Following our recent visit to the sometimes overlooked Glen Moray distillery, we take a look at the latest developments, where its come from, and where it’s headed. And wish the entire team a very happy birthday!
“1897: William McKinley became the 25th US president. Horror classic Dracula by Bram Stoker was published. The UK got its first-ever official bus service. And the Glen Moray distillery fired up its stills for the very first time.”
The above provided the opening to our feature five years ago, after we visited the Glen Moray distillery on its 120th birthday. The following year, the distillery’s parent company La Martiniquaise-Bardinet completed the purchase of Cutty Sark blended Scotch, while distillery manager Graham Coull – who we spoke to back then – has since moved on to Dingle in Ireland after 14 years in Elgin.
Now this underrated Speysider has hit a new milestone: 125 years since the first spirit flowed! A century and a quarter old, we find Glen Moray single malt in very safe hands, continuing its trailblazing mission, and with its eyes set on the future.
New faces and old friends
After Glen Moray’s fifth distillery manager Graham Coull moved on in 2019, Dr Kirstie McCallum was appointed head of whisky creation at Glen Turner Company to assume some of his responsibilities. (Glen Turner encompasses La Martiniquaise’s Scotch whisky portfolio of Glen Moray single malt, plus Label 5, Sir Edward’s, and now Cutty Sark blends.) This was an exciting new role created shortly before the pandemic hit, but one Kirstie would move on from in early 2021, to be replaced by fellow Distell alumnus Stephen Woodcock.
We’re big fans of Stephen here at MoM Towers. Having worked at various Diageo distilleries, he became facilities manager and then master distiller across Distell’s single malt trio of Bunnahabhain, Deanston, and Tobermory. During that time we awarded him MoM’s Fèis Ìle 2018 Award for best distillery tour of the festival, and possibly that Team MoM has ever experienced! (I was there – it was truly excellent – right up there, in fact, with a tour I went on a couple of months later during Dramboree… at Deanston… conducted by one Stephen Woodcock!)
According to Stephen, being head of whisky creation is fundamentally about having “the right liquid in the right wood at the right time”. It’s about forward planning, as well as being creative with the vast inventory available and continuing to build on the “legacy of maturing and marrying different casks, to craft great-tasting whiskies”. With 120,000 casks on site and many different wood options (more on that below!), he’s a busy man. He’s also one who seems very at home at Glen Moray, and we’re delighted for both him and fans of the distillery.
Speaking of awesome folk who are at home at Glen Moray, we were also joined on our recent visit by global brand ambassador Iain Allan and assistant visitor centre manager Emma Ware. If you’ve visited the distillery you’ve likely met this dream team with over 30 years at Glen Moray between them! If you haven’t visited, it’s certainly one to add to your travel plans – especially when it’s within walking distance of Elgin town centre. One more ‘new’ face, who we didn’t meet this time around, is Glen Moray’s new distillery manager Ross Murphy. He’s managed the Glen Turner grain distillery in Bathgate (sometimes known as Starlaw) since 2018 and will now focus on production at both sites.
Expansion & Growth
The last decade has seen multiple phases of expansion at Glen Moray, starting with the addition of a third wash and spirit still back in 2012, before three new large wash stills were installed in 2016. That second expansion facilitated using all six of the older stills in the original stillhouse as spirit stills (i.e. for the second distillation), and is why only half of them have viewing windows/sight glasses. It’s a feature usually only found on wash stills, as the first distillation is far more at risk of boiling over. Naturally, more washbacks were also required – eventually 14 stainless steel ones placed outdoors – to feed the greatly increasing distilling capacity, and a new full lauter mash tun was also fitted.
Glen Moray was fortunate that the room for much of this work was already available within the footprint of the original 1820s buildings – once home to Elgin West Brewery before distilling took place on the site – and the old Saladin maltings that were closed in 1978. But there’s more to come as Stephan and Iain spoke of a “fourth” expansion phase. This will involve bringing the old semi-lauter mash tun, which is still in situ, back online perhaps by the end of 2023.
The old indoor washbacks are also still there, repurposed to hold hot waters or receive low wines, but they could also be brought back online. The above has seen the distillery’s capacity grow from 2 million litres, to 3.3 million, to 6 million, and it’s on its way towards a potential 9 million. For the avoidance of doubt, that’s loads! It would comfortably place Glen Moray in the top ten biggest single malt producing distilleries in Scotland, and La Martiniquaise into one of the top producing companies, despite only owning one single malt distillery!
