The Scottish whisky distilleries finding success in overseas markets
The reopening of Glenglassaugh distillery on the Banffshire coast is breathing life into an old spirit
‘Like snow off a dyke,’ is the Scots expression Billy Walker chooses to describe the way working Scottish distilleries are disappearing from the market and being bought up to service a booming global export industry, a situation which makes the recent revival of Portsoy’s Glenglassaugh (pronounced ‘Glen-glass-och’) distillery all the more distinctive a story. Originally established in 1875, it was placed into mothballs in 1986, before being refurbished and brought back online by an Eastern European investment group in 2008. In 2013, however, the BenRiach Distillery Company took over, with high ambitions for the distillery in line with their other operations at BenRiach and Glendronach.
‘There aren’t an awful lot of distilleries in Aberdeenshire generally,’ says Walker, one of three partners in BenRiach and master blender (‘the role I enjoy most’) at Glenglassaugh. ‘There’s Glendronach, Ardmore, Glen Garioch, Macduff, Glenglassaugh … the area isn’t heavily populated with facilities. That gives us a geographic advantage, it’s a significant point of difference, although we would say that almost every distillery has its own unique point of difference. We treat our distilleries like wine chateaux, they all have their own personality and character.’ In fact, Glenglassaugh already had a reputation before its reopening. Between 1960 and 1986 Highland Distilleries made spirits there for use in blends, and the warehoused remains of this surprisingly high-quality spirit achieved high status among whisky connoisseurs through the years of closure.
The location is something Walker and the Glenglassaugh team are keen to make more of, a scenic waterfront spot which they’ve been in the process of modernising since they took over and which is already open all year round for tours. ‘Having that kind of contact with interested consumers is very important,’ points out Walker, ‘and really, the location we have here is incredible.’ Similarly, the market Glenglassaugh is targeting lies at the upper end of the spectrum, with a range of premium products which Walker says is increasingly popular in ‘Scandinavia, Russia, China and South Africa. Asia’s a big market for single malt in general, Taiwan in particular.
‘It’s a boutique, hand-crafted product,’ he continues. ‘We don’t have any great desire to chase volume, we’re much more interested in designer products at high value. We actively avoid selling to supermarket chains, it doesn’t send the message that we want for the brand and it moves you into a sector that’s pretty crowded, a sector that lives on volume rather than margin.’ As for the whisky itself, the production process is designed to create something unique through more patient means than high-volume producers might find palatable.
‘The style of our whisky is classical Highland,’ Walker says with a keen relish, ‘but Glenglassaugh has got a history of long fermentation, giving a very rich, butterscotchy syrup which matures very well. It’s not a thin whisky, it’s pretty well full-bodied at the point of maturity. Most of that’s to do with the length of the fermentation, all the fermentations at Glenglassaugh are eighty hours and longer. The shortest time for a whisky would be between around fifty and seventy-five hours so eighty hours is quite long, but it does allow a lot of additional things to happen in the broth during this time. It delivers a lot of additional character to the spirit.’
It’s still relatively early days for this young version of an old distillery, but a combination of the new owners’ experience, the fact it was already operating when they moved in and a location which most of their fellow producers can’t match makes it an exciting new presence on the Scottish whisky scene. Not only that, but an ambitious one too. ‘This year we’ll produce the equivalent of 650,000 litres of alcohol,’ says Walker. ‘We won’t sell all of that bottled, because a lot of it’s designated to mature over ten to twelve years, but we have an ambition to sell about 200,000 bottles.’ Success should bring significant rewards on a national as well as local scene.