A Visit To Glenmorangie.

I am not sure what my first taste of Single Malt Whisky was, but there is a very strong likelihood that it was of Glenmorangie. It was maybe round 1989 or so. I was very young. 

It is a brand synonymous amongst the general public (in the UK at least) as being a top shelf whisky, one that you were always delighted to receive as a gift. You knew you were valued – it was one of the most expensive whiskies you could get in the supermarket. For decades it was the whisky I was most familiar with. Even though I was a Sommelier in a Michelin star restaurant for many years, I had no idea that there was other whiskies available or even other expressions from the famous distilleries. Macallan, Ardbeg, GlenDronach? Who? 

I can only put this down to the lack of availability. I was unaware of any specialist whisky shops at the time and the fine wine merchants didn’t list them. The distilleries had no voice, no marketing that I recall. The result was a tiny band of loyal customers and flat market – something that has been well documented in the whisky literature. In part the industry had themselves to blame, but they were also up against Cognac houses who were very active in promoting their produce to Sommeliers. I was even flown to Martell in a private jet for 3 days of tasting as part of a promo trip. Happy days.

So, I was eager to visit Glenmorangie, even though it meant leaving Speyside for a night. This is a whisky I had probably enjoyed more than any other for the first 25 years of my drinking life. The distillery can trace it roots back to the 1730’s when a brewery was established on the Morangie farm. 113 years later, equipped with 2 old gin stills, William Matherson purchased the farm and brewery and turned it into a distillery.

I had been invited to stay at the Glenmorangie House the night prior to my visit (theglenmorangiehouse.com), a spectacular boutique hotel the distillery owns. It seems  to be in the middle of nowhere. I certainly had a serious conversation with my sat until my eyes fell upon a reassuring sign. After another warm greeting I was shown to my room. It was for a queen with a four poster bed. Why I am always alone on these trips! it is simply beautiful. Having taken a shower in the wide-open spaces of the bathroom I headed downstairs for cocktails with my host, Ludo and the owners of whisky.de and their filmcrew. 

Dinner was wonderful, made more special by the wine, which featured Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay, an old favourite of mine. It was so nice to be out for dinner again with such good company, something I had missed due to covid. After dinner we retired to the lounge where after dinner drinks were served. I think I might have got a little carried away. I was offered some Ardbeg Traigh Bhan, 19, Batch 3. It’s a whisky I own myself. And, OK, I had a little more than was polite. But this is the drinks industry – you shouldn’t really apologise for drinking…

Approaching the distillery, I was shocked at how close I had been to it in June when I was on holiday, driving the North Coast 500. I wish I had popped in. It is a magnificent site. As you enter the estate you cannot help to be impressed by the red sandstone distillery to your your right. Even in a light rain it looked special with its distinctive, and inviting, red doors. 

It’s hard to come up with original thoughts about Glenmorangie and it’s whisky. It must be one of the most written about spirits in the world. It has the highest stills in Scotland at 8 meters. A giraffe’s neck is 5.1 meters – so you get the picture. This has led to the distillery’s commitment to giraffe conversation and a fund-raising campaign that includes distinctive giraffe brand packaging. The more time you spend at the distillery the more you understand how important the unique stills are

The water that Glenmorangie uses is hard and comes from the Tarlogie Springs. This is a  body of water that has crept slowly through layers of limestone and sandstone for hundreds of years. It has a definite mineral quality that is much cherished. In order to preserve this treasure, the distillery purchased the surrounding forest to ensure its survival. What impressed me most at the distillery was not only the commitment to sustainability and  giraffe conservation, but the investment in a totally new experimentation distillery called the Lighthouse. A 20m high glass cathedral, designed by famed architects Barthélémy Griño, will house two addition stills for Dr Bill Lumsden (the director of whisky creation) to experiment in. 

Although the stills are to the same basic design as the traditional ones, there are some key differences, most importantly perhaps, the hollow water-cooling jackets. These will allow the rate of reflux to be adjusted allowing control over whether the spirit is lighter or heavier. At the base of the imposing glass tower will contain a mill, allowing a variety of grains and cereals to be used. I can only imagine what Dr Bill might conjure up here. But as the Lighthouse will be closed to the public, I very doubt I will have an opportunity to find out. Until the whiskies are released of course!

At the top of the tower (there is a lift) a purpose-built Sensory Lab has been created. There are views over the Dornoch Firth, the most northerly large estuary in Britain. The Dornoch Firth is one of 40 National Scenic Areas in Scotland. If you’re lucky you might catch sight of a osprey in the breeding season or maybe you’d have more chance of spotting a Harbour seal perched upon a sandbanks. The seals here represent 2% of the UK population. 

Sustainability is important here and Biogas will be used to power a significant part of the Lighthouse and an anaerobic digestion (AD) plant has been built to process organic waste from the distillery. This will reduce its biological impact on the Dornoch Firth by 95%. As a  further indication of their seriousness about the environment, Glenmorangie is working with scientists at Heriot-Watt University on the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project project (DEEP). This project involves the reintroduction of native European oysters to the water. Over consumption put an end to the oysters over 100 years ago. They are incredible creatures as they not only provide a home for other creatures within all their nooks and crannies, but they can purify up to 240 litres of water a day. That is about the capacity of the Dowens Hotel bath – filtering through one oyster every day. 20,000 oysters have already been introduced with plans for 4 million more. That’s a lot of bath-fulls of purified water. Research has also suggested that oyster beds can act as a carbon sink adding another layer of sustainability. 

Dr Bill has been a visionary within the whisky industry for decades. I haven’t met him, but I can tell he’s my type of man. Someone who is not afraid of challenging the status quo, fighting for what he believes in. He’s prepared to push right up to the boundaries of the rules laid down by the Scotch Whisky Association. Glenmorangie Signet as a fine example. It’s a bit like a Formula 1 team – top performance by just keeping within the letter of the law. Of course, this playfulness only represents a small fraction of the whisky produced at Glenmorangie – the vast majority being more tradition core-range products. 

Dr Bill is also not afraid to voice his opinion, something else I admire. He has certainly mentioned his dislike for some of the 3-year-old whisky currently being released by new distilleries. These whiskies might cost three figures – the same as a solid 12-, 15- or even 18-year-old by an established distillery. I can’t help but agree with Dr Bill in relation to value-for-money.

But, I also understand that these distilleries have to release product in order to be financial viable. So they’re still here in 18 years’ time. With an English distillery I’d also argue that you have to factor in that the maturation will faster simply due to a warmer climate. He is also critical of those making brazen claims to be innovative, often by doing things he did himself 20 years ago. This is a fair point. Dr Bill is someone who travelled extensively, particularly to wine regions, to discover different possibilities for alternative cask maturation or finishes. 

It is this level of passion and eagerness to create that enthrals. To me, whisky and wine are about the exploration of flavour. I rarely buy the same bottle twice, as to my mind this defeats the object of my relationship with them. I am always chasing the next experience and hoping that it will blow me away. The thrill of the chase if you like. And long may Dr Bill conjure up these outstanding journeys in flavour. 


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