We got a sneak peek at a relatively unknown but essential distillery during the Spirit of Speyside Festival this year to see how Mannochmore makes its fabulous fruity whisky.
Mannochmore Distillery isn’t on the list for most whisky tourists when they visit Speyside. It isn’t the kind of picturesque tartan and tweed Scotch distillery you see on postcards, and it’s not a particularly well-known name outside of whisky nerds because its single malt releases are few and far between. It doesn’t even run regular tours, so your only chance to see it would be to do what I did and get a ticket during the Spirit of Speyside Festival (the festival is brilliant for letting you have a peek behind many a distillery curtain). On my tour, the notion of Mannochmore being functional, not pretty, was referenced a lot.
This is a whisky factory, built by Distillers Company Limited (a precursor to Diageo) during a boom period for the industry in 1971 next door to the Victorian Glenlossie Distillery in Elgin, with associate company John Haig & Co running it to make whisky for its blends. That was Mannachmore’s destiny and little has changed. It’s chugged along merrily outside the spotlight, aside from a closure between 1985 and 1989, as well as a brief one in 1995, before a decision was made by Diageo to run it on an alternating basis with its sister Glenlossie, twelve months at a time each. Obviously, my tour took place during the year of Mannochmore, so we’ll have to save Glenlossie for another time (lovely whisky though).
There will be some old-school Scotch fans who will remember when Mannochmore was chosen as the whisky for Loch Dhu (‘Black Loch’ in Scottish Gaelic) in the mid-nineties. The single malt whisky had an unusual look and taste thanks to heavily charred casks and an amount of caramel colouring that means it could have been bottled by Cadbury’s. It’s hard to get now and retains a cult status, but it’s a shame that’s how some people define Mannochmore. You could see it as a brutal grey workhorse of a distillery that needed copious caramel to cover it in Loch Dhu or other whiskies to bulk it out in big blends, but that is not the case. Its spirit has real character: bright, light, and alive with beautiful juicy fruit.
Creating it begins with water from Bardon Burn (same as Glenlossie, literally a next-door neighbour so the two share a lot), and unpeated malt bought from Castle Head Maltings in the town of Elgin. This is well-regarded barley, handpicked from a selection of Speyside farms. A big 12-tonne cast iron lauter mash tun with a copper dome does its thing converting the starches in the crushed barley into sugars for fermentation, which lasts for 100 hours. There’s a choice of the eight original 54,000-litre larch washbacks or eight stainless steel ones added in 2013, which the first 90 hours of fermentation takes place in. There’s a further ten in a wash charger, which allows for vessels to be clean and cooled to allow for quick turnaround.
The expansion in 2013 also brought with it two new stills to up production capacity to 4.5m litres per annum. Despite the difference in material, Mannochmore is confident there hasn’t been a marked change in character. A core part of that profile is a clear wort, which is aided by a sight glass to monitor it, a very fine mesh that allows few solids to go through, and a turbidity meter that measures clarity and will restart the process if the wort is too cloudy. Despite being a large producer, a lot of manual work is done here, with every sample taken by hand to control the process.
The distillation is all about high copper contact. Originally there were three 14,400-litre wash stills and three 17,000-litre spirit stills before the two additions in 2013, all heated indirectly by steam. Reflux, the process of condensing vapour back into liquid, is encouraged in the tall conical necks to help boost the lighter, fruiter elements, while long lyne arms and shell and tube condensers ensure maximum copper contact. They have cooling towers operated with a closed loop system that saves water.
The house style
Sustainability is a focus here, and I shouldn’t be surprised how much talk of it featured on the tour as one of the signature features of this site when Mannochmore was built was a dark grains plant. A pipe feeds the pot ale directly to it to convert waste into animal feed and biomass. There’s also tanks on site that collect wastewater, which is then funneled underground via Linkwood Distillery, where it is processed and fed back into the sea. Other distilleries outside of Diageo’s ownership have also made use of this system and feed into it as well, including Longmorn.
On-site there are also a number of maturation warehouses, dunnage and racked, which host spirit destined for blends and single malt alike. In fact, the warehouse facilities boast enough space for 200,000 casks, including Glenlossie whisky, and even some other Diageo whiskies due to the enormous capacity. They are no less dreary than anything else here, but Mannochmore has its own beauty. This is a proper working distillery, one that thrives with every hum of its machines, perfumed by the heady aromas from its washbacks and maturation warehouses. The likes of Johnnie Walker benefit from this industry, and Scotch would look, and taste, very different without the likes of Mannochmore.
Still, it’s a shame how few will be acquainted with it. As the rest of the world readily erects whisky distilleries, what no other region can compete with remains the sheer variety of Scotch. There are 138 distilleries, each with an individual character. Getting to know them, however, isn’t always simple. A lot of Scotch whisky is made to feed the mass blend market, which is still a very worthy fate for a lot of this spirit because blends are great and each new profile makes the overall product stronger. But for those of us who want to see what each individual component is bringing to the table, independent bottlers such as Douglas Laing, James Eadie, Càrn Mòr, and ranges like Flora and Fauna are invaluable, providing a much-needed platform to those lesser-known, but still vital producers.
When you taste the single malt these distilleries make, you get to form attachments that feel personal. Mannochmore is one of those for me, thanks to its whisky being one of the most floral, fruity, and effervescent I’ve tried. The clear wort, long fermentation, and tall stills ensuring maximum copper contact result in a whisky filled with flavours of lemon and orange boiled sweets, apples, and blackcurrants, as well as a creamy nuttiness that benefits from the viscous texture of the spirit. I love when I get a chance to sample it, and I recommend you find your own beloved hidden gem.