Highland Whiskey Distilleries
Like the Inverness district, the Eastern Highlands distilleries have not fared well over the past two decades. Of the nine distilleries above, only four are still producing whisky.
Fettercairn aka Old Fettercairn
Although it began at a site a few miles away, the current Fettercairn distillery was built in 1824. There have been many owners over the years. In the late 1800’s the chairman of the distillery was Sir John Gladstone. His son eventually became prime minister and was instrumental in passing legislation to alleviate taxes on the “angel’s share” (spirit lost through evaporation while the whisky is maturing).
Fettercairn is a component of the Whyte & Mackay blends.
Fettercairn is released in the US in a 10-year-old expression, and unfortunately is easily dismissed because of its low price. It’s a very enjoyable malt.
For lovers of leafy, earthy malts this is a special pleasure. The nutty, leafy nose has hints of toffee and sherry, perhaps cookie dough. The palate is clean with a sweet maltiness and hints of oatmeal and raisins. A warm, sweet finish.
Merchant Bottlings: A Glenhaven 10-year-old is currently available.
Pronounced “Geery”, the distillery is one of the oldest in Scotland, dating back to 1785. It has been operated by Morrison Bowmore Distillers which is owned by the Japanese company, Suntory. The distillery was mothballed in 1995, then in 1997 it was reopened.
I recently sampled an 8-year-old distillery bottling. The color is full gold. The nose is very interesting with elements that are Lowland-like (burnt sugar, toasted marshmallow sweetness), combined with a youthful sourness (a faint hint of vinegar?), with an underlying bit of peat and perfume. The palate is quite sweet and somewhat perfumy at first, and feels thick on the tongue. As the flavor develops it becomes drier and more peaty.
There are also bottlings of a 15-year-old and a 21-year-old, as well as Selected Cask Bottlings and Individual Cask Bottlings.
A 27-year-old 1970 Individual Cask Bottling (42 vol.) is an amber color with bright orange highlights. The nose is dry, oaky, phenolic (reminiscent of creosote), and earthy. The body is full and thick. The palate is extremely dry with cough syrup and mint notes. The finish is very long, dry, and minty.
Special Bottlings: In 1997 Glen Garioch celebrated 200 years of distillations with the release of a special 37-year-old 200th Anniversary bottling.
The distillery is located half a mile east of the ancient town of Brechin near the East coast of Scotland. There are no distillery releases of Glencadam as most of the output goes into Ballentine’s blend.
A Cadenhead 11-year-old (1980-92, 61.2 vol., sherry cask) is amber, with a very fragrant nose — flowers, raisins, tobacco, licorice, and unfortunately, a slight unpleasant “rubbery” quality. The palate is sweet, dense, raisiny, with an underlying dry smokiness. The finish is dry with a citrus-like astringency.
Not a great malt, but this is a sherry cask bottling (though not stated on the label) and can’t be considered a fair test of the distillery product.
Glenesk aka Glen Esk, Hillside
Silent Glenesk has had a spotty past with many name changes and even converted to a grain distillery at one point. The distillery was closed in 1985 and unlikely to reopen. In the past it was an important element in the Vat 69 blend.
Merchant Bottlings: A Cadenhead 13-year-old (1982-95, 66.5 vol.) Glen Esk bottling. It has a very pale color, almost clear, with yellow-green hints. The nose is dry and malty with fragrant cedar notes. The palate is quite sweet with honeydew melon flavors. There’s an underlying element of sourness (not unpleasant), that balances the sweetness. A very pleasant malt.
A Rare Malts 25-year-old Hillside (1969, 61.9 vol.) is a white wine color. The nose is nutty, earthy, grassy, and cedary. The palate is very smooth, creamy, dry, with sweet apricot notes. Finish is herbal, slightly salty.
Dismantled Glenugie was closed in 1982 and the stills subsequently dismantled. The buildings still stand but have been converted to other uses.
Distillery Bottlings: Glenugie has never been available in a distillery bottling.
