Many distilleries have remote and beautiful locations: beside rivers, on the edge of the sea, nestling into the mountainside. There is sometimes an associated romance of an early illicit history of smuggling and stories of hiding from the Revenue. But it is not always the case and one of the oldest distilleries, Glen Garioch, is hidden away behind the streets of the small town of Oldmeldrum (or Old Meldrum, I’ve seen it written both ways). I know its wrong but when I hear the name I cannot help but call it Old Meldrew in my head, so when I turned down the narrow road and found a collection of old stone buildings, I found myself muttering “I don’t believe it!”
Actually there are quite a number of things I don’t quite believe about Glen Garioch as it is a place wonderful in its own singularity. For a start the site is bigger than you first think. As I said, you approach it via a unremarkable town street (though there is a clue as it is called Distillery Road), and when you arrive there is no imposing building or gateway. Instead the still room has the homely look of a one room Victorian school (if you ignore the ugly vent coming out of the roof). But there are two pagodas and it is obvious that at one time quite a bit of malting was done, however today there are only two working stills and the malt is brought in from Berwick so less space is needed. We are thus left with the empty spaces of the malting floors and and a kiln and the poignant feel of former activity and abandoned practices. It is a listed building and difficult to change, so it stands both as a working distillery and a monument to its past – an interesting place to visit.
It is the only distillery I know where you can step inside the old kiln and look up at the floor above where the malt would have been laid out. Dark and mildly spooky, it is a direct connection with the past as you can stand where there would have been heat, smoke and hard labour. For a visit this might be a unique selling point but Glen Garioch has more. For example name me another distillery that used to grow tomatoes? Go on I challenge you – name one. Yet this is what happened here. In the 1970s a heat recovery plant was built and that also heated 2 acres of glasshouses. The scheme was overseen by Jim McColl, a horticulturalist famous because of a Scottish TV gardening show. So not only was there an innovative project there was also the sparkle of a sort of down to earth showbiz.
Then there is the link with Vat 69. It was not invented here but William Sanderson, who did invent it, bought the distillery, after he had invested in North British grain distillery. I like the story behind Vat 69, apparently Sanderson was a tinkerer and could never decide on a particular recipe, so in the end his son forced him to make a decision. Many different blends were vatted and then blind tasted to find a winner. The overwhelming favourite of almost everybody was from (you guessed it) Vat 69, hence the name. So no schoolboy jokes please.
Then, and this is most significant, there is the history of the water. If you read almost any description of Glen Garioch it will tell you it is located in a fertile agricultural area north of Aberdeen – this was originally mentioned by Barnard and has been repeated ever since, probably because it suggests a good reason for the siting of the distillery. But I reckon that the most important requirement is a good supply of water, as huge quantities are needed, and this has been a problem for Glen Garioch. The water it draws from its well has percolated through granite and is wonderfully soft. Perfect – but wells can run dry and this is what happened in 1968, when the distillery was decommissioned by the then owners DCL. Two years later it was sold to Morrison Bowmore, who took the rather obvious step of digging a deeper well and production resumed (you have to worry about the vigour of the DCL management at the time). Anyway water security must be a background worry so the company have used a water diviner to find another source. So this is another question to which I don’t have an answer: how many other distilleries have employed a water diviner?
Then there is the challenging of my preconceptions about the Japanese way of management (and I do actually like having my assumptions challenged – it puts me on my mettle). One of those things I had been told way back, and firmly believed ever since, was that the cultural divide between the Japanese method of business and the Anglo Saxon model was that on any project the Japanese would spend a long time on the planning and decision making phase but implementation would be quick because things had been thoroughly thought through. In the UK however, the tendency would be to leap in earlier and work out more as you went along, which makes implementation longer and a bit more ad hoc. Both approaches can work and have strengths and weaknesses but I have always cherished the idea as an example of cultural conditioning and social attitudes. However the behaviour of Suntory when they took over Morrison Bowmore was not like that. They immediately shut Glen Garioch, which would have been coherent if they thought it too small and were only interested in Bowmore and Auchentoshan, however they opened it again two years later – a sudden change of mind. Why? Who knows – but I like to imagine a tasting in Osaka where someone senior says “Hmmm Glen Garioch is a very fine whisky. This is a credit to us!” at the other end of the room there is a shuffling of the feet and a nervous coughing as people agree, then rush back to their offices to pass on urgent messages to reopen distillery. “No we never thought of closing it. No perish the thought. We love the stuff. Who would want to lose this?”
Then, of course there is the still room. Many distilleries have some quirks in the design of their stills, or their configuration but Glen Garioch is singular in the length of the lyne arm on its wash still. Look at the photo. The still is in one room, the condenser is a long way away in the other. These things happen by accident, it was probably a fudge when they added and extra still in 1978, who knows. Whatever the reason it must increase the copper contact and have some affect on the spirit and be an internal part of the character of the whisky but I find it hard to believe it was planned for. (By the way the extra still, you can see in the photo, is now no longer used).
Then there is the name Glen Garioch pronounced Glen Geery. I am used to never quite knowing how to pronounce distillery names but mostly this is because they are Gaelic, however Glen Garioch is different – the pronunciation is Doric. Doric used to be a term to describe all Scots dialects but now is used specifically for the dialect of the Aberdeen region. The Wikipedia entry is here, where you can read about the origins of the name but for me the pleasure is being able to get a classical reference into a post about whisky
I told you Glen Garioch was interesting.