You may be wondering where all this ambition stems from? Well, Glen Moray’s overall single malt sales are around 400% of what they were back in 2008, breaking into the top 10 for UK sales during that time and rapidly growing internationally. So it’s certainly not for nothing, although it’s perhaps still unfairly overlooked. To better understand this, we need to take a step back and wrap our heads around Glen Moray’s history and trajectory…
Those with longer memories may be able to cast their minds back to the 1990s (I was unfortunately too busy being a kid at school and listening to all of the Britpop to recall whisky industry developments first hand). It was a time when finishing was a somewhat newfangled idea, and finishing in wine casks was even more unusual. For example, Balvenie Doublewood (bourbon and sherry) was only introduced in 1993, while Glenmorangie released Port, red wine, and Madeira finishes between ’94 and ’96 (partly coinciding with Bill Lumsden becoming distillery manager). Back then, Glenmorangie PLC also owned Glen Moray, which is seemingly how the sibling distillery got in on wine finishing too. At Glen Moray, however, it was the use of white wine casks that was distinctively pioneered, leading to Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc finished releases in 1999.
Glen Moray’s positioning today as “Cask Explorers” is undoubtedly a legacy they can legitimately lay claim to, and they would continue to experiment, but it’s fair to say LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton)’s purchase of Glenmorangie PLC in 2004 did significantly more for Ardbeg and Glenmorangie than it did for Glen Moray. In fact, the plucky hero of this tale is said to have been sold as a loss leader even back in the Glenmorangie days, which did damage to its long-term reputation. Glen Moray needed an owner who knew what it was they had, valued it, and had the motivation to truly champion it. Step forward La Martiniquaise-Bardinet in 2008. As the second biggest drinks company in France, with a very long history in blended whiskies, Glen Moray became – and remains – their first and only single malt distillery.
Drawing the ire of the SWA
And so the work began to raise the profile of a distillery that has so much to offer, with its classically fruity but also robust spirit that plays so nicely with American oak, white wine, and so much more besides. It was under its new ownership that Glen Moray released its first fully Chardonnay matured whisky in 2011, as well as later accidentally causing controversy with Glen Moray Cider Cask Project. In a world of IPA beer and Somerset Pomona (cider brandy and apple juice) cask finished whiskies – and that’s just looking at fellow Speysider Glenfiddich – a cider cask may not seem all that crazy these days. Back in 2018, however, it fell foul of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA)’s definition of “casks that [have] been traditionally used in the industry”. And it still does.
Fortunately, Port (another speciality of the distillery over the years) and rum casks are of course allowed, and La Martiniquaise happens to also own “the best-selling Port brand worldwide”, Porto Cruz, and some rather interesting rhum agricole from… You guessed it: Martinique! Indeed another development since our 2010 visit is that rhum agricole finished Glen Moray isn’t just a fun thing to try in the warehouse, but something you can get your mitts on a bottle of!
During our latest visit you only had to stick your head into Warehouse 1 to clock pretty much every cask mentioned throughout this post as well as virgin oak, Cognac, Fino (a legacy of Kirstie McCallum’s time), Madeira, Calvados, Burgundy, Bordeaux, Rioja, Shiraz… plus peated spirit in Oloroso and red wine casks. Oh yes, peated Glen Moray is a thing too – and their Peated Elgin Classic is a fantastically affordable peaty (but also buttery) single malt option well under £30. They even have spirit in a maple syrup cask! Don’t panic on their behalf just yet though. They won’t be trying to get that last one past the SWA as a single malt release!
Despite all this it’s-like-being-in-a-sweetie-shop fun, the vast majority of Glen Moray is still filled into American oak ex-bourbon casks. As mentioned, it shines here too, and the dram of exclusively American oak matured Glen Moray 12 Year Old I enjoyed by Covesea Lighthouse was a whisky moment that will stay with me. Obviously, we can’t always have a slice of gorgeous Scottish coastline available every time we fancy a whisky, but this flagship release again offers great value. It also marks the entry point to Glen Moray’s age statement Elgin Heritage range, completed by a partly sherried 15 Year Old, a first-fill American oak 18 Year Old and a Portwood Finish 21 Year Old.
