Saturday, 12 September 2009

Glenkinchie Distillery Visit #3

I suppose I had better develop the knack of distillery-writing as I shall be doing an awful lot of it in less than eight months' time.
The journey to Glenkinchie for my 19th birthday was nowhere near as taxing as the one undertaken for my 18th at Auchentoshan. Just as well, perhaps, as my responsibilities in the world of work have grown slightly more inhibitive in the intervening time.

Glenkinchie was chosen for this very reason: it being the closest of Scotland's malt disitilleries from my home in Northumberland and so not requiring hours in the car. The selection of this distillery was not made, I hasten to add, was not made on the grounds of expediency alone. There has been a nagging gulf in my tasting experience for two long now: I may have tasted four Auchentoshans, but it is the only representative of the Lowland region in my notes. Thirdly, Glenkinchie will be the first stop on my whisky cycling tour, so this was something of a recce, too. So instead of Glengoyne which we passed quite close to last year, my family and I went to sample the "Edinburgh malt".

The drive to Glasgow of last year, whilst long, compensated for this with epically stirring Highland scenery. (On the way back we unwittingly drove passed our turn off and, less than twenty minutes north of Glasgow, it was as if we were driving along the West Coast.) The Lammermuirs did not present quite the same kind of backdrop upon which light could project itself in a visually arresting way (top right). However, this is truly the "garden of Scotland" with rolling fields of cereal crops tumbling all the way to the Firth of Forth. At the end of the day, it was yet another idyllic Scottish landscape.

The distillery is tucked snugly into the cleft between two particularly bumpy fields (top middle right). On stepping out of the car the atmosphere was still with a real warmth issuing from the sun, ripening the last grains still outstanding. It isn't a large site - perhaps on a par with Auchentoshan - but the aesthetics are different for it is done out in functional but attractive Victorian red brick (bottom middle right).

The tell-tale distillery fragrance was late to appear - I was almost in the door before I could detect the pungent cearealy sweetness of barley being given what-for.

Three tour tickets purchased, we were sent upstairs to the exhibition space, formerly the floor maltings. There we spent fifteen minutes or so reading hrough the excellent display on distilling and Scotch. I loved the scale model of a distillery that found its way back to Glenkinchie from London in the 1960s to be lovingly restored and rebuilt. I am a huge fan of processes, and to see each part of a self-sufficient distillery plant before me was utterly fascinating. The detail is superb (bottom right).

"Those would look great on either side of the fire," mused Mum, speaking of the replica wash and spirit stills.

We, together with about eight others, congregated at the assembly point where Charlie came to greet us and fulfil the more immediate need of turning off the Diageo Classic Malts video that was stuck on repeat. As Glenkinchie does not correspond exactly to the scale model in all of its processes, Charlie explained in excellent depth the malting stage as we would not see a practical demonstration on our tour. He apologised in advance lest he fell into the "Scottish tendency to speak too fast". He didn't, which was probably just as well as I believe we Saxons were the only Britons!

Charlie led is all outside towards the production buildings - no cameras or mobile phones allowed - while informing us about the distillery's malt needs: 126 tonnes a week for 14 "processes" of 9 tonnes each, all equating to 55,000 litres of Glenkinchie being produced a week. They have malt deliveries almost everyday, something I could attest to for on our journey to the distillery a Simpsons Malt truck passed us going the other way.

We were shown the redundant kiln, then the not redundant at all mill. Next we were taken upstairs to the enormous but presently empty mash tun. Each process of malt will get three charges of water at successively higher temperatures for the reason that (and it was one he would use consistently at every stage that received fastidious recovery) the Scottish are a race that does not hold with waste. There is a bell in the mash room, retained from when the malting still operated. The manager would ring the bell, telling the maltmen that their shift was at an end. They would come into the distillery, receive a jug of the 9%abv wash and then cycle home. "You can't get away with that now," he said, rather whimsically.

Passed the yeast store and up more stairs our little party plodded and into the washback room. Six six metre high washbacks gurgled and frothed at us: five of Oregon pine - a fact that provoked one of our group to raise his eyebrows (he turned out to hail from Oregon) - and a sixth of Canadian larch. Each contained a wash that was slightly more advanced than the last and indeed one of them was not opened for our inspection at the risk of beer boiling out over everything. I scooped a bit of air out of a couple of the washbacks - not sticking my head in and taking a big breath as Charlie had warned against. Nevertheless, the carbon dioxide from one leapt up my nose with a ferocity akin to a head butt.

Reeling, we proceeded to the balmy still room. I find it astonishing how such an odd shape can be so beautiful. The pair of stills are just enormous and filled the room not just with heat (they were distilling at the time) but also with a soft golden glow with the aid of sunlight falling through the translucent roof, the same roof that had to be taken off when the neck of the wash still was replaced last winter.

Short of a wee nip of Glenkinchie in the bar, that was our tour at an end. I was almost hopping mad that we weren't taken to the warehouses because new stock is filled into casks and matured centrally.

Apart from that omission, value was had out of our £5 ticket, especially after my frugal (and Scottish) mother look advantage of its redemption with the purchase of a 70cl bottle. I had phoned the day before to enquire about more in-depth tours and if they were available, as they were at Auchentoshan. I was assured, correctly as it turned out, that the standard tour was very thorough. I was content with a miniature Glenkinchie - the clean floral and amlty dryness with rubbery tropical fruits and creamy, juicey vanilla not quite wonderful enough to justify a full bottle purchase.

I'll finish on the missing element of the warehouse, and some more Diageo-bashing on my part. Ever since the Glenlivet, the warehouse has been the stage of the process that has enchanted me the most and made me feel the most privileged to have overseen. Here, after all, is where spirit becomes Scotch, and each distillery's micro climate and its potential effect over years on maturing stocks can be felt. Their size, construction and function produce the most awesome peacefulness and together with the heavenly aroma (here is where the angels preside, after all) they border on cathedrals for malt with that kind of devout significance. I know my darling Caol Ilas are not matured on site, either, but I think that as one of the six Classic Malts, Glenkinchie should be allowed to speak entirely of the region it represents in the Diageo portfolio, and being as it is one of only five in the whole of the Lowlands. Come on, guys: you place so much emphasis on Scotland and its quirky geography in your promotional and informational medias (I should know, I saw the video four times) so put economy aside, please, and tap into the real essence of regional variety, character, and authenticity.

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