Merchant Bottlings: There have been several independent releases in the past, most noticeably Gordon and MacPhail bottlings. Though never considered a particularly outstanding malt, as stores diminish Glenugie is becoming quite rare and highly sought after. If you happen across a bottle, by all means grab it quickly.
Dismantled I have to admit that there is a soft spot in my heart for Glenury Royal. Back in the days when I drank blended Scotch, I came across some rather inexpensive bottles of Glenury Royal at my local market. I, of course, abused it by pouring it over ice cubes. Something special must have registered with me, however, because it led me to eventually experiment and learn more about single malt whisky.
Unfortunately, the distillery was mothballed in 1985, and sold for residential development in 1992.
Distillery Bottlings: Distillery releases are no longer available.
Merchant Bottlings: There are still occasional independent bottlings. A Cooper’s Choice 19-year-old (1978-98, 43 vol.) has a gold color with greenish highlights. The nose is dry, aromatic, with peaty and lightly fruity notes. The palate is a pleasant blend of dry, lightly earthy notes, balanced by crisp, honey-like sweet notes. The finish is surprisingly long and appetizing.
Lochnagar aka Royal Lochnagar
Distillery Bottlings: The 12-year-old bottling from the distillery is complex and rewarding. Definite sherry cask qualities come through in the nose and palate. The color is a rich gold. The nose is big, with vanilla and slight oak notes, even a touch of smoke. The palate continues the richness with the addition of some fruitiness. The overall impression is of malty sweetness with a creamy vanilla oak. Delicious.
Special Bottlings: Lochnagar produces a “Selected Reserve” (no age statement, 43 vol.), which is shipped in a polished wooden box. Though a bit expensive it is very enjoyable. It has a full bronze/amber color, and a nose that is rich with fruity, toffee, smoky, cedary, and faintly earthy notes. The palate is dry, highlighted with some sweet raisiny notes, and slightly spicy, smoky undertones. The finish is long, dry, raisiny, and smoky. Perfect for those special winter evenings by the fire.
Merchant Bottlings: I haven’t sighted any merchant bottlings of Royal Lochnagar.
Dismantled Lochside began producing whisky and grain spirits in 1957, housed in a former brewery that dated back to the 1890’s, and looking very much like a romantic German castle. The founder, Joseph Hobbs, died in 1964 and his son (also Joseph Hobbs) continued to run the distillery until 1973 when it was sold to a Spanish firm. Unfortunately, through a series of acquisitions Lochside ended in the hands of Allied Distillers who mothballed it in the 1980’s, reopened it briefly, then halted production in 1992. Five years later the property was sold to developers and the distillery demolished.
The saddest part of the story is that Lochside is an outstanding whisky. Since much of the distillery production went into blends or was exported for sale in Spain, few lovers of whisky had an opportunity to sample Lochside and it never established a reputation as a single malt.
Distillery Bottlings: There are no distillery bottlings available.
Merchant Bottlings: Lochside is becoming increasingly rare. Though the distillery was producing as recently as 1992, most of the output was sent to Spain where it was the basis for a very popular blend. There are still stores in the hands of independent bottlers that occasionally make their way to the market as single malt releases.
An 18-year-old bottling (1981-2000, 46 vol.) is available from Murray McDavid. It has a slightly deeper gold color than the Cadenhead (above), and a very light, almost transparent nose. Slight hints of dry oak, a very faint peatiness, and a thin wash of peach pit fruitiness. The palate is again quite light, sweet at first with a malty and fruity notes, then a creamy, nutty richness. The finish is surprisingly long, creamy, and a bit spicy.
A Cadenhead 19 year-old (1981-2000, 58 vol. sherrywood cask) is a light gold color. The nose has notes of oloroso sherry, along with oak, a peaty creaminess, an apple-like fruitiness, and a faint floral quality. The palate is quite smooth, dry, and has echoes of green apples.
Dismantled North Port was closed in 1983 and has been demolished. It is only available in increasingly rare independent bottlings.
