Sights set high in the Lowlands (Auchentoshan)
Ian Buxton provides a rare insight into a Lowland distillery not currently open to the public – Auchentoshan
If, in the words of that great old Scottish air, you take the high road to the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, then you’ll be able to look down upon Auchentoshan as you go. Just before the Erskine Bridge, as the A82 leaves Clydebank on the outskirts of Glasgow, you’ll glimpse the distillery on your left behind a high security fence, bordered by a housing estate and the local cemetery. Not, it must be agreed, the most auspicious setting for this somewhat underrated Lowland single malt, but the Old Kilpatrick Hills can be seen just beyond the road.
To take a step back, it’s worth considering the Lowland malts as a category. There was once a thriving distilling industry in Scotland’s Lowlands, based on the rich farmland and supplying a loyal local population. But times and fashions changed, the Lowland style fell out of favour; distilleries were closed and their buildings redeveloped.
Now only three Lowland distilleries remain in operation: Bladnoch, Glenkinchie and Auchentoshan. Whilst Bladnoch is hard to find as a single malt, Glenkinchie has had the good fortune to be selected for Diageo’s Classic Malts collection, and so its future would seem secure.
That leaves Auchentoshan – a survivor and in some ways one of the most interesting distilleries in Scotland and certainly deserving of greater exposure. The distillery can be firmly dated to 1823, though the company’s history suggests that it may be synonymous with the Duntocher distillery, recorded as operational in 1800. During the 19th century the distillery changed hands several times and was progressively expanded. Sadly, most of the early archives have been lost or were destroyed in a 1940 Luftwaffe strike, so Auchentoshan’s early history is more conjecture than established fact.
During its two centuries of existence, Auchentoshan has been well served by its six owners, and no more so than by the current regime of Morrison Bowmore Distillers, now a wholly-owned offshoot of Japan’s Suntory. The company is perhaps best-known for its stewardship of Bowmore on Islay but also owns Glen Garioch and produces blended whiskies.
Auchentoshan today is in tip-top condition. Arriving in splendid autumn sunshine, I couldn’t help noticing the smartly-painted buildings and distillery cottages, the beautiful and well-stocked flowerbeds and the St Andrews Cross topping the flagpole. It seemed a lot of trouble to go to, even for Whisky Magazine, until Distillery Manager Ronnie Learmond explained that a party of Japanese dignitaries had visited earlier in the week.
If Auchentoshan’s own immediate surroundings are carefully cultivated, the distillery’s interior is truly impressive, putting many a competitor to shame. It’s clear that Ronnie Learmond runs a tight ship, with an admirable belief in the old saying “cleanliness is next to godliness”.
Behind Auchentoshan’s gleaming surfaces is a carefully planned approach to total quality management designed to provide information on every stage of the process. “If we need to,” Learmond proudly explains, “we can trace not just the variety and yield of each batch of malt, but the farm where it was planted and even the date the seed went into the ground.”
All very interesting, you may be thinking, but so what? Well, in this era of food scares, GM crops and increased product liability, total traceability of raw ingredients is essential to maintaining product quality. Auchentoshan are rightly proud that they achieved the demanding BS 5750 accreditation for quality management in 1993, the first single malt distillery to do so. They’ve been building on this ever since, and more than one of their illustrious rivals may still have some catching up to do!
This meticulous approach is winning recognition, as a shelf full of awards and medals proves: Auchentoshan is a consistent winner of bronze, silver and gold medals at the International Spirits Challenge and the International Wine & Spirit Competition (including a Gold Medal this year for the 21-yearold ). Morrison Bowmore themselves were IWSC ‘Distiller of the Year’ in 1995 and capped this with a three-year run of Queen’s Awards from 1996 to ‘98.
Though most of the distillery’s 1.2 million litres annual output still goes for blending, an increasing percentage is reserved for sale as a single malt. In fact, stocks are being laid down on the basis that single malt sales will double over the next five years, an ambitious target were it not that so much has already been achieved. Matthew Mitchell, the company’s energetic Communications Manager, is passionately convinced that this represents the future: “Our single malt sales are growing very satisfactorily each year, ahead of the market, as consumers come to appreciate the unique qualities of Auchentoshan.”
“Unique qualities” – well, we’ve heard that line before, especially from PR departments. However, this time there might be something behind the rhetoric. To find out exactly what, we must go inside Auchentoshan’s smartly whitewashed buildings, where all will be revealed.
For reasons shortly to become apparent, I will describe the interior in rather more depth than normal. The maltings have long gone, so that fully traceable malt is delivered ready for mashing. Ronnie Learmond uses exclusively Scottish malt, a mix of Optic and Chalice, up to 75 tons of which are stored on site at any one time.
A traditional porteous mill feeds a single seven-ton mash tun, a semi-lauter affair with gleaming copper dome and attractive wooden cladding around the sides. Mashing, using water from Loch Katrine in the Trossachs, takes around eight hours, after which some 35,500 litres of wort are delivered to the seven traditional Oregon pine washbacks. Three are external, and four housed inside the distillery between the mash tun and still house.
