GlenDronach bottles and sells my favourite whisky. As much as I like peat, a well-aged sherry single malt just does it for me (Editor’s Note: Yes, we know that prior to 2002 GlenDronach was peated, but I think DistillAsian means very peated whisky here). So the first thing I want to do when visiting Scotland is hit up the GlenDronach Distillery. It’s not as hard to get to as any distillery on Islay (really due to the fact that you have to make your way by ferry to a small island of about 3,000 people), but it’s basically in the middle of nowhere.
One unusually sunny morning (for Scotland) we started the two and a half hour drive from Inverness to GlenDronach. The entire trip culminates into a turn off of the main motorway and onto a what feels like pretty local roads (although nowhere nearly as small as the road to Bunnahabhain). Driving into the distillery complex is pretty nondescript, with very little fanfare; the distillery consists of some warehouses, the Visitor Centre, and the Mash and Still Houses surrounding the parking lot. We ended up getting half an hour before the booked tour. I was hoping in that time they would have enough people to start a Connoisseurs Tour (GlenDronach runs the same Distillery tour regardless of which tasting you have chosen, and the only difference is which drams they serve you at the end: The Connoisseurs tasting consists of only single casks), as they require a minimum of four people to run one, but alas, it was not to be and I settled for the Premium Tour.
While waiting for the tour, I chatted with the staff about the various Distillery Exclusives they had on offer. These consisted of the two bottlings from the yet to be released Batch 16 (a 1990 27 year old PX and a 1992 25 year old Oloroso), a UK Exclusive (1993 24 year old Oloroso), and the Distillery Manager’s Cask (this can vary wildly depending on what the Manager feels like putting out but this day it was a 1993 25-year-old aged in an Oloroso cask for 250 pounds). They also had what appeared to be ample stock of the newish Peated Port Pipe, as well as the standard range of bottles.
Once everyone had arrived at the distillery, the tour began with a promotional video in the sitting area which explained the history of the distillery, as well as the general process of making un-aged spirit. It was a pretty boring video frankly in a setting which felt like a boardroom.
After the video, we made out way outside to the Dronach Burn (river Dronach) by our guide Frank, who had first started working for the distillery in the ’70s as a part of the production team. He talked about his time making whisky and other facts about the distillery’s history. One thing I was surprised to learn was that there was a customs office right on the premises. In the old days, the tax man would stay at the distillery and calculate the tax owing based on the un-aged spirit produced. Of course, living at the distillery, the staff naturally made friends with the tax man and would often get him to report lower amounts of spirit produced.
We made our way to the old malting building and were shown the kiln. Unfortunately, GlenDronach no longer malts it’s own barley and instead relies on commercial maltings, which are then fed into the barley mill, and the normal process proceeds from there. Up until it’s closure in 1996, GlenDronach used to source its own local barley and malt and dry on premises. This was great for the local economy as farmers would make more from selling their barley to the distillery rather than for food. Today the Distillery still grows some of their own barley, but it is not used for the production of whisky, and rather used as a comparison to check the quality of the commercially malted barley they purchase.
One thing that many do not know is that GlenDronach was peated up until it’s closure (Editor’s Note: See, he got to it). I believe that it was still peated for a short while upon it’s reopening in 2002, but that practice was ended when the distillery switched to buying its malted barley very shortly after reopening.
After seeing the old Kiln, we made our way to the Mill. These mills are all from the 1800s, and while they do require regular servicing, they never break down. One of these mills would have only cost $60 at the time, and as a result of the low price and reliability, the company that made them went bankrupt. From this point on we were not allowed to take any pictures.
After the Mill, we took a short ladder up to see the Mash House, with its wooden Mash Tuns and then on to the Still House. Production was in full swing so it was hot and loud in both places.
Finally back to the Visitor Centre where the tasting would begin. Unfortunately, I had to drive back to Inverness, as my wife wasn’t comfortable doing such a long drive on these roads, so I had to take all my samples to go; I got samples of the new 15, the 18, 21, and the Manager’s Casks well as a little plastic water dropper. Surprisingly this is the one tour I took that did not include a Glencairn, Copita, or Nosing Glass for you to take home. The staff are exceedingly nice and while I was struggling with which whisky to buy they had a few of the Single Casks Open and let me have a wee nip. I tried the Batch 16 25-year-old, the UK Exclusive, as well as the Manager’s Cask. Both the 25-year-old and the UK exclusive were what you would expect from a GlenDronach Single Cask; which is to say they were phenomenal. However, while the Manager’s cask had this huge and almost over-oaked note at the forefront, it also had this sneaking depth to it, that you could just tell with a lot of time to breath/a few months open in the bottle, would be a dram you might remember forever. It was a hard decision, but I ended up with the Manager’s Cask.
All in all, I’m really glad to have finally made it to GlenDronach, just like getting to Islay, I never thought I would have the chance to go there. That being said, the distillery isn’t particularly picturesque, nor are the surroundings. My gut feeling is that Brown-Forman really sanitized the tour and tastings leading to what was a rather boring tour, Speaking to some of the staff it seems that BF are slowly making their mark on the distillery and pushing it towards greater a greater emphasis on efficiency. Thus I recommend visiting soon before any other changes come into play.