by Gavin D Smith
The night of 28th December 1879 brought tragedy to Scotland.
In one of the worst storms to hit the country for many years, a section of the Tay Railway Bridge, linking Fife with Dundee, collapsed, sending a train plummeting into the icy waters below. All 75 passengers on board died.
|By contrast, just over 100 miles northwest of the disaster scene, in the heart of Strathspey, something creative and constructive was happening. That same
evening the very first spirit flowed from the bright new stills at Glenrothes.
However, the early years of the distillery's existence were to prove as precarious as the foundations of that ill-fated bridge, with economic stability only arriving in 1887, when Glenrothes' owner W Grant & Co amalgamated with the Islay Distillery Company, proprietors of Bunnahabhain.
The new concern was called Highland Distilleries, today part of the Edrington Group, which also owns the nearby Macallan distillery and Highland Park on Orkney, along with the best-selling Famous Grouse blend.
Glenrothes stands by the Burn of Rothes in the small, Speyside distilling town, where it was the second distillery to be built, following the creation of nearby Glen Grant back in 1840. It is located alongside the town cemetery, allowing ample scope for word play about 'spirits'!
The blended whisky boom was nearing its height when Glenrothes came on stream, and its 'make' soon began to develop a reputation as an excellent blending whisky. Today it is one of only three Speyside malts to be credited by blenders as 'Top Class'.
Glenrothes has long been at the heart of blends such as Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse, and for more than a century its true character and personal identity were rarely revealed.
According to Edrington's master blender John Ramsay, "The Glenrothes is a pretty important blending malt. The volume is huge compared to the single malt sales over time. We're distilling five million litres a year and only bottling two per cent of that as single malt. That's because it's so popular for blending. It's a good malt to base a blend on. It's got body and backbone. It's not massively flavoursome. A typical Speyside, it's fruity and it's a thick textured spirit."
The transition from highly regarded blending malt to a whisky which is prized and respected in its own right really began in 1987, when Christopher Berry Green, chairman of Berry Bros & Rudd, which owns the Cutty Sark brand, suggested to Highland Distilleries that a stronger link should be forged between the blend and its spiritual home. The result was a 12-year-old bottling of The Glenrothes.
||Then, as Ronnie Cox (left), Director of The Glenrothes, explains, "Berry Bros & Rudd saw there was an evolution in the malt market we weren't covering. The twelve-year-old Glenrothes was a bit lost among all the Glenlivets
and the like.
"Berry Bros, influenced by the fine wine market of which they were such a part, liked the idea of 'the best of the best' - of terroir in Scotch whiskies - hence the development of the vintages. They brought a wine heritage to the whole business.
Other than Knockando, nobody had done the 'vintage only' concept at that point. Consistency was believed to be what sold a brand. What we tried to do was get whiskies with the same 'signature' distillery character but different personalities from different casks.
"We're not trying to produce consistency like most of the Scotch whisky industry. We take the best example of one year's distillation and select one 'personality' from that which is bold enough and distinctive enough to give Glenrothes an aura. The smallest bottling we've done was from just 25 casks.
"The key is to select it at just the right time. John Ramsay is crucial to that; he'll propose a vintage. The idea is that each one is slightly different. The trick of a medium-bodied and elegant whisky like this is to get a good balance."
The result of The Glenrothes' vintage concept has been an average annual growth figure of 23 per cent during the past decade, and The Glenrothes is now widely acknowledged as one of Scotland's premier league single malts.
Each of the highly unusual 'sample room' style bottles carries on its minimalist label the date of distillation and the bottling year, along with brief character notes written by the master blender. The most recent release, which appeared in August 2006, is of a 1994 expression.
In effect, The Glenrothes team has worked in the opposite direction to most distillers, who began by marketing a 'standard' single malt expression at 8, 10 or 12 years of age, and then added to the range with a variety of more specialist bottlings as time has gone on.
Wonderfully versatile, it is delicious before or after a light meal - outside or in - and is a splendid conversation enhancer."
|Reversing that process, The Glenrothes launched a Select Reserve expression last year, which ensures consumers have access to a readily available and consistent product.
This is an un-aged expression, described by Ronnie Cox as "'The essence of all that is The Glenrothes in its early prime'.
Connoisseurs the world over have fallen for the charms of The Glenrothes, which has also won its fair share of international awards. But what of the men who make it?
Glenrothes' longest-serving member of staff, Roger Johnston, recalls "I've been here 33 years, and before I came to the distillery I was a time-served cooper, and I started working in the cooperage warehouse then moved to the tun room. I was a spare stillman/mashman. I worked about 22 years in the mash house until multi-skilling arrived, and have now worked between the still house and mash house for 11 years.
"I enjoy a whisky, in particular a smooth blend like Cutty Sark or Grouse. I really enjoy The Glenrothes too, which is smooth, light and fruity. I'm not too keen on heavily sherried or heavily peated whiskies. Glenrothes has always been an excellent malt but little known. It's good at last to see it getting some well deserved praise."
Glenrothes distillery is not open to the public.