The Glasgow Distillery was established in 2012 by Liam Hughes and Mike Hayward. They had known each other “too many years”, according to Hayward, working together most of that time across sales, marketing, and operations in spirits and beer. But they wanted to do something that was their own and bring premium spirits and distillation back to the city Hughes called home.
The original Glasgow Distillery, established in 1770, was one of the biggest in Scotland and the city was once a hub of whisky making, but like a lot of urban centres of distillation like Dublin, this fell by the wayside and by 1902 the old Glasgow Distillery closed. The next distillery to open, make and release whisky in the city is the Glasgow Distillery I visited*.
Today it’s still independently owned, with 17 people working there including six distillers and a full-time cooper, a small but busy team who have together created a brand that has been making its mark for over a decade now. As new whisky arrives in the form of a Cognac cask-finished single malt, a peated Tokaji finish, and two new cask strength expressions, a peated cask strength and cask strength edition of The Original, we thought it was high time we took a deeper look at Glasgow’s finest.
Making whisky at The Glasgow Distillery
My tour could have been brief because the distillery itself is a very humble, industrious, self-contained unit. But The Glasgow Distillery doesn’t do things simply. Whisky production is split into three distinct periods across the year:
1 – Double distilled using unpeated malted barley
2 – Double distilled using peated malted barley
3 – Triple distilled using unpeated malted barley
“By creating three different styles of new make spirit, we create three very different flavour profiles. These profiles are the foundation upon which we release our range of single malt whiskies; giving us a wide spectrum of flavours to choose from for our whisky portfolio each year,” says Sebastian Bunford-Jones, global marketing manager.
The barley is sourced from UK suppliers and includes Aberdeenshire peated malt (to 50ppm) which is light and floral in style. The grain is then pushed through a two-roller mill and the freshly milled grist is analysed through a sieve at the top of the mill. Then, one tonne at a time, it’s run through to the stainless steel semi-lauter tun mash tun. To ensure as much sugar is extracted from the grist as possible, 9,000-litres of water is added at three different stages at increasing temperatures: 70 degrees, 80 degrees and then 85 degrees Celsius.
The mash tun features internal rotating rakes and a false floor bed. After the first run of water, the rakes inside the mash tun halt to allow the grain bed to set, acting as a filter for the water coming through. The resulting sugary water, the wort, is collected from the first and second water and moved into a fermentation tank for the next stage of the process. The third and final water is separated into a hot water tank and used as the first water of the next run, recycling the water and residual sugars to ensure as little waste as possible.
Fermentation and distillation at The Glasgow Distillery
As three very different styles of spirit are made here, the seven washbacks are stainless steel to ensure a deep clean is possible between each style. You don’t want the unpeated spirit tainted by the smokey phenol notes from the peated malt. The washbacks are filled with 5000 litres of wort which has been cooled to around 30 degrees. Different yeast strains are added depending on what’s being made, for the double-distilled spirits a dried distillers’ yeast from Pinnacle is used. It also supplies MG+ yeast to accentuate more fruity, delicate notes in the triple distilled. The Glasgow Distillery runs 14 mashes a week (two a day, quick maths) and they run for a long time, a minimum of 72 hours, to pack in as much flavour before distillation.
At the end of the fermentation the wash, which sits around 8% ABV, is split equally between two 2500-litre wash stills that were installed in January 2015 (the first run was in March of that year), with two identical replicas following in 2019 as part of expanding the production capacity. The wash stills are named Tara and Francis, while the spirit stills are Mhairi and Margaret. Tara and Mhairi are named after the founder’s daughters, while Margaret and Francis are named in honour of influential Glaswegian artists sisters Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh and Francis Macdonald. The wash is distilled slowly over six hours to create the low wines, a 20-25% ABV spirit that then goes through a second distillation over five hours in the spirit stills.
The wash stills have steam coils as their heat source and a moderate decline in the lyne arm angle which is attached to shell and tube condensers, while the spirit stills are similar, but are smaller at 1,500 litres. The size and shape were chosen to accentuate the fruity nature of the spirit. You might be wondering how triple-distilled whisky is made without an intermediate still, as is common in Irish whiskey. The spirit is run once through the wash still and then twice through the spirit still, and then a second time with the low wines from the previous distillation.
The hearts are cut at 81% ABV to 75% ABV to capture a smooth, sweet spirit, while the unpeated double distilled runs from 72% ABV to 63% ABV to create an intensely fruity heart and the double-distilled peated spirit runs from 72% ABV and is then cut at 57% ABV to make a heavier and waxier robust smoky hearts. The stills are run at a very slow pace; the heart capture for the triple distilled is about three hours and then two hours for both double distilled spirits. It could be run higher for greater yields but this method ensures increased copper contact to remove impurities and sulphates and leave Glasgow with a sweet and fruity new make. Which is really important when you’re bottling at a young age.