All of these Elgin Heritage releases are among the most competitively priced single malts at their respective ages. Their core range is, of course, completed by the various no age statement (NAS) Elgin Classic expressions. These include the regular American oak Elgin Classic – still one of the cheapest distillery releases on the market – as well as the variants: the Peated, plus Sherry, Port and Cabernet finishes. (There’s also a harder to find Depaz Rum Cask Finish that was released in France.) As alluded to above, however, this keenness of price the distillery is somewhat infamous for can affect perception negatively. It is, as Stephen Woodcock commented, something of a “double-edged sword”, but “no corners are cut”, and perhaps the question should be framed “why are others so expensive?” Now, it may be that a couple of non-cynical answers to that have just sprung to your mind, but perhaps don’t tell Glen Moray. As I saw it put by Garry (aka The Kilted Drammer) off of Malt Review recently, Glen Moray is the epitome of a distillery that produces “a lot of very good whiskey and make(s) it widely available at a price working people can afford”. That’s something to be respected. Even so, us whisky geeks are likely to want a bit more than this core (with everything up to and including the 15 Year Old bottled at 40%) has to offer, which leads us neatly on to…
New and special releases
The rest of the range, and what’s coming up next, may possibly be more likely to pique your interest. The aforementioned rhum agricole release was part of what Glen Moray dubbed their ‘Curiosity’ collection (as was the since verboten Cider Project), which has now been replaced by the ‘Warehouse 1’ series. It’s a name change that puts less pressure on them being quite so quirky and narrow, while evoking the dunnage warehouse in the heart of the distillery where most of their more eclectic casks dwell. Their more specialist whiskies will now be released in this series, answering calls for higher bottling strengths from those already converted to Glen Moray’s virtues. So far this includes vintage Manzanilla, Sauternes, Barolo and Tokaji finishes in the high 50s% ABV.
So what’s next from Warehouse 1? We were lucky enough to have a sneak peek with Iain and Stephen, and can report that Amontillado and Amarone finishes are on the horizon. The Amontillado is set to be 9 years old at 57.5%, with plenty of sherry funk and Jelly Tots, creamy Glen Moray character, and herbal tobacco notes. The Amarone – partly inspired by Arran’s long running Amarone Finish that you may be familiar with – is a warming 12-year-old with notes of celery salt, soured cream (a common red wine note, I find), truffle, Big Red cinnamon, clove, and a fruitiness that builds on the palate. Both have had two year finishing periods.
The third whisky we tasted presented as a venerable, crowd-pleasing, leathery, fully Oloroso-matured treat, but an age was hard to peg. We were surprised to learn it was part of a parcel of stock that had indeed spent its entire maturation in Oloroso casks, but that was only 8 years old. It’s being earmarked for the already partly sherry-matured 15 Year Old, and Stephen will be keeping a close eye on these casks. All going well, we could be seeing a much greater Oloroso influence in the 15 Year Old, and – just maybe – even a move to something fully sherry matured as the decade progresses… You heard it first here. The tasting took place at Glen Moray House, situated near the entrance of the distillery and previously the home of the distillery manager. It’s where you too could book on to a private tasting when you visit the distillery, and could enjoy the same dram we ended on: a 2006 vintage Glen Moray House exclusive 53.9% Madeira cask chock-full of toffee apple goodness.
In the immortal words of Brian Butterfield, however, “that’s not all.”
Our final evening in Speyside was capped by a dram of something rather spectacular up on the rooftop of Rothes Glen whisky castle. A 1988 Glen Moray drawn from a Port pipe, where it’s spent the last 7 years or so. This isn’t just to make you all jealous though. This 33 year old whisky is set to be released, and demonstrates the distillery’s ambition to do more at the top end of their range. The oldest casks sat in their warehouses date from 1978, with some more from 1981 also available, but this 1988 Port ‘finish’ stood out, and we can confirm it’s a super honeyed, apricot compote and brioche gem.
What have we learned?
Glen Moray celebrates its 125th anniversary in great shape, with a fantastic team in place. They’re set to enter yet more markets, but also offer more for their fans at different strengths and price points, all while still offering some great value and continuing to experiment. If Glen Moray is a distillery you’ve been sleeping on, it may be time to rethink that, and if you can visit in person they also always offer an excellent distillery exclusive hand fill (during our visit a 125th anniversary special 2008 PX finish, but always something interesting).
You may never have taken a close look at the Glen Moray’s “emblematic” crest that’s featured on their bottles since the 1980s, but it provided the structure of our trip and part of the takeaway. The barley is of course the core raw material for all malt whiskies, but we actually also took a trip out to Crisp’s Port Gordon maltings. (An all too rare opportunity to see a key part of whisky production, and a visit that warrants an entire post of its own.) The beehive represents Glen Moray’s honeyed style, certainly exemplified in that final dram but also present in the DNA of the full range. To this you could add pear and fruit salad notes, elegant butteriness, and grassy barley, all becoming more resinous with age. The cask represents their legacy and expertise with all that ‘cask exploring’ and marrying. Finally, the ship denotes Elgin’s history – but also the distillery’s accelerating present and future – of sharing the fruits of their labours for people to enjoy around the globe.
Happy Birthday Glen Moray!