Gone were the tourists, from the whisky geeks to the poor, dragged-along spouses. Quiet were the tour guides with their
oft-repeated, but still amusing tales. Shut were the doors of these most famous of distilleries – as for how long, nobody knew. Similar questions hung over production, bottling and many long-planned whisky launches. Uncertainty was surely there in the early days of the pandemic, but, in true north-east style, the teams at distilleries both small and large dug in. They changed their model for reaching consumers, brought the experience to our homes and adopted a ‘digital first’ approach to communicating with whisky lovers far and wide.
The last year has had its distractions for us all, though, so one would be forgiven for missing some of the releases, innovations and experiences that landed during the pandemic. Now that things are opening up and there’s more opportunity to meet with our whisky buddies, here is a round-up of some of the highlights which might have passed by unnoticed.
Canny folk will have noticed that Aberlour Distillery filled a wee gap when the 14 Years Old expression joined the core range, sitting snugly between the long-standing 12 and 16 Years Old bottlings. Before the Aberlour fanatics remind us, there has of course been the occasional 14-year-old whisky from this beloved Speyside distillery popping up in the past, but this was limited to single casks. Quietly released around the same time was the The Aberlour Cellar Collection. This distillery-exclusive set is amongst the oldest released by Aberlour and includes limited releases at 39 Years Old and 44 Years Old. The latter is the oldest and rarest whisky to be sold by the distillery, with just a limited release of 42 bottles available.
We can’t leave Aberlour without a mention of the single-cask Distillery Reserve Collection, which spans the entire Chivas Brothers portfolio of single malts (including The Glenlivet, Strathisla, Aberlour and Scapa). Aberlour brought out a pair of 13-year-old single casks in 2020: one matured in a sherry butt and the other American oak. This year, fans are now able to buy the range online for the first time.
Gemma Paterson, global brand ambassador for The Balvenie, highlighted how different the last year has been at the distillery, though the local wildlife wasn’t quite so bothered by it: “This last year we have greatly missed visitors from around the world at the distillery. It has felt very quiet on site – the ducks have appreciated the peace, though!”
This is another brand that turned its ambassador team, more used to in-person events, into digital gurus – hosting countless virtual tours of the distillery and tastings with thousands of people across the world.
Since we last wrote about the region, the team at The Balvenie have dropped another batch of the eagerly sought-after Tun 1509 and a new 21-year-old Single Barrel. For completely new products, there is the The Edge of Burnhead Wood 19 Years Old, the first-ever Balvenie expression made entirely with ingredients from the estate: home-grown barley malted at the distillery’s maltings, water from the natural springs on the estate, and heather from Burnhead Wood. Then there is the exceedingly rare 50 Years Old Marriage 0614, legendary malt master David C. Stewart’s assemblage of seven casks of 50-year-old Balvenie. It doesn’t get much better than that.
It’s been a very exciting year for Benriach. Under the watchful eye of master blender Dr Rachel Barrie, the distillery has released ‘flavour-forward’ single malts, opened its first visitor centre and completed a bottle redesign. The visitor centre experience includes a deconstructed cask tasting for those who want to dive deeper into the distillery’s heritage of eclectic cask maturation, while the ‘Barrels, Butts and Barriques’ experience offers visitors the chance to taste five individual cask types, culminating in a tasting of the Benriach 21 Years Old.
In terms of new products, the distillery’s Smoke Season is one to look out for. While most don’t tend to think of Speyside for its peated whiskies these days, Benriach has been making some for years and this Smoke Season release is the smokiest yet, using both ex-bourbon and virgin oak casks to complement those peaty flavours. Distinct from the seaweed-rich peat sourced near the sea that is generally used by distilleries on the West Coast and Islay, Benriach’s is mainland peat from the Highlands, derived from ancient trees and heather.
More recently, Dr Barrie unveiled the distillery’s first whisky made entirely from floor-malted barley, from Benriach’s own maltings, for more than 100 years – signalling the team’s commitment to maintaining some (seasonal) use of this labour-intensive malting method at Benriach.
Several distilleries took the chance to change their look this past year – the lightly smoked Benromach was one of them, launching a fresh design in June 2020. The new look takes its inspiration from the hand-painted sign that used to adorn the roof over the kiln, along with the distinctive red doors around the distillery and the iconic red-brick chimney. To mark the worldwide release of Benromach’s revamped packaging, the distillery launched its 21 Years Old as a new permanent addition to its core range, matured in first-fill sherry and bourbon casks. It is the oldest expression Benromach has offered in its core line-up since the distillery reopened in 1998 and was named Editor’s Choice in issue #177.
More recently, Benromach launched a new limited-edition single malt at the beginning of August 2021, the Benromach Contrasts: Peat Smoke Sherry Cask Matured. With just 6,000 bottles available worldwide, this expression has been made entirely with Scottish barley that has been malted with higher-than-usual (for Benromach) levels of peat smoke,
up to 55ppm.
