With its twirling water mill, sharp-peaked pagoda roofs and cobbled courtyard, the distillery at Strathisla looks ever so misplaced beside a busy roadway in Keith, Scotland. It should, one feels, appear by a drifting river in a forest in the hills.
It has been around since 1786 and is most famous now for producing whisky for the Chivas Regal brand – some of the best known blends in the world.
I arrived during the recent Spirit of Speyside whisky festival by way of the Keith & Dufftown railway – an historic train that rumbles shakily along a thin track through forested valleys for 11 miles. It’s a beautiful journey, made ever-more enjoyable by the friendly, Dungaree wearing conductor and a wee dram given out during the trip I was on (though not, I’m told, available at all times of the year).
Chivas Brothers has owned the distillery since 1950. But some traditions go back far further. Whisky is made using water from the nearby Brew Hill spring, which has been supplying it since operations began.
The distillery is medium-sized, with eight wooden washbacks made from Oregon pine. Fermentation takes 54 hours, before being distilled on two sets of stocky, globular copper stills. The new make comes off at 68% and the short stack makes for a heavier flavour.
Many of the casks are kept off-site in Elgin, while full blending is done in Paisley. Around 1,000 casks of various whiskies are stored in the stone warehouses on-site, but I was unable to take any photos as it is against policy.
After the tour, I headed to the tasting room to sip a few drams. As I was driving, I mostly nosed the whiskies.
I much preferred the Chivas Regal 18 year old to the 12. In the former I found hints of hazelnuts, chocolate, orange, oatmeal and a tiny bit of smoke on the nose. It was rich and appealing. I also liked the smell of the Strathisla 12 year old, which is one of the only single malts released by the distillery. Aged in sherry casks, I found it had hints of brown sugar, creamy oatmeal and something slightly citrussy on the nose.
Strathisla is a quaint distillery to visit and it’s hard to imagine millions of litres of blended whisky being produced from this twee place. It was worthwhile, if only to see the lovely set-up of Scotland’s oldest continuously running distillery. Enjoyable for the malt lover all around.