in the box (he pops up all over the place) Marcin Miller.“So what can you smell, Dominic?”Ronnie asks.Oh dear.“Horse shit!”he declares before I can reply, and laughs heartily. It is at this point I realise I’m in the presence of madmen.Let’s have some context here.The plan had been for a small press group to travel to The Glenrothes for a tour and tasting then dinner, but things have gone pear-shaped due to a series of unfortunate occurrences and our group has been growing smaller at a speed and for an array of reasons that even Agatha Christie would have struggled to match.So much so, in fact, that by early evening we are reduced to me and my hosts, with the promise of another writer in time for dinner.And it was while deciding how best to fill in the spare couple of hours between our arrival at the distillery and that of the other journalist that I noticed the doorway to the Cutty Sark visitor centre.As The Glenrothes doesn’t normally welcome visitors, this was intriguing. Surely worth further investigation?You betcha!For the Cutty Sark visitor centre, pumped horse manure scent and all, is a triumph of tacky technology and awesome oddness as you’re likely to find.At the top of the stairs Ronnie opens a door, turns a switch,and the horse smell is given a context.We’re on St James Street in London during Victorian times and the sound of horses and carriages is all around us. In front of us is the premises of Berry Bros & Rudd,and Ronnie leads us through the door.We’re greeted by a life size model of George Berry,who has been lit up and is standing next to a huge weighing chair occupied by a dapper Victorian gentleman who it transpires is Beau Brummel,who was just one of many luminaries that travelled to the premises to be weighed.So begins one of the strangest whisky tours I’ve ever experienced.Mr Berry explains the background to the company and how it came to specialise in wine and spirits.When he’s finished the light goes down and we move on to a cellarman with an accent like Johnny Depp doing Sweeney Todd.We witness the day when the brothers took the ground-breaking decision to name their new blend after a famous tea clipper and to illustrate it with a ship on the label.We travel to the Bahamas,where we meet William McCoy, the intrepid entrepreneur who brought Cutty Sark to the Speakeasys during Prohibition,became famous for dealing in genuine Cutty Sark, and gave us the phrase ‘the real McCoy’ in the process.We even get to whisper the password and pass through the door of a Speakeasy.Then it gets truly surreal.We are not in a Prohibition-era bar but a sort of mini cinema with ordered seating.There’s a large dose of bagpipes, the screen is filled with pictures of lochs and heather and a Scotsman with a voice like Fraser in Dad’s Army gives us a join the dots guide to whisky production.Suddenly, and almost without warning, the image of an American Second World War soldier appears, telling us that they’re selling Cutty Sark down the road but “you may have to stand in line to get some.” Next we’re treated to a montage of Cutty Sark adverts from around the world including one Spanish one with the slogan – and I promise I’m not making this up –‘Cutty Sark:homosexual or heterosexual?’ Finally, with an ominous clanking and grinding noise, a panel in the wall rotates and a three metre tall Cutty Sark bottle appears,and an electric-powered curtain draws back to reveal a brightly lit bar area, bringing 15 minutes of burlesque theatre to a close.“We bring overseas distributors and retailers here,”explains Ronnie when I’ve managed to finally stop laughing.“It gives them part of the history of Cutty Sark.They love it.” The Glenrothes is an enigma and an oddball. It is one of Scotland’s biggest distilleries, producing a whopping 4.5 million litres of spirit each year.But few know of it, and if we whisky lovers are a smug bunch then it’s partially due to the fact that we’ve found and distilleries like this and hold them close to our hearts while lesser enlightened folk scramble about in ignorance.The distillery’s whiskies are, without exception,wonderful,and you could argue long in to the night over many excellent expressions of the distillery’s malt as to whether there’s a finer allrounder in the whole of Speyside.The whiskies are a delightful mix of modernity and tradition.Long before the rest of the whisky world woke up to the concept of state of the art bottlings and labels,The Glenrothes was being packaged in grenade-style bottles with minimalist labelling and handwritten tasting notes.The whisky itself is a treat.Unconventional, too.Although owned by Edrington, which has Highland Park and The Macallan under its wing,The Glenrothes is sold under licence by the esteemed wine retailer Berry Bros & Rudd, and the company has brought some of its wine heritage to the fore by bottling the malt by vintage