Diageo’s family of Speyside distilleries all released novel products in this period. The Singleton marque, under which spirits from Dufftown, Glendullan and Glen Ord are bottled, was the most prodigious. This included super-rare releases from Dufftown, such as the 54 Years Old, a 1988 single vintage in the Prima & Ultima collection and a 17-year-old in the annual Special Releases collection.
Diageo’s other Speyside distilleries were also notable in the annual Special Releases series, which saw the release of Mortlach 21 Years Old, Cardhu 11 Years Old, and Cragganmore 20 Years Old, while the new Prima & Ultima set includes a Cragganmore that was distilled in 1971.
Beyond the releases, it was the transformation of Cardhu’s visitor centre that delighted Johnnie Walker fans. It’s understood that Glen Ord, Dalwhinnie, and Cragganmore will also see some development as part of Diageo’s £185 million overall investment in Scotch whisky tourism.
Whisky Magazine Hall of Fame inductee Billy Walker and his team at The GlenAllachie certainly didn’t slow down this past year. Such was the strength of sales that Walker said he was nearly embarrassed, given the current pandemic situation. He believes the business has witnessed a real shift in the patterns of consumer behaviour, with many drinking at home and trading up to higher-value products. The GlenAllachie engaged, through digital means, with a much wider pool of whisky fans than usual – especially those who perhaps wouldn’t have been able to attend a tasting event otherwise.
In the core range came further batches of The GlenAllachie 10 Years Old Cask Strength, including the Batch 4 which won World’s Best Single Malt at the World Whiskies Awards 2021. In addition, there was the annual batch release of the 21 and 30 Years Old Cask Strength. On the new product side was the Virgin Oak Series, which included drams matured in chinkapin, French and Spanish new oak, all aged for 12 years. In the Wine Cask Series came the Grattamacco 11 Years Old, Sauternes 12 Years Old and Rioja 13 Years Old.
The GlenAllachie also unveiled a refresh for its MacNair’s brand, which now encompasses both whisky and rum releases, and the company’s first-ever blended Scotch, White Heather 21 Years Old, also hit the shelves. Walker is buoyant about the future: “I have to say, I’ve been in the game for almost 50 years but I have never been more excited than I am right now in terms of where we are going.”
This family-owned Speyside distillery was fairly quiet in terms of new product launches until recently, when the introduction of Glenfarclas 185th Anniversary Edition – which went out to more than 40 markets worldwide – broke the silence. Glenfarclas also added a summer 2021 release to the Family Cask range, which will replenish stocks and allow the brand to continue to provide an extensive range of single-cask bottlings with distillation dates ranging from 1954–2006. The word is that the team are working on several other new products for imminent release, so watch this space.
Ian A. McWilliam, international sales executive, was as upbeat as others, saying, “The past year has been challenging from many perspectives but, overall, our worldwide sales have done remarkably well. We have seen a shift of focus with more customers trading up to purchase our older aged products, which is perhaps a result of people staying at home during lockdown periods and then having some additional funds available.”
It would be easy to have panicked and focused only on the short term, but at Glenfiddich the team forged ahead with a project that truly looks to the future: fuelling the company’s trucks with its own whisky production by-products. This ‘closed loop’ sustainable transport initiative will make it the first global spirits brand to run its delivery fleet on green biogas made from the residues of its own distilling process. The trucks now proudly proclaim to be ‘Fuelled by Glenfiddich’, which, for the avoidance of doubt, means the trucks themselves, not the drivers.
In product terms, the big release of the year was Grand Couronne 26 Years Old, which master distiller Brian Kinsman gave an extended finish in Cognac casks. This new release is the distillery’s latest addition to its ‘Grand’ series and sits alongside Grand Cru 23 Years Old (finished in ex-wine casks), Gran Cortes 22 Years Old (finished in ex-palo cortado sherry casks) and Gran Reserva 21 Years Old (finished in ex-rum casks). Next year, we are told, they will release something “a little more experimental”, but the team are keeping it under their hats for now.
A big release from Glen Moray is the first in the distillery’s Warehouse 1 series, a new range that aims to deliver exclusive, small-scale releases, which will be non–chill filtered and bottled at cask strength with only natural colour. The Warehouse 1 2005 Tokaji Finish follows in the tradition of interesting wine cask releases from Glen Moray, such as the Sauternes wine cask finish in November 2020. The series takes its name from the Elgin-based distillery’s Warehouse 1, which is home to its ‘special’ maturing casks and a place of experimentation. This first release was distilled in October 2005 and finished in oak casks that once held Tokaji Aszú dessert wine from Hungary. There are two more releases in this range planned for 2021, using casks that previously held wine from across Europe.