One innovation to be found here is that Auchentoshan uses 100 per cent dried distiller’s yeast, the first distillery to do so, though it’s been widely adopted since for its improved ease of handling and greater productivity. Not that this was exactly rushed: Ronnie Learmond told me that the company ran trials for six years before they were satisfied that there were no adverse effects from the use of the dried variety.
It’s only when you step from the washbacks and into the striking still house that Auchentoshan’s particular claim to fame is revealed. Facing you are three splendid onion-shaped stills, by Forsyths of Rothes. Yes, three: a wash still, intermediate still and spirit still, with the usual complement of safes and receivers. Auchentoshan, you see, is triple-distilled, making it unique in Scotland. As Ronnie Learmond is fond of saying “Auchentoshan is not for the ‘feint’ -hearted!”
The triple distillation takes around 30 hours from start to finish. The wash still receives a charge of 17,300 litres of wash at around 7 to 8% abv and, at the end of the process, just over 3,000 litres of new-made spirit are run to the spirit receiver at the unusually high strength of 82.5% abv. The intermediate still receives the foreshots and feints, meaning that the spirit still receives only the heart of the run for further distillation prior to the final spirit selection: hence Ronnie Learmond’s carefully polished pun!
Across from the still room is a small cask racking warehouse, from where the bourbon wood barrels – mostly from Wild Turkey in Kentucky – are taken to the warehouses. Casks set aside for single malt are despatched to one of three traditional dunnage warehouses, which were rebuilt in 1948. Whisky for blending may be stored there, or in the two larger racked warehouses. In total, there are about 18,500 casks on site, some dating back to 1966 – exceptionally old for a Lowland whisky.
There was a limited release of 31-year-old Auchentoshan in 2000, packaged as a single cask bottling, non chill-filtered at cask strength (around 55% abv). It won an IWSC Gold Medal and was lavishly praised by US malt maven Paul Pacult: “I believe this may be the ultimate Lowland single malt; seek, find, and ye shall rejoice mightily.”
Original purchasers who resisted the temptation to savour these delights may well be gladly rejoicing. The limited release sold out very quickly and bottles now change hands for well into three figures, representing a healthy appreciation on the original purchase price.
However, if you thought 31 old for a Lowland malt, prepare to be amazed. Ronnie Learmond keeps a careful watch on his remaining few casks of the 1966 vintage and believes they have some way to develop yet. Will this whisky make a 40- year-old? I, for one, would not bet against it, and that may well represent some kind of record for a Lowland single malt. Make a note in your diary to call the distillery early in 2006. Stocks will be very limited and you wouldn’t want to miss this release.
However, both Learmond and Mitchell were reluctant to be drawn on exactly what’s coming next. Auchentoshan can be found as Select (no age statement); at 10, 21 and 25 years old as well as the now exhausted 31-year-old. In addition, the company innovated in the wood finish market with their Auchentoshan Three Wood. This was the standard 10-year-old finished in oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry woods for around a further two years, though the finished product is without age statement.
Three Wood has proved successful for Auchentoshan, so we may surmise that more variations are in the pipeline.
One surprise, particularly given the distillery’s location between the people of Glasgow and the Loch Lomond tourist hot-spot, is that there is no visitor centre. Unless you’re ‘trade’ or on an official familiarisation visit, Auchentoshan is closed to visitors, which is why I’ve offered a more detailed operational explanation. It seems unfortunate, as the distillery is in apple-pie order and a real showpiece, especially the three-still set-up. Ironically, there was a small centre under previous owners, but this was shut in the 1980s so that investment could be concentrated on the distillery itself.
Recent studies have shown that the demand is there but health and safety and road access standards seem sadly prohibitive. Still, sales are growing so all we need is for the Japanese economy to take an upward turn and the doors may yet open … There is talk of limited numbers of coach groups being admitted in 2003, but this remains to be settled. Until then, you will have to remain content to make Auchentoshan’s acquaintance in a glass.
Your whisky education is not complete without sampling ‘Glasgow’s Malt’ (Lord Provost Alex Mosson uses it for all his official gifts) and considering the benefits of triple distillation and the unusual ageing in such a refined and soft-spoken dram. Look for a light dram, but with floral and citrus notes. As it ages, Auchentoshan develops mint, oak and chocolate flavours and, in the Three Wood expression, a complex, rich and powerful palate that changes but does not entirely swamp the signature citrus fruit. It’s a revelation if hitherto you thought of Lowland whiskies as some kind of poor relation to their Highland cousins.
Sadly, for the moment, a glimpse of Auchentoshan as you head north to Loch Lomond is as close as you can get. But in looking down don’t underrate this little known ambassador for a once-famous style. With its attractive buildings, unique triple distilling style and deeply committed management, Auchentoshan is, like its Glasgow homeland, ‘no mean malt’.