‘Do you know the name of this distillery?’ our guide asks us at the start of our tour of the Glen Garioch Distillery in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. It’s an unusual question but I say nothing because I’ve done my homework and know the answer. Other people look a little puzzled.
‘Isn’t it Glen Garioch?’ one man says, pronouncing it as it is spelled. ‘Or have I just made myself look stupid?’
Not stupid at all, as Glen Garioch is one of those trick names. It’s actually pronounced Glen Geery, as our guide goes on to explain.
‘Glen is the Gaelic word for a valley, but garioch is a word from the local Doric language and is pronounced geery. It means a granary… so, the valley of the granaries. That’s because this area was known as the Granary of Aberdeenshire and produces the finest barley in Scotland.’
Glen Garioch was established in 1797, making it one of the oldest whisky distilleries in Scotland. It’s in the historic and pretty little village of Oldmeldrum, about half an hour’s drive from Aberdeen. Just to confuse things further, most people call the village simply Meldrum. And when I say in the village, that doesn’t mean the distillery is on the outskirts. No, it’s right in the village centre, and we’re warned to take care on the tour as the distillery straddles two sides of a busy road.
To the Malt Barns
Looking both ways while clutching our umbrellas (it’s what they call in Scotland a ‘dreich day’), we cross the road to the old malt barns. These were in use until 1995, and have been preserved to show visitors how spacious these malt barns had to be. But instead of the floor being covered in barley, the area’s now used for displays about Glen Garioch and the whisky-making process.
Only a handful of distilleries in Scotland still do their own malting, which is a laborious process, and most are now like Glen Garioch and buy in their malted barley from commercial operations. Even the distilleries which still do their own malting can’t produce enough for their needs and almost all of them also have to buy in malted barley as well.
Glen Garioch Kilns
Close to the old malt barns are the kilns, which were also last used in 1995 and which have also been preserved. This gives us the unusual and slightly claustrophobic chance to step inside one at the bottom where – again until 1995 – peat would have been burned, sending its distinctive smoky aroma up through the malted barley. 1995 was also the last time Glen Garioch produced a peated whisky.
So what happened in 1995? Sadly Glen Garioch closed and was mothballed, but the good news is that it was bought and re-opened two years later. The buyers were the big Beam Suntory group, and as they already owned several distilleries making peaty whiskies, including Laphroaig, Bowmore, and Ardmore on the Scottish island of Islay, they wanted something different from Glen Garioch.
A Whisky Marriage
From the kiln we go into one of their barrel warehouses, the places where whisky sits quietly maturing and absorbing flavours from the wood of the barrels. Our guide invites us to taste a whisky that’s maturing in an ex-bourbon barrel, then another that’s maturing in an ex-sherry cask, and then (well, it is a cold day, so why not?), a sample of one of their marriages, where different whiskies are blended in a barrel.
The Silent Spring
At its heart, whisky-making ought to be quite simple. After all, it only requires three ingredients: water, yeast, and a grain of some kind, which in the case of Glen Garioch is barley. But suppose your source of one of those ingredients disappears? For Glen Garioch, that calamity happened in 1968 when their water source dried up.
For a whisky distillery it’s not an immediate problem, because they will still have stocks of maturing whisky. Spirit has to be matured for at least three years before it can be legally called whisky, and of course much whisky is matured for a lot longer than this. So even if your water source dries up in 1968, you’ll still have stocks coming to maturity that you can be selling over the next few years.
However, you can’t let a water shortage go on indefinitely, as you’re not able to produce new whiskies. Thankfully, in 1972, the Distillery Manager found a water source underneath a nearby farm. No-one knew it was there as it couldn’t be seen and it couldn’t be heard, so it was named The Silent Spring and still provides Glen Garioch with its water today.
A Tasting of Glen Garioch
Finally we enjoy the culmination of any distillery tour, and that’s a tasting. Here I discover that Glen Garioch likes making strong whiskies. Nothing in their range is under 48% ABV. They also like making small-batch whiskies, as they have only two whiskies in their core range. These guys like experimenting and this means that every tasting at the distillery is likely to be different, but here’s what I had.
First up was a Virgin Oak Batch Two. It doesn’t have an age statement but our guide tells us it’s about 8-9 years old, it’s 48% ABV, and a tasting gives a lovely mix of vanilla, orange, and spices.
Our next tasting is even stronger, at 50.8%, and is an intriguing whisky. It’s a marriage of whiskies from both bourbon and sherry casks, and in total has been 17 years in the making. It’s full of caramel and spicy aromas and flavours and really brings it home to me how Glen Garioch is making such unusual whiskies.
Finally we get a very special tasting, a 48% ABV whisky that has spent 19 years maturing in a Bordeaux wine cask and with only 6,000 bottles released.
Now, sometimes when you’re a drinks writer you get special treatment, and get to taste things not included on regular tours. I’d like to stress that I joined one of Glen Garioch’s normal tours, the 90-minute Masters of Distillery Road tour – Distillery Road is their address in Oldmeldrum, the one where you have to watch the traffic when walking back and forth. They also offer whisky and food pairing tours, tours where you can make your own bottle straight from a cask, and a Behind Closed Doors tour, which includes a whisky-pairing dinner at the nearby Meldrum House Country Hotel and Golf Course. This is a 2-minute drive from the distillery, so an ideal place to stay if you want to do a distillery tour. It has a restaurant that’s been awarded two AA rosettes, and an unbelievable bar that won Whisky Hotel Bar of the Year at the Whisky Magazine World Whisky Awards in March 2019.
For more information and to book one of the many kinds of tours available, visit the Glen Garioch (pronounced Glen Geery!) website.
To discover other distilleries in Aberdeenshire and learn more about the food and drink in the area, see the website of Visit Aberdeenshire.
You can find a wide range of Glen Garioch whiskies at Master of Malt.