Iain Banks said, in his book Raw Spirits, “Somehow it’s a surprise to be reminded that Glenmorangie is a seaside malt, though the scent of it is there in the whisky if you look for it. The coastline – hills and mountain, forest and beach, dune and cliff – tapers off into the calm and milky skies to the north”.
Try as I might I cannot find that coastline in Glenmorangie, even after reading the passage and being primed. For me it is a whisky with a fresh, fruitiness and more depth on the palate than the nose. It is well made and rather classy and one of the first malts to show me that whisky could be an intriguing, complex, sensory experience. But there is not a hint of the sea. Maybe my images of the sea are wrong, I think of it like The Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, whereas it is clear from the rest of the quote that Iain Banks is thinking of something more harmonious and peaceful. (That is perfectly proper – the comparisons we make when describing whisky can mean exactly what we want them to mean*). Looking out over the warehouses and out to sea I am prepared to concede he is describing a wonderfully well balanced landscape and Glenmornagie is also well balanced – but that doesn’t make it a maritime malt.
Glenmorangie is a very tidy place, in a beautiful location, and I can see how easy it is to draw a straight line between this and an appreciation of the whisky. Look around and everything is spic and span, so much so that it almost looks like a film set, right down to the sign from the MacDonald and Muir days. If you look closely at the photo you can see a model of one of their tall stills in the office window. That’s as near as you are going to get to a picture of their elegant giraffes because like most distilleries they do no allow photography inside. You will have to take my word for it (or look for other photos) that the tall necks are both distinctive and attractive. Beautifully polished and rising high in a neat parallel line it almost makes me wonder if this is a real working environment or a showpiece. Somewhere behind a door there must be a room with things stuffed higgledy piggeldy, with a degree of mess and loose ends – or is that only the way I work.
It makes me wonder what I am actually seeing when I visit a distillery. Is it a bit like a National Trust house, where everything is laid out just so, with everything original to the building or something that could have been there at the time – all neat and well tended? Or is it like one of those open air museums where guides dress up in period clothes and act a part? I am getting a bit carried away here as no-one ever walks around in Victorian clothes but nevertheless there is usually a bit of nostalgia mixed in with the modern sensibility. Of course there’s more to it than just packaging ( after all the distilleries are still work places producing a miraculous liquid). But when looking at the freshly painted doors and clean walls it might be worth remembering that it was not always like this. When Alfred Barnard made his visit in 1886 things were not so spruce: “In 1843 this old brewery was turned into a distillery by William Matheson, and ever since has had to be renewed and repaired to keep it together. At the time of our visit the profiteer was arranging to build a new distillery on the same site .. As the old place is soon to be pulled down there is no need to describe the interior arrangements”. So when we visit we may be looking back at the past but it is a buffed-up version of it.
It is a pity Barnard did not go inside the distillery because he would have been struck by the tall stills that remain a distinguishing feature of Glenmorangie. William Matheson bought two second hand gin stills when he converted the brewery in 1843, so right from the beginning the distillery has produced a lighter spirit because of the extended copper contact, though how much that was a conscious decision about the style of whisky he wanted or whether it was just the consequence of a good bargain, I do not know. The style though has changed in one significant way: Barnard mentioned that all the fuel used in the distillery was peat which would have infused the malt with smoke and given a very different flavour to today’s unpeated malt. It would be interesting to know what it was like.
A consequence of a lighter spirit is that it is not so well adapted to full maturation in European oak, hence the emphasis at Glenmornagie on finishes (i.e. finishing off a matured whisky for a few months in a cask that previously held a wine or fortified wine). It might have been Balvenie who started it all off, twenty years ago, with Double Wood but Glenmornagie was not far behind and a sherry, port, and sauterne are an established variants of the core offering. When you visit the warehouse are told about the wood policy and can smell and the different finishing casks, so that everything makes sense.
Like all the best distilleries Glenmorangie takes enormous care with its casks and are pains to impress with its importance. So they do not buy their ex bourbon casks second hand in the barrel bazaar. No,no, no – they build their own, made from white american oak grown in their own forest in the Ozark Mountains and lease them to bourbon distilleries before taking them back. As the quality of the wood in the barrels has an important effect on the final quality of the whisky, that is taking an extra step to make sure you are in control. Whatever the reason though I like the idea of owning a forest. So now when I think of Glenmorangie I will not only think of the coastline tapering off into the calm and milky skies to the north, I will think of a forest of American oak. An interesting mixture.
* Humpty Dumpty should be the patron saint of whisky reviewers because as he famously said:
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean- neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master-that’s all.”
Alice was too much puzzled to say anything; so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper some of them- particularly verbs: they’re the proudest- adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs- however, I can manage the whole lot of them! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!”