rather than age.Collectively they are to whisky what Cartier is to watches – an array of styles linked by the same technical perfection each of them has at its core.From light and zesty citrus whiskies to rich dark fruit and orange marmalade ones, they are like any great family – an eclectic mix of personalities that are obviously from the same stock.Unfortunately visits to The Glenrothes are by invite only.Trade guests and visiting journalists are accommodated a few hundred metres away in a cosy house where Ronnie and Marcin have come up with the cunning ruse of making each group of guests compete with each other by preparing breakfast while they relax in comfort and are waited on.You can walk from here to the distillery by way of a footpath high above a hillside graveyard, past the Fairies Well,where a grisly double murder is said to have been committed 700 years ago on the orders of the notorious Wolf of Badenoch (and what a great title that is – who said that marketing is a 20th century invention?) The distillery itself sits at the heart of Rothes and has a gravitas compounded by its charcoal grey roughstone walls and the hillside graveyard it nestles next to. It is fronted by a moody burn, its waters sludge brown with peat.This and the general tranquility of the area cast an air of calm over the distillery, and it seems to be going about the business of producing spirit unhurriedly but purposefully.Somebody once said that distilleries fall in to one of two camps:they are either working distilleries that may or may not permit visitors, or they’re showpiece distilleries that happen to make whisky.Glenrothes doesn’t sit comfortably in either category. It isn’t open to the public and in this sense it is purely a working distillery.But it is also ordered and pristine, as if it expects a visit at any time,and nowhere is this more on display than in the still room.Built some 30 years ago, it is known as the Cathedral, and with good reason.It is a cavernous place, five wash stills and five spirit stills paired off in perfect symmetry either side of an aisle.Our guide is distillery engineer Greg Muir and he must have stepped through these doors and seen this view a thousand times but he’s very aware of the impact it has and he pauses in respectful silence for a moment or two.The relatively young age of the still room is a clue to the fact that when necessary the distillery’s owners have been prepared to modernise,upgrade and expand when necessary.In fact the still room has been enlarged on three separate occasions, and computer technology is as advanced here as it is in any distillery.But there has been no compromise on quality, and the lengthy distillation and the slow flow of spirit – probably slower than any other distillery in Scotland – is just one reason for the refined and clean spirit here.Another is the fact that the stills, all operating in separate pairings, are only charged two thirds full, forcing the vapours to travel further to the lyne arms, increasing reflux and ensuring a lighter malt.The current high demand for malt being what it is, the distillery’s operating seven days a week and carrying out 50 mashes and there’s always pressure to do more.Not, though,at the expense of quality.The stills are given lengthy rest periods between charges. In fact,Greg Muir is adamant that the still room could absorb an increase in production.The problems would start elsewhere, with the eight stainless steel washbacks and 12 wooden ones, for instance: they’re working flat out and any upping of output would mean upgrading a currently redundant mash house on site.It’s all highly impressive, and as with many distilleries you sense the pride at Glenrothes.But it must be doubly satisfying for the people making the whisky here to know that the malt is being recognised and appreciated beyond the blending fraternity, where it has always been high regard.To help that process the distillery has invested in a dedicated trade visitor facility,newly opened and already ‘Ronnied’ as the Inner Sanctuary.It’s a brightly lit tasting room with state of the art audio visual equipment built in to the walls and tastefully lit embedded wall shelving displaying the various Glenrothes vintages.At its centre is a stunning table, crafted locally and inscribed with descriptors reflecting the heart of Glenrothes – vanilla, spice, citrus and fruit.“We have developed this area as a working area,”says Ronnie as we settle in and prepare the first whisky of the day.“It’s been designed to help people understand our whisky and is aimed at anyone who really wants to know our whisky.” It’s an impressive addition to a very impressive distillery, and a million miles from George Berry and Beau Brummel in the simulated wine merchants just across the courtyard. It’s modern, warm,engaging.And mercifully free from the smell of horse manure.