Blended whisky is something I’ve written a lot about on this site. In fact, throughout 2013 I made it a point to look further into the category, due to a feeling that a lot of blends get forgotten about in favour of single malt whiskies.
This does not, by the way, mean that I would always choose a blend over a single malt – any reference to many of the reviews on this site would prove otherwise. It is merely to point out that I am firmly in the camp that blended whisky deserves a good amount of focus as well, especially given that it is the whisky category that the majority of the world consumes.
But, naturally, within a blend are many whiskies – grain and malt are combined together to create a blend. Fairly logical. As such, I am always intrigued to learn more about what individual whiskies are going into those brands that we as consumers know so well.
Which brings me to Glenturret, a tiny malt distillery in Crieff, around 90 minutes north of Glasgow. This distillery is home to The Famous Grouse Experience. Much like Aberfeldy distillery is home to the World Of Dewar’s, and Glenburgie is the home of Ballantine’s, blended whisky brands tend to choose one of their malt distilleries to be the ‘heart’ of the brand – that can be because, like in the case of Glenburgie, the malt from that distillery is the main one used in the blend, or in the case of Glenturret, because it is the nearest malt distillery to where the original founder was based.
As background, Famous Grouse blended whisky was created by the Gloag family, whose original shop was in Perth, the nearest major town to Glenturret distillery. The story begins with Matthew Gloag, who was born in 1797. He started started working in his shop when his wife Margaret inherited it from the original owner Peter McRorie, as she had lived above it for much of her life. In 1835, he decided to specialise in wines and spirits and made such a name for himself in doing so, that by 1842 he was invited to supply wines and spirits for Queen Victoria’s banquet on her and Albert’s first visit to Scotland.
Matthew’s son William took over the business and began looking into the idea of making blended whisky. According to Lucy Whitehall – global brand ambassador for The Famous Grouse, who showed me around the distillery – up until 1860 you would get taxed on every single whisky that went into a blend so the tradition was to have single malts; after that, a rule came into place that meant you were only taxed on the final product so ‘mixed’ or blended whisky became fashionable. Because William wanted to create a smoother whisky (due to the fact many single malts would have been rather rough around the edges at this point in history) he worked to create a smooth, easy to drink blend.
While he did not launch the whisky that would become The Famous Grouse, his work in the area inspired his nephew – Matthew II – to do so when he took over the business. In around 1896, he launched the Grouse brand of whisky. Interestingly, he didn’t want to have a whisky with a family name like the likes of Walker, Ballantine’s and Bell’s had done but instead wanted to create a memorable symbol. The Grouse was chosen because of the amount of shooting done of it in the Perthshire region. By the early 20th century, the brand was taking off, and so at the stroke of midnight on the 12 August, 1905, he patented The Famous Grouse and a brand, to coincide with the start of the grouse hunting season. The original label was drawn by his daughter as well, so it was very much a family affair.
To keep up the ‘high standard’ of expectations for the brand, in 1908 he even sent a sample of Grouse to the Institute of Hygiene in Harley Street in London for testing. It passed the ‘Standard of Purity’ required by the examining board and he used this example of purity on his labelling and advertising to further his marketing goals.
The brand stayed with the same family up until 1970 when it was bought by Highland Distillers, after a tragic series of events saw the owners die within days of each other – the death taxes were so high that they would have gone bankrupt had they tried to continue operating on their own.
Today, The Famous Grouse is known globally, but its biggest market is still the UK, where it has been the number one selling whisky for over 30 years.
The Glenturret distillery ties in because, as mentioned, it is the nearest distillery to what was once the Gloag’s shop in Perth, and it is thought the whisky made at the distillery – which was established in 1775, making it officially the oldest working distillery left in Scotland – would have gone into the original Famous Grouse. A book on its history and investigations into this are currently being undertaken by Charles Maclean and the distillery team.
Today, the distillery is a part of the Edrington Group – think: Macallan, Highland Park, Glenrothes. Almost its entire, tiny production of 170,000 litres (this will rise to 186,000 litres from April) goes into Famous Grouse and none is sold to other blenders, although a few casks have been sold to Hunter Laing recently, and it does have a proprietary 10 year old bottling as well.
The distillery experience that you will get as a visitor is focused around The Famous Grouse and its history, but as Lucy pointed out during the visit, it also has a few things which differentiate it from the whisky-making pack.
