This Memorial Day: we enjoy getting burned by Americans but make up for it with Whisky and wildlife. Enjoy:
My wife and I had traveled Southern and Eastern Scotland for weeks. By now, our trip hummed on a tight daily budget. We avoided bus tours, hotels, or car rentals. Public transport, home-stays, and hostels kept costs down. Ireland loomed on our horizon. But we had not visited a distillery.
I chose GlenDronach Distillery. It sounded typical. Like most single malt distilleries, it had seen a few owners and mothballed hiatuses since 1826. The internet liked their tour, which cost a mere 5 pounds. As an added bonus, we could visit another castle (joy) and Dean’s Shortbread Factory in nearby Huntly.
More than anything, public transport could find it, sort of. Unlike most smaller distilleries, which had hid from regulators in the middle of nowhere (really for barley, water, and cheap land), GlenDronach didn’t need a car rental. Probably.
THE TRIP TO HUNTLY
Our morning train swoops past fields of blue barrel pyramids. Chivas Brothers owns these monuments of its Whisky empire.
Meanwhile, abandoned distilleries slide past like forlorn pagodas: the fate of most independents.
We walk to town from Huntley station. We cross an adorable stream over an adorable bridge. Chickens cluck below. We cut to town center, past empty shops. The small village square echoes with markets past, sleeping this early morning. As do the buses and tourist office. We resign ourselves to catching the last distillery tour that afternoon.
Then our nostrils pick the scent of baking. We hook left and follow the buttered air to Dean’s Shortbread Factory.
After gorging on shortbread samples of various shapes and buying bags of seconds, we walk back to town. The Duncan Taylor Scotch Whisky shop, which bottles and casks their own, distracts us for a few brilliant moments.
Lucky for us, their teen employees are too hungover to help. So we back tracks to Huntley Castle on town’s opposite side. A deftly carved fireplace, gaping ruins, and privacy lead to a tower-top lunch of cheddar and arugula sandwiches under a rare sun.
For the third time we haul feet to Huntly’s city center. Uniformed students loiter about. Our public bus awaits. Whisky cometh.
The bus rattles north along the A97. It passes hills painted green with fields and lazy sheep. Uncertainty mounts. I check my watch trying to stop it ticking.
We step off on the opposite side of Forgue village. No distillery. Just empty pasture.
My mental google map walks us past the clutch of ten homes, hill church, and straight up another hill. The token sidewalk disappears around a bend. We walk single-file through grass. Cars and trucks blow past, while sheep stare at us.
After half an hour, we sight the distillery, nestled amongst trees at the end of valley. The last tour starts in fifteen minutes. We panic and sprint.
Halfway, a black van chugs past us. Tourists. We wave at it. Nothing. We keep running. Pouring sweat I find GlenDronach’s driveway, but then lose my wife. Screw it. I check us in. She arrives, mad and dripping.
The Californians from the black van ask us, “Was that you running?”. “*pant*pant* Yes!”, “We should’a picked you up. Well, we can drop you off after the tour”. “*huff*huff* Please! Cheers!”.
This core represents GlenDronach Distillery’s ghost. The coal furnace below the tower no longer dries barley. The malting-floor hangs empty. Here men with shovels churned warm, wet, sprouting grain into magic, fermentable sugar until 1996.
Modernity, efficiency, and demand have rendered these spaces into memorials. Why malt on site from local growers, when some “pneumatic plant” can malt and dry batches five times larger? Our guide claims it makes no difference with the final product. Doubtful. It ensures batch to batch consistency across all distilleries supplied. Site-specific variations in harvest, weather, temperature, labor, even bacteria have vanished.
We consumers asked for this. We wanted reliability. If a bottle tasted horrible, even different, we switched brands. Most distilleries followed in the 1940s.
So gone are the first phases that may have added terrior (sense of place). Fine. What next?
We cross the court to the retro-fitted hall. Before entering, our guide requests I turn off my camera. A grist mill fills every inch of the entry room. This square golum of steel has crushed grain for a century with no sign of stopping.
We avoid getting eaten. Immediately baked bread and apple pie swarm our nostrils: fermentation is underway upstairs. We walk past the gleaming copper mash tuns (where grain starch and warm water become sugar).