The heads and the tails of each run are added to the next distillation of low wines in a continuous circle of recycling, but the hearts are combined in a spirit tank, where roughly one week’s production is contained at any one time. The alcohol percentage of the new make spirit is down to 63.5% ABV which is the strength the casks are filled at. There’s also Annie, a still where all white spirits are made. Both the gin and vodka are made with fresh botanicals, while a pot and an optional helmet can be used for some of the lighter botanicals, as well as six plates that can be turned off and on for flexibility. The brand also has small practice stills for experiments.
The Glasgow Distillery cask programme
The casks are stored in a number of third-party sites in Glasgow, such as Russell’s, one of the biggest bonding sites in Europe, but the unit next door to the distillery is being converted into a warehouse currently. It will be split half-and-half between racked and palletised, and with so many varieties of spirits and casks maturing at any one time, greater control and monitoring is essential. An on-site cooper handles repairs and manages the casks, a rare luxury in this trade these days, particularly when it’s someone as experienced as Shug McMurray, formerly at Diageo. He started freelance initially but after a couple of years ended up coming on full-time.
Fans of the Glasgow Distillery will know that the new releases are not out of the ordinary – these folks enjoy a good cask finish. The majority of the unpeated spirit, both double and triple distilled, is filled into bourbon casks and most of the peated spirit goes into virgin American white oak barrels from Kelvin Cooperage, originally a Glaswegian company. But there’s a huge array of speciality casks here, including wine, sherry, Port, beer, Tequila, moscatel, Marsala, Tokaji, rum, and more.
But when you’re very much all about variety and flexibility, you don’t run the risk of diluting your brand with a plethora of expressions. You fortify it. Because there are three core strands of DNA, a trio of new makes, that means there’s no singular distillery character. That’s something people love to talk about these days, but the way The Glasgow Distillery is defined is by its versatility and diversity, as well as its industrial ethic. It’s an interesting and fun producer that is making its own mark within Scotch whisky and reflects the city in which it’s made. “Accessibility, authenticity, and transparency are the markers we try and hit, we’ve got nothing to hide and plenty to celebrate,” says Bunford-Jones. The distillery also feels that the Lowland classification doesn’t really suit it, especially given it produces a 50ppm peated whisky,
Tasting Glasgow Distillery whisky
The whiskies are also sold for a reasonable price. This is Glasgow, you can’t take the piss. At under £50 for the core range and just under £60 for the limited expressions (at Master of Malt, we can’t help if they’re more expensive elsewhere…), these are really good value for a new distillery.
The Glasgow 1770 (named after the year the original distillery was founded) single malt core range is made up of three whiskies that reflect the three new make styles: The Original, Peated and Triple Distilled. Then there’s been a flurry of limited editions from its Small Batch Series and single casks releases, such as the new Glasgow 1770 Tokaji Cask Finish (Peated) and the triple distilled Glasgow 1770 Cognac Cask Finish.
The Glasgow Distillery has also launched cask strength editions in the first of what will be an ongoing series of batched cask strength releases. Glasgow 1770 Peated Cask Strength Batch 01 (60.8% ABV) and Glasgow 1770 The Original Cask Strength Batch 01 (61.3% ABV), will provide an insight into the unadulterated, raw character of two of the distillery’s most popular expressions. Let’s get stuck in and try some whisky!
Nose: Apricot yoghurt, Pink Lady apples, orange rind, toffee, clove spice, and vanilla.
Palate: Rich and full-bodied with notes of coffee fudge, ground almonds, chocolate, gingerbread, and tangy oak that make way for fruit: a medley of dried, dark, and tropical.
Finish: Long and citrusy with marmalade as well as hints of marzipan and anise.
Nose: Blackberries, stewed plums, pickled walnuts, bitlong, brown sugar, tobacco leaf, damp oak, and bonfire embers.
Palate: Burnt coffee beans, dark chocolate, dried fruit, smoky BBQ sauce, flamed orange zest, and caramel.
Finish: Black fruit, smoked nuts, soy sauce, and earthy chilli.
Nose: Pears, floral honey, vanilla ice cream, green apple skins, orange boiled sweets, shortbread, and white pepper.
Palate: Flaked almonds pastries, caramel, coconut, orange peel, and orchard fruit.
Finish: Aromatic spice, toffee apples, and vanilla.
Nose: It’s got this great old Islay whisky quality to it, a blend of rock pools, soot, cured meat, and tropical fruit, but without the medicinal element. There’s also apricot jam, cashew nuts, salted caramel ice cream, and clove-studded oranges.
Palate: Salted peanuts, stone fruit, brownie mix, orange rind, charred pineapple, custard, and Frazzles.
Finish: Lingering bacony, meaty notes with ashy smoke as well as fudge and tropical juice.
*Strathclyde had a brief run of single malt in the 70s and 80s.