Aberlour Distillery stands on a site next to the Burn of Aberlour not far from where it flows into the River Spey at the west end of the pretty Speyside village of Aberlour, or Charlestown of Aberlour as it is more formally but much less commonly known.
Many of Speyside's distilleries offer visitors the chance to view the process of making whisky, and tours come in a variety of lengths and depths. When Aberlour Distillery opened up to visitors in 2002 it took the conscious decision to target its tours at enthusiasts wanting a highly detailed and in depth understanding of the processes involved. As a result group sizes are small, and tours are longer than usual, lasting one and three quarter hours. The tour is highly rated by connoisseurs and the distillery has been awarded the status of a 5 Star Visitor Attraction by VisitScotland.
You begin your visit in the small car park just past the visitor reception and shop, in the pretty gatehouse lodge which is also home to the distillery manager's office. The distillery tours are seen as a key part of the business and you will find that your tour guide is exceptionally well informed and ably supported by the production staff of the distillery.
Your tour commences with a walk through the length of the distillery in a setting which feels surprisingly rural despite the proximity of the village of Aberlour. You then have an introductory talk and an audio visual presentation in an exhibition area setting out the background to the process of making malt whisky, and the history of Aberlour Distillery.
The production process itself begins with the milling of the malted barley, produced in maltings in Buckie. The milling is done in a beautiful red Porteus mill made in Hull. A little further on is a window through which you can see the water flowing in from a spring in the hillside behind the distillery. Next you see the mash tun, the large tank in which the sugars and other elements of the barley are dissolved out by hot water, and the series of washbacks, the tanks in which the brewing process takes place.
An unusual feature of the tour at Aberlour is that visitors have the option to taste the liquor at different stages in the process, both as worts emerging from the mash tun and as wash emerging from the washbacks.
The heart of any distillery is its still room. At Aberlour the still room is home to four stills, with two larger wash stills in the centre, each paired up with a smaller spirit still next to it. The stills at Aberlour are very classical in shape. As ever you will want to linger in the still room to savour the sights and smells of the distilling process actually happening in front of you. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
After your in depth view of the production process, you move on to Warehouse Number 1, built in 1957. Here you can nose and taste five different mature Aberlour malts and newly made spirit. This seems as good a place as any to point out that this it helps to have agreed who is driving before the tour begins: you do not want to be driving after a tasting session at Aberlour! The nosing and tasting room forms part of the warehouse, and internal windows mean that your tasting is done against the backdrop of the slowly maturing casks in the warehouse.
A highly popular feature of the tour at Aberlour is the opportunity (for an additional charge) to fill your own individual bottle direct from the cask, which you can then label, cork and register in the distillery's bottling book. The result is a highly distinctive memento of your visit. After the tasting, and possibly the bottling, you make your way back to the visitor centre, en route viewing the distillery's nearly unique whinstone towers. These are structures which, until made redundant by tighter environmental controls, were used to filter water used by the distillery before discharging it into the Burn of Aberlour.
Aberlour Distillery was founded by Victorian entrepreneur James Fleming. He was the son of a local farmer who became a grain merchant selling barley to local distillers. After purchasing land at the western end of Aberlour which included a spring known as St Drostan's Well, Fleming decided to go into distilling for himself. Building of his new distillery began in 1879 and production began within a year. An existing "Aberlour Distillery" some distance away had been in operation since 1826, but was destroyed by fire while Fleming was building his. He subsequently called his new distillery Aberlour-Glenlivet and it has since become known simply as Aberlour Distillery.
The Victorian whisky writer Alfred Barnard visited the new Aberlour-Glenlivet Distillery in the 1880s and described it as "a perfect model distillery". A fire in 1898 destroyed much of the distillery and much of the whisky stored here, and it was subsequently rebuilt. In 1921 the distillery was sold to W.H. Holt & Sons Ltd, and then again, in 1945, to S. Campbell & Sons Ltd, who extended the distillery and increased production.
In 1962 Aberlour Distillery ceased to operate its own floor maltings, and in 1973 the number of stills was increased from two to four when a second pair was added. These matched the existing pair as closely as possible to ensure continuity of the character of the product. In 1975 the distillery's owners became part of the French group Pernod Ricard. This link may help explain why Aberlour is now the best selling single malt Scotch whisky in France.
Alternatively, of course, the success of the product may simply be down to its very high quality. Aberlour's whiskies are consistently highly marked in tastings undertaken by various guides. Even the most commonly available bottling, the 10 Year Old is widely considered to be a classic Speyside malt. Other common bottlings are a 15 Year Old finished in sherry casks, and Aberlour a'bunadh, which is a natural cask strength malt designed to recreate the style of whisky which James Fleming would have produced in 1879. This is bottled at cask strength, is not chill filtered, and is 100% sherry cask matured because in James Fleming's day bourbon casks were not used to mature Scotch whisky. A range of other ages and finishes have also been produced at different times or for different markets.