I began my foray into the world of Scotch whisky by starting at the top with single malts. My first bottle was an Oban 14 and for several years prior to that bottle I’d tasted my dad’s single malts from time to time. Over the last 10 years I’ve kept my Scotch indulgences firmly within the single malt realm. After all, life’s too short to drink cheap whisky. Right?
It didn’t take a psychologist for me to realize I harbored a certain prejudice toward “cheap” whisky, which in my mind meant blended whisky. It’s an unfair stance, especially given my history of near-total abstinence from blends. Sure, I’d had Johnnie Walker, Bell’s, Clan MacGregor, and even Famous Grouse, but those had been mere dabblings. Just recently blended red wines have been a staple in our house – they’re delicious. Wouldn’t blended whisky be similar? As I planned my most recent trip to Scotland I figured what better way to ground my hot air balloon of blended whisky ignorance than to visit the site of Scotland’s most consumed blended whisky: Glenturret distillery, home of the Famous Grouse. Plus, my dad seems to really like the Famous Grouse and he would be my companion.
Twenty miles west of Perth, just outside the small town of Crieff in a pretty wooded glen, hides the Glenturret distillery. It claims to be Scotland’s oldest distillery, setting its birthdate at 1775, but then calculating the age of distilleries is a notoriously difficult task as most set their birthdays to the year when distilling became legal. I don’t hear much about Glenturret single malt (though they do produce a range), and it seems most people know the distillery as The Famous Grouse Experience. This doesn’t mean that Famous Grouse blended whisky is composed of mostly Glenturret malt, though it does contain some, just that this is where The Edrington Group, the parent company of Glenturret, Famous Grouse, and other high-brow malts like Highland Park and Macallan, has chosen to situate the Famous Grouse brand. They call Glenturret distillery the “spiritual home” of Famous Grouse, just as Blair Athol distillery is the spiritual home of Bell’s and Cardhu distillery is the spiritual home of Johnnie Walker. It’s a smart way to turn a lesser-known distillery into a visitor attraction.
My dad and I arrived on a bright morning after a gorgeous drive southwest from Pitlochry down the old military road. A giant grouse sculpture bedecked with red lipstick marks stood several meters tall in the parking lot. It’s impossible to miss.
I had arranged a private tour several months prior to our visit, but wires were crossed somewhere along the line and we were placed on the standard tour. Off we went with a young woman as our guide. The tour was quick and to the point. Glenturret is quite a small distillery, currently only making 156,000 liters/year of spirit though they can produce more than twice that amount if needed. Glenturret gets its water from nearby Loch Turret and ferments their mash in six Douglas Fir washbacks before sending it through their one wash still and one spirit still. The size of the operation here reminds me of other small distilleries like Edradour and Benromach. On the way out of the distillery we stopped at a memorial to Towser the cat, who lived to be almost 24 years old and killed nearly 29,000 mice in her lifetime. Wow. I hope she trained her understudy.
After breezing through the nuts and bolts of the distillery, our guide dropped us off in what I assume was the actual Famous Grouse Experience. The interactive exhibit was a melange of videos and creative games presented on slick wall-sized, Famous Grouse-branded posters. One station involved smelling scents common in Scotch whisky and guessing what they were. It was just the kind of exercise I would love to do more of to help train my nose.
Once we’d all had a chance to browse among the exhibits, our guide returned and led us into a minibar where a trio of Famous Grouse half-drams awaited us. I started with the Snow Grouse, a bottle I’d never seen before and was immediately suspicious of because it’s meant to be served extremely cold. Cold temperatures close up the flavor and aroma compounds in whisky, and the only reason you’d want to do that is if the whisky is not good. I could pick out a watery maltiness as it went down like an iced shot of tequila. A large amount of North British’s neutral grain whisky introduced itself on the finish.
The Naked Grouse was my second choice. This expression of Famous Grouse contains more single malt whisky aged in Sherry butts, so one would expect a sweeter, richer taste. I did detect a sliver of Sherried goodness in the Naked Grouse but it was moderated by the unwelcome grain whisky flavor so common in blended whiskies. Finally, the Black Grouse contains a higher proportion of Islay single malts that impart a subtle smokiness. To be honest, I didn’t find any peaty whisky in this half dram. Too much Ardbeg Uigeadail perhaps?
The Famous Grouse tasting ended and another part of the tour began. We filed upstairs into a darkened theatre that reminded me of the Soarin’ ride at Disney World’s Epcot. The show aimed to convey the feeling of flying (like a grouse, I presume) among The Edrington Group’s important locales – places like Crieff, the River Spey, and Orkney – and mixed in ad spots for their beverages. I’m not quite sure what the point was other than to show off the technology, which, frankly, could use some updating, and hit the tour-goers with more branding. If you’re prone to motion sickness, beware.
The Famous Grouse Experience wrapped up in the gift shop where we were each poured a half dram of Glenturret 10 Year Old single malt. Less than 10% of Glenturret’s production goes to its single malt; the rest goes to blends like Famous Grouse. On the nose it was quite citrusy with cereal notes and bitter herbs. The palate didn’t live up to the promise of the nose. Oak and cut hay overpowered the moderate malty sweetness.
Others on our tour continued on to additional tastings, which I assume is part of the higher-end tours, but my dad and I spent a few minutes browsing around the massive gift shop reflecting on the tour. Had I come to a new appreciation of blended whisky?
In a word, no. But I did realize what I don’t like about most of them, and that’s the neutral grain whisky used to make the malt whisky go farther. It has a neck-seizing quality that reminds of me bad nights in college. The Famous Grouse Experience, however, hit a lot of different notes and makes a good visit for Famous Grouse fans and anyone looking to take their first flight into the world of Scotch whisky.
Disclosure: The Edrington Group provided my father and me with complimentary tours.