Merchant Bottlings: North Port is enjoyable but not an outstanding malt.
Samplings from a 19 and a 20-year-old Cadenhead (both from the same 1976 distilling ) were very similar. The 20-year-old (61.7 vol.) had a light gold color and a light, dry, winey, cereal grain nose. The palate was slightly thick and chewy, with a dry fruitiness at first. The finish was somewhat spirity with lingering pear and some smoky notes.
A 1970 Connoisseurs Choice that I sampled in Scotland was more complex with a slight oakiness and salt added to mild sherry and smoke flavors.
In 1846 in Perth, John Dewar, was one of the first merchants to sell whisky in “branded bottles.” As business grew, his son’s joined the firm and eventually opened the Aberfeldy distillery in 1898 to supply whisky for blending. In 1973 a new stillhouse was built.
Aberfeldy is still a major component of the Dewar’s White Label blend.
Distillery Bottlings: Unavailable in a distillery release in the US, though available in the UK in a 15-year-old bottling in United Distillers’ Flora and Fauna series.
Merchant Bottlings: A Cooper’s Choice 14-year-old (1982-97) is very pleasant. Pale gold in color, the nose is dusty, dry, slightly smoky, oaky, and peaty. Perhaps a touch of banana. A fairly thick body coats the tongue. Very smooth flavor, sweet then dry. Hints of banana again with an underlying peatiness.
I became lost as I drove into the village of Pitlochry, where Blair Athol is located. When I asked directions to the distillery at a local pub, the bartender and patrons had a great time upon learning that I was looking for the distillery. Jokingly, they begged to be taken along so they could have some of the free samples offered at the end of the tour.
Distillery Bottlings: Unavailable in a distillery release in the US, though available in the UK in a 12-year-old bottling in United Distillers’ Flora and Fauna series.
Merchant Bottlings: There are two Cadenhead releases available, a 17-year-old and a 19-year-old, both from a 1978 distillation.
The Deanston distillery began production in 1965-66 in buildings that were originally built in 1785 as a cotton mill. Architect Richard Arkwright covered the weaving hall roof with earth and planted a garden as a method to cool what was then the weaving hall. The consistent temperature has proved perfect for warehousing the maturing stores of Deanston.
The product was originally released as 5-year-old Brannock Burn Malt, then released as an 8-year-old Deanston when the distillery was acquired by Invergordon. Like many other distilleries, it was closed in the mid 1980’s. In 1990 the blenders, Burn Stewart, purchased Deanston and began producing again. In 1993 Burn Stewart also acquired the Tobermory distillery on the Isle of Mull.
Deanston uses only malted barley that is dried without the use of peat smoke. Deanston collects water from the river Teith in a dam about one-and-a-half miles from the distillery. A byproduct of the dam is electricity which powers Deanston, making it the only distillery in Scotland that generates its own power.
Distillery Bottlings: Deanston is released in 12, 17, and 25-year-old expressions.
The 12-year-old (40 vol.), is quite enjoyable. The nose has a pleasant creaminess with oak and vanilla. There’s a definite taste of age and maturity in this malt — my bet is there is a good amount of older whiskies in the mix. The palate is very clean, light, and continues that pleasant softness of oak and age.
The 17-year-old (40 vol.) has a bright orange-amber color an aromatic, earthy, and nutty nose. The palate is nutty, buttery, with a raw sugar sweetness. The finish is buttery, nutty and slightly chewy. A delicious whisky, unfortunately harmed by the reduction to 40 vol. There are hints of a potential richness that disappear in a watery blandness.
Merchant Bottlings: There are not many merchant bottlings available. My only samplings are two Cadenhead bottlings, both from a 1977 distillation.
A 19-year-old is unique and superlative. At 53.8 vol. the whisky is very drinkable but a touch of water opens up an exquisite nose — creamy, butter cookie, sponge cake. The nose goes on and on. The palate exhibits the same buttery richness which continues into a long, sweet finish.
