Distillery Focus

The backbone of great whisky? (Longmorn)

Longmorn is a blenders' favourite. But as a single malt it's both wonderful and frustratingly hard to get. Ian Buxton adds his voice to the Whisky Magazine clamour for more of it
By Ian Buxton
I arrived at Longmorn in a swirling snowstorm, quite worried about the directions I have been given.“Pass the Shougle turn,” they had told me “right through Fogwatt and then turn right.” Shougle? Fogwatt? Perhaps I was to be lost forever in the Elgin Triangle: was this some Beachcomber fantasy, I wondered, or a Highland version of Royston Vasey?Well, the gentlemen who met me may have been in league, but they couldn’t have been friendlier.Longmorn’s manager Hamish Proctor and Pernod Ricard’s group distilleries manager Alan Winchester were the most gracious of hosts and provided an erudite introduction to this interesting, historic but little-known Speyside distillery.That’s evidently a tradition at Longmorn. An earlier, and eventually far more distinguished, visitor was Masataka Taketsuru the founder of Japan’s Nikka Whisky company. As his biographer Olive Checkland recalls, Taketsuru arrived here in April 1919 as a ‘poor overseas student’ to undertake a brief ‘apprenticeship’ under the manager Mr R B Nicol.Taketsuru had previously been obliged to decline the offer of private tuition from the distinguished J A Nettleton, due to lack of funds, but at Longmorn he was taken in without charge and given a sound, if brief, nine-day introduction to the joys of Speyside distilling.He made Mr Nicol the gift of some tobacco but memories of his visit did not disappear like smoke: many years later, when he established the Yoichi distillery in Japan, it was modelled on Longmorn and he always referred to Yoichi as producing a ‘Highland’ whisky.A photo survives of him in the courtyard at Longmorn, against a stout door which may be seen to this day, a slight figure wearing an earnest expression and a striking long white laboratory coat. Beside him, R B Nicol appears quizzically amused. Taketsuru’s diary also contains extensive notes of his visit and Nikka Distilling, of course, remain the proprietors of the Ben Nevis distillery at Fort William.In 1919 the best way into Longmorn was by train. The distillery was served by its own goods sidings off the Elgin to Rothes line and a splendid station (still in the ownership of the distillery) stood nearby.The line survived until the Beeching cuts – today giant road trailers pound across to the A9 and on to the markets of the world.From all this, you will gather there’s a strong air of tradition at Longmorn. The distillery was founded by the entrepreneurial John Duff, one of the
great personalities of the Victorian whisky industry, in the boom of the 1890s.Constructed in 1893/94 at a cost of £20,000, the first spirit ran in December 1894. Within four years it was joined by its neighbour Benriach, also known as Longmorn No 2. Benriach’s layout was the work of the great Charles Doig, but Longmorn’s designer is unknown.Whoever was responsible, it was an immediate success, the National Guardian reporting in 1897 that Longmorn had “jumped into favour with buyers from the earliest day on which it was offered”. And to this day blenders have formed a ready market for Longmorn as “top dressing” for
their premium blends.However the boom shortly passed to bust and Benriach was promptly closed (remaining silent until 1965). Longmorn, though, went quietly on. Its management was noted for its conservatism – a water wheel (now sadly removed) powered parts of the distillery for many years and the
splendid steam engine, today on display in the still house, gave sterling service until as recently as 1979.Indeed, it looks as if it could spring into life at a moment’s notice and work untroubled for another 90 years.By 1970 Longmorn had become part of The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd, which in turn was acquired by Chivas Brothers in 1978. That passed to Seagram and today the distillery (together with a once-more silent Benriach) is part of Pernod Ricard. Within their extensive whisky interests it would seem clear that Longmorn’s primary role remains to provide fillings for Chivas Regal and other blends.The positive side, of course, is that the distillery is kept busy: production is running at over three million litres a year. Pernod Ricard has ambitious plans for Chivas Regal, aiming to restore some of the lustre to this once-dominant premium blend, which faded somewhat in the last years of Seagram stewardship.If they come off, Longmorn’s future looks bright and, indeed, I was