Friday, September 5, 2008

The Glendronach Distillery Has Been Sold!

The rumors and reports about the sale of Glendronach have been circulating in the whisky news world at least since June, with speculations being substantiated higgledy piggledy through early August. The sale is now complete. The Glendronach Distillery was sold by Chivas Brothers, the Scotch whisky and premium gin division of French drinks giant Pernod Ricard, to the The Benriach Distillery Company Ltd., a consortium of businessmen (South Africans Geoff Bell and Wayne Keiswetterled, led by industry veteran Billy Walker). The price: £15 million (or about $30 million).

Glendronach is, unfortunately, not such a well known single malt here in the US. The Glendroach is located in the Forgue Valley in Aberdeenshire’s “castle country” in Huntly. This puts Glendronach just inside the much vaunted Speyside whisky region of Scotland.

Speyside is that blessed region just north of the Cairngorm and Grampian mountains that, roughly, stretches into the Moray Firth from Inverness in the West to Aberdeen in the East. I say "roughly" because the geographical designation is a bit of a conceit really. It is smack dab in the Highland's and outside of the whisky context has no real meaning or historical designation. It is, in other words, a product of marketing. Further, although this region, or subregion, is less than 100 miles wide, it is, nonetheless, generally sub-divided into as many as eight smaller districts by whisky aficionados: Speyside (central), Findhorn, Lossie, Rothes, Dufftown, Strathisla, Deveron, and Livet.

Speyside came into prominence in the 19th century, the railways offered more economical and efficient access to the Scottish Highlands than did shipping. Indeed, most of Scotland's still functioning whisky distilleries are located in Speyside. The region's name comes from the river Spey, and its natural bounties are marked by the rivers Findhorn to the West and Bogie and Deveron to the East. From the Spey flows three all important tributaries: the Fiddich, the Livet and the Avon. This, coupled with the natural beauty of the area, accounts for its pride of place among Scotch whisky devotees.

The Glendronach distillery stands is in the Deveron district of Speyside, and straddles the Dronach Burn (or spring), which supplies the cooling water for the distillery's condensers. The name means “valley of the blackberries (brambles)” in Gaelic. It is thought that the distillery used to be the site of illicit distilling; the distillery is surrounded by tall trees where a long established colony of rooks is said to have provided “good luck” in the form of early warning to the advance of excisemen or strangers.

The distillery was founded in 1826 by the Glendronach Distillery Company, a consortium of farmers and businessmen headed by James Allardes or Allardice or Allardyce (depending on the source). Allardes was a friend of the local laird, the Scottish nobleman, soldier and politician George Gordon, 5th Duke of Gordon (February 2, 1770 – May 28, 1836; styled Marquess of Huntly until 1827).

Gordon has a special place in the history of Scotch whisky. Deeply troubled by the whisky smuggling and related lawlessness of his Highland compatriots, Gordon thought that the Government could curtail the lawlessness by making it profitable to produce whisky legally and so proposed this in the House of Lords. In short order the Excise Act of 1823 was passed, legalizing the distillation of whisky in return for a license fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. Smuggling died out almost completely over the next ten years and, in fact, a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites used by illicit distillers who went legit. The Excise Act of 1823 thus laid the foundations for the Scotch Whisky industry.

With the Duke of Gordon’s public approval, the Glendronach whisky concern became highly successful. In 1837, though, James Allardes’s luck ran out and a major part of the distillery was destroyed by fire. Such troubles were not uncommon in distilleries at the time. Unable to fully recover financially, the Glendronach Distillery Company and its license was eventually sold in 1852 to Walter Scott, the former manager of the Teaninich Distillery.

Scott expanded the distillery and also bred Aberdeen Shorthern cattle on the estate. Scott passed away in 1887 and the distillery was acquired by a consortium from Leith, led by John Somerville & Co. In 1916, the distillery was acquired by the Crown. Then in 1920, the distillery was sold for £9,000 to Captain Charles Grant, the fifth son of the founder of Glenfiddich.