We enter a hall flanked by standing barrels big enough to hold SUVs: washbacks, where fermentation happens. Their round mouths reach waste high but run a story beneath us. I blush upon hearing that the pine comes from Oregon. Home seems a bit closer. Our guide lifts one heavy lid. Hot apple cider aromas and CO2 suck out our oxygen. The yeast are at peak, gurgling a thick beige blanket. Dizzying.
This beer will transfer, like our tour, to the still house. We enter the gallery of copper stills: gleaming orange elephants that smell skyward. Inside their bellies, heat separates alcohol from the beer.
Until 2002, GlenDronach ran one of the last coal-fired stills in Scotland. But coal’s direct heat created uneven hotspots, which created a richer, toffeed Whisky. Steam now ensures indirect and consistent heat and product. But I suppose we can’t cling to every tradition.
Nostalgic niggles aside, GlenDronach does a damned good job. Our guide weathered my questions. The Native ownership under BenRiach Distillery has returned sherry barrels. Water stills comes from the Dronach burn on site. No coloring. No cold filtering.
Back to the visitor’s center. Our guide centers us on the tasting table. She arms us with wine tasting glasses and an eye dropper of local water; no ice, coke, or tumblers. Smart lass.
12 Year Old “Original” 43%
The color is medium intense amber gold. The aromas mimic baked pear, shaved ginger, a shaving of sherry oak, hazelnut, sweet vanilla, Turkish delight, and oil. Assertive and complex but without aggression.
The palate shows medium richness, low tannin, and silky texture. Flavors match the aromas with ripe fruits, spices, raisin, slight oak smoke and sherry sweetness. Medium length dusty finish. Very good (4 of 5). Other Highland or Speyside Whiskies, like Aberlour or The Macallan‘s 10 year olds, rank a step below Glendronach’s 12 in terms of complexity, fruit intensity, and richness.
15 Year Old “Revival” 46%
The color looks darker and deeper: medium amber copper. Aromas increase in concentration, sliding to caramel, malt, orange, hint of citrus, and ethanol, and away from the pear fruit of the 12 but still predominately fruity.
The palate reveals less sweetness but more density, chalky tannins, and body. Like walking into an oak grove in the heat of summer: this provides shade but you can smell and feel the heat. Fruits of orange and citrus still dominate but smoke and oak balance. Everything is thrown into greater contrast, like switching from Renoir to Van Gogh. The length is medium plus. The quality is probably outstanding (5 of 5). There is just more here. It is intense, chewy, but not overwhelming.
Our guide then elbows our Californian company into trying (i.e. paying for) the Distillery Manager’s Cask (1993, cask #1616). This distillery exclusive was left at cask alcoholic strength, 60-ish %, so no watering down. I ask to sniff it as our host poured it from the silly bronze-tapped barrel.
Good gods! Toffee, caramel, oil, rose, rubber, and oak all collide in my nose. I would have loved to taste it. But the moment felt marketed for the middle-aged in a tour van.
The Californians buy, fill, and sign (oddly) their own bottle of the Manager’s cask.
Meanwhile, my wife and I bench ourselves outside. We gleefully tuck into our reserve of Dean’s Shortbread. The channeled Dronach river gurgles past our right shoulders. Employees begin to drift home. In front, a mass of glass and brick hides its silent copper stills.
Also in view sits the black van. Soon the Californians with their prize tumble back into it. Their offer to drive us back evaporated with that last dram.
But it is for the best. We are not on their cosy, chauffeured, trip: where point A to point B matters more than the journey. We are travelers. We figure out a whole day of touring for a quarter of their cost. Yes, we nearly miss our tour. But we meet real people. We nearly get run over. But we shop at their shops and farmer’s markets. We get lost all the time. But we find what really matters.
We climb back to that snaking, hilly road. I see a hand-scrawled sign pointing to an ancient monument up someone’s drive. The sun still shines. Our bus has a few more hours. So we go.
We never find the monument. But we do find this:
We hike back through Forgue. The sheep gawk again at us.
Back at the busstop, a man in TESCO grocery store jumpers signals us over. We chat about the economy, about where he works. Then our tin can bus takes us and him back to Huntly, back to our train, and back to Aberdeen. Tour vans be damned.
Great history and tasting reviews of Glendronach’s storied past: http://www.maltmadness.com/whisky/glendronach.html