Glenfarclas Distillery stands at a height of nearly 800ft on the north-western slopes of Ben Rinnes, a well known landmark whose 840m or 2,775ft summit lies three miles to the south-east. The distillery is reached by an access road directly from the A95 some four miles south-west of Aberlour and a mile east of the small settlement of Marypark.
The distillery is screened from the main road by trees, but as you approach you find it laid out before you, set against the rising hillside beyond. When the author Alfred Barnard visited Glenfarclas during the research for his definitive book on distilleries between 1885 and 1887, he found that: "So unlike is it to a Distillery, that without the tall chimney stack we should have taken it for a scattered farm holding". Glenfarclas has grown considerably in scale since then, but some of the original farm buildings that would have greeted Barnard can still be found within the distillery.
Today's visitor passes a large still standing beside the access road before parking next to the attractive visitor centre. Glenfarclas was one of the first distilleries to open a dedicated visitor centre, in 1973. You can't miss it: it's topped off with the pagoda that stood above the kiln in the distillery's traditional floor maltings, until they ceased to operate in 1972.
Inside the visitor centre you find a warm and friendly welcome and an attractively laid out and well stocked shop. At one end of this is a circle of seating arranged around a disused still. This was originally in use in the Links Distillery in Leith, which closed in 1902. It was brought to Glenfarclas as a suitably decorative item in 1978.
Reclamation on a larger scale has taken place at the other end of the visitor centre. The beautiful Ship's Room is lined with oak panelling and fitted with furniture from the liner the SS Empress of Australia. The ship was scrapped at Inverkeithing in 1952, and the furniture and panelling found its way to the Royal British Legion Club in Rosyth. The club was demolished in 1972 and the furniture and panelling found a home in the new visitor centre at Glenfarclas the following year. It is difficult to imagine a more atmospheric location in which to sample a dram at the end of your tour.
A tour of Glenfarclas begins with a walk across the courtyard and past the buildings that survive from the original farm on the site: en route viewing the small waterwheel which from 1896 powered part of the production process, but which today is primarily decorative.
Decoration is put aside in favour of function in the malt intake. There are 11 hoppers in all, with a total capacity of 330 tonnes. Malt used at Glenfarclas is usually grown in Scotland, and often Moray. The large scale of the operation at Glenfarclas is really brought home when you come face to face with the distillery's malt mill. This was made by Buhler, and has a milling capacity several times larger than the Porteus or Boby mills usually seen in Scotland's distilleries. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
The mash tun at Glenfarclas is capable of taking 16.5 tonnes of grist at a time and is often said to be the largest on Speyside: though there is a challenger for this crown in the form of the mash tun in the distillery expansion at Glenlivet, a few miles down the road. The mash tun shares one large building constructed in 1975 with the twelve huge washbacks. Each can hold 45,000 litres and they are made from grey painted stainless steel with wooden tops. Stainless steel washbacks may not have the character and charm of the traditional pine, but they are more practical in use. A set of steps descends to the lower level of the building, allowing fine, and unusual, views of the bottom of the mash tun and the full height of the washbacks.
The still room at Glenfarclas is home to the largest stills in Speyside. There are six in all, in three pairs of two. In each pair the wash still is noticeable larger than the spirit still. There were traditionally only two stills at Glenfarclas. A second pair was added, exactly matching the first, in 1960, and the third pair was added in 1976. The stills at Glenfarclas are directly heated by gas burners below each still, and from the floor of the still house it is possible to see the full height of the stills including the "below floor" heaters.
The spirit from the stills is placed in casks in the filling station, and the casks are then stored in warehouses for as long at it takes to turn the spirit into Scotch whisky. The legal minimum maturation time is 3 years, but Glenfarclas matures its whiskies for far longer: and you can find versions on sale that have been aged for 10, 12, 15, 17, 21, 25, 30 and even 40 years. Glenfarclas is matured in two types of casks, those which have been previously used to store bourbon, and those which have been previously used to store sherry. A visit to the warehouse is not part of the distillery tour, but you can look into the cask filling station.
Glenfarclas Distillery was first licenced in 1836 by tenant farmer Robert Hay, and he ran the distillery as a means of adding value to the barley he produced on the surrounding Rechlerich Farm, on part of the Ballindalloch Estate. The tenancy fell vacant in 1865 and on 8 June it was acquired by John Grant, a highly successful local farmer. His main interest was in the farm itself, but as part of the deal he purchased Glenfarclas Distillery for £511.19s.0d.
The distillery has been controlled by the Grant family ever since and is now owned and managed by the 5th and 6th generations of Grants. In 1895 George and John Grant decided to go into partnership with a Leith based company, Pattison, Elder & Co. to bring in the funds needed for expansion. They jointly formed the Glenfarclas-Glenlivet Distillery Company, and Glenfarclas Distillery was largely rebuilt in 1896. Robert & Walter Pattison turned out to be the sort of businessmen who should have been avoided. They spent generously on advertising, including, it is said, buying 500 grey parrots which they then distributed to grocers and other outlets for their products. The parrots had been trained to cry "buy Pattisons" at frequent intervals and, it is also said, this actually proved a successful form of marketing. But the Pattisons also spent freely on maintaining their own lifestyles, not always with their own money. When the bubble burst, it left the Pattisons in jail, and Glenfarclas the Grant family on the brink of financial ruin.
J. & G. Grant resumed full ownership of Glenfarclas in 1900, but it took over a decade to fully secure the future of the company in the wake of what became known across the industry as "The Pattison Crisis". The remainder of the 1900s was a story of core family values leading to steady growth for Glenfarclas, and this has continued into the current millennium.