It’s always good to hear of a distillery coming back from the dead, as was the case for Glen Garioch (Geery) after its closure in 1994, because we get to drink it’s whisky again. But we perhaps forget the impact on a community when these stills fall silent.
Glen Garicoh is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, dating back to 1797 and is also the most easterly in Scotland. Nestled in the village of Old Meldrum, about a 30 minute drive west of Aberdeen. It’s not until you drive down “Distillery Road” that you realise just how central the distillery is located with the high street of the village actually bisecting the distillery buildings. Unlike other distilleries in Scotland, this is quite a chunk of stone, utilising the local granite which is commonplace for buildings in Aberdeen, the four story maltings building dominates your view.
Unfortunately, when the distillery re-opened in 1997 under the ownership of Morrison-Bowmore, the traditional floor maltings and the use of peat to dry the barley was not re-started and Glen Garioch became a non peated whisky for the first time in its 200 year history.
There were 25 workers employed to maintain the maltings, working over the four floors and the two furnaces which, once carried over to the whisky would be about 10-15 ppm (phenolic parts per million). Today, you can still taste the peated malt in some of the distillery releases, but once these are all drunk up, that’s it folks.
There was also a cooperage on site, as was the case in most distilleries, which is now a very welcoming visitors centre, but again just consider the number of employees overall. These local individuals, maltmen, coopers, barley farmers alike relied on this distillery for their livelihood and as each practice ended, so did their employment. Upon re-opening seven of the original team were re-employed and set about the task of getting the spirit running again. Distillery manager, Kenny Grant began working in the floor maltings at the age of 22, and was one of the few asked back. I didn’t press to ask how long he had been there, but as he described his delight at being asked to rejoin the team, it was clear to see that this has been an emotional roller coaster for him and the others at the distillery.
Let’s not forget the tomatoes! As a rather forward thinking distillery, at onepoint the excess heat from the still fires was utilised to heat greenhouses that were built adjacent to the still house. No doubt the tomatoes grown were helped along a bit by the pot ale wasters well. Unfortunately, there are no current plans afoot to restart this practice as the distillery operates a slightly more economical approach to energy use.
As I was given the tour of the facility, each room entered was a trip back in time and the huge stone walls of the original buildings seemed to be strangely warm and comforting, despite their cold solid appearance. The sense of a time gone by mixed with a revived energy buzzing in every corner was apparent at all levels.
There have been a few changes over time. The mash tun (1) and wash backs (7) are of stainless steel construction and the one wash still which has a curiously long lyne arm (longest in Scotland) stands next to two spirit stills but only one is ever in use. The bulbous, onion shaped stills are wide and short deliver a deep new make, lightly oily with more herbal and earthy notes rather than the lighter fruit/tropical elements associated with new makes further down the road. Glen Garioch is a Highland malt, not a Speyside but who cares about regions? This is an example of why not to care about imaginary lines- remember, it was a peated malt until 1994.
Rebranded and in the hands of its new owners, Glen Garioch is already increasing in sales at an astonishing rate and set to elevate itself once again as a key player for single malts worldwide. Interestingly enough, the first commercially available single malt from the distillery was not until 1972.
Returning to the visitors centre and to the tasting room, I was presented with three of the currently available expressions, all of which were pre cessation of the peated style. I was in for a treat! And to share the whisky with Kenny, listening to his stories of the distillery was just ideal.
Appearance- pale gold/Chardonnay
Nose- Rich vanilla and fresh oak shavings give way to a peppermint and eucalyptus freshness before a wet soil and mineral note roll through on a drift of light smoke.
Palate- More of the same from the nose, delivering as promised. Despite the higher ABV, is soft and rounded with roasted chestnut and butter with light smokey oil.
With a spot of water, there is a lift and summer fruits like red apple appear.
Finish- Lingering freshness and drifting gentle smoke make the finish.
Appearance- Pale amber
Nose- polished rosewood and light nut oil quickly parts to reveal a delicate note of smoked pancetta. The nuttiness found of the 94 returns as spiced chestnuts but what is more apparent this time is the fruit notes of British berries such as black and redcurrant with leaf attached. Wet soil again. A muddy beechwood spade handle in a fruit garden, and summer rain dowsing a bonfire.
Palate- chunky smoke this time, rounded and mouth-filling, which was more subtle on the nose. Delicious spicy fruit elements from the sherry cask and deeper cooks fruits combine. A perfect harmonious cacophony of tastes that just keep rolling along.
Finish- Incredible depth of flavour and spicy notes help this one keep on going. Buy here
Appearance- Bursting bright copper
Nose- Oily and perfumed with sweet oak and red apple. Deep herb and leaf again and as the smoke lifts up it brings with it some clove and cinnamon with it. This takes time to develop and is very integrated.
Palate- Smooth and rich with that cinnamon perfume hit and chewy charred oak. Tingling spice calms to develop a fruity mix but always maintains an earthy element. Comp,ex and very rewarding.
Finish- This just won’t stop giving!
Despite the age and quality of the 86, I would be lying if I was to say it was my favourite. The 1991 stood out for me and perhaps the addition of the sherry cask which would be around 20% of the marriage just added another dimension. But no matter which one you choose, they will surely delight. Just make sure you get hold of some of these soon to taste a wee bit of smokey history.