This part of Aberdeenshire is known as 'The Garioch', pronounced 'GIR-ee'. The area has exceptionally fertile soil which means that as well as being a very green place it also grows an abundance of barley. That barley has one very obvious use here in Scotland, to produce the water of life, otherwise known as whisky!
Towards the end of April in 2023 I went with my partner, Stella, on a guided tour of Glen Garioch Distillery. This distillery is located at the start of the whisky trail, just 14 or so miles from Lickleyhead Castle amid the winding streets of the charming little town of Oldmeldrum. The site has been in continuous use as a distillery for over 220 years, having been founded by local entrepreneurs the Manson brothers in 1797. Despite being in the lowlands of Aberdeenshire, Glen Garioch whisky is classed as 'Highland Whisky'.
Nowadays the site is owned by Suntory, the famous Japanese whisky company. Glen Garioch still has its own identity however and aside from a sign I noticed written in both English and Japanese this still feels like a genuinely traditional and Scottish operation. Indeed, having the safety net of this global company behind them seems to have permitted the staff and management the freedom to use more traditional but also more labour intensive processes and methods. An example of this can be seen in the bottom right picture where they are drying out the barley and allowing it to germinate. The process of turning the barley is done partially by hand.
I won't go into too much detail here about how whisky is made, I leave that to the tour guides! Briefly however, I will give an outline. After drying, the barley is crushed to release the malted sugar within. This is then placed into large vats where the sugar in the crushed barley is dissolved in different temperatures of water to extract as much as possible. This liquid, the wort, is then allowed to cool to the ideal temperature for yeast. Fermentation begins and concludes quite quickly, within a few days or so the now beer like 'wash' is at 6-8% by volume of alcohol. The wash is next sent to the stills where it is subjected to boiling at very high temperatures, The first is a very large still, the 'wash still', which boils off the alcohol and re-condenses it. This process is repeated in a smaller still, the 'spirit' still. Only the purest vapour 'the heart' is collected at this point, and the spirit is at a whopping 68% by volume! This is reduced slightly in the spirit safe. The spirit is finally placed in oak casks that formerly held bourbon or sherry. This gives the whisky its distinctive flavour as it matures for at least 3 years. Each year it matures a little more of the alcohol is lost to evaporation, 'the angel's share'.
The casks in the cask room are stacked 3 high and include casks that have been maturing for many decades. One of them was signed by then Prince Charles during his visit to the area in 2021.
Stella and I found the tour to be very enjoyable. We don't generally go on whisky tours but we found this one to be fun. Each room and part of the distillery produces different smells, temperatures and noises, making it a real sensory experience. This is very much a working distillery and you will see a lot of workers moving about doing their jobs. The tour group had to stand aside to let workers past more than once. This enhances the experience if anything as it gives a sense of a living and breathing operation rather than something too polished. The guide was generally knowledgeable about the topic though she was tripped a couple of times with questions to which she wasn't sure of the answer. At the end of the tour we all sat down in the visitors centre to try a very generous couple of drams of the produce. You are given some of the 3 year and 12 year single malt to sample and compare. The difference was quite apparent, the 12 year being much more refined and smoother. Drivers were given small bottles to take away instead, which I felt was a nice touch.
The gift shop was full of good quality products and we bought a few things to give to family and friends.
Overall, the Glen Garioch Distillery tour was very enjoyable. At £15 per person I would also say that it is good value for money when compared with other distillery tours. I would highly recommend it to visitors to the area.