In other big news, earlier this year Glen Moray announced that Stephen Woodcock is taking the helm as head of whisky creation. Woodcock was previously master distiller at Distell’s single malt distilleries, including Deanston in the Highlands, Bunnahabhain on Islay, and Tobermory on the Isle of Mull.
What a year this Speyside stalwart had. Releases included the vintage Red Collection, named for Alexander Reid, the farmer and teacher who founded The Macallan in 1824 (his surname means ‘the red one’ in Scots). This eight-bottle set of old and rare single malts started with a mighty 40-year-old and went all the way through to a (at the time record-breaking) 78-year-old! The first set was sold at auction to raise funds for food charity, City Harvest London, which distributes 80,000 meals per week to vulnerable people across the city using food industry surplus. The sale price of £756,400 equates to almost 2.5 million meals being provided to people in need.
Other releases included The Macallan Edition No. 6, the sixth and final release in the Edition series, which takes its inspiration from the natural wonders of the River Spey and The Macallan Estate. Additionally, there was the Classic Cut, with the 2020 release at a powerful 55% ABV.
Beyond this, The Macallan doubled down on the development of its 485-acre estate on the banks of the famous River Spey, which is currently home to the largest Atlantic salmon population in Scotland – though numbers are in sharp decline. Nearly two miles of the river flows through the estate and thus the brand has chosen to support The Atlantic Salmon Trust in its conservation work. On the same theme, The Macallan was awarded the Positive Luxury Butterfly Mark for its commitment to protecting the biodiversity and habitats on the estate, marine conservation, and several other sustainability initiatives – including the design of its new distillery, which draws more than 80 per cent of its energy from renewable sources and boasts one of Europe’s largest green roofs.
Finally, the brand also announced a new partnership with luxury car manufacturer Bentley that coincided with the launch of a new hybrid vehicle. However, though the collaboration is said to focus on the two companies’ shared commitments to ‘sustainable luxury’, the full scope of what can be expected is still under wraps. Perhaps most importantly, it signals an emerging trend of automotive partnerships in the luxury whisky space and follows similar announcements in recent months from Bowmore and The Glenturret.
When the Spirit of Speyside went virtual early in the year, it didn’t stop distillery manager Sandy (Big Mac) McIntyre and his team at Tamdhu from releasing the Dalbeallie Dram 004, which was limited to 1,000 bottles at 61% ABV. Each year at the festival, Tamdhu announces a new edition in honour of the Dalbeallie train station that sits alongside the distillery, to celebrate its historic importance in bringing sherry oak casks up from Spain to Speyside.
Also released at the festival in April was the Tamdhu Club Single Cask bottling. Tamdhu is the only Scottish distillery to mature exclusively in oloroso sherry casks, so this one is a little special. Team Tamdhu called on the collective palate of their club members to choose the cask, who together picked a first-fill American oak sherry butt.
Tamnavulin proved to have a particularly buoyant year, which was thanks in part to it honing in on accessibility. The brand has been actively promoted as being ideal for use in single malt cocktails, while also being showcased as a premium, trustworthy whisky that is available at an affordable price. This process seems to have paid off for Tamnavulin, with leading drinks market analyst IWSR recently confirming that the brand has had the category’s largest year-on-year growth, alongside Jura, when measured by absolute volume.
All in all, it is clear that Speyside’s distillers have adapted well over the last 18 months. From the early days of the pandemic, when many helped by producing much-needed hand sanitiser for the community, through to the whisky production that has continued despite the difficulties associated with social distancing, to the investment in new facilities, all are signs of the fighting spirit of Speyside. Plans even came to fruition for a new distillery owned by the family-owned whisky company Gordon & MacPhail, to be named The Cairn, which is now taking shape near Grantown-on-Spey.
A feeling of quiet optimism seems to be shared by the Speyside distillers, especially as they are slowly allowed to reopen to visitors. The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is certainly counting on that return to normality, as James Campbell, the festival’s chairman and director, reflected on the subject: “We know from UK and international visitors regularly contacting us that they cannot wait to return to Scotland and to Speyside. There is a huge built-up demand and, as restrictions continue to ease and safe travel returns, if the progress with the pandemic continues there is going to be a very busy few years ahead to look forward to, as our visitors make up for time lost. It will be great to welcome all of our regular and new visitors to Speyside.”
Though the festival was held virtually this year, organisers are currently planning for an in-person November event. While the winter weather won’t be quite so welcoming as the festival’s usual balmy springtime atmosphere, the welcome back to Speyside will surely be anything but chilly.
Photo credit: Aberlour, The Balvenie, Benriach, Benromach, Christopher Coates, Diageo, The GlenAllachie, Glenfarclas, Glenfiddich, Glen Moray, The Macallan, Tamnavulin, Tamdhu, The Glenlivet