The 20-year-old is naturally quite similar, and builds on that same buttery-nutty-creaminess. At cask strength (49.1 vol.) the nose has a pleasant oakiness with toffee, butter notes, hints of chocolate, and a slight smokiness. A bit of water brings out that incredible buttery, caramel-like sweetness. This isn’t a particularly complex malt, and the finish is somewhat one-dimensional, but that sweet rich, creaminess leaves you begging for more.
Edradour is the smallest, and one of the most picturesque of the distilleries. Rising up a small hillside, the buildings are quaint and village-like. I don’t know anyone who has visited the distillery and hasn’t come away loving it. Its very smallness contributes to a romantic image of owning, working at, or living next to a distillery.
Distillery Bottlings: The distillery started releasing a 10-year-old, (43 vol.), in the late 1980’s. The color is a full gold/bright amber. The nose is aromatic, with a ginger snaps spiciness layered over peat smoke, cookie dough, and toffee. The palate is sweet, clean, soft, and well balanced with fruity, brandy-like notes at first, then creamy and minty notes. The finish is drier, a bit spicy, slightly buttery, with notes of peat and smoke.
Merchant Bottlings: Probably due to the small output from the distillery (12 casks per week), few casks escape into the hands of independent bottlers, though merchant bottlings do appear from time to time.
A Signatory 21-year-old (1976. 52.3 vol.) is light gold with greenish highlights. The nose is sweet, with grassy, minty notes (and hints of peat and vanilla). The palate is creamy, buttery, and oaky. The finish is spicy, oaky, and slightly smoky.
Glenturret lays claim to being the oldest distillery in Scotland. Illicit distillings can be dated back to 1717 though the date of legal distillings is hard to trace. The date of 1775 is set in the foundation, so it is certainly one of the oldest distilleries. (Littlemill started as a brewery and converted to a distillery in 1772).
One interesting note: The distillery cat, Towser, was mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world champion mouser. She reportedly caught a whopping 28,899 mice during her lifetime!
Distillery Bottlings: Glenturret is released in many expressions, from 8 to 25-year-old bottlings, and several older bottlings (1966, 1968, 1972). To my knowledge, none of these are available in the US.
Merchant Bottlings: A Signatory 20-year-old (1975-95, 53.6 vol.), was a very pleasant experience.
Yellow-gold in color, the nose had a delightful combination of nuttiness, oakiness, and an underlying hint of spices and anise. A medium, mouth-coating body, led to a creamy, smoothness. The palate had a sweet nuttiness that becomes quite dry in a long finish.
A 20-year-Old Blackadder bottling (1980-2000, 52.8 vol.), is a medium gold color with a lightly flowery, lemony nose that hints of tobacco and coffee. The palate is smooth and dry, with sweet, lemony and flowery notes. The finish is crisp, cleansing, and has a lingering pepperiness.
Silent Tullibardine Moor is best known as the home of the Gleneagles resort and golf course. Whisky lovers know it as the home of the Tullibardine distillery.
The town of Blackford has a brewing history that dates back to at least the 12th century, and a special ale was brewed there for the coronation of James IV’s in 1488. There was a distillery in the town in the late 18th century but the current distillery was erected in 1947. Most of the distillery output has gone into the Scots Gray and Glenfoyle blends.
The distillery was mothballed in 1995.
Distillery Bottlings: Tullibardine is available in the US in a 10-year-old expression (43 vol.). It has a light gold color with a distinctive nose reminiscent of lemon meringue and sweet pastry. The palate is pleasantly sweet with a soft, buttery creaminess and vanilla notes. The finish has a cookies-and-cream sweetness. Very pleasant.
Merchant Bottlings: A bottling from Lombard’s Jewels of the Highlands series (1989-2000, 50 vol,), has a white wine color and a nose that has a mixture of cereal grains, a fruity-lemony sweetness, and a peaty creaminess. The body is thick, oily. The palate is similar to the distillery 10-year-old: sweet but not cloying, fruity with a crisp citric tang, and a rich buttery softness. The finish is buttery and fragrant, with spicy notes.