The GlenDronach Cask Strength annual release is one we always keep an eye out for. We included Batch 11 in our top ten whiskies of 2022. M’colleague Henry had this to say: “What a scorcher! Lots of rich toffee and dried fruit notes with an incredible aromatic waft of menthol and tobacco, and ridiculously drinkable at 59.8% ABV. Don’t worry about the lack of an age statement, you’re getting a lot of whisky for the money.”
The GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 12
So we’re naturally very excited for the twelfth batch of The GlenDronach Cask Strength. Another richly sherried Highland single malt, it was matured in Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry casks from Andalucía in Spain. I’m told there’s a great spread of age and, as with all expressions of The GlenDronach, it was bottled with natural colour. The bottling strength is a big 58.2% ABV, cask strength.
According to master blender Dr Rachel Barrie, who oversees whisky production at GlenDronach, BenRiach, and Glenglassaugh, the GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 12 represents the producer’s identity, while keeping whisky that was made in the past in mind. “The GlenDronach Cask Strength offers connoisseurs a deep insight into the distillery’s signature character,” she said in the press release, adding that bottling at the whisky’s natural cask strength was the custom before the turn of the 20th century.
That character refers to The GlenDronach house style, which is all about robust, full-bodied, and sherried single malt Scotch whisky. The Brown-Forman-backed brand was actually an early adopter of the sherry-cask aged single malt when in 1991 launched two 12-year-old expressions (the other aged in bourbon). I love a good sherried whisky and any excuse to be a big iol’ whisky nerd, so while tasting the latest release I got in touch with Stewart Buchanan, global malts ambassador for Brown Forman, to get the inside track on how GlenDronach whisky is made. Luckily, he was all too happy to talk me through the process.
How is GlenDronach whisky made?
We start with barley and water, of course – soft Highland water drawn from the underwater springs in the Balnoon hills and Scottish malted barley sourced from the distillery’s trusted partners and processed in a traditional Porteus malt mill, to be precise. There’s some peating happening here, as evidenced by GlenDronach Traditionally Peated Whisky 70cl. Buchanan, much like with his breakdown of BenRiach, is keen to stress that water is the first building block of any spirit and says that this soft water has “a double espresso effect” during the three-water mash, as the ratio of water to barley is low, which straight away gives you a big, heavy rich stewed barley.
That three-water mash takes place in a copper mash tun and is a slow one, another aspect that Buchanan says is key to building the complex GlenDronach character. It starts with the 3.76 tonnes of grist that is held in the hopper before it’s sent to the mash tun. One mash of three waters takes around six hours to complete. The first sees 15,400 litres of water at 65.5°C enter the mash tun and drained through a perforated floor, where it makes way to the underback. A second water to the mash tun of 5,000 litres at 68°C follows, also drained and sent to the underback.
As this happens, the rake and plough mechanism gently agitates the wort to break down the grain starch into fermentable sugars. These sugary first and second waters, or wort, are passed through a heat exchanger, cooled to 18°C, and sent to a washback. A third water of 12,000 litres goes into the mash tun at 94°C, in which there is very little sugar once it’s processed (this dilute sugary water being called the sparge) so it’s kept back and used for the next mash.
GlenDronach creates a bright wort. Not crystal clear, it’s a little opaque in nature and has a nutty, malty character – perfect for building a bigger, bolder spirit. Just 18,000 litres (a small volume of wort) goes into nine washbacks made from Scottish Larchwood for fermentation at a relatively short time of 60 hours. Buchanan describes this as enough to create some fruity, estery notes but not too long so as to retain the deep, dark and almost stout character of the wash, without too many lighter, more acidic notes.
Saxophone stills, a cold climate, and sherry casks
Distillation begins with 9,000 litres of wash pumped from the wash charger, which is boiled in the still to separate the alcohol vapour from the water. It travels up the unique neck shape over and down the lyne arm to the condenser, where it is cooled and returned to the liquid state. This liquid (the low wines) is about 22% ABV and is collected in the spirit safe and charged for the second distillation. Buchanan says that a lot of people disregard the first distillation, sometimes skipping straight to talking all about the cut in the second distillation in a tour. But he maintains that the first distillation is where you’re driving the character because it’s here you get to decide if you want lighter or heavier tones. He describes it as taking that base tone created in the mash and then driving it even deeper.
