After our successful trip to GlenDronach Distillery, my wife and I decided to squeeze in another Whisky visit.
This time, we won’t overload the day with castles, bakeries, and a far-flung distillery. No. Today we go to an urban distillery. No extra buses. No panicked runs to the last tour. Just a leisurely guide and a drink or two.
We bus from Aberdeen to Old Meldrum. Pictish stone balls and ancient carvings once brought it fame. The town, perched on a ridge, is cute but dead. Weekday mornings do that. But we have come for Whisky. Soon, we find Distillery Road. No confusion here. Then, a mile on, we sight Glen Garoich’s towers.
Glen Garioch, (pronounced “glen geery”, I know, welcome to Scotland) is one of the Scot’s last surviving 18th century distilleries: it began in 1797, predating Napoleon’s rise. Crazy old. Tours happen every day but Sunday. And they cost a mere six pounds. Perfect.
We enter the suspiciously quiet courtyard. A wolf pack of three, German, bro-tastic tourists appear with their van on the other side. The gate looks shut. I check the offices and ask the security guard. He shrugs. Tours only happen on Saturdays, regardless of the website’s claims.
Our German visitors swear and grunt their way back into the van. Yet the site intrigues us. So we wander.
We look through the web-clattered windows. One reveals the two century old kiln for roasting and heating the malting floor.
Dingy labor romantics aside, Glen Garioch turned to gas in 1982. It also gave up malting, sourcing neighborly grain, and bottling, like nearly all distilleries. Suntory, of Japanese Whisky advert fame, has owned it ever since.
Sure the product has changed. At least the distillery keeps running. Pipes and chutes pop from old stone walls, connecting buildings like silver veins. The towers no longer breath brimstone but still reach skyward.
Further down we spy the grand stills:
Everything sits silent. Do distilleries only run when tourists visit? Probably. We walk down the delivery alley. Used barley hangs in a steel bin, ready to live on as feed. The barrel barns run for blocks, coated with black tar created by drunken microorganisms. Inside we notice more American Bourbon barrels than Sherry.
Another window reveals Glen Garioch’s slim cases, stacked like wooden zoot suits.
Looking around, we shed our regret. We realize that another distillery tour would have shown much of what GlenDronach did last week.
Modernity has stripped Single Malts of what made them unique. Those first human touches: shoveling coal or peat, turning sprouting barely, malting, feeding, grinding, have all been mechanized and outsourced. Even the waste-powered greenhouse closed in 1993. I can’t blame them. Hard labor was meant for wretches in Dickens’ novels and our grandparents. Who could take pride in a job well done? Right? Having this big computer is better. Right?
The term Single Malt, Scotch’s claim to fame, is a nostalgic oximoron. Most malting happens off-site, in massive factories, from homogonized barley sources (even French barley). All that distilleries do indoors is ferment, distill, and age (bottling? packaging? Nope). That way they can hire more tour guides. Maybe terming it “Single Distillery” instead of Single Malt might be more apt.
Standing within Glen Garioch still charms us. Its buildings echo a hard-earned past. The scale feels smaller, human. Much uniqueness has evaporated. Much remains.
Although consolidated, at least this urban industry lives on.
Check back this Friday for a new post covering our brisk departure of Scotland.