Distillery Focus

The Chivas Trio

Strathisla, Glenlivet and Aberlour are the band of brothers behind Chivas Regal, but nature has been giving them a tough time. Dominic Roskrow visited them
By Dominic Roskrow
This is the whisky which Neil Armstrong drank when he first walked on the moon,” says tour guide Dennis Hendry, holding up a glass of Aberlour 16 Years Old for his Australian audience to inspect.

“How do you know?” asks one.

“Oh, it’s a common known fact,” comes the reply. “Actually he wanted to have a party but there wasn’t any atmosphere.”

If you think that one’s bad, you should have heard the rest of his jokes, of which there were several. Yet his audience hangs on to his every word. I’m told later that he regularly gets cited on internet postings as one of the highlights of the Aberlour experience, and it’s clear that he’s one of the reasons that the distillery’s VIP tour remains one of the very best.

He’s a chancer, is Dennis. He’ll tell you that his father, grand-father and brother are on one of the old black and white pictures which adorn the distillery wall, and that he’s not because he was at school at the time – all complete tripe. He’ll tell you he’s worked 35 years at the distillery. Total tosh – he used to be a publican. But he’s a natural entertainer and people love him.

It fits that he’s working for Aberlour. The distillery was one of the first to offer visitors a VIP tour, and to offer them the chance to fill their own bottle with a single cask offering from bourbon or sherry. It has been offering intense and detailed visitor experiences for years. Yet every time you visit there is something new and memorable about the experience and you can’t help but be struck by the friendly, informal and irreverent nature of the distillery. Aberlour has struck the happy medium of offering enthusiasts the full malt experience, but remembering that whisky should be fun, too.

This is going to be a big year for Aberlour. The distillery is one of a holy trinity which makes up Chivas’ band of brothers, along with The Glenlivet and Strathisla. It has been a jewel in the Pernod Ricard crown for many years now, and enjoys immense popularity in the company’s home market, France. But these have been dramatic years for the French drinks giant, it has been in acquisitive mood, and with its expansion have come problems. Marrying the different cultures of the original Campbell Distillers with those of the Pernod and Ricard houses and then bringing in a large part of the fractured and frankly demoralised Allied Domecq estate has taken considerable effort and expertise. Unsurprisingly, then, the good son that is Aberlour has not been a company priority while other more wayward and prodigal offspring have demanded the attention.

That could be about to change, though, and although everyone’s staying tight-lipped for the time being, expect Aberlour to get the chance to dress in its finery and strut its stuff. Certainly we should expect some special bottlings.

Mind you, it’s not going to happen until some calm returns to the rest of the estate. As winter gave way to spring all seemed good in the Aberlour garden, but you couldn’t say the same thing about other parts of the estate. Indeed a sort of ordered pandemonium was in evidence around Easter time as the ravages of the worst winter for 30 years left its mark and the elements took their toll.

Few whisky companies have escaped the severe conditions altogether this year and there were reports that Knockdhu and Balvenie had had roofing problems, the signs were that Tamnavulin had lost more than four months production because the still house roof came in, and Diageo also had some problems.

But Chivas Brothers took a massive hit from the huge snowfalls coupled with an absolute rarity for the Speyside region, a total lack of wind. The combination meant that snow fell on to warehouse roofs and stayed there, freezing solid before the next precipitation arrived. The cumulative effect was tons of snow weighing down on the warehouses, putting them under tremendous pressure. An incredible 38 of the company’s 67 warehouse roofs collapsed.

The knock-on effect hardly bears thinking about. The cost to the company will run into millions of pounds because even if the insurance meets the bill of repairing the roofs, it will insist that every other roof across the estate is fit for purpose and that steps are taken to ensure that the problem doesn’t arise again next year.

Then there is the simple logistical nightmare of how to keep the company operational. Clearly half the company’s warehouses are too dangerous to work in, so short term that has tied up huge amounts of the company’s stock, much of it matured and ready for dumping for inclusion in the Chivas Regal blends. Local stories that there are whole warehouses – up to 100,000 casks – fully matured in danger of spoiling are, says the company, way off the mark. But nevertheless there is a very real problem here. And think about it. The roofing in most cases is propped up by the racks of casks. How do you go about emptying everything to remove the roof and replace it?The answer is cautiously.

So while the likes of distilleries manager Alan Winchester, master blender Sandy Hyslop and brand ambassador Ian Logan are, as always, a model of hospitality and good nature, everyone is just a tad distracted and metaphorically speaking at least, there are some clenched teeth and forced smiles.

