"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

Friday, 27 April 2012

Aberlour [Glenlivet] Distillery

Following on from the landscape and mystical woods of my previous post on Aberlour we now come to a distillery which offers further enchantment and a fascinating, and occasionally obscure, story to tell.  The original Aberlour Distillery we have heard about before – first licensed in 1826 it was later licensed to the Grants and Walkers for a few years up to 1840 before the former built Glen Grant distillery in Rothes.  However, the location of that earlier Aberlour distillery is a bit of a mystery to explore.  The current distillery was built in 1879/80 and there is no apparent record of distilling in the town during the 40 years between the two.

The Aberlour parish report dated 1836 in the Second Statistical Account of Scotland (SSAS) states that “there is one whisky distillery, on a large scale within the parish, situated at Aberlour”.  Now, this was likely to be the early distillery mentioned above, but by saying “at Aberlour” exactly where did the author mean?  Some sources have the grounds of Aberlour House as the location, with the distillery being built by the local Laird, although I’m not aware of an original source for this claim and the house wasn’t built until around 1838.  There is no evidence of the distillery buildings either today or on any maps I can find as it appeared to have only operated for a short while before detailed map surveys were available.

However, could the SSAS author have meant the Aberlour Burn when he stated “at Aberlour”, i.e. at the actual Aber (mouth of) Lour (loud or chattering burn), particularly as the village in-between the Burn and the House is recorded as Charlestown in the report.  A map from 1869 shows the Mill of Ruthrie (corn and saw mills) beside the burn on the site of the current distillery, but could the mill have been a conversion from the original distillery buildings?  Curiously, Barnard states that the distillery was rebuilt in 1880, and I wonder if he was indicating the same thing.  The SSAS describes the buildings as “on a large scale” and it therefore seems strange that the location is no longer clearly known, but if anyone knows of an original source document or map for it then I would be glad to hear about it.

Aberlour Distillery c1896
The second Aberlour distillery was founded by James Fleming who had lease of the land at the Mill of Ruthrie.  Fleming was already a distiller at Dailuaine since 1865 and he was also a grain merchant and an agent for the North of Scotland Bank.  The Aberlour distillery was planned and designed by him and Barnard describes it as “a perfect model Distillery…consisting of a triangular block of stone buildings of neat appearance”.  It was built on an L shape plan with the kiln at the apex and warehouses filling in the courtyard behind.  The picture above hanging in the distillery dates to 1896 and shows the original layout, with a kiln roof built before Doig’s pagoda structure became common.

Barnard was escorted round by Mr Gauld, the Brewer; I was met at the office by the entrance gate by Jonathan Osbaldiston who was most hospitable and generous with his time for my questions.  There was a large international group for the tour, always a welcome sight at our distilleries, and we spent a happy and relaxed two hours seeing round the distillery and tasting a fine selection of their produce.

Aberlour Distillery Fleming Rooms
The tour passed by the Fleming Rooms which are in what was originally the Brewer’s cottage, now the oldest building left on site and which can be visited on the more detailed Founder’s Tour.  Next door was a display room where Jonathan’s relaxed and entertaining commentary introduced us to the character of James Fleming and some of the history of the distillery.  Fleming was a philanthropist as well as a businessman, the embodiment of his family motto “Let the deed show”, and some of his legacy is described in my previous post.  Two key elements of whisky production are also on display – the various stages in the life of a barley kernel and a location near to a pure water source.

The barley is sourced from around Scotland and is now unpeated, although peat had originally been the heat source in the kiln.  Barnard’s description of the maltings, kiln and mill are all perfunctory and offer nothing unusual.  The floor maltings were closed in 1962 and the building converted into a warehouse, the kiln demolished thereafter.  The current mill is a Porteus that was installed 50 years ago when the maltings were closed.  An earlier mill had been the source of a spark that started a devastating fire in January 1898 that destroyed most of the main distillery buildings aside from the maltings and kiln.  The business was insured though and the distillery was rebuilt and operational again by the end of that year, Charles Doig the architect for the then enlarged and modernised premises.

