Earlier this year The Glenrothes Distillery put on a competition to become a whisky-maker for one week in May. It was to coincide with my trip plans, and I eagerly filled out the form with an ode to my love of whisky. The timing was fortuitous, and the fact that I heard about the competition in time to enter indicated stars were aligning for me.
I did not win this competition. Alas.
What’s worse is that The Glenrothes distillery isn’t open to the public. In the aftermath of my typically subdued internal raging, I contacted Ross Hendry, a Glenrothes brand representative who I’d met at a tasting in Madison last year, to see if I could finagle a visit to the distillery. He’d promised to help organize one if I was ever in that neck of the woods, but you never know if such easily spoken promises will stand the test of time.
Ross was good for his word and within a matter of hours I was in touch with Ronnie Cox, Global Brands Heritage Director for The Glenrothes. We traded e-mails, updated our calendars, and all that was left was the passing of time. Excited? Me? Yes, absolutely. I could tell you a story about how The Glenrothes played a role in an integral moment of my life, but I’m starting to see that pretty much every whisky has played such a role so I’ll spare you.
The Glenrothes has been making whisky in Speyside since 1879, but its prominence has really grown in the last 20 years. If you’ve been reading my whisky posts, you know that Speyside is a crowded field. This place is different. Rather than releasing typical age statement whisky expressions (e.g., 10 year, 12 year, 20 year, etc.), The Glenrothes releases vintages such as 1991 and 1994, much like wine. In their own words, it’s about maturity not age. This method of releasing their whisky is likely born from current owners Berry Brothers & Rudd, who have a background in the wine industry, but it also allows the distillery to release whisky when they feel it’s ready rather than having to wait for traditional “ages.”
I didn’t take me long to find the distillery in the small town of Rothes – I’d already criss-crossed the region several times by that point. Arriving under a steel gray sky, I parked my car behind a giant caravan along the road. Next to the main building, an incongruously situated graveyard lay, its headstones blackened by ethanol-eating fungus so common around distilleries.
Eric Jefferson greeted me and casually mentioned I’d be tagging along on a tour of the distillery with the winners of the whisky-maker competition while Ronnie was busy. Not a small part of me felt ludicrous joy at becoming a kind of pseudo-winner. The winners were a diverse bunch: a whisky-lover from Ohio, a man from Taiwan and his translator, a food blogger from London, an older gent from there in Moray, and a photographer from London charged with creating the social media experience.
I tend to key in on the unique aspects of distilleries after so many visits, like, for example, the fact that The Glenrothes’ distillation time is 16 hours – a length that’s firmly on the long side. All distilled spirit passes through the spirit safe where the stillman measures the liquid’s specific gravity and alcohol content. There he divides the batch of spirit into three parts: the head, the heart, and the tail. The whisky that will be casked is made only from the heart, and The Glenrothes takes one of the smallest “cuts” of the heart of any distillery I’ve visited – a minimal 17%.
Moving into the stillhouse, I literally staggered at the sight. This, the so-called “Cathedral of Speyside,” was truly a place of worship. Ten massive copper stills, five on a side, flanked a central “bridge” where the stillman monitored the distillation and periodically looked out the windows at the gorgeous countryside. Warm yellow light poured from the lofty arched ceiling and every surface gleamed. The steam boilers beneath the stills made it very warm and close, but I spent a good half hour wandering and gaping.
After exiting the Cathedral I noticed a man filming us with a small Flip camera. He turned out to be none other than Ronnie Cox, and he and I parted ways with Eric and the winners. They were going to do some manual labor and I was going to the Inner Sanctum. Yes please.
The Inner Sanctum was a magnificent room studded with glimmering bottles and dram glasses. Every distillery seems to have a place like this, but the Inner Sanctum at The Glenrothes is surely one of the classiest. Ronnie is the perfect person to represent The Glenrothes. His sharp wit, dry sense of humor, and obvious passion for his work mingled with his air of landed gentry as he spoke of whisky like a mentor. If The Glenrothes was church then Ronnie was the Pope.
We chatted about The Glenrothes’ flavor profile of orange, vanilla, dried fruits, and spices, and I especially liked how he spoke of whisky in terms of mood. Just like how we put on soothing music to relax after a day at work, so would we pour a relaxing dram. Something subtle and light on the palate not spicy and brawny. Every whisky has a proper mood; it becomes an enjoyable search to find the matches. Ronnie’s tutored tastings tend to center on this idea of mood whisky. Unfortunately for me, due to the presence of the competition winners, Ronnie’s time was limited and I wouldn’t have time for such a tasting.
On his way to catch up with the winners, Ronnie handed me a miniature bottle of The Glenrothes 1998. It’s their latest vintage and apparently very, very good. I believed him because, while I’m not a religious guy, I had something of a spiritual awakening here.