Latest update: May 7th 2012
GLENROTHES DISTILLERY PICTURES
The pictures in the slide show at the left, were taken by Frans Brouwer – The Whisky Friend. The pictures are used with kind permission from him.
The pictures in the slide show at the left, were taken by Frans Brouwer – The Whisky Friend. The pictures are used with kind permission from him.
Glenrothes shows a lot of mystique. Lying just next to a cemetery there is of course a story of a ghost linked to the distillery.
On arrival you first pass a warehouse, after which you see the wonderfull still house coming up. As beautiful as it looks from the outside, a look inside the still house is even more a treat for the eye. The way the stills are set is beautiful and with the staircase together it all makes a incredible impression.
But back to the start, on arrival John Sutherland, the distillery manager, welcomes me and takes me straight out to visit the distillery. A fantastic tour through this distillery. A showpiece is an old Porteus mashtun, which is still used from time to time. A remarkable antique that you won’t easily find in another distillery. Glenrothes uses liquid yeast for fermentation, but since they at the moment still get the yeast in tablets of about 25 kg. they have a yeast mixing machine in place. For fermentation Glenrothes uses both wooden and stainless steel wash backs. This of course is again a special item that you won’t see in much distilleries.
All together this distillery, which is also the brand home for Cutty Sark, is a distillery that is more than worth a visit. Sadly enough they are not open to the public. Oh, that Dutch flag, yes, that was really because I visited the distillery that day.
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The Glenrothes Distillery is situated in the heart of Speyside beside the Burn of Rothes which flows from the Mannoch Hills into the River Spey. This area of the Scottish Highlands is universally acknowledged as the heartland of Malt Whisky distillation.
On 28th December 1879 two momentous things happened in Scotland. The new rail bridge over the River Tay collapsed, plunging an unfortunate train into the icy waters and killing all 75 passengers. That same day, the first pure spirit flowed from the stills at The Glenrothes distillery. A ray of sunshine on an otherwise dark day. The quality of this spirit quickly became prized inside information within the whisky industry. Here was an immaculate Speyside Malt Whisky, drawing its flavours from the prime barley of the region, the careful creation of the spirit and the resulting richness of both American and Spanish oak casks. Its flavour, structure and body created a ‘top dressing’ of choice for Master Blenders across the length and breadth of Scotland. Which is why it is at the heart of some of the world’s finest blends such as Cutty Sark, The Famous Grouse, and it graces many other great names. Of course, the malts that are in a blend, if not exactly a secret are not common knowledge. So, for over a hundred years and for a good twenty years after the renaissance of Single Malt Whiskies, The Glenrothes remained as good as a secret. The name didn’t register with any but discerning whisky drinkers and the fraternity of Master Blenders. The name was well known by London’s oldest established wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd., who had been providing their well-heeled customers with the finest wines and spirits from their premises in St James’s Street since 1698.
In the early 1990’s Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd. decided to create a premium quality niche in the developing Single Malt Whisky market. They certainly had The Glenrothes firmly in mind just as they had previously when, in 1923, they developed the revolutionary lighter styled Cutty Sark blended whisky. The concept, this time, was to find whiskies from the distillery which would represent the “best of the best”. The idea of a declared Vintage came naturally to Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd. After all, the similarities with the finest wines are many: the best selection of one particular year; each Vintage with a different personality but sharing the same character. And, with whisky as with wine, Vintages would be both finite and rare.
Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd. recognised that the distillers’ advanced understanding of the maturation process had promising implications for future Vintages: they would not be locked into the consistency associated with products of fixed ages whose personality remains the same in each bottling and whose recipe is frozen in time. For an industry wedded to the notion of producing the exact same product year in year out this was an unusual idea. And
The Glenrothes, with its exceptional quality, seemed the natural choice for it. The search then began to find casks of such outstanding quality that Berry Bros & Rudd Ltd. could stamp them with the “Vintage” seal and to which The Glenrothes Malt Master could add his signature of approval. Then one day, in 1993, gold was struck.
Just imagine The Glenrothes Distillery Manager, as he had been requested, seeking out the first Vintage cask in the church-like quietness of the warehouses, checking the progress of maturation, nosing a sample from each, when all of
a sudden he stopped his unhurried, careful ritual. The bouquet that hit his nose was so exquisite that, for a split second, it took his breath away. He took a sip. Then he knew. He’d discovered a superlative cask. Then, checking a second cask from the same batch and year, he found it equally as good. Casks so good that they clearly shone out above all others. So good they shouldn’t be mixed with another batch from any other year, thus fitting the Vintage stipulation.
