Although I observed many new distilleries from the car, distilleries which the route of my Odyssey had not approached – Dalwhinnie, Tormore, Auchroisk, Glenallachie, Strathmill to name a few – and many familiar ones which our voyaging took us past repeatedly - Aberlour, The Macallan, Craigellachie, Glenfiddich – there was to be only one distillery tour this holiday.
It was shear blind and baffling luck that so many significant people and properties within the context of my tour as a whole should be indigenous to a readily accessible area of some 50 square miles. Had this privileged region been in Caithness then I would still have insisted we make the journey, however. The attenuated dog leg that links Tomintoul, Dufftown and Oldmeldrum was my malt-related magnet and my first significant pilgrimage was to the last of these settlements.
Roughly a month after I hung up my panniers I phoned Glen Garioch and was fortunate enough to have Jane lift the receiver. Thrilled to speak with her again, and doubly so that she apparently remembered me, I promised that we would be up again in the not too distant future and to that end, I asked if she could set aside a bottle of the 1990 Vintage. I was anxious not to miss out on what my subsequent reflections on my Odyssey rendered a highly symbolic, venerated and desired artefact. Several weeks later I contacted her again to book my family on a VIP Tour.
Frankly unbelievably, the weather was ominously reminiscent of my first foray from Moray to Aberdeenshire on the 23rd of April. Whilst we did not encounter snow on the bare tarmac out of Dufftown, rain threatened throughout our race along the A96 and more pleasant sweep along smaller A-roads to Oldmeldrum. So vivid were the reminders of that day, so unnervingly similar were the colour palette and light quality. Every stopping point, every side turning, every enraged bellowed expletive and herd of startled livestock from five month’s ago hovered before my mind’s eye. It was quite uncanny. I doled out pity on my past self as we reached the roundabout at the entrance to Oldmeldrum and navigated the uphill arc of road to the top of the town. Upon arriving I’m aware only of sprinting about the site with my camera, capturing the place in a manner I had neither at first the trust in my equipment’s waterproofing, then energy and finally inclination to attempt in April.
Jane was, suitably, the first face I glimpsed as I entered the visitor centre. The locus of so much surprising joy, I was yet again astonished by how familiar it all was, right down to the paper map of Scotland on the wall, on which I had traced for Fiona and Jane the destinations my tour had still to reach.
From what I could gather, the pre-tour video had been updated. Now there were ample close-ups of the repackaged range interspersed with segments illustrating Glen Garioch’s history and production methods. On the way out of the door to begin our observations of these processes first-hand, Fiona appeared. She was forthcoming, not with a hand to shake, but with open arms. Such is Fiona’s gregarious personality, but also impressive tact: a hug on the occasion of my last visit would not have been at all pleasant.
We left the sustaining glow of the casements of whisky in the visitor centre with Jane as our guide. She turned to me as our little group was ruffled by a blast of Aberdeenshire air, laden with rain drops. “We’re blaming this on James,” she said. “That’s only fair,” I replied.
Whereas previously I had been shepherded across the courtyard and the road to the maltings, Jane had an alternative destination for our party. In the renovated Exciseman’s hut – The Wee Bothy – we were welcomed to Glen Garioch in style, with a nip of the Clearac.
My parents in the charming Wee Bothy, formerly the exciseman's hut. An evil lair converted into a merrier space.
Having been informed that spirit yields at the distillery were pleasing everyone, the distillate pouring through the safe in greater quantities and at a higher strength, Jane produced a bottle of colourless liquid and poured a measure into nosing glasses. I have been fortunate enough over my travels to taste the new make of a number of distilleries and a wander round a still room will introduce every tourist to its distinctive aroma. The Glen Garioch stuff is delicious, though. The fragrance was typical of unaged malt whisky: sweet, fruity and with plenty of squeaky, rounded intensity. Stewed apples and strawberries could be distinguished from this: suggesting themselves from the richness and fullness of the drink’s body and its raw sharpness. On the palate the barley sugar grist is evident. It is very clean and yet mouthcoating, clinging to the tongue and gums with a green apple flavour and despite its strength of 72.5% abv, it didn’t blow your head off. With more aeration, Hobnob biscuit notes emerged on the nose.
