In early 2016, Mrs. Wonk and I trekked across Islay and Speyside in Scotland, visiting as many single malt Scotch whisky distilleries as time allowed during our all too brief ten-day stay. In a series of posts, I’m documenting our experiences, one distillery at a time with tons of photos. If you’re not familiar with how single malt Scotch whisky is made, I highly suggest first reading my prologue post, Essential Highlights of a Scotch Whisky Distillery Visit. What follows is our visit to the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown, Speyside.
Our arrival in Speyside was less idyllic than we’d imagined. We’d pictured an early morning ferry ride from Islay followed by a leisurely drive among the lochs and inlets of Scotland’s coastline, via Fort William and over the rolling peaks of the Highlands. Reality had something else in store: A delayed ferry ride (we were very lucky to get off Islay at all), then a mad dash drive across the breadth of Scotland from west to east, Mrs. Wonk doing her best to outrun and outdrive storm Gertrude’s snow and wrath. As darkness began to fall, we pressed continuously north through heavy snow from the country’s center along the eastern coast of Scotland – Perth to Dundee to Aberdeen. Only then, in pitch darkness, could we head back inland, toward Speyside and our accommodations.
Dufftown was cold and dark, covered in new-fallen snow and feeling a bit deserted by the time we arrived at eight PM. Pulling into the picturesque Highland Spirit bed & breakfast, one of the proprietors rushed out to great us, looking a bit awestruck that we’d actually made it all the way from Islay during one of the most insane weather days in recent Scottish memory. From our enormous room, once a bank manager’s private residence, we could see the Mortlach distillery, blanketed in new white snow, just a few steps away. Over dinner at the local pub we found ourselves sharing a table and chatting with young apprentice coppersmiths from Forsyths. Yes, that Forsyths, maker of copper stills — the beating heart of the Scotch whisky industry. After a brutally long and stressful day, it was the perfect start to our three-day invasion of Speyside single malt distilleries.
The Glenfiddich distillery, practically walking distance from the Highland Spirit, was our first Speyside distillery stop the next morning. Pulling into the parking lot, it was striking to see just how large Glenfiddich is relative to the quaint Islay distilleries like Bruichladdich. Glenfiddich’s complex of buildings, nestled in the rolling Speyside hills, supports production of ten million liters of whisky (or more) per year. A short (and slippery) walk from the parking lot took us around a large cooling pond, past unbelievably picturesque stacked-stone buildings, and a duty free aging warehouse. On the briskly cold morning, everything covered with even more snow, the whole scene looked ripped from a painting.
As we arrive at the rather large visitor center, it’s clear Glenfiddich gets a lot of tourist traffic – not only because of its name recognition but also due to its close proximity to the center of Dufftown and connecting motorways. I’d not been able to line up an extended, private tour via their PR firm, so the standard “Explorer” tour it was for us.
Our tour kicks off with a short movie about the life of William Grant, who started Glenfiddich in 1866, the first whisky coming off the stills on Christmas Day 1887, as the legend goes. Fast-forward several decades to the 1950s, when the company introduced its signature triangular bottles that let you immediately know there’s Glenfiddich whisky inside. Even more important, however, is the company’s work in the 1960s to establish single-malt whisky as a premium category, distinct from blended whisky that was the accepted norm prior–from established brands like Johnnie Walker, Dewars, Chivas Regal, and so on. Today, the Glenfiddich distillery produces all the whisky in its eponymous single malts, including a core range from 12 to 26 years, and a seemingly endless supply of experimental and vintage releases. Mind you, the parent company, William Grant & Sons, hasn’t rested on their laurels with the success of Glenfiddich. They’re now a global spirits behemoth, carrying brands like The Balvenie (with a distillery just down the road), Hendricks Gin, Reyka vodka, Sailor Jerry rum, Milagro tequila, and many more.
Unlike most distillery walkthroughs which start with the grain malting and milling part of the whisky-making process, at Glenfiddich the tour jumps straight to the mash room. The distillery is large enough to utilize two mash tuns, both fed grain from overhead via a chute that splits into two sections, each leading to one of the tuns. (Supposedly there’s a third tun, but we did not see it.) Clear windows run along much of each tun’s walls, giving great views of the interior and the massive paddle-like mixing rake that rotates around a center post.