Though bubbling with excitement, he didn’t rush. He drew a full sample from each newly tested barrel. He replaced the bungs. Silence and contemplation marked his territory. He took several clean, empty sample bottles from the shelf and filled them. He nosed them again. He sipped them again. And taking his spectacles from their case and putting them in place, he wrote a few brief tasting notes on the characteristic sample bottle labels. Just as he always did. But, in a covering note he stated his case. These samples were so good and so special that, indeed, they should be bottled and sold as the first Glenrothes Vintage. He placed the samples in with the batch due to go to the Malt Master.
The next day, in the sample room, the Malt Master received the delivery from the distillery as usual. Everything looked as it should – a number of sample bottles simply but neatly packed, each with handwritten tasting notes on the label. But then he noticed that a clutch of bottles had an additional note wedged between them. What was this? He read the note and felt immediate excitement. This was it! He uncorked the bottles one by one. He nosed. Closed his eyes. Nosed again and took a sip from each. Euphoria! The Vintage concept was a concept no longer. It was a reality – and the first of its kind in the Scotch Whisky industry.
For a handful of casks to be singled out from this select preserve they have to be truly exceptional. Individually selected from a given year’s distillation and judged to be at the peak of their perfection, these casks are then bottled as The Glenrothes Vintage Malt. Vintage selections account for little more than 2% of the distillery’s production capacity. To ensure that The Glenrothes is only selected for bottling when it has reached its zenith of maturity, each individual cask of the whisky is carefully checked, nosed and tasted many times. Those casks that are selected must meet with the high quality expected of The Glenrothes, and must collectively create a personality so special they warrant bottling as a ‘Vintage’ – they must be truly exceptional. They fly the flag and provide the reason that The Glenrothes is synonymous with quality.
Many a year The Glenrothes is, as always, top class, but there’s no Vintage. Maybe there is not enough stock. Maybe those casks that are available are not exceptional, maybe they are not sufficiently distinct from a previous Vintage. Unlike the age concept, each Vintage must have its own unique personality yet is underpinned by the distinctive hallmark characteristics of the distillery – ripe fruits, citrus, vanilla and an exquisite spicy finish all encased in the creamiest of textures and with a complex and well-poised balance.
The Glenrothes was already universally acclaimed by the blenders as an exceptional Speyside Malt. But the first Vintage bottling, the 1979, set a new and exciting standard in Malt Whisky. Other selections have been made on the same basis, so that now this Malt that was, for so long, one of Speyside’s best-kept secrets is available in a number of Vintages. The world of the Malt Whisky connoisseur and enthusiast is the richer for it.
Take some plump, ripe barley – steep it in fresh water, then lay it out, turn it, let it germinate before drying it in a kiln: you then have your ‘malted’ barley; next mill it before mixing it with hot water, then mash it to extract the soluble starches; allow the liquid to cool for fermentation, add yeast, control the magic of the yeast effect by letting it bubble and froth and two days later you have a ‘wash’ of 8% alcohol, a bit like beer; now the distillation, a carefully controlled process in which the liquid is heated twice in a pair of tall-necked traditional copper pot stills, the vapours rise and are condensed, the liquid spirit is formed and the Stillman takes his ‘cut’ or selection – rarely more than 14% being taken from the second distillation; finally the ‘new make’ has its strength reduced to 63.5 % alcohol and is filled into oak barrels to rest and mature in the warehouse. That is a thumb-nail sketch of the craft involved in making The Glenrothes Single Malt Scotch Whisky, in reality the process is much more complicated and accomplished. It should be emphasised however, that they take exceptional care in the birth of The Glenrothes spirit. The pure water is taken from only two springs – the Ardcanny and the Lady’s Well – both situated near the distillery. They only select Scottish barley and malt it in Saladin boxes – a traditional method which undoubtedly contributes to the quality of the end product. Quality and purity are the hallmarks of The Glenrothes, these must be rigorously adhered to from beginning to end. The shape of the pot stills is another important factor in creating Malt Whisky that is unique. Their stills today are designed and fashioned to be exact replicas of the original stills made in 1879. It remains something of a mystery but the stills help shape the character of the whisky. Just as the dedicated water supply adds its own unique influence. And the extraordinary micro-climate of the area surrounding the distillery influences the development of flavour in the wooden casks over the long years of maturation. On top of the inimitable specifics of provenance there is, of course, the wisdom of the artisan, unhurriedly but meticulously passed on from generation to generation.
The greatest influence on the flavour of Malt Whisky is the interaction of the spirit with the wood of the cask it matures in. Although this is such an important part of the process, it is the least understood. The discovery of this influence was accidental and happened around the end of the 19th Century. Accidental but serendipitous! By 1915, for any spirit to be called Scotch Whisky it had become mandatory, not only that it was distilled and matured in Scotland but that it had been aged, for at least three years, in oak barrels.
