Thursday, 13 October 2016

Brechin and Balmoral. 5th September. Glencadam and Royal Lochnagar

So there I am in Brechin, and as so often is the case on these trips, I haven’t found a proper coffee. Thus you find me gingerly sipping a Tesco Costa whilst sat, of all places, in a graveyard. To one side is Brechin’s football stadium. To the other, behind a wire fence, the dark grey walls of Glencadam Distillery.

At the time of writing (shockingly late after the visit, but it’s been a busy month and a half) it is almost a year to the day since I first encountered Glencadam’s whisky. It was in the form of a miniature of the 15yo presented with other offerings on a tray at my friend Will’s stag. I can’t really offer a photo, as there was also something else on the tray, of a more typical stag-party persuasion. But these whiskies were the first drinks of the day, and despite being in very good company the Glencadam shone. My next encounter was two months later at the wedding, when late in the evening a bottle of Single Cask 35 year old was produced from somewhere. Will and I dutifully gave it a hearing, and since the resultant photo was rather more PG, you’ll find it at the bottom of this article.

From those points on I have made up for lost time where Glencadam has been concerned, and now rank it in my top ten distilleries worldwide. Single Malt is only a very minor concern of theirs in production terms though; about 96% of what they make goes into blends, and they don’t have a ‘Visitor Centre’ per se. Not
wishing to pass by without paying a visit to a distillery I rate so highly, I had sent an email asking whether a tour might be possible, and received a swift reply from Douglas Fitchett, the distillery manager, inviting me to meet him at 10am.

I arrived early, as is my wont, and was met by David, who is Douglas’ assistant. We talked whisky (and the A9) for a while, until Douglas arrived to show me around.

Glencadam has been distilling since 1825. It was mothballed during both World Wars, and in 2000 was closed. Happily, owners took charge in 2003, and decided to release the distillery’s first ever own-label Single Malt in 2005. There are only two stills, but they must be working pretty hard, as they’re pumping out something in the region of 1.4 million litres of spirit a year. As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found distilleries tend to average about 1 million litres per pair of stills, give or take, so 1.4 is a very good amount. Though when you consider that only 4% of this goes to Single malt, the size and diversity of their range therein becomes all the more impressive.

It’s quite a compact distillery, is Glencadam. Purpose-built as a distillery over the stream which acts as its water source, there’s a lot happening in a small area. I suppose it has to really; like Oban or Glen Moray, Glencadam doesn’t exactly have room to spread; tucked as it is into the heart of Brechin. One thing I loved about the tour, and in which respect it differed to every tour I’ve been on, was that it is a working distillery full stop. Now I love a visitor centre. If I didn’t I’d have had a pretty miserable time of it over the last year. But there was something brilliant about a distillery ‘stripped bare.’ No visual aids, nothing ‘for the tourists.’ Just people getting on with the business of fermenting, distilling and blending. A little whisky hive in Brechin, and a wonderful thing to see.

The hive’s going to be busier in pretty short order. Glencadam’s output is growing and growing – Douglas mentioned that they’re hoping to double in size ultimately, which is going to be some undertaking. What this means for their single malt output I’ve no idea, but it’s a nice thought that there’ll also be more Glencadam in my blends. Either way, I’m a happy boy.

The ‘tasting room,’ to which Douglas took me, has to be one of my favourites of the pilgrimage so far. Because it’s not so much a tasting room as a lounge, with squashy upholstered armchairs and the whiskies stored in a little bureau-cum-cabinet in the corner. The sample generosity was fantastic too. Apart from the 10, my note for which is below, we tried the new make, the 15, the 18 and the 14, which is finished in Oloroso and grapples with Kilchoman Sanaig for the title of favourite single malt under £50 I’ve tried this year. As a curious aside, the 18 and the 15 are both ex-first-fill bourbon matured only, yet I totally agree with Douglas’ assessment that the 15 is deeper and richer. Both worth buying anyway.

Glencadam 10yo – Proof that the ‘flavour list’ tasting notes really don’t tell a proper story about the whisky. Sure there are apples, pears, vanilla, honey blah blah. But the take-home here is how dazzlingly clean and fresh this is. It’s vibrant; a beautiful zip from the Alcohol without anything spiky or fiery. Silken mouthfeel. The balance is just right. A crowd-pleaser in the best sense of the word. Could give this to anyone from hard-core malt nerds to people who barely touch whisky, and I’d be confident they’d enjoy it. 46%ABV

My love of Glencadam all the deeper, but my day only half done, I thanked Douglas and was back in the Corsa in the direction of Royal Lochnagar. It’s getting into proper Highland territory here; the drive took me up through banks of fog, onto one-track roads through the chilly foothills of the Cairngorms. Lochnagar itself, however, is more or less on the banks of the Dee, in a green, woody and rather charming glen. A delightful neighbourhood all round, though some nearby residents have been known to lower the tone with raucous all-night Jäger and death metal parties. These days police are stationed outside the gates of that house though, to keep the occupants on their best behaviour.*