St Drostan's Well Stone
The original water source was a well on the site which was dedicated to St Drostan who was a missionary here in the 6th/7th century after arriving from Ireland with St Columba.  A dedication stone from the site of the well is now part of the display, the inscription reading the Anglicised form of St Dunstan.  Two springs higher up Ben Rinnes now provide the soft water for distilling, the site of the well now hidden under warehouses that were added in the early 20th century.  The Burn of Aberlour that runs swiftly past the distillery once provided all the motive power and the old mill lade still supplies the cooling water.

The original mash tun was relatively small at 12 feet wide by 4 deep but here Barnard offers something a little different - the worts from the tun were cooled in a pipe 200 feet long that ran through the concrete worm tank, rather than using a Morton refrigerator or open tank cooling that were more common then.  A new stainless steel semi-lauter tun was fitted in 1972 to replace a previous cast iron tun.  The 12 tonne mash receives three waters and produces 56,000 litres of wort for each washback.  The original washbacks were also relatively small with five of them at 18,200 litres each.  The six stainless steel vessels now here replaced wooden backs in 1972 and they ferment for just 48 hours to produce a very sweet wash at around 8.5%.

Aberlour Stills
Barnard records a wash still with a 7,270 litre capacity and a spirit still at 5,450 litres.  The still house was reconstructed in 1973 when the stills were increased from one pair to two.  The wash stills now each take a 15,000 litre charge for a three hour run that produces low-wines of around 23%.  The spirit stills are charged with 12,000 litres from which a 2 1/2 hour middle cut provides 5,000 litres of spirit which is casked at 63.5%.  The lyne arms are slightly descending to the shell and tube condensers in an adjacent building.  The still heating was changed from direct fire to steam coil in the 1980s.

I mentioned the old concrete worm tank earlier and Barnard was quite fascinated by its “novel cooling plan”.  It was 50 feet long by 6 wide and just 3 deep and he describes a water flow that “rushes along the one side and back the other, over the worms, proving the simplest and most effectual condensing method we have met with”.  This water flow also powered two water wheels but neither the tank nor the wheels have survived.

Aberlour Warehouses
There were two warehouses in 1886, built from stone and with corrugated iron roofs.  One of them, with three spans and domed roofs, can be seen on the left foreground of the old picture higher up the page, the other two storey building is on the right behind the distillery.  Barnard noted that 2,000 casks were stored in the warehouses, now there are around 25,000 in dunnage and racking warehouses around the site and many more stored at Chivas’ main bond at Mulben near Keith.  Most Aberlour is matured in bourbon casks but they also use Oloroso casks and then marry whisky from the two cask types in different ratios for each bottle in their range, except for the A’bunadh which is exclusively Oloroso sherry butt matured.

At the end of his report Barnard notes that “near the entrance there is a small office for the Distiller and another for the Excise” but I think he is here referring to the entrance to the yard that he has just finished describing rather than the entrance gate by the main road.  The building beside the entrance is dated 1897 and was built as the Distillery Manager’s home, later converted to offices and the small distillery shop where a warm welcome to this enchanted corner of Speyside awaits you.

Aberlour Distillery office and shop
Fleming had sold the distillery that he designed to Robert Thorne & Sons in 1892 and it then changed hands a couple of more times, generally staying in production most years and gradually expanding.  It was bought by Pernod Ricard in 1975, the first Scotch whisky distillery bought by a French company and part of their whisky division Chivas Brothers today.  Barnard noted an annual production of around 364,000 litres, sold principally in England and Scotland - the capacity is now just over ten times that and they produced 3.5m litres in 2010 (MWYB 2011).  Most of their production is now bottled as single malt Scotch in a range of age statements and it has recently been the best selling single malt brand in France.

