"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 18 April 2011

Glenmorangie Distillery, Tain

After visiting Balblair Distillery Barnard’s party made their way back towards Tain and called first at the residence of the owner of Glenmorangie Distillery, a Mr Matheson, who lived half a mile away from the distillery.  After entertaining them he accompanied the party to the distillery which was then “the most ancient and primitive we have seen, and now almost in ruins”.

Thankfully the proprietor was about to completely rebuild the distillery without which we might not have the Glenmorangie we know today.  The old buildings were originally a brewery built in 1738 at Morangie Farm.  Distillery founder William Matheson applied for a distilling licence in 1843 and then converted the brewery of which Barnard noted “ever since has had to be renewed and repaired to keep it together” so the rebuilding exercise seemed overdue.  That was in 1886 and the distillery was reopened and relicensed the following year as Glenmorangie Distillery Co (Udo, 2005).

Old malt barns and kiln
In light of the imminent works Barnard’s only comment on the actual distillery is “only Pot Stills have been in use”, the second least informative description in the book.  He does also advise that the water source for driving the water-wheel and for distilling comes from the hills of Tarlogie and that peat dug locally is the only fuel used.  The output was then just 91,000 litres p.a. but expected to double after rebuilding, a large stock of spirit being held to supply customers while the works are undertaken.  He states that the stock is “not less than 5 years old” so perhaps the owner had been planning the work for some time and had sold on all recent distillate to clear space.

In the absence of a fuller report from Barnard we can run through the main developments that have occurred here since.  I had been looking forward to my visit here for some time as I have enjoyed some great Glenmorangie tastings over the years, including that early experience when I first discovered Ardbeg, and I had heard many stories about its setting and its history.  Now I had the chance to actually visit the ‘Glen of tranquillity’ that the name translates from Gaelic to.  It was a good omen that the weather on that trip had returned to something more tranquil than I had experienced to the north.


I was welcomed at the visitor centre for a tour and Eva began with a bit more history, including the important year of 1918 when the distillery was bought by blenders MacDonald and Muir and a whisky broker.  MacDonald and Muir later became sole owners and grew the business until it converted to a public company in 1996.  The company purchased the almost silent Ardbeg distillery in 1997 and re-launched that brand.

In 2004 the company bought the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) and later that year were themselves taken over by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) who have since reinvented the Glenmorangie brand and further extended the distillery, a 50% increase in capacity coming on-line in April 2009 after a few months of work.  Those new works erected in 1886 after Barnard’s visit were just the first in a series of developments which include three significant expansions during the last forty years.

Glenmorangie reservoir
The Tarlogie Springs and 650 acres of land surrounding them are now owned by Glenmorangie to secure and protect their historic water source.  Water flowing through Morangie Forest on the Hill of Tain is captured in a small reservoir just above the distillery and then runs past the distillery to the Dornoch Firth, on whose shore the distillery sits.  The spring water used for distilling is piped in from the springs and is graded as hard which is unusual for highland distillery water.

Mash Tun

Older washbacks
Malting stopped on site in 1977 but barley is still sourced locally and is now malted nearby at Inverness and very lightly peated to a max of 2ppm.  The large Mash Tun installed in 2008/09 is a stainless steel full-lauter tun taking a hefty 9.8 tonne mash.  The distillery changed to stainless steel wash backs in the 1950s and with an additional four being installed during the 2009 expansion there are now 12 of them, each holding 50,000 litres for a 52 hour fermentation.

Older stills pre 2009, wash stills on left
The still house is one of the most absorbing buildings I have visited at any distillery.  When Matheson rebuilt the distillery he experimented by installing gin stills which were much taller than conventional whisky stills of the time.  They also had shell and tube condensers rather than worm tubs and they were steam coil heated.  Glenmorangie was one of the earliest distilleries to install both of these innovations and they can be seen here in an architect’s drawing from the time, with the tall stills extending through the roof to the condensers outside.  With all these changes it is interesting that Matheson only held stock over 5 years old, with no younger whisky to ease a transition to what would be a new style for the new company.  My thanks go to Iain Russell at Glenmorangie for the drawing and for an interesting discussion about the stills.

Architect's drawing of stills, courtesy of Glenmorangie
(click to enlarge)
The stills here now are the tallest in Scotland at 16’ 10 ¼” (5.14m) from top of pot to top of neck, apparently the same height as an adult giraffe, a symbolism that is subtly incorporated in the word ‘The’ in the distillery name on the wall of the still house.  There is a small reflux bowl at the base of each neck which together with the height ensures that only the lighter vapours reach the near horizontal lyne arms and are in contact with copper for longer as a result.

