The World of Single Malt Whisk(e)y
A Global Perspective
This month, we’re taking a look at the life and work of Stewart Buchanan, Global Brand Ambassador for Benriach, The Glendronach, and Glenglassaugh. WBSE did a live interview and tasting with him back in December, which you can watch here.
Whisky has interested Stewart Buchanan since he was a lad. Born in Dumbarton (outside of Glasgow), but growing up on the Isle of Mull, it was common for him to go peak through the windows at the closed up distilleries. When given the opportunity to choose a topic for a school paper, while others chose themes of English or history, Stewart wrote about whisky (a humble but ambitious start for someone who has become Keeper of the Quaich, a fact which still makes his hair stand on end). His real start began in 1993, when he took a position as a Stillman at Tobermory distillery. It was his job to maintain the distillery, and in the process he learned all about the production - something he is deeply passionate about to this day.
If you read the October issue on BenRiach, you’ll know how it was brought back to life in 2004, and Buchanan was a crucial part of that reopening. When asked by Scotch whisky powerhouse Billy Walker to help get the newly acquired BenRiach back to distilling shape, Buchanan, of course, took up the challenge; but when he walked into the deserted distillery, covered in grime and mildew after years of unuse, he was concerned he’d bitten off more than he could chew. Nevertheless, he rolled up his sleeves and literally camped on the BenRiach malting floor while he got to work cleaning the place up, stripping everything down, painting, oiling, and replacing that which was unusable.
It was the changing market and his production background that helped launch him to the Global Ambassador position. In 2012 (before Brown-Forman came into the picture) there were only 5 people covering BenRiach sales globally. They would meet clients at bespoke whisky clubs and at single malt stores, and while they had a very high level of knowledge, they didn’t have that intense (some may say “geeky”) production background; so, Buchanan was brought out of the distillery and into the field to support the sales team.
So, where do The GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh come into the picture? Well, all three distilleries are owned by Benriach Distillery Company, LTD, which in turn was acquired by Brown-Forman, but left to operate the distilleries independently.
The GlenDronach, one of the first legal distilling operations in Scotland, was opened in 1826 by James Allardice, an enthusiastic and extroverted fellow who had quite the theatrical flair for promoting his whisky. It was his insight that saw The GlenDronach utilizing sherry casks for maturation, and indeed, they have carried on the tradition of using only the highest quality Pedro Ximenez and Oloroso sherry casks to create the finest, richly sherried single malts in the Highlands. The secret to the maturation process has been closely guarded by a parliament of rooks for nearly 200 years, and the staff believe as long as there is a rook at The GlenDronach distillery, all will be well with the whisky.
Glen House was built in 1771 and used to house many of the distillery managers. In fact, most of the workers and their families used to live on site, although most of the houses sit empty now. Legend goes that the front room of Glen House is haunted by a Spanish lady who came from Spain to Scotland in one of the sherry barrels…
The small matter of a tipple-partial ghost was not enough to deter more current intrepid spirits, and in 2008, The GlenDronach distillery was purchased by BenRiach Distillery Company.
Glenglassaugh was founded towards the end of the 19th century, in 1875 to be precise, by Col. James Moir. Situated on the edge of Sandend Bay in Speyside, Moir ran the distillery with his nephews for over 15 years, and they were renowned for their quality whisky; but after his death, and the unexpected demise of one of the nephews, it was sold to Highland Distilleries Company. While the whisky was good, the market was not, and the distillery closed. When it reopened in the 1950s, it was intended to be used for blends, but the owners kept running into the issue that the whisky was too complex and had too much character to be put into a blend. Several attempts were made to change Glenglassaugh’s spirit, but it refused to submit, and eventually all attempts at subversion ceased. The owners mothballed the distillery in 1986. Ironically enough, it was the whisky produced in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s that became award winners, internationally recognised, and sought after by connoisseurs and collectors alike. The Manager’s Legacy Series of single cask whiskies was created in honour of the 4 distillery managers who oversaw production during those years.
Glenglassaugh was brought back to life in 2008, and in 2013 was sold to BenRiach Distillery Company, who focused on giving it the attention and care it deserved and required to bring it back to its former glory. Glenglassaugh is still a very hands on, small team run operation, with their focus on quality above all else for their exceptionally crafted, award-winning peated and unpeated single malts.
