It’s been a tough year for whisky enthusiasts who so enjoy visiting famous whisky distilleries in Scotland. The pandemic has seen all the major distilleries shut down their operations to the public since March. I’d already had a trip booked to visit Scotland in July and had hoped I might be able to find a distillery to visit, even if the tours were shut down. My trips started on the East coast in a small town called Dunbar, not far from Edinburgh followed by a trip through Glasgow to finish up in Loch Lomond for a night.
I had all but given up on the chance to visit any distilleries until, as luck would have it, the Glengoyne decided to re-open for visits and tours on the day I’d planned to return home to England. I jumped at the chance to book a ‘socially distanced’ tour with a simple online booking and was able to extend my stay by one night.
About the Glengoyne
The Glengoyne distillery has a rich and unique history which I found to be really interesting. Although this is not uncommon for many distilleries, the rich history and stories that date back through the ages make these visits something special.
The Glengoyne was originally named the Burnfoot Distillery before being changed to Glen Guin and then finally Glengoyne.
Distilleries are usually located at the bottom of a valley as a water source is vital to the production of whisky. This is logical but also the reason for the use of Glen in many popular whisky brands. Glen simply means ‘valley’ taken from the Gaelic word. Similarly from Gaelic, goyne means goose! You’ve guessed it, the translation of Glengoyne is ‘Valley of the Goose’.
Glengoyne was founded around 1833 and is the southernmost distillery in the area known as the highlands and the road outside is the dividing line between the areas known as the highlands and lowlands. Interestingly, the stills are one side of the boundary whilst the car park and storage sheds are the other. There is a reason for this location which goes back in time.
Illicit trade and taxes
Illicit stills were common back in the early 1800s and Glengoyne was no exception. It is rumoured around 18 illegal stills were operating up on the hills behind the current distillery. Due to heavy taxation, which was unsustainable at the time, much of the whisky industry was driven to operate illegally. In 1823, with the implementation of the excise act, taxes were substantially reduced enabling the start of legal operations. The Glengoyne officially became a ‘legal’ operation in 1833.
The image below shows the road outside the distillery looking towards the warehouses and is technically the border.
I took a walk along the side to have a look behind the main buildings at the freshwater stream cascading down the Dumgoyne hill, the water source for the distillery. The water flows through a channel into a holding pond with a grill set in the bottom which receives the water and channels it through to the washbacks. There have been some advantages to having a lockdown, the distillery was able to dig out and dredge their holding ponds whilst the distillery was closed to visitors.
Although the distillery is still small compared with some I have visited, running only 3 stills, the water source is no longer sufficient and the Glengoyne has to bring in water from other (undisclosed) sources.
Waste products and carbon dating
With the consumption of Scotch whisky continuing to increase and the importance of sustainability for all major companies becoming such a vital element of their business, the major distillers are constantly working on creative ways to deal with their waste. The biggest waste component is the malt draff, which is most commonly used for animal feed. Some distilleries have found ways to use their draff in small and modern power plants; often generating enough electricity to run most of their operations. The Glenfiddich distillery is a good example of this.
The Glengoyne has a rather unique use for their draff waste, carbon dating! I won’t go into the science behind it but suffice to say we were told during our tour that Glengoyne’s draff has been used in well-known carbon dating projects such as the analysis of the Shroud of Turin!
The whisky of the Glengoyne is very similar in characteristics to most Speyside whiskies. Maturation is mainly concentrated in sherry casks and the distillery goes out of their way to avoid including any smoke flavours. Their overall production capability is around 1.1 million litres of whisky per year.
The malted barley is dried with warm air to ensure there is no smokiness in the final product. In fact, they even go as far as mentioning this in their marketing material, almost like a benefit. At the risk of being flamed, and as a ‘sherried’ whisky lover that doesn’t really enjoy peat, it does make some kind of sense!
There is a full core range which consists of spirits up to an age of 25-year-old, with special editions, like the 30-year-old available from time to time. Whilst we were on our tour, our tour guide let slip that the Glengoyne will be releasing a 50-year-old very soon! Someone on the tour quietly asked how much that might cost and our guide said “an awful lot of money”!
