Before I went to Glengoyne Distillery – located just outside of Glasgow – every person I spoke to who had been described it to me as: “The prettiest little distillery in Scotland.”
And they weren’t wrong.
I arrived at the end of September, which is perhaps also one of the prettiest times of year to pitch up at “the prettiest little distillery” around. The air had that gorgeous autumnal freshness that makes it both crisp and inviting, while all around the site leaves were turning golden and floating delicately down to land daintily on conveniently placed casks. It was a glorious moment.
Glengoyne has been in existence since 1833 and is known for having the slowest stills in Scotland. Its name means ‘Glen of the Wild Geese’ and it’s that creature’s symbol you’ll find on each bottle. Interestingly, while the distillery itself is located in the Highlands – technically making it a Highland Single Malt – its warehousing is located across the road, which is technically in the Lowlands.
I was there to meet up with manager Robbie Hughes and Neil Boyd – the commercial director of malts for Ian Macleod Distillers, which has owned the distillery since 2003 – both of whom were to show me around the site.
We started out at the older part of the distillery, which would have originally been used to house the floor maltings. Surprisingly, Glengoyne gave up this practice much earlier than many other distilleries in Scotland, ceasing in-house maltings in 1908. The company now uses Simpsons malt and has around 58 tonnes of unpeated malt delivered weekly.
Inside the main distillery, located opposite the old distillery house, sits the Boby mill which takes two and a half hours to grind down 3.8 tonnes of malt. The distillery uses a ratio of 65% grits, 25% husks and 10% flour and the mill has been at Glengoyne since 1911. “And we got it second hand,” quipped Robbie.
Upstairs in the next room, we continued the whisky journey, checking out the semi-lauter tun, which was installed in June this year. According to Robbie, it hold 15,000 litres of water for each 3.8 tonnes of grist and the team spends an hour mashing in. The distillery does around 16 mashes a week.
For fermenting, Robbie has chosen a mix of half and half M and Mx and the mash ferments for a minimum of 56 hours in wooden washbacks.
Finally, we meandered over to the stills, which are just on the other side of the one small room that contains all main aspects of the whisky making process. The are currently two spirit stills and one wash still. According to Robbie, this is the case because “two smaller spirit stills are better than one because we get more copper contact and for Glengoyne we want to strip out as much sulphur as possible.”
Around 13,000 litres of wash go into the wash still, which runs for around six and a half hours. The two spirit stills each take around 3,800 litres of low wines and each run for three hours. “We currently run at about five litres a minute. If we sped things up, we could go from 16 mashes to 20 mashes a week easily but then we would lose the spirit character,” explained Robbie.
The distillery has used shell and tube condensers since 1968 and, interestingly and quite rarely for the fairly superstitious whisky industry, in 1991 the shape of the stills were changed to be rounder and include a differently angled lyne arm.
Additionally strange is the fact the foreshots only run for about five minutes on the spirit still. “It’s very specific; we don’t move it by even a minute,” said Robbie.
The distillery is currently running at capacity and – with increased demand from global markets – I asked whether there would be any consideration of expanding. Robbie and Neil both confirmed this could be a possibility since the distillery is adamant it will not change its distilling practices to get more out a week, but they added that it wouldn’t happen for a few more years yet.
When it comes to maturation, the distillery uses a majority of European oak ex-Oloroso sherry casks for maturing, with a good portion being first fill. The company has also begun recently integrating some ex-bourbon cask matured whisky into its 12 and 15 year old whiskies.
With the higher cost from these types of barrels and the slower distillation time, Robbie commented that it makes for a product that will inevitably be a bit more pricey. “Glengoyne should never be cheap on the shelf because it costs so much to produce. We’ve hung our cloak on a peg and we have to stick to it.”
After the tour, we headed over the borderline into the Lowlands to check out the warehousing. In addition to the company’s own malts, it also matures a good chunk of Strathclyde grain whisky, which was on the line for disgorging that day.
And finally, it was time to sit down and taste the range, which currently includes 10, 12, 15, 18, 21 and cask strength versions. Back in July, I reviewed the 15 and Cask Strength in this post so I shall take a look at the others in the range for now.
We started off with the 40% ABV 10-year old, which Robbie said is “a really excellent example of Glengoyne.” It’s made from an 80/20 mix of refill and first fill European oak matured whiskies, making it a lovely, rich colour despite only being 10 years of age. On the nose, there were toffee apples mixed with raisins and a fresh, zesty note that helped keep it crisp. On the palate, it was less sweet than I was anticipating, instead showing a peppery spice, grassy bitterness and lemon peel zestiness amongst the more traditional European oak notes. With water, it softened out and became almost pillowy in texture. A proper session whisky, easy to drink and approachable.
Following on from this was the 12-year old, which is bottled at the slightly higher ABV of 43%. Made from a mix of 25% ex-bourbon, 50% refill European oak ex-Oloroso and 25% first-fill European oak ex-Oloroso, this was a whisky that was filled with lovely layers. On the nose, there were sticky tinned pineapples and almondy marzipan notes that pointed towards that ex-bourbon cask influence, while on the palate it shifted into the darker zone, with spicy, cinnamon bark and wood chest notes. It was creamy and oily – decadent on the palate and more mature than I would have expected for the age.
After I re-tried the 15 and cask strength, before moving onto the 18-year old, which only concentrates on the European oak ex-Oloroso sherry components. It’s made from a 40% first fill and 60% second fill ratio and is also bottled at 43%. This, as it turned out, was my favourite on the day. On the nose, it was rich with notes of tobacco leaf, leather and orange blossom, while the palate was all about soft oranges, rosemary and nutmeg for me. Despite those punchier notes, it still managed to be very soft and luxurious.
Finally, it was onto the oldest in the core range, the 21-year old, also 43%. Made from 100% first fill European oak ex-Oloroso sherry cask matured whiskies, this is one for the sherry fans out there. On the nose, it was heavy with thick honey and dark raisins, while the palate was softened out by age, but still richly filled with raisins, black pepper and black licorice. Hidden under that, however, was a note of green peppers and apples, giving it a bit more of a fresh side than I was expecting.
At the end of the day, I felt I’d really come to know Glengoyne and its products. It is, indeed, a beautiful distillery and well worth visiting if you’re in the Glasgow area. It offers a hugely extensive list of distillery tours (check them out here) and the team is keen to share its work and whiskies with everyone.
For more information about Glengoyne, head to the company’s site at: www.glengoyne.com.
Thank you to Neil and Robbie for showing me around and letting me taste so many fantastic drams!