"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, 16 July 2012

Glenfarclas Distillery, Ballindalloch

Advance notice – this is perhaps the longest post I have written for this blog and it is a bit wordy.  If you do wish to read on then I might suggest pouring yourself just a wee dram to carry you through (you know you wanted one anyway - enjoy).

Having now seen all of the distilleries on the northwest side of the Spey my journey crossed back over to continue down the southeast side.  A few miles upstream from Aberlour and heading towards the estate of Ballindalloch brought me to where the Glenfarclas Distillery nestles on a lower slope of Ben Rinnes.  Glenfarclas was another distillery that Barnard visited on two occasions a decade apart; his first report was very brief but his second was part of a much longer ‘sketch’ as he called it.

On his first visit as part of his main tour he appears to have travelled by carriage from Craigellachie station (he was likely still residing in Keith at that time) before skirting round the foothills of Ben Rinnes.  Almost half of his short one page report is taken up with scene setting but his description of the scenery almost seems contradictory:

“Beautiful the prospect certainly was not; for without the soft magic of green hills, woodlands, and the river meandering in the verdant meadow, no scene can deserve the qualification; nevertheless, if unlovely, all was strange, gigantic and sublime.”

I’m not quite sure what he was getting at there as Strathspey offers all those qualities and therefore could be accorded the description of beautiful, as he has often done in other reports.  Those last few words though - strange, gigantic and sublime – could apply specifically to Ben Rinnes and it seems as if it was the mountain that held his view that day, rather than the valley.  The summit was mist covered and he records being fascinated by the weird sight as “the mist stole in and out the crags and buttresses…and, when it lifted, the higher peaks were just visible, like tiny black islands, against which the misty billows rose and fell.”

Ben Rinnes with cloud lifting over summit islands
The road south after Aberlour also rises a little way up the north-west flank of Ben Rinnes and away from the Spey for a number of miles until after it passes through Ballindalloch.  At this elevation Barnard could see the distillery from miles off, standing exposed on the slopes and its tall chimney apparently the difference between it being identified as a distillery and not being mistaken for a scattered farm-holding.

His brief and unremarkable report records that Glenfarclas was established in 1836, its water was drawn from several springs on Benrinnes (sic), there were small barley and malt barns, a peat heated kiln, mash tun, 6 washbacks and two pot stills with no volumes recorded for any of them.  There were also seven warehouses by that time holding 2,000 casks with an output of just 227,000 litres p.a., around the lower quarter mark in Scotland at that time.

And that was it for his first visit, but when he returned a decade or so later he provided more detail on the arrangements, although not by much.  His account of this second visit was included in a pamphlet titled Royal Gordon Whisky, included in the 2008 edition of Barnard, which began with a report on the operations of the producer of this historic blend – the infamous Pattison, Elder & Co of Leith.  Therein he also mentions Old Blended Glenfarclas-Glenlivet as another one of Pattison’s popular blends and they were also joint owners of Glenfarclas from 1896 until they became bankrupt in December 1898, which dates Barnard’s second visit to the distillery to sometime in those years.  I will return to the Pattison story in detail when the journey reaches Edinburgh, for now though it’s another wander along the Spey.

Once again less than half of his report is about the distillery itself, with the majority covering more of the scenery around Ben Rinnes and half of that part was a transcription of another traveller’s journey to see a smugglers bothy on the mountain.  Barnard described an 8 mile journey from Craigellachie railway junction on a cold spring morning, skirting Ben Rinnes via a “somewhat desolate mountain road” (now the A95 trunk road) just as he had that time a decade earlier.  He is more pleased with the scenery this time than last though, and suggests that the hills “stamped the scene with a character almost amounting to grandeur” which is rather restrained for him.  He was welcomed at the distillery by Mr Grant and enjoyed some hospitality with him before the manager showed him over the place.

