"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

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

(Glen) Ord Distillery, Muir of Ord

The east coast railway carried Barnard’s party from a second night at Dingwall down through the Muir of Ord and a few miles further south to Beauly.  From there it was a carriage drive back north to the distillery and it is unclear why they didn’t stop at the nearby station of Muir of Ord to begin with.

Prior to Barnard’s visit Muir of Ord was the name for an area of land rather than a specific town.  The town was originally a small settlement known as Tarradale and was recorded as such on an 1881 map but had formally changed to Muir of Ord by 1906.  The town grew after the introduction of the railway, and the naming of the railway station as Muir of Ord when it was built in 1862 seems to have been the catalyst for the name Tarradale gradually falling out of use.

Beauly Priory
At Beauly he briefly mentions the ruins of the ancient Priory before they leave the town boundary.  The Priory was founded in 1230 AD as home to an order of Valliscaulian Monks from France and the name Beauly has a possible source from the French ‘beau lieu’ meaning ‘beautiful place’, although there may be a Gaelic origin too (Anderson, 1850).  The Priory is now a ruin and there is a chip shop nearby called, almost inevitably, the Friary – one of those names you would almost be disappointed if they hadn’t used.  Anyway, they do a good poke o’ chips when you are hungry from wandering between distilleries, ruins, stones, hotels, etc. etc.

Beyond the town Barnard arrives at the farmstead of the distillery owner, Alexander Mackenzie.  We have left Ross country now and arrived in Mackenzie lands and Barnard recounts (from Anderson’s guide) the tale of the ‘Raid of Gilchrist’ about a feud between the Mackenzies and their fierce enemies the MacDonalds of Glengarry.  It was one of those unsavoury inter-clan incidents that I won’t go into too much detail on as it involves large groups of clan members being burned alive within a church and an inn.  Anderson’s guide describes it as “one of the most sanguinary and brutal affairs that stain the annals of an age of general blood and rapine”, which didn’t stop Barnard giving over almost one fifth of his report to the story.

Barnard notes that the Muir (Moor) of Ord was celebrated for periodical cattle markets and the tradition still continues with the location for the old markets now home to the Mannsfield Showground which has been run by the Black Isle Farmers’ Society for over 50 years.  Nearby are two standing stones that Barnard notes as commemorative and connected with the [Brahan Seer’s] prophesy of the extinction of the Mackenzie Clan.  He gleefully records that as the distillery owner goes by that name the prophesy has not yet come true and the whisky he produces is “daily imbibed by the descendants of those who foretold his clan’s effacement”.

One of two Standing Stones at Windhill near Muir of Ord

The distillery itself was then known as just Ord, the change to Glen Ord coming at a now uncertain later date.  The whisky was labelled as Glen Ord and also Glen Oran as far back as the 1880s, later as just Ord and even, in the 1980s, as Glen Ordie.  To the west is Glen Orrin, recorded by Barnard as Glen Oran, which he notes as a “favourite resort” for smugglers and illicit stills even at his time, the distillery itself having been built in 1838 on the site of an old smugglers bothy.

Illicit still display at Glen Ord Visitor Centre
His comments on the water source are a little confusing but explainable.  He records the source as “Glen Oran and two lochs in the hills of Knockudas; and there are besides two reservoirs” and “The Oran rivulet, which proceeds from the glen, rattles along, close to the roofs of some of the buildings”.  The two lochs are Loch nan Eun and Loch nam Bonnach which lie beyond the adjoining hills of Cnoc Udais (his Knockudas) and Cnoc Croit na Maoile, also known as Ord Hill (from Gaelic for hammer/rounded hill) and whose northeast projections stretch almost to the distillery.

Allt Fionnaidh (White Burn) channelled to provide cooling water
The two lochs feed the Allt Fionnaidh (White Burn) which is the water that rattles along past the distillery, the River Oran having turned north a couple of kilometres before reaching it.  The Allt Fionnaidh still feeds the large reservoir behind the distillery, itself rather than the stream being at a level close to the roof of the original maltings, and which drove two water wheels until the 1960s and still provides the cooling water.  Barnard doesn’t mention it but the mashing water was once brought from the Cuckoo Well but is now raised from boreholes down to an aquifer.

Barnard’s tour began by crossing a footbridge over the burn, likely where it flowed out of the reservoir in the lade, and entered the upper floor of the maltings which had an adjoining kiln heated with Dava peats, Dava being a large peat moor north of Grantown-on Spey.  Later in his report he notes that the distillery has a Heather House to store blossoms for adding to the peat in the kiln, an aromatic addition previously only noted at Highland Park although Barnard hints at a few more distilleries doing this.

