I was lucky enough to enjoy a tour at the Strathisla distillery on a recent trip to the Speyside area; home of some of the best-known whisky brands in the world. Strathisla is the oldest distillery in the Scottish Highlands that is still in operation. Originally founded in 1786 you can’t escape the feeling of tradition and history the distillery represents. What’s perhaps more interesting, and probably less known to many, is that Strathisla is home to one of the biggest whisky brands in the world, Chivas Regal!
I took this photo during my visit and it’s very likely you’ve seen these twin pagodas before as they capture the very essence and feel of Scottish Whisky.
Strathisla was founded way back in 1786 by Alexander Milne and George Taylor under a different name, the Milltown Distillery. The property changed hands several times over the years including a spell under the ownership of William Longmore which you may recognise as the manufacturer of the Passport range of blended whiskies. Interestingly, the Passport range of whiskies were first put together in the 1960s by Chivas blender Jimmy Lang which included both Strathisla and Glen Keith single malts. Today, the distillery is owned by the multinational Pernod Ricard.
The Chivas brand dates as far back as 1801 when brothers John and James Chivas started their luxury grocery store in Aberdeen. They were well known across the region and predominantly catered to wealthy clientele including an appointment to supply the Royal family at Balmoral in 1842. In 1843 they began to supply goods directly to Queen Victoria and it was in 1850 that they began mixing blends in an attempt to create the finest and smoothest whisky. The brand went from strength to strength over the decades to become one of the most recognisable brands in whisky today.
The company bought the Strathisla distillery in 1950 to secure the production of Strathisla Single Malt, a core component of the Chivas blend.
The Distillery Tour
The tour began in the main reception area which comprised a front desk and a retail area full of goodies to browse. Strathisla has retained a traditional feel and sense of history which is evident when you look around; this is in contrast to many other distilleries that have opted for modern architecture and decor when undergoing revamps. Our tour guide was from Thailand, which I initially thought was an odd choice, but she was certainly knowledgeable about whisky and more importantly, the day to day operations of Strathisla!
Our tour began in the milling area with a talk around the machine that grinds the raw materials before they go off to washbacks. Interestingly, they are still using a machine that was built in the early part of this century and there are only a few people alive today that are capable of repairing it. I always find it fascinating that many of these famous, and most likely wealthy, distilleries still opt to choose machinery that is decades old.
The tour followed the process of making whisky from the milling room, past the mash tun and to the washbacks. We weren’t allowed to take any photos in the main production areas but I was allowed to take a quick snap (see below) as we exited the area through the fire escape!
In terms of overall scale, Strathisla is a fairly small distillery with only 2 spirit and 2 wash stalls. However, considering the size they are still able to pump out around 2,400,000 liters every year. You get get a feeling of authenticity as you make your way through, something that’s perhaps lost a little bit at some of the other distilleries I have visited.
We were unfortunate enough to have a self-proclaimed ‘expert’ on the tour who felt he needed to expand on every fact and figure mentioned by our guide which became slightly annoying for us and our guide!
The warehouse at Strathisla contains something a little bit special that you won’t find anywhere else – the Queens 60-year-old Coronation Cask which is valued at £6000 per bottle! Although this was mentioned during our tour it wasn’t included; from what I’ve read the tour has been revamped and now includes a look at these rare casks.
The tasting room at Strathisla was the highlight for me; a grand old room with majestic furniture and a big old fireplace in the corner. The room had the perfect feel for an afternoon tasting. We were offered 3 different whiskies to try
- Chivas Regal 12 Year Old
- Chivas Regal Extra
- Chivas Regal 18
I must say I particularly enjoyed the 18, our guide told us to expect dark chocolate, dried fruits and a toffee flavour. I could pick out most of these distinctive notes and I must say it changed my opinion on the quality of blends – I highly recommend it if you get a chance for a tasting.
My wife was driving as Scotland has a zero-tolerance approach to drinking and driving. I actually didn’t know this before our trip and thought, as with most laws, that Scotland and England were aligned! The distilleries are well prepared and offer a box with some small bottles so you can take your samples home if you’re driving.
Overall, the tour was excellent and I highly recommend you add Strathisla to your list if you get the chance to visit the area. There are several tours available with some offering you the opportunity to mix your own blends and taste spirit directly from the casks.
The Distillery Shop
Part of the excitement, for me at least, is the chance to have a look in the shop when visiting a distillery. You will often find a limited edition or a special offer that’s only available at that shop. I normally make sure to get a Glencairn glass with the distillery logo for my collection. The shop had a full range of both Strahisla single malts and Chivas blends as you would expect but it also carries a fine selection of Royal Salute whiskies. Royal Salute has been produced since the 1950s to commemorate special occasions within the Royal family; the first of these was to mark the Queens coronation!
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed my afternoon at Strathisla. The tour was informative and immersing myself in whisky history for a few hours made for a great afternoon.
Where is the Strathisla distillery?
You will find it in the town of Keith, Aberdeenshire