Ben Rinnes grandeur from the new Craigellachie junction
At this point Barnard quoted three verses from an unaccredited song, stating “The burden of a famous song of the district at the beginning of the century was “Guid Glenlivet Whisky O!”.  The three verses were actually from a song called Highland Whisky which was set to Niel Gow’s air Farewell to Whisky composed in 1799.  A number of different songs have been put to this music, all with broadly similar themes in praise of the finest drink on earth.  An early version I found that includes those same three verses is dated 1827, although it only includes the word Glenlivat (sic) at one verse and not any of the ones that Barnard quoted.  There is an 1888 song called simply ‘Glenlivet’ to the same tune and with that quoted burden, written by James Scott Skinner and dedicated to Glenlivet’s ‘Major Smith of Minmore’.  Barnard may have seen both versions, tweaking the words of one to suit whatever point he was making about Glenfarclas then being part of the widely famed Glenlivet district.

Barnard then once again hints that he may not be too sure which way to point a compass as he suggests that Ben Rinnes sits on the south-western side of Glenlivet when it’s actually north to north-eastern.  I’m beginning to notice that for a well travelled man Barnard did rather seem to be lacking the map reading gene.  He does correctly record Glenfarclas as being the highest of the distilleries on the mountain at that time.  Benrinnes distillery is slightly lower but the highest today is Allt-a-Bhainne (built 1975) which sits almost exactly in a straight line across the summit point of the mountain from Glenfarclas.

He records Glenfarclas as being on the banks of the burns of White Rashes and Lyne Reach.  The Burn of Whiterashes is fed by a number of springs high up on the west side of Ben Rinnes and it flows down to a dam that once powered the distillery waterwheels.  The other burn would be the Burn of Lyneriach which begins in the same place but then flows west into the River Avon rather than down past the distillery.  The distillery name he records as first having been Rechlerich (the name of the farm on which the distillery was built) changing to Glenfarclas around 1830 which would reflect the official licensing of the distillery in 1836.  Curiously, it is not recorded in the Aberlour Parish statistical account of Scotland dated July 1836, perhaps as it was only first licensed that year, or perhaps because it sat on the boundary with Inveraven parish and each parish thought it belonged to the other?

The distillery buildings he described as substantial and which “with but one or two exceptions, remain the same as when anciently constructed, with no new-fangled alterations, wings, or projections”.  We shall see as we go on that some of these non-fangled original buildings still remain, but also that progress has now surrounded them with new wings and projections.  He continues “the antique vessels, stills, and worm are old-fashioned…and it is with great reluctance that they [the proprietors] allow a new pipe to be put in, or any alteration made, as they fear to alter the flavour or change the characteristics of their anciently-famed Glenlivet whisky”.  On this point we shall later see that old habits die hard and this philosophy has been maintained even through the refurbishments and expansions of the 20th century.

Barnard first toured the premises and then later climbed Ben Rinnes to take in the view, although his account of these two activities appears in the reverse order in the report.  On the climb he stopped at Cairn Guish which is the top of the curiously named Deaf Herd’s Hillock at around half way to the summit, and he noted the various distant hills and landmarks visible from there.

Deaf Herd's Hillock rising above Glenfarclas warehouses
He then continued to the summit before returning via the “Spring of Sauchie” about 500 yards above the distillery and which provided the mashing water.  He also recorded that the Sauchie Burn was nearby but the name Sauchie doesn’t appear on any 19th century map or reports I have seen.  This did lead him into the next full page and a half narration of an old traveller’s visit to a smugglers bothy, wherein it is noted as the Spring of Lauchie (also unknown).  I will save you the details as it’s a fairly generic and lengthy smugglers tale and I have no idea where Barnard sourced it from.  Sauchie translates as willow, so if anyone knows of a little copse of willow trees on the west side of Ben Rinnes with a spring nearby then you may well stumble upon the remains of the smugglers activity, just look for the shadows of three enchanted water sprites on a clear moonlit night…

Barnard does go on to confirm that Sauchie was then the source of the mashing water at Glenfarclas and it was “the most noted and valued spring in the immediate district, which is most carefully looked after by the distiller, by whom it is highly prized”.  The name may now be lost but it might still be a spring that feeds the Green Burn that supplies all the water today, and which is also so highly prized that George Grant IV petitioned the House of Lords to grant exclusive use of the water to the distillery.  After passing by the distillery the burn flows on into the Burn of Carron that supplies the cooling water to Dailuaine Distillery.  A mill lead supplies a small dam in the grounds of Glenfarclas beside where there was once an outdoor curling rink used by the distillery employees.