William Teacher & Sons Ltd. bought the distillery in 1960; they added two more stills (for a total of four) between 1966 and 1967, and added a visitor center in 1976. Unusually, the stills were all coal fired (most distilleries switched to “indirect” heating, usually via steam coils) until September 2005. Such changes generally produce substantial changes in the character of the spirit, and so in the character of the whisky.

Coal was also used at Glendronach, until 1996, to dry the malted barley in its own floor maltings (about 15% of the total malted barley used by the distillery was provided onsite). Now, like most every other distillery, the malted barley is bought ready. The distillery used to employ a combination of peat and coal to dry the malted barley (could be up to 14 PPM), the bought in malt is unpeated.

As with most single malt whiskies, the majority of the malt whisky goes towards blending. The Glendronach is a major component in the blends Ballantine's and Teacher's Highland Cream Blended Scotch Whisky.

[For my fellow whisky nerds out there, the distillery’s mash tun is a traditional cast-iron tun with a copper canopy; the distillery’s eight washbacks are made of Oregon Pine with a unique venting system for the extraction of carbon dioxide; both dunnage and racked warehouses are employed for maturation.]

William Teacher & Sons was taken over in 1976 by Allied Breweries Ltd, which became known as Allied Distillers [the company took over J. Lyons and Company, a food and catering group, and became Allied Lyons in 1978; which in turn took over Pedro Domecq in 1994, resulting in the drinks giant Allied Domecq]. The distillery was mothballed (or taken offline) in 1996, restricting the supply of Glendronach whisky – which is partly why it isn’t so well known in the US.

The distillery was brought back online on May 14th, 2002. At this time the distillery also switched from 100% sherry cask maturation to exclusively using bourbon casks. Then on July 26, 2005 Allied Domecq was acquired by Pernod Ricard, supported by Fortune Brands. Pernod Ricard became the second largest producer of whisky in Scotland with 12 distilleries; Diageo is #1 with 27 distilleries; and William Grant & Sons is #3 with three distilleries (Balvenie, Glenfiddich and Kininvie). The distillery currently has capacity to produce 1.4 million liters of whisky a year.

The Glendronach 15 year old single malt was 100% sherry cask matured, and is now, sadly, no longer available anywhere. For the most part, it was a personal favorite of mine over The Macallan (which was the other primary 100% sherry cask aged whisky). Although it was sometimes inconsistent towards the end of the production of the 15 year (the distillery took to vatting whiskies from second, third and fourth refill and so often totally spent sherry casks; E 150 caramel coloring was employed to maintain the sherry cask coloring; this is used now as well for their new “original” 12 year old).

At its best, the nose of the 15 year was nicely sherried and a little fruity, with some pleasing cinnamon and ginger spice notes and hints of smoke. The whisky was full-bodied, creamy and well rounded, with the palate showing caramel, dried fruits, apples, some wonderful spice and smoke, with distinct toasted oak nuances. The finish was creamy, long, warming and delicious with sherry wood notes and more of that spice and mild smoke sensation. Alas…

The flagship 12 year old has undergone many changes. It used to be the "original" and it was very good, then they called it the “Traditional” which was less good, and now they are once again calling it the "original." That is, it is now "The Glendronach Original 12 year old double matured Single Highland Malt Scotch Whisky" although it tastes almost nothing like the original "Original", which hasn’t been available for a very long time, but it is better than the "Traditional". Still with me?

The double matured refers to maturation in sherry oak and bourbon oak casks. The nose is very sweet with fruitcake, oak, pears, and vanilla notes, there are also pleasant wafts of smoke. The palate has a pleasant silkiness to it, exhibiting notes of caramel, pecans, dry or bitter marmalade, some distinct sherry oak influence, but the balance is off. The finish is short, offering nuts and honey. The "traditional" release was horribly tainted with sulfur and was even more out of balance.

But then this is now all ancient history. Glendronach was sold off to BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd because Pernod Ricard’s operational and marketing strategies determined that it was excess to requirements. Not surprising, Pernod Ricard is expanding the Glenlivet distillery and re-opening both the Allt-à-Bhainne and Braeval distilleries.

BenRiach Distillery Company Ltd, meanwhile, has announced its intention to re-package and re-launch the Glendronach. I have very high hopes for this and will report back, eventually, as the makeover/relaunch emerges.

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