While the role of Global Brand Ambassador may sound glamorous, what with seeing the world, holding tastings, and waxing eloquent on some truly top notch whiskies, it’s not for the faint of heart. In a typical year, Buchanan spends only 22 days in his own bed. Of course, now that Brown-Forman is the parent company, there are far more sales teams for him to train and customers to host events for. This, however, has NOT been a “typical year”. We cannot ignore the impact a global pandemic has had on the industry’s way of doing business. He was touring Australia when an urgent call brought him back to his Scottish home before things really got bad. And while it’s not quite “work as usual”, he has kept busy, thanks to technology and people’s desire (maybe now more than ever) to connect over something as wonderful as a beautiful single malt Scotch. And he doesn’t see this new way of doing business going away, even when the world starts opening up. If anything, whisky knowledge and events (albeit virtual) have become more accessible. And hey, that’s a silver lining in all of this, right?
While he may have excellent style and a globe trotting career, he still loves geeking out about what goes into making exemplary whisky, harkening back to his production days (and why he was perfect for the job in the first place).
There’s been a real renaissance in whisky in regards to innovative cask management techniques - it’s like a kid in a candy shop seeing all the different casks available (BenRiach in particular is known for their eclectic cask selection).
The Glendronach Portwood (see Bill’s review from last month) is aged in Port Pipes, which, at 600L, are actually the largest casks The GlenDronach uses in the warehouse. As they’re broad and long casks, the wood to whisky ratio makes it hard to predict what will happen. When asked how the length of maturation in sherry casks is determined, Buchanan was upfront with the absolute unpredictability of it; neighboring casks will turn out worlds apart, and the key is to “sample sample sample”. The Port keeps it fresh with red fruits and gentle hints of darker fruits like plum and blackberry (GlenDronach means “Valley of the Brambles”), and he loves the presence of those dark fruit notes in that bottle.
When Glenglassaugh reopened, Buchanan happened to know the owners, and they’d share some of the new make spirit with him. He was blown away by how it was almost tropical in nature, with candied pineapple and an edge of umami funkiness due to microflora interaction in the fermenters, which is very unique to Glenglassaugh.
When the topic of peat was mentioned, Buchanan waxed passionate. The reason a whisky such as BenRiach’s Smoky 12 has a sweet campfire smoke influence is due to the root structure of the soil burned during the malting process - Speyside and Highland peat is made up of decayed trees and deforestation; whereas on Islay, the peat is comprised more of seaweed, moss, and low lying shrubs, which lend a more medicinal or iodine smell and flavour. Or, a key tip from Buchanan, forget about the word “peat” and think about it like the difference between Texas BBQ and Kansas BBQ.
Something new to this author was charging rates, and Buchanan had a word or two to say on that subject, as well! Charging is bringing the wash or spirit still up to boiling point, and each alcohol has a different boiling point. The slower the boil, the more ester forward notes you get, which are more fruity. If you boil hard, you’re bringing a different alcohol over, maybe even a bit of that weak beer, which brings a more prominent nuttiness and notes of barley.
Straight from the Source
Do you know how incredibly important the water source is? It’s the first of many whisky building blocks, and its quality determines production choices down the line. It’s the mineral content in water that produces big, dynamic flavours, and as each distillery has a different water source with different mineral levels, the distilleries tweak production to promote the flavours they want to reap from the water source.
Glenglassaugh has the highest minerality of any distillery water source in Scotland, at 220 parts per million. Harder water with higher minerals, through careful fermentation, is able to produce more esters and fruit notes - it’s purely in the fermentation stage, so they need a long fermentation where the yeast and water do their thing.
The GlenDronach, on the other hand, has soft water, which gives the distillery room to bring out the more heavyweight notes. It’s all about harnessing every desirable and extensive possibility of the whisky. One can see how each step and choice builds upon another to create a beautiful whole that takes the drinker on an expressive journey.
These three exceptional Speyside distilleries are located very near one another, in fact making a triangle of roughly 30 miles; not so far distant, but each so distinctly different. If you haven’t had the pleasure, we here at Whiskey Network highly recommend you check out the offerings from these three powerhouse single malt Scotch producers.