Only a few things stand out from Barnard’s second report of the distillery.  The first is a new vessel he described here for the first time – the couch.  This vessel once formed an intermediate stage between steeping the barley and laying it on the malting floor.  Storing the steeped barley in the couch for a day was an old Excise requirement under the malt tax rules, with measurements of the grain in the steep, the couch and on the floor all being taken by the Gauger.  The malt tax was repealed in 1880 but the couch at Glenfarclas still sat beside the steep and this is the only time I think Barnard mentions it, given as it was out of use a few years before his main journey.

The kiln was then heated only with peats and Barnard describes the scene on the nearby peat moss where turfs were being cut.  He then uses another of those evocative phrases that I shall steal from him – “incense of slumbering ages” – to describe the peat burning in the kiln that “saluted our senses with an aroma that haunted us long after we had taken our departure from Glenfarclas”.  The peat cone currently smouldering in front of me doesn’t quite muster up the same emotive thoughts, and the Glenfarclas in my glass is now only peated to around 2-3ppm so I may need to head back to Islay soon for another fix of incense!

As per his first report he again doesn’t provide dimensions for the various vessels.  The mash tun took 120 bushels (around 1.8 tonnes) and there were still 6 washbacks as per the decade before and here described as of considerable capacity.  There were the two old pot stills, the wash still having the “antiquated revolving chains to prevent the wash from burning”.  The seven warehouses that held 2,000 casks at his previous visit had very recently had an eighth added that alone could store 1,500 casks.

Aside from brief general descriptions of the various industries around the distillery yard that was it for his second report.  My own visit was in the far more informative company of Sales & Marketing Executive Kate Wright who very kindly gave me an extended tour during their silent season, so I was able to spend time trying to separate the old sections of the distillery from the new and compare it all to Barnard’s rather succinct notes.

Let’s start by filling in the few gaps in the ownership history not yet covered.  The distillery was licensed by Robert Hay in 1836 on the site of a previous unlicensed farm distillery dating back to at least the 1790s, probably earlier.  When Hay died in 1865 the tenancy of the distillery and the farm of Rechlerich were taken over by John Grant as the first generation of the Grant family to be involved here.  John promptly leased the distillery to John Smith of Glenlivet Distillery while his son George worked the farm.  Smith was to build his own distillery, Cragganmore, on the other side of Ballindalloch in 1869 and so John and his son took over the operation of Glenfarclas in 1870, the name J. & G. Grant still the company name today.

In late 1895 the Grants were looking to expand the distillery to take advantage of the whisky boom that was then feverishly sweeping the nation.  The ownership of the distillery was transferred to Glenfarclas-Glenlivet Distillery Company Ltd which they set up as joint owners with Pattison, Elder & Co.  Barnard came for his second visit around this time and the distillery was then expanded with a new larger malting being built.  However, in December 1898 the Pattisons were declared bankrupt and the ripples of this event were felt across the industry.

The Grants eventually managed to trade their way out of the ensuing financial difficulty and the family have remained in control ever since, which makes Glenfarclas the second oldest family owned distillery in Scotland (after Springbank which was founded in 1828).  Their current Brand Ambassador, George Grant, is now the sixth generation of the family to be involved with the distillery.

Glenfarclas Visitor Centre with the pagoda from their old kiln
Kate met me in the elegant visitor’s centre that was opened here in 1973.  Glenfarclas was one of the first distilleries in Scotland to open to public visitors and this was a welcoming and warm place to start my tour on what turned out to be a dreich old day with the summit of Ben Rinnes barely visible through the cloud, just as it had been that misty day when Barnard first visited.  Glenfarclas translates to ‘valley of the green grass’ and the abundant water here no doubt contributes hugely to the origins of that name.