Royal Lochnagar is the smallest distillery in the Diageo treasure-chest. It earned its ‘Royal’ by dint of Queen Victoria being a fan, and apparently she took her malt mixed with claret. (Dear Diageo marketers: please don’t do a Bordeaux barrel matured Lochnagar and call it ‘Monarch’s Favourite’. Oh Hell, I’ve put the idea in your head now.) It’s also where Diageo have their ‘brand home,’ to which new ambassadors are trooped for Basic Training in how to nose and taste and bend it like Beckham and so forth.

As standard I’m excessively punctual, and bumped onto an earlier tour. (I honestly have sometimes done the tours I’ve actually booked.) It’s a big group, and our guide for the day is Annie, who on seeing my notebook quips ‘can I tell you something? There’s lies, there’s damned lies and then there’s whisky.’ Duly noted – I’ll be careful what I jot down. 

Being a Diageo distillery, cameras are off-limits, so no on-tour photos I fear. It really is a tiny place, fed by waters from a spring at the bottom of the nearby mountain. Open-top mash tun, á la Bruichladdich/Deanston, with a four-water mash the Lochnagar standard. 

Annie was really excellent at managing such a large group within such a small distillery, though it should be noted that those present were rather less rowdy than similar sized groups I encountered at Talisker and Caol Ila. We’re taken past the fermentation room, which unusually is blocked by a glass wall. That being said, it’s a tiny room with three tuns, so it would have been a rather tight squeeze even if we had been allowed in.

Talking of tiny, the stills are miniscule. Really small and stubby. You’d think that they’d make a rather rich and robust malt, but Annie explained that extra copper contact, and therefore lightness of spirit, is achieved by only partially filling them. Also worth noting is that they still use traditional worm tubs to condense the distillate. Under normal circumstances this would again result in a
more meaty, sulphurous spirit, but at Lochnagar the worms tubs are filled with warm water, to condense the spirit more quickly, thus promoting copper contact and lightness of character. Very unique indeed.

Being the brand home, there’s a warehouse in Lochnagar in which all casks have had their duties paid. It’s full of casks from distilleries across Diageo’s portfolio, both dead and alive. I certainly noticed a couple of Broras and Port Ellens, and more than a few barrels which, were they people, would be applying for a free bus pass. Lucky brand ambassadors. We, however, were not allowed to taste, though a judicious sniff or two of certain samples was permitted. I would have tried to hide behind the door when we all left, but had I done so I’d be dead by now. Even if they’d come back for me ten minutes later. One day, perhaps.

Bit of a moment when Annie asked us all whether we liked younger whiskies. I mentioned how much I admired Kilchoman's kit, despite their usually being only five or so, and some old bloke took it upon himself to tell me that my palate was immature. That’s the second time in as many months that someone has said that. You’d think by now that’d I’d have a witty retort planned. Hey ho. I’d bet a reasonable sum of money that I’ve tasted more whisk(e)y this year than he has in his life. And he’s the one missing out if he isn’t drinking Kilchoman.

Back in the tasting room Annie brought out the Royal Lochnagar 12yo as well as the Distillery Edition for comparison. Since I was driving I took advantage of Diageo’s excellent takeaway scheme, so my notes were made later at a hostel in Aberdeen, and my comments on the 12 are below:

Royal Lochnagar 12yo – Nose takes some coaxing. Certainly some grassy/hay notes. Light for sure. A little bit of currant perhaps; certainly some European oak influence, and a splash of vanilla. Intensity definitely on the mild end of the spectrum. Needs a lot of time to get going. Palate is also light, and flavours follow nose. Medium sweet, and actually fairly juicy. Some honeys and caramels too, with perhaps a touch of pear. Brown sugars and coffee on the finish. OK.

Having not booked accommodation for the night, the rest of the day was spent hunting for a campsite, shouting at my tent, booting my tent, apologising to my tent, hurling my tent into the back of the car again, remembering it was actually my dad’s tent and I should probably treat it better, and then giving up and driving to Aberdeen
to find a tent made from bricks. I’m happy to camp, but on your own it’s purgatory. Conclusions of the day then: I still love Glencadam. I love it even more than I already did. Alongside Kilchoman it’s probably my distillery of the year. As for Lochnagar, the jury’s out. It’s not that I won’t drink the stuff – just try to stop me – but what I’ve tried so far leaves me slightly lukewarm. Possibly I just need to try more.

In the meantime, further East Highland distilleries await. And so does a tour with a familiar face...


*I made this up. As far as I know the Royal Family don’t throw Jäger and death metal parties. And if they do, no one around Lochnagar has complained.

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