We are all fine law-abiding citizens. Are we not? Of course we are. But let’s not kid ourselves – one of the attractions of the whisky business is that it has its roots in activities which once were just shy of the squeaky clean. Quite a bit shy to be honest. Robert Burns, who fantasised about the devil making off with the customs man, knew all about this, being employed as an exciseman himself. But whether it’s Appalachian moonshiners, or Highland caterans building a pinewood fire for their still, so much of the magic of this industry comes from the renegade stories about its past. Kirstin MacDonald, Brand Ambassador for Glenfarclas, one of the most iconic and romantic of the Speyside distilleries. She has a story that had been passed on to her about the origins of the process we all know and love. A story that is so good that it must be true.
‘In the old days the illicit distillers noted that the wealthy landowners of the district were importing port and sherry. Once they’d enjoyed the contents, they threw the casks on the eighteenth-century equivalent of a skip. What a waste. The locals, early recyclers, realised the casks made a perfect receptacle for carrying their newly distilled, white spirit down from the hills to the townships.
‘It being an illegal activity there was inevitably the odd interruption to the distribution channels. Sometimes it made sense to lie low and have your spirts lie even lower by burying them in a peat bog in the hills. If things went badly, then those casks might be buried there for years. ‘But then – what a revelation! When the spirit was sampled after a few years in a sherry cask the spirit has been transformed. A miracle! ‘This, then, is how the beverage we know and love was discovered.’ I defy you to come up with a better origin story than that.
The brand has been around, legally, since 1836. And even more remarkably it’s been owned by the Grant family since 1865. ‘It’s not many brands who can say they have a heritage going back 186 years, or been in the same family for 157 years.’
There’s nothing in the Glenfarclas warehouse that dates back to the 19th century, of course. But maybe the next best thing is the sherry hogshead which was filled in 1953. The spirit is still there, waiting quietly, communing with the cask and the Speyside air, until the moment it finds itself in a bottle. Or bottles, hopefully. ‘We think there’s about fifty percent in there, so there should still be quite a few bottles,’ says Kirstin.
It is a select club who will discover what a 70-plus year old Glenfarclas tastes like. For the rest of us, there is the consolation of one of the most iconic ranges of whisky in Speyside.‘Our core collection is our 10-, 12-, 15- and 25-year-old whiskies.’ Kirstin’s personal favourite? ‘I’d say the 105 Cask Strength. It’s full of toffee flavours, and despite being a cask whisky it’s so smooth it’s very easy to drink.’
Kirstin lives just up the road from Ballindaloch in Aberlour, and so has one of the best commuter routes in the world. I realise that’s a big claim, but defy you to come up with a more scenic place to be at 8-15 on a weekday morning.‘Since starting work here, I’ve come to appreciate the area much more. I’m a native, and we always take where we live for granted. But I now see it through the eyes of visitors, and going to see other distilleries I now fully realise why people come here from all over the world.’
What are the hidden gems? ‘Go to the Linn Falls if you want to understand the whiskies of this area. Look at the colour of the water – the clear, rich, peaty river. That’s’ where the uniqueness of the area’s whiskies comes from. Our water starts on the slopes of Ben Rinnes. Glenfarclas is the English version of the Gaelic gleann an fheòir uaine – the valley of the green grass. That tells you all about the unspoiled environment we have here.’
Kirstin’s spends most of the days guiding visitors around the distillery – but it’s never a case of putting her story on repeat.
‘It is a fabulous job. The more knowledgeable and more interested the visitors are, the better it is. I see it as a conversation not a mobile lecture. There isn’t a day when I don’t learn something new from the people I’m showing round.’Kirstin’s prepared to go above and beyond for her historical research too.
‘I’ve visited the remains of an original still. It was away up in the Cabrach – an area in the northern edge of the Cairngorms. It’s a fairly lonely stretch of countryside now. But once upon a time it had a rich distilling history. I had to wade through heather up to my chin. No exaggeration! But finally, halfway down a cliff face, I found three walls of a shelter where the old distillers practiced their craft. A bit of a burn trickling past – that was all they needed to get the still under way.’
Well, Kirstin tells the tale better than I can. To get the story straight from the source you’ll just have to visit the distillery. She has lots of great stories – ask her about the coffin trick, no better place to stash your spirit.