We crossed the way to the front courtyard of the distillery and immediately the contrasts with Barnard’s time were apparent.  The original 18th century granary still stands at an angle to the other buildings, now reused as No.4 Duty Free Warehouse, and to the left of it is the tun room with the date 1975 registered on the end wall.  This building had previously been the new maltings built in the late 1890s but they stopped malting here in 1972 and it was refurbished into the tun room thereafter.

Glenfarclas Tun Room and old kiln building behind
You can still see from the layout of the buildings, beginning with where the old granary was, how the slope was used to ease the flow of material through the distillery with the aid of gravity.  At the bottom of the slope the old kiln was turned into the mill room in the 1970s but the huge pagoda that once adorned the kiln roof has been preserved and placed on top of the entrance to the visitor centre.  The malt is now procured commercially and 330 tonnes can be stored in the malt bins onsite.

The mill is a Swiss made Bühler mill installed in the 1970s and the modern de-stoner that works alongside it is also by Bühler.  An old wooden-cased dresser stands here as well and it is the first screening through which the malt passes and provides a further connection between the old and new.  A semi-lauter tun was installed in 1973 and at 10m in diameter it is one of the largest I have seen - they only run one mash a day as it takes 12 hours to complete with three waters passing through 16.5 tonnes of grist.

Glenfarclas Tun Room
Each mash produces 83,000 litres of wort that is split between two of the 12 stainless steel washbacks.  Glenfarclas had used wooden washbacks until the 1960s and the decision to change to stainless steel was a gradual one.  To ensure that the spirit produced would not be affected they initially changed only two of the backs to stainless steel and then monitored and compared the quality of the wash and spirit until satisfied that the change did not affect the end product.  Barnard had noted this reluctance to change 70 years earlier and that philosophy held true here in the 1960s.

Glenfarclas wash still rummager
The still house is now home to 6 stills working as three pairs, the number increased from 2 to 4 in 1960 and to 6 in 1975.  All the stills are gas fired having changed from coal fired in 1973, one of the few remaining distilleries not converted to steam heating so the wash stills have the rummager apparatus inside, a mechanism oft mentioned on this blog.  As it was silent season when I visited I was able to look inside one of the stills and see how this peculiar apparatus works in more detail than anywhere else I had been.  In contrast to the change to stainless steel washbacks the distillery also once experimented with steam coil heating in just one still, but the lab couldn’t recognise the spirit as Glenfarclas and so the still was converted back to gas fired and thus the character of their “anciently-famed” whisky was maintained.

Glenfarclas stills
These are relatively big stills that stand 6m tall - the wash stills are amongst the largest in Speyside and are charged with 21,000 litres from a single washback.  The middle cut from the spirit still is just 3,500-4,000 litres from a total distillation run taking 10 hours, so a narrow band of spirit to take into the cask to help ensure the finesse of the whisky.  There are reflux bowls on all the stills and downward angled lyne arms to the outside condensers.  They normally produce 24/7 and have a 3m litre annual capacity.

Kate then took me to Warehouse No.1, that very same structure that Barnard had visited on his first visit and which appears to date to a century before that.  The whisky from those eras is long gone and the oldest cask left on site is now from 1953 after the last of their 1952 whisky went into the 175th anniversary bottle released last year.

Glenfarclas Warehouse No.1 with historic wooden supports and beams
In 2007 Glenfarclas first released a remarkable series of whiskies under the title ‘Family Casks’ which reflected 43 consecutive years of whisky distillation from 1952 to 1994.  Further releases have followed in each year since 2007 and a stack of some of these casks was on display in warehouse No.1, with a 1953 cask sitting proud on the top level.  Of further interest to the whisky geek in me, and easily noticed in this sequence of casks, is the change from marking the cask fill contents in 1/4 gallons to marking it in litres, but not until 1980 even though the UK went decimal in 1971 (told you it was geeky).

