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Pride Of Portsoy

by Gavin D Smith, 07/08

The recent growth in demand for Scotch whisky in many international markets means that few distilleries now stand silent, and we have seen the welcome return to active service of distilleries such as Bruichladdich, Tullibardine, Benromach, Glencadam, Tamnavulin, Allt-à-Bhainne and Braeval.

The latest to be revived is also one of the lowest-profile distilleries in all of Scotland. Indeed, ask many people with a sound knowledge of the whisky industry where Glenglassaugh is located and they will struggle to answer.

Glenglassaugh is, in fact, situated close to the coastal town of Portsoy, overlooking the Moray Firth, some 30 miles east of Elgin. The distillery was established in 1875, but apart from the original warehouses and redundant maltings, everything dates from a total rebuild undertaken by owners Highland Distilleries in 1959/60.

Highland closed Glenglassaugh as surplus to requirements in 1986, and whisky guru Dr Jim Swan, who is acting as consultant to the distillery redevelopment project, explains that “What Highland needed at that time was more Glenrothes for its Famous Grouse blend. Glenglassaugh couldn't make the style of spirit they needed; it just didn't suit their portfolio. They even tried fitting a water softener to make it more like Glenrothes, because the water at Glenglassaugh had a higher mineral content, and they wanted a lighter, Speyside, Glenrothes style.”

However, after two decades of silence, last year saw the distillery's acquisition by a group of enthusiastic Russian whisky-lovers, through the Dutch investment house Scaent Group, and work is currently under way to restore Glenglassaugh to working order.

The highly experienced Stuart Nickerson is acting as managing director, while ex-Glenmorangie manager Graham Eunson has taken up a similar role at Glenglassaugh. According to Nickerson, “The distillery has been bought by a group of Russian energy traders, young guys in their 30s. They came to Scotland and decided they wanted to buy a distillery. This was one of several we looked at, and the Russians were keen on it because they wanted something with history and tradition to it. They could have built a new distillery from scratch, but that wasn't what they were looking for.”

Buying an existing distillery not only brings tradition, but also the opportunity to acquire stocks of whisky, though in the case of Glenglassaugh, supplies are comparatively limited. “We bought everything there was,” says Nickerson, “but we are talking about limited stocks, but the oldest does date back to 1964.”

   Despite being unproductive for more than 20 years, Glenglassaugh has survived the worst efforts of the Scottish coastal weather very well, and Graham Eunson notes that "We hope to start production in October. We've checked out the electrics, and most of the equipment is okay to work with, it doesn't really need a lot to be done. Once you get beyond the dirt and the flaking paint, it's actually in remarkably good condition."
Left: Glenglassaugh; not pretty, but functional

One necessity is a new boiler, and thanks to the activities of thieves while the distillery was closed, replacement plates are needed for the mashtun, plus heating coils for the pair of stills (below, in need of some TLC).

Glenglassaugh came with a price tag of around £5 million, and Stuart Nickerson says “It will require a seven figure sum to get it up and running. In addition to everything else, we plan to develop a visitor centre, perhaps in one of the original warehouses, along with a cooperage and perhaps on-site bottling. We are definitely keen to do our own bottling.”

“The distillery has the capacity to make one million litres of spirit a year, and when it comes to setting it up to distil again, we know what the 'cut points' for the stills were way back in the 1900s, and we may try working with those, try to make the spirit as close as possible to the way it was back then.”

Whatever the character of the spirit being made from now on, Nickerson and his team plan to raise revenue and public awareness of the brand by releasing limited quantities of their existing stock into UK, Russia and other European markets. These releases may take the form of 21, 30 and 40-year-old expressions, or single cask, cask strength bottlings. At the time of writing, no definite strategy has been decided upon.

After visiting Glenglassaugh during the mid-1880s, Alfred Barnard wrote (Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom) that "The Whisky is pure Highland Malt…and is said to be steadily gaining favour in the market."

Here's hoping that this elusive and under-rated whisky gains favour once again.

Jim Swan on the 40-Year-Old Glenglassaugh

A strong, powerful nose that begins with the aroma of green apples falling to earth onto wet moss and grass. This gives way to a medley of boiled, fruit sweets. Despite its complexity, hints of raspberries, blackberries and hints of ripe banana emerge. Finally the rich, Sherry notes of sultanas, fruit cake and rich, creamy fudge take over. On the palate the rich, Sherry flavours combine with the boiled fruits to give an incredibly powerful, yet complex whisky. The finish is long and leaves the freshness of the Granny Smith's apples on the palate. A very powerful whisky, perhaps best suited to after-dinner sipping.


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