There are four pot stills in total: two wash and two spirit, which are steam heated. GlenDronach did have coal-fired stills up until 2005 and was the last distillery in Scotland at the time to do so. Arguably the most iconic image of GlenDronach Distillery is its saxophone-shaped stills, complete with a gooseneck lyne arm and a boil ball (reflux ogee) to increase the copper contact with the spirit. This is interesting because usually stills that drive copper contact do so to create a lighter spirit. The saxophone shape actually cuts back in reflux and this, along with the slow distillation time and the length of the ‘middle cut’, optimises the robust, rich complexity of the new make and helps to build weight in the spirit.
Buchanan says there’s enough reflux to heighten that dynamic fruit character you get from GlenDronach, which is all about bramble berries. Those notes of blackberry, blueberry, and a little bit of sweeter apricot are accompanied by contrasting aromas of sandalwood, cigar box, and a leathery weight lengthened by an oily viscosity that is generated by that gooseneck lyne arm and forms at the top of the still. It’s a profile that stands up to sherry casks over decades, where all the dark fruit and spice they bring create a synergy, not a contrast.
GlenDronach is nestled in the Valley of Forgue, deep in the East Highland Hills, where it is bloody cold. That means it’s a slow, steady, and long maturation environment, great for old whisky and driving a heavy spirit character. Two old dunnage warehouses store the Pedro Ximénez (PX) and oloroso sherry casks from Andalucía in Spain, with four more on the way. All this sherry means quite a hefty cask bill for the distillery, but it’s seen as the price of doing business to create a great whisky.
Tasting The GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 12
The GlenDronach core range includes plenty of fine age statement single malt Scotch whisky, such as The GlenDronach 12 Year Old Whisky 70cl and The GlenDronach 18 Year Old Allardice Whisky 70cl, but the cask strength range is strictly no age statement. It’s a good reminder that age is not the determiner of what makes great whisky, but balance and profile. The key to these annual releases is the balancing of the casks.
We can often think of sherry casks as being quite one-tone: PX gives you flavours like sticky black fruit and rich aromatic spice, while Amontillado casks are bright and nutty and sweet. But there’s huge variation within each style. Buchanan says that oloroso casks, for example, are slightly temperamental and that you never quite know what they’ll give you. Two vintages could give you a colour of tea or coca cola, but he loves this variance because it gives Dr Barrie a wider palette to play with. If she wants to create a whisky that demonstrates more distillery character, she can go to the lighter side of the oloroso scale. That’s where the craft is in The GlenDronach cask strength batches, balancing the oloroso parts first and then understanding how the PX works to that foundation.
Buchanan thinks the PX was more dominant last year, noting that in other expressions the oloroso is, and sometimes the spirit character. This year is more of the latter in my opinion, and I think the balance is on point. Dr. Barrie has measured this to create a whisky where the casks don’t overwhelm those base notes, as Buchanan puts it. The casks are not competing or dominating, nothing gets in the way of the other. It’s an explosion of bramble berry tart sweetness complemented by apricot, leather, marmalade, sandalwood, and dark chocolate. The GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 12 is another winner, one that really shines when you add a drop or two of water to open up the liquid and let that fruitiness sparkle.
The GlenDronach Cask Strength Batch 12 70cl tasting note
Nose: Bramble berries, mocha, ginger, and dried apricot are joined by heavy spices, leather, sandalwood, and a little cigar box aroma.
Palate: Posh dark chocolates, marmalade, roasted nuts, cherry, stewed dried fruit, blackcurrant cough sweets, with some musty dunnage earthiness in support.
Finish: Toasted caramel, dark fruit, and more chocolatey goodness remain.