"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

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Glen Moray Distillery, Elgin

Having visited the three older local distilleries that Barnard had it was now time to discover those that were built a little, and sometimes a lot later.  Of the nine distilleries in the area around Elgin Glen Moray is the closest to town, sitting right on its west boundary.  Glen Moray is the only one of the nine that has a visitor centre and organised tours so I pitched up to be welcomed by Emma and enjoyed an informal tour around the complex, saw an interesting display in a warehouse and nosed a couple of very nice whiskies.

Glen Moray Distillery to right of warehouses, Gallow Hill behind
The distillery nestles in a quiet little dell called the Gallow Crook at the east end of a wide loop in the River Lossie.  It is overlooked on it’s east side by Gallow Hill, the sombre place just outside the old town boundary (as was traditional) where criminals, witches and those pesky varmints who spilled your dram were either stretched, shortened or flambĂ©ed up until the end of the 17th century.  The distillery site was previously the West Brewery which local newspapers record being built in 1830, and the brewery was apparently bought by James Nicholson of Strathisla Distillery in 1896 and converted into Glen Moray Distillery to begin production in 1897.

Glen Moray from the Inverness road approaching Elgin
In the first few decades the distillery experienced the same turmoil following the Pattison crash that affected many others and it fell silent in 1910.  It was bought in 1920 by MacDonald & Muir, later to become Glenmorangie plc, and production restarted in 1923.  It remained with them until it was sold to the French drinks company La Martiniquaise in 2008, who also own the Glen Turner blending and bottling plant at Livingston and recently opened the Starlaw grain distillery beside it.

Some of the well stocked malt bins
My tour began with a look at the 18 huge malt bins that are wedged into a tall building on the site of the original maltings.  The floor maltings were converted to Saladin boxes in 1958 before closing completely in 1978, and they and the kiln were then demolished to make way for a grain store and dark grains plant.  These bins can store 1200 tonnes to ensure the distillery keeps going if its steep and narrow entrance road gets cut off in winter.

The mill is a Porteus dating from 1985 so relatively recent in terms of the lifespan that distilleries get from these ever reliable workhorse machines.  Water for all processes is from the River Lossie and we shall see later that the river tries to get in on the action a bit too much sometimes.

Does exactly what it says on the tun!
The semi-lauter tun runs 2 x 7.5 tonne mashes per day, with 3 waters producing 40,000 litres of wort that is filled into one of the 5 washbacks.  These are made from stainless steel, the picture below showing the wood cladding applied to the outside.  The fermentation time is a fairly exact and relatively short 48 hours producing a light, fruity 8% wash.

Glen Moray washbacks
The stills were increased from 2 to 4 during extensive renovations in 1958 and are now steam coil heated, converted from direct coal fire in the same year, and each one has a 10,000 litres capacity.  The fruity character of the wash carries through the stills into the final product and these wide squat stills, particularly the wash stills, help provide lots of copper contact and the relatively flat lyne arm angle helps to leave the heavier oily alcohols behind.  The spirit stills are simmered for 4 1/2 hours with a long middle cut producing an average 69% spirit.  The processes here are all monitored manually rather than computer controlled.

One of the two pairs of stills
Beneath the stills you can see the metal cladding to aid heat retention and this is not often visible on a tour.  I had previously queried the equivalent wood cladding for display on the stills at Dallas Dhu museum, there to hide the deterioration of the copper, and it was interesting to see a different facet to the design at Glen Moray.

Insulating cladding around the still bases
La Martiniquaise are investing heavily in the distillery and plan to add a further 2 stills and more washbacks.  The historic buildings have listing protection and are arranged around a small courtyard so this will be an interesting exercise to find space for the new plant.  The current annual production of 2.1m litres will be increased to 3.2m on completion of the works.

No. 1 Warehouse and distillery lade returning to River Lossie
There are 2 large palletised warehouses and 8 dunnage with a total capacity for 65,000 casks on site.  Up to 99% of their casks are ex-bourbon with some sherry, virgin French oak, Chardonnay and port pipes used as well.  We visited warehouse No.1 which sits right below Gallow Hill, the angels in here perhaps sharing their treat with the ghosts of those medieval times.

View through a Glen Moray bourbon cask
There is an innovative display in this warehouse where some casks have been fitted with Perspex ends so that you can see the magic that is happening inside and wonder at the different hues the maturing spirit is taking on from the previous contents, brilliantly lit by the sun beaming in through the bars on the windows that day.  The volume of imbibing by the angels is clearly visible and you can also see the difference on the wood that charring makes.

I mentioned the River Lossie above, a river that is prone to flooding as the rainfall that makes this area one of the gardens of Scotland finds its way along flat open plains before reaching the Moray Firth  coast.  The distillery location in a dell by the river leaves it open to occasional inundation and one flood on 16 November 2002 reached shoulder height, a small ‘commemorative’ plaque on one warehouse wall showing the level.  There is little the distillery can do to prevent the flooding, it’s location ideal to take advantage of the water but also at its whim should it choose to wash the walls once in a while.

2002 Flood level marked on warehouse wall
After the tour we repaired to the visitor centre to have a nose of the different expressions produced here.  The core range is the Classic, 12yo and 16yo and Glen Moray is one of those whiskies that you could happily share with someone new to whisky and still enjoy a good level of complexity.  It has gradually increased its market share to become the 4th biggest selling whisky brand in the UK (MWY, 2011).  Their standard bottles have a distinctively shaped neck with a similar profile to the top half of a lantern shaped still, although very different to the stills at the distillery.

Glen Moray core range
Some of the initial wine cask finish experiments for the Glenmorangie group were carried out at Glen Moray and they are now producing some of their own bottlings, including port finished (13 years in bourbon, one in port) and a recent new release that has been fully matured for 10 years in a Chardonnay cask.  That 1995 port finish (you knew I had to try it) is only available to buy at the distillery and is bottled at 56.7%.  I found a very light fragrant nose but then warm to taste with a long spicy, apple strudel flavour giving way to strawberries at the end.  I am often reminded of jam when trying port finished whisky and this was no different.

In the last two years the distillery has also been running some heavily peated batches at 40ppm for short periods.  A 1 1/2 yo sample was very balanced, the smoke not overpowering the zesty notes and with a taste much older than it is, with a still robust 22ppm being carried over into the bottle.

Glen Moray Distillery dell
I left Emma to contemplate the next session of polishing she has to do on her pet project - restoring the old spirit safe for display.  Her tour was relaxed and informative and I was delighted to meet her again at Whisky Fringe in Edinburgh in August where some of the whiskies mentioned above were sampled rather than just nosed as before; many thanks for your kind hospitality.  For now, I’m not for hanging around the Gallows (sorry!) and the journey moves briefly north before heading south down towards the Spey valley.