Glenmorangie 'giraffe' house
The number of stills has been gradually increased over the last forty years, from 2 to 4 in 1970, to 8 in 1990 and now up to 12 from 2009.  The wash stills on one side of this ‘cathedral’ are 11,400 litres and the spirit stills on the other are 8,200, the newest four sitting at the rear which was extended to accommodate them and the spirit safe.  With the new stills and washbacks the production is gradually being expanding from 4m litres p.a. up to a projected 6m p.a.

Glenmorangie casks beside East Coast railway and Dornoch Firth
There are currently 14 warehouses on site, some racking and some dunnage like Number 3 that we visited and which is one of the smallest.  The casks here are only ever used twice for whisky, having first begun their working lives holding bourbon for 4 years before being brought here whole.  The micro climate experienced here by the coast ensures a more consistent temperature than inland, with mild winters and cool summer breezes drifting in from the North Sea.  The matured whisky is married on site before being taken for bottling at the new Alba plant in Livingston.

Extra maturation casks
Glenmorangie were one of the first distilleries to experiment with different ‘finishes’ to their whisky.  The current “extra matured” range, launched with a new bottle shape in 2007, is matured solely in American Oak for ten years followed by two further years maturation in Port, Sherry or Sauternes casks.  The Gaelic names provided to these whiskies reflect the final stage and this mix of the New World and the Old seems appropriate to a distillery that has its origins in ruinous buildings and tradition but which has also embraced new ideas and modern design.

I was introduced to Chocolate Malt here for the first time, a dark toasted barley that Glenmorangie use as a component for their Signet whisky and which has a wonderful decadent aroma.  The Signet is a bold expression of whisky that has been maturing for over 30 years, distilled when barley was still malted on site, and adding a different dimension to the range of whisky produced here.  It takes its name from the emblem that is now used as Glenmorangie’s signet, more on which later.

Glenmorangie Signet Whisky and signet emblem in background
Tradition has it that Glenmorangie whisky is produced by the “Sixteen Men of Tain”, an appellation that hints at a proud and exclusive club, one that demands craft and skill of its members to contribute to the creation of the whisky.  There may be just a few more men here now (sixteen-ish) to work the extended production, but their traditions are still held dear.  I need to thank Eva for an inspiring tour, a sample of the velvety Quinta Ruban and for digging out answers to some of my usual awkward questions.  Additional info here is from their new website launched at the end of last year which is bright and welcoming, and which has an interactive schematic of how a distillery works that is quirky and shows a lighter side to a serious business.

Tradition and history extend beyond the distillery and the landscape stones that have become thematic on this stage of the journey provide two separate markers in different locations and from different eras.  Near the distillery lies the rather boisterous sounding Big Stone of Morangie, a granite boulder deposited after the passing of the glaciers some 12,000 or so years ago.  Just as our distant ancestors had done elsewhere this stone has been used as a canvas to commemorate an event, in this case the passing of Sir Walter Scott in 1832.

Big Stone of Morangie
The stone’s connection to the distillery is not just by name and location but also, tenuously, through whisky.  Sir Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy includes the fictional character Bailie Nicol Jarvie which is the name given to a blended whisky first produced in Leith by Macdonald and Muir in 1893 and still produced by Glenmorangie today.  More affectionately known as BNJ or The Bailie it has one of the highest malt contents of any malt and grain blended whisky.

Sir Walter Scott had other associations with whisky, details for another time, but surprisingly I haven’t been able to find any relevant quotes or poems from him about whisky generally.  Barnard doesn’t mention the Big Stone although his horse drawn journey to and from Tain would have passed right by it twice that day.  He does include two verses from Robert Burns’ poem Scotch Drink in his report, although totally unconnected to the distillery and there is no evidence that RB ever travelled this far north.

Cadboll Stone at Museum of Scotland,
triskele in lower half

Glenmorangie House, the distillery owned accommodation that sits southeast of the distillery by the shore of the Moray Firth, is close to where a Pictish cross-slab called The Cadboll Stone once stood.  The original stone, one of the most decorated Pictish monuments in Scotland, now stands in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh although without the original broken base section which is on display in a local hall following its discovery in an excavation in 2001.  The rear of the stone was once decorated with a cross and other Christian emblems but they were removed in the late 17th century when the stone was reused as a grave slab.

A newly carved full size stone with a replica of the Pictish side, save for a millennium or so of weathering, was erected on the site in 2000 and an interpretation of the Christian side, based on the lower portion and on broken fragments found in the excavation, was added on the reverse in 2002.  The Pictish side includes many of their historic and enigmatic emblems together with a scene of deer hunting and also a spiral pattern known as a ‘triskele’ – the inspiration for the new brand logo and signet of Glenmorangie.