Glenturret Distillery stands on the west bank of the Turret Burn a mile north of the centre of Crieff. You reach it via a well signposted minor road that heads north from the A85 just outside the town. The signposts to look out for are to "The Famous Grouse Experience", which is hosted by the distillery, and you know you are getting close when you see the white painted buildings and trademark (though disused) pagodas. The car park is on the right just beyond the buildings, and you enter past a large copper grouse.
The knowledge that Glenturret is Scotland's most visited distillery (with over 100,000 visitors every year), can lead to a set of expectations that are not wholly favourable. It is worth saying up front that what you find here is both extremely impressive and well worth visiting. A traditional and remarkably petite distillery has been beautifully preserved and presented, and then married to an impressive range of visitor facilities housed in buildings that were either originally part of the distillery itself or have been added with considerably sympathy and sensitivity since.
We don't know how this has been done in the space available, but it has, and the result is, to use a rather tired cliché, an attraction that offers something for everyone. Those who find the distilling process fascinating have the opportunity to tour a distillery built on a scale that allows visitors to gain an insight into the different processes. And those who do not can enjoy the extremely well stocked shop or the large and elegant restaurant. We visited at a quiet time and came away with the impression that the restaurant forms a destination in its own right. It is easy to see why it might.
Most readers of this page will have found their way here because they are interested in distilleries rather than shops or restaurants, so it is worth spending a little time looking at Glenturret Distillery as a place to visit.
You start your tour in the visitor reception, entered under a large sign proclaiming Glenturret to be Scotland's oldest distillery, established in 1775. Inside you find a large and airy space. It is worth noting that a number of different tours are on offer, depending on how deeply you wish to engage with the process (and how much tasting you wish to do at the end). Details are on The Famous Grouse's website, linked above right.
Very few distilleries still malt their own barley these days, and like most, Glenturret buys in its malt. The process on site therefore starts with the milling of the malt, and the chance to see what is said to be one of the oldest Porteus mills still working, at the end of a room in which the milling process is explained. You then move on to the mash tun. This comes as a surprise, and it is only after you have looked around to see where the real mash tun might be hiding that you begin to accept that this tiny (by distillery standards) open topped cylinder really is it. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
You next move through to the tun room, where the wort that emerged from the mash tun is fermented in eight wooden washbacks. As ever, what you see above floor level is only part of the picture, and it is only when you look into an empty vessel that you appreciate just how deep it is. From the tun room you move through to the still room. Opinions differ, but we've always thought that the still room is the heart of any distillery. It's certainly the most spectacular part, with hot gleaming copper giving a real sense of the alchemy going on inside and, if you are lucky, a glimpse of the spirit flowing through the spirit safe.
At Glenturret the still room is at first a slightly confusing place. For a start, there only appears to be one still, and much of its upper parts extend into the rafters supporting the roof. This is Glenturret's wash still, and it comes with a distinctive "onion" bulge at the bottom of the neck. Stills come in many shapes, and devices like the onion are intended to change the way the distillate behaves as it is passing up through the neck, bringing a distinctive character to the end product. The mystery of the missing still is explained when you realise that the spirit still is in an almost separate room. It is also a totally different shape to the wash still, looking for all the world like an Apollo Command Module (the bit that came back to Earth) with a neck added to its top.
As you pass outside you realise that the condensers for the stills are built onto the outside of the wall of the stillhouse. You might also notice a cat flap in the still house wall accessed by internal and external ladders. This is to allow the distillery cat, Barley, to roam. Many distilleries have cats as a traditional means of keeping down rodents. Barley looked more interested in curling up near the warm wash still on our visit, but presumably earns its keep. Not far away is a statue of "Towser", who served as Glenturret's distillery cat for 24 years until 1987, and who, according to the plaque, caught a world record 28,899 mice during that time. It's the sort of memorial that leaves unanswered questions: such as whose job was it to count the mice, and was Towser's final thought "shame I didn't catch that 28,900th..."?
The heart of the "Famous Grouse Experience" is an interactive high tech exhibition that follows the distillery tour. This is sufficiently impressive to have won a BAFTA award. The nearby sampling room is a fascinating shape, and comes complete with the world's largest bottle of whisky, which holds 228 litres. Having completed the tour you pass through to the shop and from there can proceed to the excellent restaurant.
As the sign above the door says, whisky has been being distilled on the site occupied by Glenturret since at least 1775. Accounts differ about the exact circumstances, and illegal distillation, very common at the time, may have taken place here as far back as 1717. The distillery survived the slump of the 1830s and then expanded. When the whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited in 1886, he found a thriving operation using (to judge from a drawing he made) many of the buildings occupied by the distillery today.
Like many Scotch whisky distilleries, Glenturret was hit hard by the prohibition of alcohol in the USA in the 1920s, and it closed as a result. The buildings were acquired in 1957 by James Fairlie, who went on to restore production in 1960. The distillery was in the ownership of Cointreau in the 1980s, and it was purchased by Highland Distillers (now the Edrington Group) in 1990. They own five distilleries including The Macallan and Highland Park. They also own Famous Grouse, the leading blended Scotch whisky, and Glenturret's relative accessibility was why it was chosen as the home of the Famous Grouse Experience.