As I left Speyside’s whisky wonderland and made my way north to Easter Ross, the zeal for my whisky failed to waver in the slightest. My first stop? The home of one of the most well-known single malts: Glenmorangie Distillery. I was eager to check out this industry behemoth for many reasons, but mainly because it is such a ubiquitous and popular whisky and yet I had been unable to grow an appreciation for it. So it was with an earnest desire to get to know Glenmorangie (stress the MOR, rhymes with orangey) that I arrived to the town of Tain on an overcast May day.
Much of the work involved with visiting a distillery happens months before my arrival as I contact key people at the distilleries and set up my visit. I’m constantly refining this process to be more forthright and clear about my experience in the industry and what I’m seeking to learn, but there’s always a random element involved with a visit – I never quite know what’s in store for me. As my dad and I made our way across the distillery’s pretty grounds and into the visitor’s center, I found out that we would be part of the standard Glenmorangie tour, which would provide a high-level look at the distillery.
The story of Glenmorangie began back in 1843 when William Matheson acquired the Morangie Farm and converted its brewery into a distillery with the help of two second-hand gin stills. He also renamed it Glenmorangie – heck, why not? So many other whiskies at the time came with perfunctory “glens” prefixed to their names. In 1918, MacDonald and Muir, a Leith firm and the primary customer of Glenmorangie, purchased the distillery and held it for the next 90 years, weathering the ups and downs of the industry much like other distillers. Eventually, in 2004, the MacDonalds sold Glenmorangie to Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH), a French super corporation, who owns it (along with Ardbeg) today and has been steadily working to position Glenmorangie in the luxury sector.
I could smell the money dripping off the buildings, and it made me curious to know how the distillery looked before LVMH assumed ownership. The gorgeous visitor center is a work of art mixing informational exhibits about whisky and the Ross-shire area with mood lighting and the ever-present Pictish motif and symbology gleaned from local artifacts and monuments. As you’ll no doubt see in the photos here, this is a visually stunning distillery, and, I would hazard, the most aesthetically-pleasing distillery I’ve visited in Scotland (that’s 40 and counting).
The guide for our group of 20 or so multinationals was a woman with hair the color of steel wool and a grandmotherly demeanor who clearly knew her whisky. She led us into the mash house where we were greeted with an array of steel pieces of equipment, including a very large mash tun and 12 washbacks. Three hundred tons of unpeated malted barley make the journey through this equipment each week where it is mixed with hard water from the Tarlogie Springs. It’s interesting to ponder the differences between steel vs. copper mash tuns and steel vs. wood washbacks, but pondering is all you can do because each distillery has a difference point of view. My thoughts? It doesn’t matter much as the proto-spirit spends so little time in these vessels. Hard water though, now that’s an interesting difference I learned about at Glenglassaugh. Most distilleries pride themselves on their soft water.
It doesn’t take long before we’re ushered into the pride and joy of Glenmorangie: their stillhouse. It took my eyes a few seconds to adjust to the luminosity of this shrine. There is so much gleaming copper here I can’t help but wonder where they keep the army of stillshiners. The stills, the tallest in Scotland, are jaw-droppingly beautiful and the entire stillhouse is rivaled only by the glory that is Glenrothes. They say their height brings them a little nearer to heaven.
I didn’t want to leave the stillhouse. It was so warm and cozy and close to my image of heaven that I would’ve been happy to just sit in the corner for a few days. Alas, the tour rolled on and we stepped into the chill Scottish weather on our way to the warehouses. The squat dunnage buildings huddled together in all their red-door-black-mold glory. We followed our guide into one of the warehouses that had been partially dedicated to a wood policy exhibit.
And Glenmorangie has an interesting wood policy, one I’d not encountered anywhere else. They only use casks twice. While this practice may be true at other distilleries, I’ve yet to hear anyone call attention to it, maybe because it’s more similar to the Bourbon industry than the Scotch industry. Most of the casks at Glenmorangie come from Jack Daniels in Tennessee or Heaven Hill in northern Kentucky, and, in case you haven’t heard, most of the flavor of whisky comes from the wood (anywhere from 60-80% depending on who you ask). I browsed up and down the rows of casks as our guide mentioned that their spirit enters the cask at 63.5% ABV and comes out ten years later at 57% ABV. That’s a lot of missing alcohol hovering over the 150,000 casks lying here.
These days, none of Glenmorangie’s whisky, affectionately known as “Glenmo” around these parts, goes toward blends. All they produce is single malt, which we were about to taste as our guide led us to the end of the tour. In the luxurious tasting room, each of us got to choose a dram from three on offer. I went with the Lasanta, Glenmorangie’s 12yo whisky that’s spent some time in Sherry butts. Brief aside: All of Glenmorangie’s whisky spends its first ten years in ex-Bourbon casks, and this is bottled as the Glenmorangie Original. Their other expressions then spend an additional two or more years in a different type of barrel (e.g., Sherry, Port, Sauternes, etc.).
I’m familiar with Glenmorangie Original, and while it’s a pleasant, drinkable whisky, I find that its thinness of body and mild flavor simply doesn’t grab me. The Lasanta has a delicious, classic Sherried nose, but it loses this potency on the palate and I’m left wishing the dram had more Sherry punch.
The rest of the tour filtered away but I stuck around hoping to chat with a brand representative or distillery manager. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen though I managed to secure a taste of the Sonnalta, which is another Sherry expression this time using Pedro Ximenez casks (rather than Oloroso), in the hope I might find that Sherried Glenmorangie I could call my own. I found a bit more life here with chocolate, almonds, and a spicy gingery note, but I don’t think it will pry me away from Aberlour or Balvenie anytime soon.
I really wish I could’ve tasted a broader range of their expressions. I have a feeling that their Bourbon-centric whiskies might be more in the distillery’s wheelhouse. All in all, Glenmorangie is well worth a visit for the sheer beauty of the place, even if the whisky isn’t your style.
Disclosure: Glenmorangie provided my dad and me with complimentary tours. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own.