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Glorious Glengoyne

by Gavin D Smith, 08/06

Glengoyne Distillery is situated little more than a dozen miles from Glasgow, yet looking out from the patio of the visitor centre's dramming room it seems you couldn't be further from the bustling city.

A fifty feet waterfall descends from Dumgoyne Hill through wooded slopes thick with an eye-catching carpet of harebells, before ultimately making its way into Loch Lomond. If you want to attract members of the public from a vast urban catchment area, and corporate businessmen tired of staring at office blocks, you really couldn't choose a better site.

Situated in an area historically renowned for illicit distilling, Glengoyne first gained a licence in 1833, and for many years was owned by the Robertson & Baxter Group, later part of Edrington. It was one of the principal malts in the Lang's Supreme blend, but as a single malt played third fiddle behind Edrington's high-profile Macallan and Highland Park brands.

Then, in April 2003, all of that changed. The distillery itself, together with the Glengoyne and Langs brand names, plus approximately 2,400 casks of maturing spirit, were acquired by Broxburn-based Ian Macleod Distillers Ltd for some 10 million. The company is owned by the Russell family, and although it was founded back in 1936 by Leonard Russell, it had never owned a distillery prior to purchasing Glengoyne.

   According to Brand Heritage Manager Stuart Hendry, "They'd been brokers for 30 years before starting as independent bottlers. Ultimately, they saw that the future was in single malts, and if you own a distillery you can guarantee supplies and put money behind the brand. You're in control of your own destiny and it's good, too, for reciprocal trading with other companies when you need their malts for your blends. We are now filling for all the big guys, while previously Edrington just filled for themselves.

"We've doubled output at the distillery since being taken over by Ian Macleod. We're now up to 850,000 litres a year, and a lot of that is for reciprocal deals with other distillers and blenders, and obviously it goes into Langs and Macleod's Isle of Skye blend. But we're also aware that sales of Glengoyne single malt were up by 30 per cent during 2005. It's nice to work for people like the Russells. You don't mind making money for them!"

Some five per cent of all Glengoyne produced is now sold as single malt, and the range has been extended considerably since the change of ownership, with 10, 17 and 21- year-old expressions on offer, along with a cask-strength 12-year-old and a 15-year-old Scottish Oak Finish variant.

Wise-cracking, irreverent distillery manager Robbie Hughes (right) echoes Hendry's views on the virtues of working for an independent company. "Ian Macleod leave us to run the distillery, which is great," he says. "Two years ago we did some fillings for ourselves into Bourbon wood, which we don't normally do. The 'house style' is about 80 per cent refill and 20 per cent first fill sherry wood. We've been doing some port pipes too, and we've just filled some American oak butts. We'll see how these things develop over time."

Glengoyne makes a virtue of its use of unpeated malt, adopting the promotional slogan 'The authentic taste of malt whisky untainted by peat smoke'. "'The real taste of malt' is our whole platform for marketing the whisky," explains company managing director Leonard Russell, noting that the lack of peat allows the true character of malt to come through in the whisky, described as "clear, bright, subtle, yet delicate."

Glengoyne is equipped with two wash stills and one spirit still, and Stuart Hendry says "We believe we run our stills slower than any other distillery in Scotland. We just simmer the stills, like sauce in a saucepan, and the stillmen talk about 'nursing' the stills. We get between four and five litres a minute. In other distilleries it can be 12 to 15 litres per minute. If you were using heavily peated malt it probably wouldn't make much difference, the subtle nuances probably wouldn't come through, but they do here.

In addition to its regular range of single malts, Glengoyne also releases exceptional single casks from time to time, and has come up with a novel way of allowing the distillery's workforce a greater say in the destiny of their labours.

   Stillmen Ronnie Palmer, Duncan McNicoll and Ewan Hendry (shown left, top to bottom) have each been given the opportunity to select a cask, bottled under the 'Stillmen's Choice' banner. Additionally, three 'Mashmen's Choice' bottlings will be available from September.

"The mashmen seem to have to make a lot of visits to the warehouse to make their choices," says Stuart Hendry, with a wry grin. "The three mashmen and the three stillmen each have an average of 20 years of service, and the whisky they're choosing is whisky they actually made," he notes.

Ewan Hendry began work at Glengoyne as a 19-year-old and now has 19 years of service to his credit. He reckons that "You don't get lost in the system with just the one distillery. You're just a small part in so many places."

Not surprisingly, when it came to selecting 'Ewan's Choice,' Hendry chose a 19-year-old whisky. He says "I loved the smell of a Sherry puncheon we had in the warehouse, so I chose a whisky from an old Pedro Ximinez cask. It's very dark. I think the idea of letting us choose a whisky is great. It's nice to have my own wee place in history."

Not content with just making good whisky and offering innovative expressions of it, the Glengoyne team has been working hard to convert the former manager's house to encompass a state-of-the-art sampling room, a club room for members of the public who purchase their own casks, and a lavish meeting room for corporate clients. An innovative 'menu' of tour options has also just been unveiled, giving visitors the ultimate opportunity to take a four hour 100 per head Master Class.

Anyone who believes that family-owned firms tend to be complacent and conservative should visit Glengoyne: a shining example of how small can be very beautiful indeed.

The Whiskies

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