Original maltings, later for Saladin boxes, malt store at end where kiln was
Additional floor maltings and a further two kilns were built at right angles to this around the turn of the century and were used until 1961 when Saladin box maltings were built inside the original building that Barnard had visited.  These were used until 1983 when the distillery switched to using the huge malting plant that was built next door in 1968 and which uses drum maltings to supply a number of Diageo distilleries, as far a field as Talisker on Skye, Dalwhinnie to the south and Clynelish to the north.  Glen Ord’s malt is now very lightly peated at just 2ppm.

Drum Malting plant at Glen Ord
Barnard recorded a good sized mash tun at 18 feet wide by 5 deep that supplied eight washbacks at 13,600 litres each.  As he left the Tun-room he saw through a window the two outside cylinder and tube condensers for the still house, which sat above a worm tub!?  Condensers were then a fairly recent innovation for distilleries so perhaps the worm tub used previously had been retained as a fall back?  The still house contained two old Pot Stills, the wash at 21,520 litres and spirit at 12,500 and all other processes here seemed fairly standard.

There were no engines when Barnard visited, all power being provided by the two water wheels that have since been removed.  Even after hearing that Teaninich was the only distillery north of Inverness with electricity at that time it is still a surprise to learn that Glen Ord didn’t receive electricity until 1949, paraffin lamps having been used until then for lighting.

Glen Ord visitor centre and pagodas from the second phase of maltings built

The distillery changed hands a couple of times before becoming part of DCL in 1925 and onward into Diageo today.  Aside from the extensive developments in malting on the site there have been further expansions over the last 50 years and I am grateful to Scott Christie for showing me around and for placing some of Barnard’s comments into context.  We began in one of those developments - the conversion of an old warehouse into one of the most informative visitor centres I have seen on this journey.

There are a series of displays on the history of the distillery and on different aspects of the industry, including malting, milling, the cooperage, the coppersmith, the effect of different cask types and ages and an example of an illicit still.  There is a relaxing tasting room with a window showing inside the adjoining warehouse and here I saw for the first time the extended range of the Diageo ‘Classic Malts’ together in one display.  Glen Ord was previously one of Diageo’s ‘Hidden Malts’ but this category was disbanded and the whiskies added to the original six Classic Malts in 2006 along with some others, although Glen Ord has since dropped out again in the UK as it is now export only.

Extended Classic Malts range
Scott next pointed out some of the old buildings, including the old maltings where the Saladin boxes operated, now without its kiln, and the adjoining kiln pagodas from the later maltings.  Inside new buildings we saw the new stainless steel semi-lauter mash tun installed in 2010 to replace the previous cast iron tun.  The tun takes a 12.5 tonne mash but only has two waters run through instead of the more common three.  There are still 8 washbacks but they now take a hefty 59,000 litres of wort each for a long fermentation of 74 hours.

Glen Ord Still house, built 1966
A new still house was built in 1966 and stands right by the country road that passes by, the stills at that time increased from 2 to 6 and changed from coal fired to steam heating.  The three wash stills are 18,500 litres and the three spirit stills are 16,000.  The stills are all ‘onion’ shaped with wide rounded bases and very slightly descending lyne arms.  The middle cut has a wider range than many distilleries, from 74% down to 58%.  There are no stray worm tubs sitting here any more and the water in the condensers has been preheated in the maltings, a by-product of drying the barley, to provide a slower condensing rate.

Glen Ord warehouses
The distillery was producing 364,000 litres p.a. when Barnard visited but now has a capacity of up to 4m litres.  Barnard noted 8 warehouses and records one that was “built entirely of iron, quite a new departure in material for Bonded Warehouses, and highly recommended by Mr. Mackenzie” who may have been pulling his leg or was misunderstood as there is no record of it here now.  The warehouses then held 791,000 litres but now have a capacity for 15,000 casks, all in dunnage warehouses, although the spirit is first taken to Auchroisk distillery near Mulben in Speyside for casking.

Around 15% of the whisky is bottled as single malt with the rest going into blends such as Dewars and Johnnie Walker.  The standard release is now called The Singleton of Glen Ord and is a 12yo that is not available in the UK, other than at the distillery.  This whisky has been produced specifically for sale in Asian markets (complementing the Singleton of Dufftown for UK retail and the Singleton of Glendullan for the US) and is from a 50/50 mix of sherry and bourbon casks.

Barnard had tasted an 1882 make, so a 4yo at most, which he found “very agreeable to the palate”.  I enjoyed hints of ginger and orange in that rich 12yo Singleton, along with an interesting discussion with Scott about perceptions of whisky around the world; my thanks to him and the staff here for a memorable tour and their kind hospitality.

Once more Barnard included some lines of verse that are unaccredited, in this case being the last two verses of Robert Burns’ poem The Author’s Earnest Cry and Prayer, which we have discussed before when he quoted the same lines in his Kintyre Distillery report from Campbletown, and which end with the rousing words “Freedom and whisky gang thegither, Tak aff your dram!”.  Whatever the reason for Barnard including it here, we both now finished our drams and headed south to Inverness, now leaving the cliffs, seascapes and verdant beauty of the northeast coast behind.