assured that further investment in the distillery is planned for 2005.As a single malt, however, Longmorn is frustratingly hard to find. Though there are some independent bottlings, Pernod Ricard offers only one version: a 15 years old single malt, bottled at a robust 45%, as part of its “Heritage Collection”.This is definitely one to savour but I’d like to see the distillery experiment with a few more releases of Longmorn – a more youthful version would be interesting and I suspect at 25 years old, Longmorn would be sensational. However, we must be practical; deal with what we’ve got – and be grateful for it.So, the Longmorn 15 years old single malt: a rewarding dram, highly rated by independent tasters. As the snow deepened outside, I started with the new made spirit. Attractive as the nearby fields looked in their blanket of white, this kept me indoors enjoying its sweet, warming taste with a distinct note of aniseed and liquorice.In the signature 15 years old version, these notes have evolved into a more complex and deeper spiciness that lingers through into the finish. Initially, the nose is floral and surprisingly delicate, followed by malty caramel flavours (McGowan’s Toffee perhaps) and a hint of bourbon
sweetness. I was reminded of Jack Daniel’s at one point, possibly a hint as to the genesis of the barrels.In fact, as Hamish and Alan were at pains to explain, there is no rigid wood regime at Longmorn. Both ex-bourbon barrel and former sherry casks find their way to the traditional dunnage warehouses, which fit seamlessly into the Speyside landscape.The main question in my comparison of the new make with the completed single malt was to explore the influence of the rummagers. These remained in place as late as 1993, when direct coal firing gave way to steam coils.The original furnace doors remain in place but the rummagers have long gone. Purists get very excited about this: I concluded the only answer is to buy a bottle now and another in four years time when, presumably, the first spirit from the indirect fired stills will be bottled. It could be the
basis of a fascinating blind tasting.Amore significant influence might be the decline of the traditional floor maltings. Retired, like the steam engine in the name of efficiency and greater economy at the stroke of an accountant’s pen, they now lie dormant yet could, in theory at least, supply up to 15 per cent of Longmorn’s
malt requirements.Today’s new spirit is made totally from a lightly peated Optic barley that arrives ready malted – perhaps those barrels destined for the ‘Heritage Collection’ could have that part of Longmorn’s heritage restored and we might see the floor maltings in operation once again.Elsewhere, the distillery’s 1974 expansion is evident. Four wash and four spirit stills operate here but, interestingly, there are two separate still
houses: one for wash and one for spirit.At 6,800 litres apiece, the spirit stills are compact; both still houses are attractively laid out and evidently easily managed.Not that you can see any of this, except by special arrangement or during the Speyside Whisky Festival. Otherwise, Longmorn is closed to the public.In fact, the old director’s office or even the railway station – now marooned in splendid isolation – would make a splendid reception centre.Combined with a tour of Benriach, currently silent but poised for action, there is much here to interest the true enthusiast.However, within a few miles, Pernod Ricard already offers Glen Grant, Strathisla, Glenlivet and Aberlour to the visitor so the chances of a dedicated Longmorn centre seem remote.It seems churlish to complain when offered these considerable delights but that’s the nature of the whisky enthusiast –desiring most earnestly that which is ever denied to us! I suppose that if we visited all of these then the management might sit up and take note.I have a theory about some of these little-known malts: the blenders keep them for themselves. It’s like back pain. You only notice your spine when it’s uncomfortable, but if it wasn’t there, there would be no body to you at all.Malts such as Longmorn are the unsung backbone of many more famous blends – the spine that holds the whole thing together. Pull them out and what remain lacks body.So perhaps that is why we don’t see more of malts like Longmorn.Which is a great pity, because this is one distillery that deserves to be better known and more widely appreciated both for itself and its fascinating history. ContactLongmorn Distillery
Nr Elgin, Morayshire
IV30 3SJ
Tel: +44 (0)1542 783 400Closed to the public.Visits during Speyside Festival only.