Glenfarclas Family Casks
There are now 30 dunnage warehouses on site, holding around 52,000 casks which is a thirteen fold increase from Barnard’s second visit.  90% of their production is matured in sherry casks, 10% in bourbon and their standard bottles mainly contain whisky from first and second fill sherry casks.  Casks are brought direct from Spain where a family owned Bodega control everything from cask construction through sherry production and then export of the casks to the distillery.  When bourbon casks are used they are never first fill, the flavour profile of Glenfarclas whiskies predominantly offering those warm, rich, dark fruit sherry notes.  No whiskies with ‘finishes’ are produced at the distillery, one of the few not to go down that road for their single malt releases.

At the front of a booklet that I was given at the distillery there is a copy of a watercolour picture of the distillery which dates to 1791.  It shows a well established operation which must have been in place for some years prior to then.  An etching in Barnard’s second report shows the distillery from a similar viewpoint on the west side from around where the current visitor centre entrance is.  Some of the buildings in the watercolour also appear in the etching and are still there today, including the first two bays of the warehouse and the original granary building.

Glenfarclas granary of very old, now No.4 DFW
Warehouse No.1 now has the four bays recorded in the Barnard etching and it is still called No.1 Duty Free Warehouse; the granary is now No.4 DFW.  The kiln can be seen beside the old malt barn in both of the old pictures, with the distillery buildings perpendicular to it.  The current tun room (where the second malting was before) is where the course of the mill lead previously fed the waterwheels that powered the distillery.  The buildings you can see today provide a third view of the distillery, each view around a century apart and showing buildings that can be traced through more than 220 years of distilling history - there are very few distilleries in Scotland where that can be true.

Glenfarclas tun room where malting once took place on the site of an earlier mill lead
Before leaving, Barnard enjoyed a glass of ten year old which was “most acceptable...and a good preparation for our long journey”.  Before I left, Kate brought me full circle back to the visitor centre where we repaired to the bar for a wee dram of something special.  The tasting room is known as the Ship’s Room as the wooden panels on the walls are from the first class smoking room of the old ocean liner Empress of Australia, the panels bought at auction and loving restored here.  It’s a delightful place to savour a delightful whisky and that’s what I was about to enjoy.

Glenfarclas Ship's Room
After a brief nose of the new make (apples and melons, oily but also fresh) we then considered the 10yo, as Barnard had done, but with a twist.  Kate produced samples of the unmarried sherry cask whisky side by side with the same age sampled from a plain cask.  The latter produced woody notes but not the vanilla burst I was anticipating, and it seemed much younger than it was and against the rich honey sweetness and spices of the sherry cask.  Married together at around 2/3 sherry casks to 1/3 plain these two styles make the standard 10yo release a very approachable sherried whisky with a spicy tingle and a light smokiness.

Kate wasn’t done though.  She had remembered me pointing out my ‘birth’ cask in that display in the warehouse and the generous hospitality I had already experienced was now extended to include a taste of Glenfarclas from that year.  Wow!  This was sensational whisky, the oldest I have ever tasted, and despite its many years of gifting to the angels the cask had still held onto an abv approaching 60%.  This was a real treat that I will always remember and I am very grateful to the distillery and to Kate for the enjoyable time that I spent there.

Glenfarclas Distillery
Barnard had earlier summarised the landscape around Glenfarclas as providing “a touch of beauty and a feeling of homeliness to the lonely distillery”.  If it is a lonely place then that is solely due to the isolated location that actually contributes much to the quality of the whisky through the pure water and cool clean air that are in abundance; the beauty and homeliness is also reflected in the warmth of the whisky and in the welcome that a visitor will find there.

Barnard chucked in another couple of verses of Highland Whisky to conclude his report but I will leave you at the end of mine with a paraphrase of the same apology that he provided before he signed off:

“If I have indulged too freely in the reminiscences of my trip to Glenfarclas, it must not be ascribed to the potency of its whisky, but to the delight of being away, if ever such a little while, from cities and the busy haunts of men.”

Come away from your busy haunts men and women of the world, to a place where spirit has flowed since the industrial age was born and where you might just find a whisky from the year that you were.