The maltings, our next point of interest, appeared a great deal warmer following our dose of new make. They have been mothballed since 1993, when the last batch of Glen Garioch-made malt was shovelled off the kiln floor. After Suntory’s take over, and a tense time for the future of the distillery, the company elected to preserve, re-invest and raise the fortunes of Glen Garcioh. The maltings were cleaned up, and for six weeks in 1999 they operated again to check that all of the machinery still worked properly. It did, so there shall continue be rumours that the malting process could once more take place on-site. There is no small amount of experience as to how it is done within the Morrison Bowmore group, either: Bowmore distillery malts its own, and indeed some of the staff were off to Islay the day after my visit for a change of scene.
Our smaller tour group made it easier for Jane to reveal some of Glen Garioch’s nooks and crannies. The first of these was the kiln itself. We were allowed through a low door on one side of the kiln fire and could take in the sooty darkness of the construction, the fine mesh floor and the ventilation fan just visible.
We climbed a highly vertiginous wrought-iron spiral staircase and peeked at the mill, the malt bins and the kiln floor. It was a real privilege to see behind the scenes at a malt whisky distillery, because when its original features are preserved, as they are at Glen Garioch, it is a glimpse back in time.
The mash house and tun room were familiar, as was the little white clothes rack behind the Spirit Still. I pointed this out to my parents, and Jane recounted for the benefit of the other people with us how these stills had performed as a life-saving laundry facility in addition to operating solely for the production of the water of life.
Jane and I reunited in my most unexpected launderette.
By now the wind and rain were a little more assertive, and our walk to the warehouse made us glad of its quiet stillness. This was what I had been especially looking forward to, and the sweet mustiness – a combination of earth and exhaling oak – was a glorious re-induction to the realm of the angels. Following its closure in 1995, the warehouses were emptied and two years later, when Suntory decided to open it again, they were deemed unsafe. Three years of upgrade work, and casks could be matured at Glen Garioch again in 2000. Butts, barrels and hogsheads fell away into the fecund shadows, and I doubt I stopped smiling. Glen Grant and Longmorn casks were prevalent outsiders. Five casks from Yamazaki were very foreign indeed. These became visible as we made for the staircase down to the lower warehouse and their reasons for being in Aberdeenshire and not Japan was explained to us. Head office are curious as to what influence locality of maturation has on the final spirit. To that end, Suntory have gone further than experimenting between indigenous and central warehouses in the East and has taken eighteen casks from 2006 to Scotland, distributed between Auchentoshan, Bowmore and Glen Garioch. I would be fascinated to taste the results. Whether there is a conclusive difference only time will tell.
The final tasting back at the VC was appreciatively thorough. The core range of the Founder’s Reserve (buttery, sweet, malty, clean and fruity) and the new 12-year-old (more citrussy, softer and deeper) were explored first, followed by a measure of the new 1991 Small Batch Release (£65) which had been launched in June. At cask strength, this was dusty and rich on the nose, giving way to more phenolic notes (wood smoke and coal dust-esque and industrial) with water. Dry and warm with firm maltiness on the palate with pungent, spicy peatiness continuing into the finish. I wonder how close my 1990′s profile matches this. I was glad to see it emerge from the back room, all stocks having sold out at the distillery. It had been a wise move to set one aside.
After wishing my favourite ladies all the very best, we departed in the by then seriously heavy rain. As we glided away from Oldmeldrum, conditions now identical to those of the return leg to Huntly on April 23, I looked upon my souvenir of that day and the subsequent weeks made possible by Jane and Fiona’s humour and encouragement, sat in the footwell. It will be a wonderful reminder of those forty-one incredible and challenging days, but it shall also remind me of the return visit which I’m delighted and amazed to assert had an equally powerful, lasting effect on me.
L-R: Fiona, myself and Jane, plus my 70 centilitres of drama, revelation and triumph. It was extraordinary to reflect on my undertaking with the comfort of dry clothes.
The Glen Garioch VIP Tour: £20; 90 minutes (approx.) duration
THERE SHALL BE SOMETHING OF AN INDETERMINATE HIATUS AFFLICTING THE SCOTCH ODYSSEY BLOG AND FOR THAT I APOLOGISE. I’VE JUST STARTED AT UNIVERISTY, HOWEVER, AND TIME IS IN SHORT SUPPLY. I HOPE TO BRING YOU MORE ACCOUNTS OF MY HOLIDAY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.