It’s now estimated that upwards of 60% of a Malt Whisky’s flavour comes from this interaction of spirit and wood. So, it is not surprising that those who wish to produce excellence, respect the seriousness of choosing the right wood. You can have a wonderful spirit but unless it is put into the best casks, it will not produce outstanding whisky. On the other hand, if the spirit is not ‘top class’ no matter what is done with the wood selection, it cannot produce an outstanding whisky. So, it is vital to start with superlative spirit and thereafter to ensure that the wood is of equal quality to produce the excellence desired. For new casks they buy flat staves in both America and northern Spain. These are then shipped to southern Spain, made into casks and ‘seasoned’ to their specifications with Oloroso Sherry. The Sherry is then extracted and the casks are shipped to the distillery for filling. The flavours of the Sherry-seasoned casks impart not only a sweetness and Sherry note to The Glenrothes, they also reduce the effects of the new-oak tannins. In the case of the American Oak the dominant and characteristic flavours are coconut and vanilla, and in the case of the Spanish Oak resins and spices. The size of the Vintage will depend entirely on the quantities available bearing this personality. A difficult exercise at best but extremely difficult with the older Vintages. There’s a lot to weigh up but too much to lose. That’s why this is a job for the best ‘noses’ in the business. 95% of the new casks for The Glenrothes have been seasoned with Sherry.
If they were to use only these seasoned Sherry casks the Sherry would dominate the whisky. For a Vintage they are looking for balance and to do this they temper the Sherry effects by using a combination of new seasoned casks and casks that have already been used once for the maturation of Malt Whisky. These latter casks impart some Sherry personality but it’s less pronounced. Additionally, for some Vintages they may use a few ex-Bourbon barrels which have previously held Malt Whisky. The price of a Sherry cask is about eight times that of a second-hand Bourbon cask. Small wonder that 95% of the casks in use within the Industry have once held Bourbon! But contrary to what others do, all of the new casks destined for a Vintage have been seasoned with Sherry to their specifications. Normally new casks represent about 25% of those used to create a Vintage. In the pursuit of a Vintage they are looking for an outstanding and exceptional ‘personality’ to represent one particular year. This ‘personality’ will be readily identifiable in a number of individual casks. No two casks are the same: each will impart slightly different flavours. Therefore each and every cask needs to be nosed to discover whether it has the distinctive flavours that will coincide with the chosen personality. The size of the Vintage will depend entirely on the quantities available bearing this personality. A difficult exercise at best but extremely difficult with the older Vintages. There’s a lot to weigh up but too much to lose. That’s why this is a job for the best ‘noses’ in the business.
To date only a small number of Vintages have been released, such is the exceptional quality required. Each Vintage is, by definition, rare and finite. Each has its own unique personality. That’s why they believe this is a Malt to be savoured in special company.
Single Casks, these are the elixir of The Glenrothes, the absolute best individual samples. Very rarely a cask of The Glenrothes will be deemed by the Malt Master to be of such outstanding personality that it will be bottled as a Single Cask. These very special releases are few and far between: for example, after two casks of 1966 and two casks of 1967, the next Single Cask release was 1980. The release of these Single Casks will continue to be a rarity and a dram over which to share cherished dreams.
Select Reserve, they have crafted a selection of The Glenrothes which typifies the distillery house character – ripe fruits, citrus, vanilla and hints of spice. The Select Reserve is a non-Vintage selection carefully chosen by the Malt Master and produced to the same high quality standards as The Glenrothes Vintage selections. But here they can select from batches of different years.
The Double Double, as well as allowing you to share the sampling of The Glenrothes with close friends and kindred spirits, this satisfyingly sized 10cl replica is an ideal way to compare and contrast the personalities of the different Vintages.
The distinctive round bottle and handwritten label are replicas of the sample bottles used by distillers and Malt Masters throughout Scotland.
Byeway Makalunga as an orphaned child found under a bush on a track in Africa during the Boer War "Byeway" Makalunga was rescued at the turn of the 20th Century by Colonel Grant of Rothes who took him back to Scotland. When he grew up he became the Colonel's helper and was a well known figure in Rothes, at one stage playing for the village football team. He died in 1972.
Seven years later, following the installation of a new pair of stills the ghost of Byeway was said to have appeared on two separate occasions in the distillery itself. Nothing sinister but sufficient concern was caused to encourage the calling of Cedric Wilson a university professor to investigate. His analysis? An invisible energy line called a ley-line had been disturbed with the installation of the new stills. He put this to right and then stood for some minutes outside the distillery's neighbouring cemetery in silent contemplation. It was his first time at the cemetery. He then went straight to a single gravestone some 70 yards from the distillery. He appeared to be talking to the deceased. After a few minutes he returned announcing that the issue had been amicably resolved. The gravestone was that of Byeway Makalunga. The ghost of Byeway has never been seen since and as a sign of respect it has become a tradition at Glenrothes to ‘Toast to the Ghost’ with a dram of The Glenrothes.
Thanks to Ronnie Cox and John Sutherland (†) for their support.