Whisky Advocate’s managing editor, Lew Bryson, reports on his recent trip to Scotland.
I was invited to join a press trip to Highland Park distillery recently. I accepted, and added on two days of my own to visit other distilleries in the Highlands. The trip was last week, and after a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the cask ale bars of Edinburgh, we flew up to Kirkwall on Orkney on a brisk Monday morning, dropped our bags at the Lynnfield Hotel, and went to the distillery. We stood in the courtyard, smelling the peat burning in the maltings, looking at tubs filled with tiny daffodils, and feeling the sleet fall lightly on our heads and shoulders. That’s Orkney for you.
Highland Park does floor malting of about 20% of its malt, and smokes it all with Orkney peat to between 35 and 50 ppm of phenols. The local peat is unique, and densely layered with heather. We went out to the peat cuttings the following day, and could see heather roots right down to the 5,000 year level. The other 80% of the malt is unpeated and is bought in. The 80/20 blend is the same in all mashing, and yields the familiarly gentle peat character of Highland Park, with a phenol level of about 2 ppm in the spirit.
Highland Park’s whisky is all aged in oloroso sherry-seasoned casks; some made from American oak, some from Spanish oak (about 50/50), but all sherry (which made for an amusing “Ah HA!” moment when we spotted a small number of port pipes; they were experimental, and may never make it to a bottling). They vary the ratios of American/ Spanish and first-fill/refill to get different character for the different bottlings. The 30 Year Old, for instance, has no first-fill casks; the 25 Year Old is 50% first-fill casks.
It was broadly hinted to us that the Edrington Group would like to reserve as much Highland Park as possible for single malt bottling (they’ve already cut back on the amount of barrels being released to independent bottlers). With the same kind of demand driving things at The Macallan, you wonder what the future is for Famous Grouse and Cutty Sark.
After a fascinating second day getting the Orkney experience—standing stones, cliffs, more sleet, a Neolithic chamber tomb, the peat bogs, Scapa Flow, and fish and chips in a harborside pub—we left Kirkwall Wednesday morning, and I rented a car to drive to Speyside. My first stop was The Macallan, where my guide, Ian Duncan, told me that they’re now running 24/7 every day of the year, except for three weeks of maintenance in July. Yes, every day of the year, even Christmas and New Year’s, which is how they’re putting out 9.2 million liters a year (even given their “curiously small stills”).
The visitor center has an excellent display on wood, which shows the structure of oak, explaining how oak is watertight, but also, very slowly, breathes. The oak they’re largely looking at, of course, is Spanish and American oak used in sherry casks, which now cost The Macallan about £650 each, compared to £500 only two years ago. Do yourself a favor: drink more sherry!
Unfortunately, since I was traveling solo, I wasn’t able to taste anything, so I pushed on to The Glenlivet, where I was met by international brand ambassador Ian Logan. It was a bit late in the afternoon, so we had the place largely to ourselves, and we paused for a moment in the new distillation hall, a soaring place with a grand view across the valley. The stills are oil-fired, but natural gas is coming: I’d been held up by the construction along the way. The new stills are in addition to the old ones and give the distillery a capacity of 10.5 million liters a year, trying to keep up with a booming demand that had increased sales of Glenlivet from 2,500 cases a year in the 1970s to 250,000 cases in 2001, and an amazing 825,000 cases in 2012.
I asked Ian about the still geometry; why are the stills at Glenlivet shaped the way they are? He called over brewer Richard Clark, who cocked his head and said, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it. But really, that’s what it is. Whatever the reason they were built the way they were, keep doing it the same way, because that’s how your spirit is.”
That led us into a discussion of quality vs. consistency. The distillation here is highly consistent because of automation. That’s not necessarily higher quality every time, Ian noted, but it makes for a regularly higher level overall, and it’s always the same. Automation may make a smaller workforce possible—there are ten people making the whisky here—but it’s still the people who make the whisky, he said.
Then we had a chat about limits. The last downturn in the industry was in the 1980s, Ian said, but Chivas kept making whisky, and Glenlivet is set for older whiskies because of that. “It will turn down again,” he said. “It always does. Everything does. Everything is cyclical.” There are other limits on growth; everyone I talked to on this trip had water on their mind, a limiting factor even here in rainy Scotland as production expands in response to demand.
I drove on up past Inverness, and spent the night at The Anderson in Fortrose, owned by an old acquaintance from Philly, Jim Anderson (and he has a great whisky bar). It was a short drive to Tain the next morning, where Annette MacKenzie took me around a quiet Glenmorangie that was slowly coming back to life after annual maintenance. They did a total refurbishment three years ago, and are looking at 6 million liters production this year.
It was quiet at the distillery, but things were stirring. Malt was being delivered, and steam was slowly being turned back on. “Good to hear the noise!” Annette called to the stillman. Then she told me that because the sounds of the steam and the bubbles and the gushes of the stillhouse are so important, and the stillman leans to listen to every little nuance, “You can’t sneak up on a stillman.”
I drove back southeast, backtracking to The Dalmore, where Shauna Jennens took me around. We saw the two sets of stills—the “little rascals” and the “big bastards”—with the odd flat tops of the wash stills and the unique cooling water jackets of the spirit stills.
“It’s an unbalanced distilling system,” explained stillman Mark Hallas. “The spirit’s different coming off the different stills, but over 24 hours it balances. It’s all manually controlled, they call it ‘dynamic distillation.’” He grinned. “Automate it all you want, the most important part is the meat in the machine.” He grinned again, and tapped the side of his head.
The meat in the machine at Dalmore that everyone knows best is Richard Paterson’s nose, of course, and though he wasn’t there that morning, his presence was palpable: in videos, in pictures, and in the complicated blending that’s done with six different casks and finishes for the single malts. Even a simple nose like mine noticed that the smell in these dunnage warehouses, right beside the Cromarty Firth, is unique: malt, wood, stemmy grape, and salt.
And here I did finally give in and have a small drink of Matusalem oloroso sherry; “good stuff,” as Shauna pronounced it, and it was rich, fruity, and delicious. We followed it with a bare quarter-ounce of King Alexander III, and the relation was clear. It was a very good moment, looking out the window, across the sun-beaten firth, ready to push on.
Push on I did, with one more stop before heading back to the Edinburgh airport to fly home. I drove east to Elgin, and then up the Spey to Rothes, where I met Fiona Toovey for a tour of Forsyths, the still manufacturers. Once kitted out with reflective vest and steel-toed shoes, we walked the yard, full of coppersmiths banging away with hammers of differing sizes, saw the large pits for the mechanical hammers, and the shop where Forsyths rides out the cyclical whisky industry with work on specialized steel welding and shaping for the gas and oil drilling industry.
They were gearing up for the summer maintenance period here as well. A warehouse was filling with new and refurbished stills and condensers, and a small army of fitters would swarm on them to get them into quiet distilleries during the short summer break. Things are good at Forsyths, and only getting better as more major distillery expansions are announced.
That was the end of my trip, but for the intensely scenic drive down to Edinburgh (and a quick stop to take a few pictures at Tullibardine for my sister). The Scotch whisky industry is successful and expanding, and looking challenges straight in the eye. Where will the water come from to make the whisky? Where will the wood come from for sherry aging? Where will the money come from to build more warehouses than current sales need (but future sales depend on)? Time will tell. For now, all is well in the glens and on the islands.