To start, the distillery still uses a hand-operated mash tun, and use a wooden paddle called a rouser to stir the mash, which Lucy says is “like pushing quicksand.” The 5,000 litre tun takes around 7 to 8 hours to run a mash, and all of the draff has to be shovelled out by hand at the end.
According to Lucy: “We want to preserve this because a lot of distilleries in Scotland, the way they’re going, they can’t afford to do this, to keep these processes alive, it allows us to differentiate ourselves from other distilleries as well. We’re kind of stuck in the 18th century but in that way we can offer something unique to visitors. This idea of ‘by hand, by heart’ runs throughout what we do and the only way we can actually claim this is if we keep those traditions alive.”
Once out of the tiny mash tun, the wort is transferred into one of eight Douglas Fir wash backs and left for a rather long 90-100 hours for fermentation.
The distillery only has one pair of stills, and runs both its wash and spirit through those very slowly at around 7-9 litres per hour. What does that mean exactly? More copper contact. The idea is, of course, to let the liquid go gently, gently, so that as it runs up the stills, it spends more time in contact with the copper, which strips out some of the harsher, heavier elements. The only other distillery I’ve come across that runs things so slowly is Glengoyne (read my feature on them), which clocks in at around 5 litres per hour. The stills are run by hand, as is the spirit safe, which still uses hydrometer tests to check the spirit strength manually.
The day of my visit, the team was running its peated spirit through the stills. Called Ruadh Maor and produced since 2009, it was named after a red house that was submerged when a manmade dam was built nearby; it was also written about in one of Robbie Burns’ poems. The spirit is not yet being released on its own (bar one bottling done for The Whisky Shop chain) as Gordon Motion – the master blender – is saving it for a ‘special’ project. Interestingly, the malted Concerto barley is not peated in a traditional fashion. Instead, the barley is dried by Simpsons maltings, before being laid out on a floor and smoked for three days to get it up to a ppm level of between 80-120, much higher than most distilleries use. The distillery currently uses west coast mainland peat because, I was told, they could get the richest flavours out of it, even compared to Islay peat, which they also tested. The distillery currently does about half of its production for Ruadh Maor, which mostly goes into Black Grouse, Famous Grouse’s peated cousin.
The whisky is filled on site and is going into a majority of European oak ex-sherry casks (something that Edrington as a whole tends towards using). It is being filled at just under 70%, much higher than usual for a distillery. According to Lucy, this practice started around three to four years ago as an experiment as, if it goes into the cask at a higher strength, you’re obviously in turn lessening the number of casks you need and also the amount of space to store those casks. She noted, however, that it may change back again because they’re not yet sure of the full implications of filling casks at this high of a strength, so it will be interesting to note if they do so.
There are also six dunnage warehouses on site, which store around 6,000 casks. The rest are warehoused off-site.
So, what exactly is the whisky like then? I was able to try the 10 year old after the tour, and found it very pleasant. With notes of fruity dark berries and orange peel, alongside loads of honey, a bit of vanilla, oak spice and a touch of earthiness (almost hinting towards peat) too, it was quite sweet but comforting and very easy to drink.
Currently, as mentioned, you won’t find a lot of it around. But, Lucy did say that new packaging is coming for the 10 year old to help give it a bigger push, while she suspects the range will also expand as well in the near future. Naturally, with such small production levels and its need to be in Famous Grouse, there’s never going to be a major amount of it on the shelves, but certainly one to look out for.
Walking around the distillery in the cold, February day of my visit, it was clear that the site is a popular one regardless of the time of year. In fact, at one point it was third most visited attraction in Scotland, outside of Edinburgh and Stirling Castles. The team at the Experience has recently teamed up with Wild Thyme catering to offer a higher end dining choice on-site and, with its production styles, does offer something a little bit different for the guests.
And, if you do go, make sure you look out for the statue dedicated to the distillery cat named Towser. In her nearly 24 years, Towser caught over 28,000 mice, a number which still stands in the Guinness records today. My only thought? No wonder she did – the mice were probably drunk on lovely whisky half of the time!
Overall, the malt experience and the look into Famous Grouse gave me a better understanding into the brand. In an upcoming post, I’ll be exploring North British distillery, where the grain whisky is made that goes into each bottle. What is key is that the whisky going into this famous blend is of high quality, and whether the blend itself is one for you is – as always – a personal preference. But, it’s good to know where things begin and where some of the heart comes from.
For more information on The Famous Grouse Experience visit: http://experience.thefamousgrouse.com
With thanks to The Famous Grouse for the visit.