Glen Garioch is a curious little distillery with a long and varied history. Founded in 1797 and often a key name in discussions about the oldest of Scotland’s distilleries, Glen Garioch distillery is currently in the hands of Suntory alongside Bowmore and Auchentoshan. Like Bowmore, the distillery has a reputation for distinct changes in style between the 70s, 80s and 90s, as peating levels seemed to drop over time and the 80s brought about a sometimes soapy, floral component to the distillery character. Those familiar with Bowmore’s FWP years (take a look at Dave Broom’s E-Pistle for the Malt Maniacs) may approach some 80s Glen Garioch with similar caution.
Happily, the 90s take the comparison further as, like Bowmore whisky, the spirit seems to throw off its frequent lavender-soap associations and returns to an old-school, dusty, faintly smoky highland character. This is great news as some bottles from the 60s and 70s (no need to mention Bowmore again, is there?) have deservedly excellent reputations, and it’s good to see Glen Garioch’s standing among whisky geeks growing once more.
Ian Buxton is a name that many will already be familiar with, particularly for his recent books chronicling the definitive history of distilleries such as Glenfarclas and Glenglassaugh. Perhaps even more prominent in the minds of whisky fans though will be his 2010 release 101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die. The success of this excellent little book with its mix of dry wit, honesty and cutting irreverence was well deserved, and its follow up; 101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die is reaching shelves now. With that in mind it felt like the perfect time to have a chat with Ian, ask a few questions that have been floating around in my mind for some time and get his views on whisky past and present.
Sadly, no. Though I have worked in and around the drinks industry for more than 30 years, I actually drifted into whisky because I wanted to return to Scotland with my wife and then young family and I couldn’t find a job in the brewing industry here. I joined the blenders Robertson & Baxter and from there moved to Glenmorangie. I set up my own business in 1991 and things have evolved from there.
After our recent review the very modern, well-presented Glenlivert Nadurra it seemed like a good idea (yes yes, any excuse) to dig out something from the distillery’s earlier years. After-all, despite what marketers might wish you to believe, whisky has changed a great deal over the last 40 or so years. While 1973 was already late enough to have seen the end of Glenlivet’s floor maltings (1966) and the conversion from coal to gas firing (1972), the stills remained direct fired until 1985 and yeast types and barley varieties would certainly have been very different from those commonly found today.
I have spoken in the past about my affection for Berry Bros & Rudd, and while I have tasted many very good casks bottled under their name I can’t deny that examples distilled in the early 70s have an extra allure to them. In this department the good gents of BBR have been rather busy recently having released both this Glenlivet, its sister cask #10822, and a pair of similarly enticing 1974 Glen Grant whiskies (of which the Berry Brother’s Glen Grant 37 year old has already received a very favourable review on the blog a couple of months back.) If anything, I am hoping for even greater things this time around as, at its best, early 70s Glenlivet can be an underrated marvel of fruity elegance.
Many of Scotland’s closed distilleries command huge respect in the whisky world and Lochside distillery is no exception. Unlike classic names such as Brora or Port Ellen which succumbed to the “whisky loch” of the early 1980s, Lochside struggled on through its varying fortunes before finally being closed for the last time in 1992. Sad though it is that the distillery is no more, we can at least take consolation in the knowledge that it should still be some time before stocks disappear altogether.
Over the last couple of years it has been a range of bottlings from 1981 and a couple of well received Single Blend casks from the mid-60s that have flown the Lochside flag, and there are certainly some beautiful casks among them. Here we see another 60s example, only this time without the grain component and bottled by the ever-excellent Malts of Scotland. 1966 has long been thought of as a landmark vintage for lovers of the distillery, some of the casks were “fruit-bombs” of the highest order, while 67 has been rarely seen. Regardless, tasting a Lochside such as this is always a treat, and the bottler only increases the expectations.
The name Glenlivet is undoubtably one of the most recognisable of any brand in the world of Scotch, and a quick search online will yield a whole raft of reasons why. Be it the early date of licensing, the request of kings, or the reputation of quality that led so many distilleries to label their own Whisky with the name of this early pioneer, word of The Glenlivet’s quality travelled far beyond the rolling landscape of Speyside and solidified its future position as the second best-selling Scotch Whisky brand in the world. Indeed walk into almost any half-decent pub or bar, and it’s likely you will see a bottle of Glenlivet whisky on the gantry, making it one of the most commonly enjoyed whiskies by casual whisky drinkers and budding enthusiasts alike.
So then to us, the whisky geeks, the closed distillery worshiping, note scribbling fraternity of whisky lovers who frequently, to our shame, overlook the commonly encountered in favour of ever alluring obscurity, what does this grand old distillery have to draw us back? Well, a fair amount as it happens, and with Glenlivet Nadurra we find perhaps the most available example. Firstly, as you may well know, the name Nadurra means “natural” and those in charge of The Glenlivet should be applauded for offering a truly “craft orientated” bottling from a distillery more often associated with large volumes and consistency of character. It is un-coloured, non-chill filtered and bottled at its vatted strength; enough to pique the interest of many a jaded whisky cynic, particularly with it’s accessible price tag.
