I arrived at Glenmorangie Distillery in Tain on a chilly, December afternoon. Having decided to get a last-minute, pre-Christmas break away from London, I could only choose one of my favourite places to do this: Scotland. That morning, I’d flown up, rented a car from Inverness and enjoyed a beautiful drive up to the distillery, which is located on the Dornoch Firth.
Over the years, I’ve heard much about the distillery and tasted many of its products. But there’s nothing like heading to the heart of where a whisky is made to truly understand it better.
It was right before Christmas and the distillery grounds were quiet – I was the lone visitor that day. Soon after arrival, I met Annette MacKenzie, who has worked at the distillery for 18 years, having known the site well since she was a child growing up nearby. She told me that she has fond memories of popping into the site when she was 13 with her friend Kaira.
“Kaira’s great aunt was [a woman named] Alice. Her father came to work here when he was 13 and worked here until he was 85, while Alice lived on site until she was about 92 before moving into town. Their house is now our visitor centre/toilets/store/canteen. We used to come down and ‘beg’ for food as she was a great baker. I always remember she had to lock away her cat – it was massive and vicious, and was able to open doors!” she explained.
We started out where Alice’s cottage would have been – the area now the distillery shop – which inevitably sees a good chunk of the approximately 20,000 people that visit the distillery each year.
As we headed off, I got the background on this long-standing malt producer. Glenmorangie was founded in 1843 by William Matheson on the site of a former farm – the Morangie Farm. Meaning ‘Glen of Tranquility’ Glenmorangie is today the fourth best selling single malt Scotch whisky and is owned by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH).
Annette took me first around the mill house, telling me the distillery receives around 300 tonnes per week of malted barley for the 32 mashes that take place in that period. Up until 1977, malting was done on site in what is now the mash house.
Glenmorangie does not peat any of its malt, except for a very small proportion which went only into the limited edition Finealta, a bottling that is nearly sold out.
A quick walk around to the other side of the building led us to the mash house. Here the grist is mixed in the mash tuns in a ratio of 9.8 tonnes to 39k litres of water from the nearby Tarlogie Springs, which is actually hard water, a rarer type in the Scotch industry. Three waters are used and each cycle takes about five hours to complete.
Inside the next door tun room, there are 12 stainless steel washbacks, which take in around 50k litres of wash and run through a 52 hour fermentation cycle.
A quick wander through a long hallway filled with images from Glenmorangie’s past and document beautifully the various teams of people who’ve worked there. Many – Annette told me – worked with the distillery for decades and decades (such as Alice’s father).
Standing 16 feet, 10 and 1/4 inches tall, the distillery’s stills are known as the tallest pot stills in the Scotch malt whisky industry and are equal to the height of an adult giraffe.
There we met up with distillery manager Kenny Macdonald – brother to John Macdonald, who runs Balblair distillery just up the road – who is only the 9th manager since William Matheson.
Interestingly, the 12 stills (six wash and six spirit) are exact replicas of the original two installed by William Matheson when the distillery was founded. A major site upgrade in 2009 increased the number from 8 stills to the current 12, substantially upping production.
The stills are run in groups of four (so, the first run on the wash stills would go into stills number 1, 2, 3 and 4; the second run would go into 5, 6, 1 and 2). The same pattern is repeated with the spirit stills.
The heart of the spirit cut runs from around 72% to 60%, before being collected and averaged out to the standard filling strength of 63.5%, using the site’s Tarlogie spring water.
Finally, we headed off to Warehouse 3, which is the oldest on the site. There I had a chance to take in the glorious smells of the gently aging whisky and take a look at a few empty casks – an ex-sherry, an ex-bourbon and an ex-port – to smell them as they are before being filled with spirit.
According to the distillery information, Glenmorangie as a whole sits in a micro-climate; this means that even in the warehouses there isn’t a substantial change in temperatures throughout the year.
The key component that Glenmorangie talks about (aside from its very tall stills) is the aspect of maturation, something that Dr Bill Lumsden – the company’s master blender – is very passionate about. The distillery uses only first and second fill ex-bourbon casks for the majority of its maturation. It then tends towards using other types – ex-sherry, ex-port – for finishing (or, extra maturation – however you’d like to phrase it).
As I was driving that day, I didn’t continue on to the tasting room but did manage to grab a few samples, the review of which will be coming out Friday so stay tuned.
On each bottle and packaging, you’ll find a beautiful emblem (known as the Signet) taken from a nearby Pictish standing stone called the Cadboll Stone. Carved in the late eighth century by the Picts – the name given by the Romans to a group of humans present in the Highlands – the stone is located in a field nearby.
Bumping down a dirt road and slightly fearing the fact I seemed to be entering a farmer’s field, I parked up just before sunset as the moon was rising over the coastline.
The standing stone was a thing of beauty, and as I reveled in it and the memories of the day, Scotland became just a little bit more engrained in my heart.
For more information on Glenmorangie, head to: www.glenmorangie.com
Stay tuned for an upcoming review of four of the brand’s main whisky releases.