From the stills to the casks, the old Porteus mills and the surrounding landscapes, nearly every one I have been to has left me impressed. All seem to be filled with a slightly rustic charm, which helps to enhance the ‘romance’ surrounding this great spirit. I can only recommend again and again that if you are interested in whisky, it is key to go and visit distilleries – I have become a bit of an addict and for good reason.
Additionally these are – nearly always – the places I ensure to bring my camera to, which is becoming rarer these days as I rely more on my phone for the quick pics I’m usually taking. I can’t help but get excited about the small intricacies of each distillery and trying to capture them is a pleasure.
Take, for instance, the Glenrothes distillery in Speyside, which I recently visited during a trip up with a few fellow whisky writers (Andy Simpson of Whisky Highland, Joel Harrison of Cask Strength and Mark Thomson of Dramatic Whisky). Accompanying us was Marcin Miller – whisky PR, importer and expert – and Ronnie Cox, the affable, knowledge-filled global brand ambassador for Berry Bros & Rudd, which owns the whisky brand. I was there to learn about its history, production and more but I soon found myself entirely distracted by its aesthetic qualities.
Now, I was able to find out a little bit, of course – I am a keen believer in the art of multitasking. So, as background, Glenrothes is located just near the town of Rothes, around 60 miles from Aberdeen or 48 from Inverness. The distillery was the brainchild of James Stuart, the owner of The Macallan. He wanted to build a separate distillery nearby which would produce a cleaner, fresher spirit for blending. He managed to gather four investors and borrowed £600 from the Church of Scotland in Knockando in 1878 to get the build started, but subsequently pulled out from the distillery, leaving his business partners William Grant and Robert Dick to continue getting it off the ground. The first spirit flowed from the stills on the 28 December, 1879 and the rest is, as they say, history.
What makes Glenrothes unique is that while the distillery is owned by the Edrington Group (Macallan, Famous Grouse etc), the brand is now owned by Berry Bros & Rudd. As such, it is up to the team at the latter to decide when to bottle the whisky and what whiskies to release. This decision came about mostly due to the fact Berry Bros is first and foremost a wine merchants, so the team there thought it would work better to leave the distillation and making of the whisky to the master distillers and take over when it came to choosing which ones to bottle.
“We approach whisky development with the same approach as the wine industry: we don’t know much about distilling but we do know about taste and maturity and that’s why we own the brand but not the distillery,” explained Ronnie.
Since 1994 the company has focused on releasing only vintages, a style now used at other distilleries such as Balblair. This comes back to the age vs maturity debate as Ronnie explained.
“Age is not the most important criteria. Maturity is. After all, if you put it in a first fill or a refill cask, the whisky will be much different after the same amount of time,” he said.
The spirit made on the distillery’s 10 stills doesn’t only go into the Glenrothes brand but is also used in Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark and Chivas Regal, all of whom take the spirit away and mature it themselves. It is called Glen Shiel in that case because the team at Glenrothes do not have any say over the final product.
To make the whisky, the company uses concerto malt (malted at Simpsons) and uses a Porteus Mill from 1964 to make its grist before it undergoes a three hour mash and a 52 hour fermentation using liquid yeast. The wash is first distilled for six hours and the second runs for 11 hours with a middle cut of between 66-73%. The distillery currently has around 46,000 casks maturing on site.
Unlike most distilleries in this day and age, Glenrothes also has its own small cooperage, which I also got the chance to check out, along with another unused mill and mash house that beckons to a bygone era.
I’ll be taking a look at the new 2001 Glenrothes and the new Robur Reserve duty free releases in an upcoming post, so stay tuned for that.
But, in the interim, what parts of the distillery really caught my eye? Scroll down to see more.