Who can blame them? After all, it’s not as if this is the only problem they have had to contend with this winter, and there’s more to come. We start the visit with a trip to Strathisla and instead of the lovely malty distilling smells you associate with this iconic distillery, it’s fresh paint that greets you. It could be worse – as recently as January dirty damp would have been the pervading odour. Ian Logan explains.

“In November the river at the top of the road flooded and the water started coming down to the distillery,” he says. “The lads did the right thing and got the sandbags out to stop the water coming in to the distillery and it worked. But the water carried on down the road and came in to the next entranceway, which was the visitor centre. It was completely flooded.”

By that he means written off. The whole place had to be stripped. All the carpets had to go, extractor fans were permanently employed for weeks going on months, and the entire visitor centre has been redecorated. The plan was to have it up and running by just before Easter, but even three weeks before that it was in a sorry state.

That’s not the end of it either. They were planning to introduce a Glenlivet VIP tour in May, with one of the highlights being a visit to the warehouse where some of the rarest Glenlivets are stored with a view to being included in the Cellar Collection. But the wall has buckled and is leaning by 20 per cent. And on and on it goes...

Trying times, then, but there have been some positives for the company. For while all the natural mayhem has been going on, the Glenlivet has built a new still room to complement its existing one.

There are two types of distillery: those that clatter and bang, where operators preside over ordered chaos to make their spirit: and those that hum in dignified order, often more like museums than operating workplaces.

The Glenlivet always fell in to the latter category but the old still room is now a Motorhead concert when compared to the new one. Think library with machinery and you’re getting there.

It’s situated to the left as you approach the visitor centre, the walls designed to blend in with the existing distillery facade and great glass windows incorporated so you can see the stills from the road. It’s reminiscent of a modern swimming pool complex. Inside the stills line up like shiny robotic soldiers in front of a raised platform where just one operator is needed to man the bank of computers. Directly in front of the consul – a nice touch this – the spirits safes have been placed so that the operator can see the liquid flowing for himself, even though the computers confirm that it is.

“We were able to involve everybody in the design,” says distilleries manager Alan Winchester. “People working here could say exactly how they would like it to be. And despite all the technology they wanted to be able to see the spirit flowing for themselves.”

The final stills were put in in April, taking the total output at Glenlivet above 10 million litres, making it the biggest distillery in Scotland. Chivas downplays the significance of this, however, and points out that the increased output coupled with the reopening of Allt-A-Bhainne and Braeval merely replaces the volume it lost when it was forced to sell on Ardmore and Glen Grant.

“All we’ve effectively done is to get back to where we wanted to be,” says Winchester.

With plans for Aberlour, the completion of the new look visitor centre at Strathisla and plans to introduce a more advanced tour at Glenlivet, 2010 should have been about Chivas giving its brands a new lease of life.

The effects of the weather may have delayed that, but nevertheless there’s a dynamism and energy about the company, despite the trials.

Certainly back over at Aberlour our guide Dennis Hendry certainly isn’t letting a bit of snow get his spirits down.
“A man walks in to a pub...”, he says to his captivated audience.

Enough’s enough. We make our apologies and head for the exit.


Chivas notes



The Glenlivet

15 Years Old 40%
Nose: Fresh and clean green fruit, sweet barley.
Palate: A two trick malt, with apple and sweet pear on the one hand and a wave of spiciness from the new French oak which part of the malt has been matured in.
Finish: Rich, medium long and spicy.

Aberlour

10 Years Old 43%
Nose: Crisp, fresh, mix of fruits, with some distinctive sherry red berry notes and clean crisp apple. Some honey too.
Palate: Full and clean, with traces of the mint which is present in some older expressions and lots of fruit. Almost definitively Speyside and quite exquisite.
Finish: Long and fruity.

Aberlour

15 Years Old, Sherry Wood Finish 40%
Nose: Butterscotch, candy, tangerine and red berries.
Palate: A nice mix of sherry and bourbon, with vanilla, candy, rich berry fruits and honey all delivered on a gossamer light pillow, with some trademark mint and spices developing late on.
Finish: Long and quite rich.

The Glenlivet

16 Years Old Nadurra 48%
Nose: Sweet, vanilla, chocolate and fruit.
Palate: Rich and mouth filling, very sweet and honeyed, but with some Indian spices - chili, turmeric, ginger - to give both weight and balance to what would otherwise as a barley sugar overload.
Finish: Rich long and spicy. The Glenlivet at the top of its game.

Strathisla

12 Years Old 43%
Nose: Delicate ginger barley and grape.
Palate: Sweet yellow fruit, with some honeycomb, raisins, red berries and barley at its core and a wisp of smoke towards the finish. Another big Speysider.
Finish: Long with lots of sweet fruit.