Glen Moray distillery stands in the neck of a loop in the River Lossie on the western edge of Elgin. What must originally have been open countryside between it and the rest of Elgin has since been filled by residential development, but a trail of brown tourist signs, most easily followed from the A96, leads you to the distillery.
Glen Moray is an interesting distillery. It started life as the "West Brewery" in 1831 before being converted to produce whisky in 1897. This unusual history has resulted in a slightly unusual layout, with the core buildings being arranged around a square. These are dominated by the tall building which houses the malt bins, and as a result the distillery would probably not be a contender for the prettiest in Scotland. It is, however, one of the friendliest, and is one of just seven working distilleries on the Malt Whisky Trail, a well established tour of Speyside followed by whisky pilgrims from around the world.
After parking in the square, your visit begins in the white painted Distillery Visitor Centre. This combines visitor reception, shop, coffee shop and tasting area and has been done extremely well: the shop in particular is full of high quality goods plus, of course, the whiskies made here.
The standard distillery tour is highly rated by enthusiasts and includes all aspects of the process carried out at Glen Moray: in effect everything apart from malting and bottling. It is followed by tasting of some of the Glen Moray range. Those wanting an even more in-depth tour can pre-book a Fifth Chapter Tour, which is followed by an informal tutored tasting of Glen Moray across the last five decades with the Distillery Manager.
There's plenty of note to look out for as your tour the distillery. Or even before you start it. Most visitors will, after parking, notice the plaque on the wall of the distillery placed there to commemorate its centenary in 1997. A little less obvious is the marker on the doorframe of the door below which shows the level reached by the River Lossie during floods in November 2002. Being close to a river might ensure the constant supply of the distillery's most important raw ingredient, water, but it does also come with dangers when the river is as prone to flooding as the River Lossie.
During the tour you are given the opportunity to enjoy some unusual views of the process. As with any distillery tour, the stillroom is the most interesting area, perhaps because this is where the alchemy really happens. The four stills are first viewed from below, then from close up where, as ever, your attention is torn between the stills themselves and the strange beauty of the brass spirit safes. You are also given an unusual perspective on the washbacks in which the brewing process takes place. Like an iceberg the largest part of any washback usually remains out of site below the working floor level. At Glen Moray you get to appreciate just how big these vessels really are. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
In the bonded warehouse you can watch row upon row of casks slowly turning from raw spirit into fully matured malt whisky. An especially interesting touch is the display near a window of two casks which were fitted with transparent tops and bottoms. This allows visitors to see through the casks, illustrating both how much has been lost through the evaporation of the "Angel's Share" and the way different charring techniques used on the inside of the casks can produce whisky of very different colours. At the end of your tour you return to the visitor centre where non-drivers can taste some of the finished product, and if you wish fill your own bottle from a cask for a truly unique memento of your visit.
The history of the site on which the distillery stands is an ancient one. Today the main road west from Elgin towards Inverness runs north of the River Lossie. In earlier times it ran through what is now the distillery itself, meaning that a Who's Who of early Scottish history would have passed this way. And others ended their days here. Until the 1600s the nearby Gallowcrook Hill was the site of public executions carried out in Elgin.
As has been mentioned, the West Brewery established itself here in 1831. 66 years later, in 1897, two stills were installed and the brewery was converted into a distillery by the Glen Moray Glenlivet Distillery Company. The distillery ceased operations in 1910, then reopened in 1912 before closing again later the same year. In 1920 the distillery was purchased by Macdonald & Muir, who already owned part of the Glenmorangie Distillery near Tain. They recommenced distilling in 1923 and, apart from a gap in 1932, the distillery remained in production until closed for a major reconstruction in 1958.
In 1958 the traditional floor maltings were replaced by a (very rare) mechanical malting process in what was known as a Saladin box. In 1978 the distillery's maltings were removed altogether and the number of stills increased from two to four (two wash stills and two spirit stills), giving the distillery a capacity of 2 million litres of spirit each year. The water used in the production process still comes from the River Lossie, while malted barley is said to come from as far afield as maltings in Buckie and Berwick-upon-Tweed.
In 1996 Glen Moray's owners Macdonald & Muir changed their name to Glenmorangie plc, a company which in 2004 was sold to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey. Industry observers at the time suggested that Glen Moray brand and distillery did not really fit with the aspirations of its new owners, and in late 2008 it was announced that Glen Moray had been sold to another French company, La Martiniquaise.
From a visitor's point of view all this matters little. Much more important is the friendliness of the welcome at Glen Moray and the quality of the tour. And, of course, the whisky produced by the distillery. Glen Moray's whiskies tend to be highly rated and are most commonly found as a Classic Single Malt, a 12 Years Old or a 16 Years Old. All are available to taste after your tour, and, of course, to purchase in the visitor centre shop.