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|
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
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
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|
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
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|
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
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|
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|
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|
|Glenfarclas wash still rummager|
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|
|Glenfarclas Family Casks|
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|
|Glenfarclas tun room where malting once took place on the site of an earlier mill lead|
|Glenfarclas Ship's Room|
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.
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.