Glen Garioch Distillery (pronounced "Glen Geery") stands in back streets on the northern edge of the attractive Aberdeenshire town of Oldmeldrum. It can be accessed via the narrow lanes that run north from the town centre, but is most easy to reach by turning off the A947 on the northern edge of Oldmeldrum along a residential road indicated by a brown tourist signpost. This brings you down past the large stone maltings to the distillery itself.
Glen Garioch Distillery looks and feels (and smells) exactly as a distillery should. The urban setting means you'd stop short of ever calling it pretty, but with its (no longer used) maltings and twin pagodas, and the large window on the front of the stillhouse, it simply oozes character. The name comes from The Garioch, the broad and very fertile valley of the River Urie to the west of Oldmeldrum, renowned for the quality of its barley.
The distillery is owned by Morrison Bowmore, whose also own Bowmore Distillery on Islay and Auchentoshan Distillery near Glasgow. As noted above, in common with most other Scottish distilleries, the maltings at Glen Garioch are no longer used. But they do still exist, as do the kilns topped off by their pagodas. Given the local availability of excellent barley and Glen Garioch's increasing emphasis over the years on increasing the quality of its output (which now all becomes single malt scotch whisky), there have from time to time been suggestions in the media that the distillery might resume the malting on site of at least some of the barley it uses, as is done at Bowmore. It would be wonderful if this ever happened.
For the moment, however, visitors are attracted to Glen Garioch by the character of the distillery itself, and by the fact that it is Scotland's most easterly distillery: and geographical extremes are always more attractive to collectors.
It is also one of Scotland's oldest legal distilleries. One usually reliable source talks of an announcement in The Aberdeen Journal in 1785 of a licensed distillery on the site which, if correct, would make it Scotland's oldest legal distillery. This is not a story repeated by other sources, however, and the distillery itself claims to date back to May 1797 when brothers John and Alexander Manson established a distillery and a brewery on the site of what had previously been a tannery. That is still a pretty impressive heritage.
We've already discussed the pronunciation of the name, but there is another aspect of it that also needs clearing up. Traditionally, the distillery name was written as "Glengarioch", but the whisky it produced was known as "Glen Garioch". The single word presentation of the name can still be found stencilled onto the ends of casks at the distillery, and on the body of the spirit safe in the stillhouse. But the signs on the outside of the stillhouse and above the door of the visitor centre refer to "Glen Garioch", and this is also the version used on the distillery's own website: it is therefore the approach we have taken in this feature.
The ownership of Glen Garioch Distillery remained in the hands of the Manson family for over 90 years, though from 1837 it was operated in tandem with their nearby Strathmeldrum Distillery. In 1884 it was sold to J. G. Thomson & Co of Leith. When the whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited in 1886 during a grand tour of Scotland's distilleries he found a distillery that sounds similar in some respects to the one we see today, though sadly it was not the subject of one of the sketches that adorn some of the entries in the book he subsequently wrote. Perhaps the most striking feature of his two page entry on "Glengarioch" is its setting, being preceded by entries on distilleries in Peterhead and Old Deer and being followed by entries about three distilleries in Aberdeen. All have since closed, leaving Glen Garioch as the most easterly distillery in Scotland.
The distillery subsequently came under the control of William Sanderson, largely because he wanted to protect the supply of the main component of his increasingly successful blended whisky, VAT69, which had been launched in July 1882. In the 1930s Sanderson & Son became part of Distillers Company Limited, before being taken over by Scotch Malt Distillers in 1943. They closed the distillery in 1968. It reopened in 1973 under the ownership of Stanley P. Morrison Ltd, a predecessor of Morrison Bowmore.
Your visit to Glen Garioch begins in the attractive visitor centre conveniently located close to the car park and on the opposite side of the road from the main production elements of the distillery. As already noted, the maltings are no longer used, but it is fascinating to visit the kilns beneath the pagodas. And a little frustrating, as you get the impression that all it would take to restart this part of the process would some kindling: superficially at least, the kilns look to be in perfect working order.
The first stage of the production process currently undertaken at Glen Garioch is the milling of the malted barley, which takes place in a Porteus Mill. A set of spiral steel stairs in the mill room lead up to the level above, where you find the feeder and stone box.
Moving on, Glen Garioch has a single large stainless steel mash tun in a room only just large enough to accommodate it. Nearby is the room containing the eight stainless steel washbacks. These are set considerably higher relative to the floor than in most distilleries, so there are several sets of moveable wooden steps to allow access to their tops. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
Most visitors would agree that the heart of any distillery is the stillroom. At Glen Garioch the stillroom looks out through a large window towards the visitor centre, and is, unusually, home to three stills. Trying to work out how this arrangement operates in practice is likely to give you a headache. The truth is that, although some sources state that the number of stills was increased from 2 to 3 when the distillery reopened in 1973, the three still layout has never actually operated in practice. From 1973 the distillery had four stills: two wash stills and two spirit stills.
In more recent times one of the wash stills came to the end of its useful life (the copper that stills are made from acts as a catalyst in the distillation process and is actually consumed over time). Efforts to replace it on a like for like basis were thwarted by the difficulty of meeting modern health and safety standards within the structure of the existing stillhouse so the decision was taken to use just a single pair of stills. The second spirit still is therefore no longer used, but remains in place because removing it would be highly disruptive. This sequence of events helps explain why there is a large open area at the front of the stillhouse where the second wash still once stood.
Standard distillery tours then return for a dram in the visitor centre, while VIP tours move on to view a bonded warehouse, in which casks of spirit are very, very slowly becoming scotch whisky.