The Teapot Dram
Back in 1899 the distillery manager, William McGeachie, noticed whisky levels within the casks seemed to be dropping a little bit more than the usual amount, or more commonly known as the angels share. After some investigation, he discovered his staff were helping themselves to the spirit throughout the day whilst at work!
Now, I would imagine this happened throughout the industry back then but William came up with a creative solution. He would give each man three full drams per day to enjoy with their meals. For those that didn’t feel like drinking at any particular time, a teapot was placed in the eating area where they could empty their dram. Any other staff member who fancied a bit more than their allocation could pour from the teapot!
Most of the distilleries offering workers spirit would share out the new-make, the Glengoyne made sure the workers were taken care with their free drams coming from the finest spirits after maturation. Our guide mentioned that due to the inclusion of an HR department they’re no longer allowed to drink on the job!
The distillery celebrates this tradition today by releasing a limited ‘Teapot’ edition that can only be bought from the distillery.
As I mentioned above, the tour itself has been totally re-vamped due to Covid-19 and this included the inability to ensure social distancing amongst the washbacks and stills. In light of this, the tour took place in the bar area and I’ve included some pictures below. The tour comprised of a few samples to try with a PowerPoint presentation which our guide ran through.
I knew I wouldn’t get the full experience but was a little disappointed that we wouldn’t get to explore the full distillery. It turned out, once the presentation and tasting were finished we were able to wander about. I was fortunate to find a member of staff that allowed us into the main production under a watchful eye and with one family at a time!
Presentation and tasting
The presentation was interesting and informative and spoke about the history of the distillery, the whisky, and a few drams to taste along the way. The tasting consisted of a 12-year-old, an 18-year-old and a mystery dram which was reserved for last.
I found the 12-year-old to be slightly young, light in color and lacking in body and depth of flavour. The taste comprised of lemon zest, toffee apples, coconut, and vanilla. In comparison, I was blown away by the 18-year-old which was totally different and full of rich and dark flavours – think red apples, marzipan, warm spices, and brown sugar.
The 18-year-old was paired with the most amazing chocolate, handcrafted by Ian Burnett who runs the Highland Chocolatier. The combination of whisky and chocolate was unbelievable and a new experience for me – I encourage you to give it a go!
The mystery dram turned out to be from cask 599, an exceptional cask hand-picked by the distillery team. The cask was the 599th cask to be filled in 2006 making it 13 years old. I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it to be the best of the three. You’re able to fill your own bottle from cask 599 in the distillery shop, currently costing £150.
After the tour, we spent a good hour or so walking around and found helpful staff members willing to answer any questions. One of the most amazing displays I have seen is the maturation display. This features a row of display cabinets on the wall with a series of bottles extracted from casks throughout the maturation process.
The display provides you with the best visual understanding of maturation I have ever seen, covering four types of wood and a full 25 years’ worth of examples. Not only can you see the spirit colouring for each year of maturation but you can see the effect of the different types of oak.
Words can’t really do the display justice so take a look at the image I’ve included below.
The distillery shop
I always find the shop to be one of the highlights of any visit, you never know what goodies you might find and almost all distilleries offer limited editions or travel exclusives that are normally difficult to find.
The Glengoyne shop itself is beautifully decorated with rows of LED lights in strips that create a wonderful atmosphere. The shop is well stocked with their full range and the opportunity to fill a bottle straight from cask 599. There are the usual branded products you would expect such as Glencairn glasses right through to apparel. I was a little disappointed with the pricing as there seemed to be a standard 10% off their usual retail prices. I noted some of the prices and was quite surprised to find them cheaper on sites like Amazon when I got back home.
You are able to buy the Teapot dram at the distillery with the latest edition being number 7, it retails in the distillery shop for £120.
Overall, I would highly recommend a visit and a tour if you get the chance You probably only need a few hours here with a tour and perhaps and hour and a half without; the property is fairly small and quick to wander around.
Where is the Glengoyne distillery?
The Glengoyne can be located at the following address