The Men of Tain – the Glenmorangie Distillery

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It’s really hard to miss the Glenmorangie distillery when you are driving the A9 from either direction, through the purple haze of heather and yellow gorse covered side of the road, hiding the flocks of sheep on the slanting hills on one side and the waves, broken on the rocks in the Dornoch Firth on the other. Coming from the Balblair distillery, following the railroad tracks on our left hand side, we had a whole ten minutes or so to enjoy these vistas before we already were with our destination. We had packed a small lunch, because we knew beforehand that at either distillery, there is no cafe of coffeeshop to enjoy some home-cooked cock-a-leekie soup, chutney cheddar sandwich, cup of tea or grandmother’s carrot cake. A shame really, certainly for the distillery creating the best selling whisky in the UK.

From the car park we have a great view at the distillery below showing all its different sized and shaped buildings old and new, meticulously patchworked together on the rolling hills, to tell their story pursuing whisky perfection. Walking the footpath down towards the distillery grounds, guided by the wooden framed, slow descending stairs, we are easily directed towards the brightly ochre painted museum doors and visitor’s centre. Arriving on time as usual, we have some time to snap a picture or two of the ochre casks, the pagoda chimney, the colourful flowerbeds and the exterior of the cathedral-esque still house before checking in for our pre-arranged private tour of the distillery. Private, so we could make some good images of the bowels of the distillery and its machinery we had not been able to make on our first trip there, and ask some more in-depth questions about what makes their stills tick, to persuade our hungry thirsty readers to go and buy some of their unnecessarily well made whisky.

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Waiting in the shop for our guide, browsing the ochre branded merchandise, we noticed a buzz going around the members of the staff. At about that same time we noticed the shop filling up quickly with all kind of languages around us taking pictures of each other. A couple of unannounced busses had just made their appearance on the parking lot and flooded the distillery with whisky tourists from around the globe, giving the crew a panicked look on their faces while desperately looking for a Clark (Mac)Kent in between casks, nooks and crannies. We noticed them looking over to us, back to the masses pouring into the shop, at the big appointment book and back to us. Some phone calls were made in a thick Scottish accent and we were getting the feeling that “private” was going to become a whole multicultural orgy with less conversation and photo opportunities than we intended to have. The staff worked hard to accommodate us within the rules and regulations, and because of our full schedule we agreed to go ahead with the changes in front of us, put away our cameras and see what we could make of it.

Armed with pencil and notepad we merged into the masses and followed them to the reception room of the distillery. An interactive area where you are welcomed with huge amounts of ochre again and the correct way on how to pronounce Glenmorangie. Following the path down into the reception room walking along the walls with plaques of general information and history we watched a small movie and waited until the found guide was ready to start the walk around the complex. Taking a moment for ourselves contemplating on how to build the story we were startled out of thoughts by another large group wearing high-viz vests walking by, including the smiling faces and waving hands of Eric Walker and Lora Hemy saying hi while being on a distillery programme from the IBD. We had noticed on Social Media platforms that we were just missing each other at the several distilleries we visited that last weeks, now finally crossing paths in real life again. Next time, maybe we will try to sneak in with their quickly proceeding group and indulge ourselves with the presumably high geek-levelled questions and details of information instead. Maybe we should have applied for that study after all…

Stepping through the doors of the distillery we hear the story about the history of the Morangie brewery, established in 1843, which grew into a distillery in 1887 when it installed a tall gin still to create a light and fruity gin, and the Men of Tain – the people producing the spirit at the Glenmorangie distillery and handling all the different steps in the process, being the gears connecting everything and making this large operation successful year after year. They are the heart of the distillery that see to it that the mineral rich, hard water from the Tarlogie Springs and the unpeated barley (where from time to time a batch of chocolate malt is added, used to create the Signet expression) are processed under the best circumstances possible to produce their six million light and fruity spirit per year.

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one of the heat exchangers

Starting at the 14 malt bins, the large, fully automated operation, mills 10.2 tonne barley into their large stainless steel, full lauter mashtun. Five hours later, one of the twelve 48.000 litre washback is filled with the resulting wort, which gets agonized by a liquid lilyband yeast for as little as 48 hours. Next up: the cathedral. Not an actual cathedral mind you, but a large, high ceilinged room housing six sets of the tallest stills in Scotland. Twelve shiny copper giraffes, measuring eight metres at their highest point with the length of the neck alone measuring 5.14 metres. The largest of each set is – as expected, used as the wash still, where a total of 11.400 litres of wash is distilled, about a quarter of one washback. At the back of the wash stills, we can see the shell-and-tube condensers and a couple of smaller, horizontally mounted condensers acting as heat exchangers to heat up the production water used in the large mash tun. The six, 8.200 litres spirit stills opposite the range of the six wash stills proudly add to the adornment of the room, while on the far end of the room, an altar is set up with the shiny spirit safes, where the 69% abv average spirit flows through to be collected and diluted to 63.5%, before it is casked into mostly ex-Bourbon casks and stored in their own warehouses on site. They are purposely not selling their spirit to blenders, simply because they need everything they create.

From the warm still house it is a short walk into the warehouse around the corner, where some casks and staves are displayed to visualise to the visitors how the maturation management is done at Glenmorangie. They only use their casks twice so they don’t wear out the wood, and they leave the spirit to mature for at least 10 years, becoming their “the Original”. From this base produce, most of their special releases are created through their finishes in ex-Port, ex-Oloroso Sherry or ex-Sauterne Wine casks, a procedure the distillery is well known for.

While the whole group made their way into the tasting room next to the shop for experiencing a whole line up of the Glenmorangie standard range we were whispered into our ears to please make our way to the desk again so we could have a camera opportunity in the still house between the tours coming through. We quickly zipped our camera bags open again and under guidance of a Peter Parker to be with a Geiger-counter sensible measuring equipment so we would not blow up the stillhouse with our camera’s, we walked back to the Cathedral. We are grateful that they let us in to do that and it gave us a good view of the size of them again so we could show you some more details.

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All in all, not an optimal situation for a tour and a look around a distillery, but everyone tried their best to please us, within their own guidelines and health and safety rules, without breaking them or getting anyone in trouble. Satisfied, with the agreement to come back at any other time, we climbed back up the stairs to drive back for our last night at the Dornoch Castle Hotel, where we would once more enjoy their beautiful soup of the day, a great chargrilled rib-eye steak and their whisky infused chocolate ganache, before heading to the bar once more to treat ourselves to some extraordinary drams of long ago closed, but remembered distilleries, for long forgotten, but well placed price tags.

With busy times ahead for us, we are changing our writing pace of late from a weekly rhythm to a bi-weekly one. So, in two weeks we will be discovering another distillery in the vicinity which is open to the public, featuring a proud stagg in their emblem while smoking a big cigar. Keep an eye out on the social media for our pictures and stories, like them, share them with your friends and tell them about what the Spellers are up to, and tune back in to speller.nl in two weeks to read more…

Slàinte Mhath

Thomas & Ansgar

Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller

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