Nothing else for it then but to try some of the expressions and so we repaired to Warehouse No.1 where a cosy tasting room has been created, with a feel like being in an old grocer shop with their own barrel of whisky sitting in a rack by the counter, only here with a view into the maturing casks in the warehouse beyond the glass.

Aberlour tasting room in Warehouse No.1
The upturned barrel tables were pre-laid with six glasses for each of us to sample.  The variety of sweet flavours that revealed themselves through the drams was quite impressive.  The sweetness began in the dash of 70% new make we started with and which was not unpleasant at all, carried through and enhanced by the cask influence in the other whiskies.  The next two drams were both 16yo single cask CS whiskies from the casks racked in the tasting room.  The first was from a bourbon cask, an expression of Aberlour not normally available by bottle, and it was intriguing to try the whisky in this different style - massive VANILLA on the nose (I can still sense the aroma just thinking about it) followed by light banana and pear to taste.  The second was a first fill sherry cask which was understandably warm and spicy to taste with a long finish.

The 10yo we sampled was not the usual UK retail bottle but a version normally only available in France that has been further matured in sherry casks for 6 months after the initial marrying; I think I still prefer the UK version though.  My favourite of the day was the evenly balanced 16yo, 50:50 between the cask types and with a nice long drying finish that I quite like in a whisky.

The final whisky was the A’bunadh which is Gaelic for ‘of the origin’.  This whisky was intended to recreate the style of Aberlour as it was around James Fleming’s time, except without the peaty notes that would have been present then.  The idea came from the discovery of an old bottle that had been bricked up in one of the buildings and which was wrapped in a newspaper dated 1898, the year of the rebuild after the fire.  The A’bunadh is batched exclusive from sherry cask whiskies which is representative of those earlier times as bourbon casks were not introduced into Scotch whisky production until the 1920s, and the predominantly younger whiskies married in each batch would reflect the age of whiskies commonly drunk at the time.

Jonathan had earlier described the pagan Celtic history that was relevant to the location; the mysticism and enchantment of the chattering water and woods providing a place where our ancestors would worship and invoke the spirits of nature.  The oak tree that is the emblem on Aberlour labels and the pure water that flows here were key elements of their culture and Jonathan playfully suggested that our adoration of the water of life matured in oak casks made pagans of us all as we joyfully celebrated those elements that are brought together to create it.  The Burn of Aberlour could even be heard chattering away outside the warehouse during silent moments of contemplation of the whisky before us, the spirits of nature murmuring their appreciation of the craft that is employed on the banks of the burn.

Burn of Aberlour chattering outside Warehouse No.1
There is the opportunity to fill your own bottle from the bourbon and sherry casks that sit silently, patiently watching over you partake of their nectar during the tasting.  There is something quite special about bottling and labelling a whisky direct from the cask by hand and having your name and bottle number entered in a ledger, it adds another level of anticipation and appreciation to the resulting dram that will follow.  The visitor experience at Aberlour is one of the most welcoming and informative I have encountered, and the relaxed way in which each process was explained and the informal and rustic setting for the whisky tasting all added to the feel of enchantment in this sheltered vale.

Aberlour Distillery
After the tasting, Jonathan spent some time filling in answers to the questions that I had saved as we went round and he pointed out a couple of things around the site that I could try to relate to Barnard’s report.  The march of progress means that there is very little of the original distillery remaining, even from the rebuild after the fire in 1898, but you don’t need floor maltings, pagodas and peat smoke rising from a kiln to invoke the spirit of whisky when the warmth and passion of its creators and curators can take you to its very heart by ‘letting the deed show’.  The second Aberlour distillery still flourishes and I am very grateful to Jonathan and to Chivas Brothers for their kind hospitality and their help with my research.

I’m beginning to feel a real attachment to Speyside that I hadn’t known before, similar to that which I normally feel for Islay.  What further enchantment awaits me on this journey?