Up a set of stairs on an elevated walkway are several Hot Liquor Tanks (HLTs), which heat the water used for the mashing process.
A short distance away, also elevated above ground level, we come to a room with twenty-four washbacks, made of dark brown Oregon pine and ribbed with metal bands. Each washback is covered by a wooden lid with a stirring motor popping up from the center. Standing on the raised platform floor where you can peer down into bubbling tanks, it’s easy to forget how gigantic they are – 50,000 liters each. Descending the stairs again to ground level, we get a proper view of the entire washback– each looks large enough to hold a school bus.
Leaving the welcome warmth of the mashing fermentation buildings, it’s a brisk walk through the winter air to the stills. At Glenfiddich, they don’t just have one still building. They actually need two buildings to hold their (reported) thirty stills. Standing outside Still House No.2, I spy fourteen stills lined up in two rows through the open doorway. Not convinced that I’ll get any better photo opportunities, I snap away from outside the building while the guide leads the group though the distillation process, everyone shivering in the cold. Finally we’re let in, but with the proviso that no photography is allowed, even with cell phones.
Once inside, it’s clear (at least in stillhouse No. 2) that the stills are anything but identical pairs of wash and spirit stills, as at most distilleries. Here, the left row holds three wash stills and five spirit stills, while the right row has two wash stills and four spirit stills. Half the spirit still necks have boil balls, the other half have constricted necks.
Relatively speaking, Glenfiddich’s stills are fairly small–9,000 liters in a wash still and 4,500 liters in the spirits still. For comparison, these are about one-third the size of their equivalent at Bowmore, and about the same size as Laphroaig’s. But while Laphroaig has seven stills, Glenfiddich has thirty. And with that, you can make a lot of whisky!
Glenfiddich’s stills are unusual in that they’re direct-fired using gas, rather than a steam-heated coil inside the pot, which is much more prevalent. To prevent solids in the wash from burning on the still floor, direct-fired stills employ a motor to continuously drag a copper chain along the bottom of the still. This device is known as a rummager, and here at Glenfiddich, it’s easy to spot the motors off to the side of the wash stills, their arms thrusting into the sides.
Much as I wanted to commune longer with the pot stills, our guide whisked us off to aging warehouse #8. She informs us that not only is no photography allowed, we also have to temporarily surrender our cameras and cellphones. While I don’t have any photos to share here as a result, I can relate that the building was filled with barrels, including a much larger wooden tank (37,000 liters!) known as the Solera Vat. The idea with the solera vat is that whisky from different types of barrels (ex-sherry, ex-bourbon, and new American oak) are continuously blended. The 35,000 liter Solera vat is never completely emptied. Rather, it’s replenished with whisky from regular barrels at the same rate as the intermingled contents are removed. This system is used to make the Glenfiddich 15 year expression. While Glenfiddich’s solera aging has noticeable differences from the way sherries and brandies are aged in Spain, it’s nonetheless an intriguing approach.
As with any good tour, a whisky tasting wraps up the experience, the guide leading our group through several samples of the core portfolio in the quaintly named Dramming Center. It’s a very informal experience, sitting around tables in overstuffed leather chairs, surrounded by memorabilia and photographs documenting the company’s history.
As it was a Sunday, and only one other nearby distillery open for an afternoon visit, we stayed for lunch at the Malt Barn restaurant. With its high ceilings (it really used to be a malt barn) and charming crackling fireplace, it’s oh-so-civilized and cozy. The food was top notch and the prices very reasonable. I found my haggis, neeps, and tatties particularly picturesque, as you can see above. Walking back to our car, we stopped into the large gift shop. Beyond just the distillery’s own whisky, it also had a wider than usual array of upscale logoed items and local artwork for sale. Mrs. Wonk found much to linger over as I agonized over which bottlings from Glenfiddich and the Balvenie to carry stateside.
While our “Explorer” tour at £10 was a basic “see the highlights” tour, there are several longer tours available, including one that lets you sample from several casks and then fill your own bottle. Had time allowed, we’d have taken one of these, but other distilleries awaited. Next stop: Glen Grant!