There are some distilleries that are very easy to get excited about and since re-opening in 2008 after 22 years of closure, Glenglassaugh distillery has certainly been one of them. This is due in no small part to the new owner’s success in utilizing as much of the existing plant as possible, and their desire to adhere to the spirit style that was produced at the distillery throughout its long and turbulent history. Perhaps even more exciting though was the prospect of some of the distillery’s existing stock finally seeing the light of day, and with luck, finding its way into our respective and expectant glasses.
So it is then that we move to this 1976 release, the first of what will be a continued series to feature casks chosen by members of the distillery’s staff. This refill sherry butt was selected by Ronnie Routledge, Customer Account Manager, a deeply helpful, engaging gent and in this case the envy of us all. It is a dream of most whisky lovers to be allowed amongst the wonderful old stock of a wonderful old distillery, to taste, consider, select and bottle their particular favourite and offer it for the world’s enjoyment. However, when it must compete with the quality of bottlings like those seen in Glenglassaugh’s Manager’s Legacy series (try to taste the Manager’s Legacy Jim Cryle 1974) it’s also a task with at least a modicum of pressure.
As you might expect, there is no shortage of whisky companies issuing bottles to commemorate the Queen’s 60th year, and with the industry enjoying considerable interest at the moment it’s equally unsurprising that several of these new releases head down the fancy box/crystal decanter route at the “ultra-premium” end of the market. Thankfully though, this landmark occasion is also soliciting more accessible bottlings than the likes of Diageo’s £100,000 1952 Johnnie Walker, with this more modest Bunnahabhain whisky from TheWhiskyBarrel certainly being one example worth checking out.
Bunnahabhain is well represented by the Independent Bottlers and just recently we have seen a raft of quite heavily sherried casks reaching the grubby hands of the masses. In fact this is the second of two such examples the good people of TheWhiskyBarrel.com have graced us with, and it’s clear from a mere glance that this second release is considerably lighter and less sherry influenced than the first. Speaking personally, this pleases me greatly as the Bunnahabhain spirit is more than capable of speaking for itself, and less cask influence also helps to avoid the strong sulphury notes that seem quite common in the darker examples.
It’s staff picks time again (where does the time go, how time flies, ah I remember the days when.. etc.) and it seems variety is the spice of life this time around, with no less than three countries and four styles being championed. The focus seems to be on individualistic, characterful whiskies as you might expect and, with value for money taken into account, each is of excellent quality.
First up is a Japanese blend which ranks very highly on the quality-to-cost ratio and works beautifully as a Mizuwari (tall with water and ice), ideal as the summer takes hold. Next, in the cooler climes of bonny Scotland is the often under-rated Old Pulteney distillery, with perhaps their best standard release and one that has a growing band of followers. The third on the list comes from my personal adventure into the world of bourbon, compelling me to recommend one of the best I have yet tasted before heading back to Scotland for a recently reviewed, and beautifully constructed blended scotch.
Bowmore whisky is arguably one of the most interesting and varied of all Scotches, and not always for the reasons one might hope. On one hand this beautiful distillery on the shores of Loch Indaal has given us some of the most spectacular “malt moments” in history with, among others, its gloriously fruity 1964 Trilogy (‘Black’ Bowmore, ‘White’ and ‘Gold’) releases, and yet on the other hand we see the now all but infamous production of the 1980s with its seemingly inexplicable perfumed, soapy notes that many (myself fully included) find anything but desirable. The reason for this stark change of character during the 80s is hard to tie down to one specific factor, though we can be reasonably certain that it did not make itself so apparent in the new make at the time.
There is no question that many things have changed in the industry over the last 40 or so years and this is probably the greatest barrier to pinpointing the reasons behind Bowmore’s split personality. Centralised malting and maturation, new barley varieties, changes in fermentation time in response to demand and radically revised wood policy are just some of the many changes that may have played a part in what is clearly a complex picture. Had Bowmore remained draped in parma violets and lavender soap in its current production, I doubt we would find the situation fascinating so much as a tragedy. Gladly however the 90/00 spirit is as much a departure from that distilled in the 80s, as the 80s spirit was from its 60s and 70s forbears. As a result of this the current spirit is winning people over once more, with releases like the widely acclaimed Bowmore 10 year old Tempest and an array of quality bottlings from the Independents.
There’s so much to say about Glenfarclas whisky that it can be somewhat difficult to know where to start. Given that this is the first of what will be many posts to feature this venerable distillery, it seems only fair to highlight a few of the things that make Glenfarclas so special in the modern world of Single Malt Scotch. Situated in the rolling valleys of Ballindalloch, this Speyside distillery is unusual in having been family owned since 1865, with the Grant’s consistent stewardship having allowed it to avoid some of the modernisation common throughout the majority of the industry. The stills remain direct fired to this day, the full production is matured on site and the stock held in the warehouses is perhaps the most far-stretching and comprehensive of any distillery in Scotland.
Just this last week the sheer depth and wealth of the casks maturing at Glenfarclas was highlighted once more by the announcement of their oldest release yet; a 58 year old and one of the last four casks filled in 1953 left at the distillery. It is these old and frequently heavily sherried bottlings that have helped to cement the Glenfarclas reputation for quality. In all the reverence that surrounds the distillate produced in 50s, 60s and 70s, the standard releases can become a little overlooked, so before we get to posting reviews of those old sherry monsters (restraint can only last so long), let’s have a look at the more widely available 21 year old.