Glenrothes is a single malt Speyside distillery established in 1878 producing mainly single malt ("top dressing" malt) for blends such as Cutty Sark and Famous Grouse. The distillery is owned by Edrington Group (who also own Highland Park, Macallan, 50% of North British with Diageo, and make Grouse and Cutty).
The distillery was built by James Stewart (then owner of Macallan) in order to appeal to the English palate and was set up to produce a floral, fruity, creamy style rather than the then prevailing heavy, smoky and oily styles. Glenrothes has never been peated, partly due to phylloxera (at its peak when Glenrothes was built) taking out Cognac production for a number of years, producing a vacuum of pre-dinner drinking that needed to be filled.
This is a large distillery, producing 5.2 million litres of spirit per year. As there hasn't been a maltings at Glenrothes for 60 years, the malt now comes from Simpsons of Berwick (in England) although the barley (Concerto rather than Optic) is mainly grown in Scotland. It has 20 washbacks (8 stainless, 12 Oregon pine) each holding nearly 25k litres, the result of a mash of 5.5 tonnes of malt (so 1000 times the size of a typical homebrew!).
The spent draff (and pot ale from the still) is used to feed a biomass converter, shared by a number of neighbouring distilleries, that produces electricity back to the grid. Fermentation is usually 60 hours and is allowed to rise naturally to sometimes 34C, producing a wash at 8-9% ABV. There are 5 wash stills and 5 spirits stills, steam heated, that produce 3000 litres of new make spirit in each batch over the course of 11 hours. These are filled into 70% sherry casks and 30% bourbon casks.
Edrington Group consumes 90% of the sherry casks used in Scotland - European oak is used for these (it has a looser grain than American oak and so the wood itself has a greater effect on the whisky, before the effect of the sherry).
The casks are constructed and seasoned with sherry in Spain for 18 months. The sherry itself is used three times to season casks for the whisky industry, and is then either discarded or used to make vinegar. Edrington will pay around $1000 for a 500 litre sherry cask, and $70 to rent the seasoning sherry for 18 months. The casks are used three times, and then either used as a neutral cask for marrying spirits or sent to the large cask graveyard on the hills of Speyside, next to the community owned and run golf course. This is where whisky wood chips for smoking sometimes come from!
Despite being owned by Edrington, the single malt OB output of the distillery is controlled by Berry Bros & Rudd. BBR were associated with Glenrothes from the 1920s, when they produced Cutty Sark (the non-peated blend that could be used as a pre-dinner drink), but in 1990 they took over the production of OB single malt Glenrothes as a non-blended brand. In 2010 Cutty Sark was sold to Edrington, who had been blending and bottling it for BBR for years anyway.
BBR took an interesting approach to how they select and bottle casks. Taking their inspiration from Champagne, where only the best wine from a "good year" is selected for a "Vintage Champagne", Glenrothes vintage releases have the year of distillation on the bottle rather than an age statement. When there's a good year, the top 2% of the production is blended for a vintage release. In recent years, the next 3% of production has been bottled as part of a series of NAS bottlings (such as the Sherry Cask Reserve) - multi-vintage, house style and consistent, all of which are at least 30% sherry cask. The remaining 95% goes to blends (like Grouse and Cutty) and of course the blessed IBs such as SMWS and Whisky Broker who do such a fantastic job of selecting interesting casks for us.
When BBR came to take on the Glenrothes brand, and visited the distillery, they found the sample room full of rounded sample flasks taken from the casks, with quality notes – “Another couple of years”, “Not quite ready”. They based the design of the Glenrothes bottle on these sample flasks.
As you may have guessed by now, I visited the distillery, had a good poke round, asked a bunch of questions, watched some coopers traumatising casks and tasted quite a lot of whisky. One of the pivotal moments for me was tasting whisky directly from three casks in the warehouse. The three were a sherry cask made with Spanish oak, a sherry cask made with American oak and a small bourbon cask made with American oak. The question was, which is the oldest. Naturally it was intended to be a trick question, as the younger, Spanish sherry cask was significantly more boisterous, richly flavoured and three dimensional than the others. The bourbon cask, however, immediately spoke of elegance, restraint, balance and deep complexity, and suddenly I "got" Glenrothes. I was getting it all through the distillery tour; the wash is lovely, the new make is delicious, the casks are maintained and repaired at an onsite cooperage, everything feels right. But that old bourbon cask was where it happened for me. I will be hunting out early 80s bourbon cask Glenrothes forever more now!
The distillery itself is pretty cool too, full of 60’s industrial machinery and, at the time of visiting, quite serenely quiet and clean.
The mashtun felt ancient and hot. The giant washbacks are deep and alive with yeast, with fast rotating arms whipping the top off the krausen, the thick Oregon pine walls crusted with the residue from decades of fermentation. The wash (filtered) was fresh, fruity and quite potent.
So – some whisky!
Glenrothes Alba Reserve, 40%
One of the NAS bottles that come under the Vintage releases. The Alba Reserve is blended from only ex-bourbon casks in order to “make it kosher”, and in fact a Rabbi comes from New York every year to provide its kosher certification. The story is the non-kosher sherry in the casks mean the Jewish community can't drink it. I checked with the Jewish community and they confirmed this isn’t quite the case (details at the footnote*). This certified kosher whisky is pretty damn good though and is made with casks ranging from 8-15 years old. It also tastes pretty good on a wind swept Scottish hillside mixed 50/50 with Kings Ginger.
Nose - Fruity, sweet cheers, blonde oak. Orange juice and candle wax. Coconut meringue.
Body - Fresh fruit, orange juice, gentle, light and refreshing.
Finish - Short, lightly spiced, very drinkable. Quite lovely - I can see a long term space on my shelf for a bottle of this.
Glenrothes Vintage 2001, 40%
Body - Lovely and dry, oaked, some peach, a touch of chilli.
Finish - Medium, a little spice, balanced and fresh. Polite, elegant and delicious.
Glenrothes Vintage 1998, 40%
Body - Clean, sweet liquorice, lightly spiced and very delicious.
Finish - Long, juicy, structural sulphur and tannins.
Glenrothes Vintage 1988, 40%
Body - Balanced sherry, very relaxing. Again, lightly spiced, dusty refreshers, mango juice and a touch of pine furniture.
Finish - Long, very balanced sherried elegance with raisins, Christmas cake and lingering tannins. Perhaps too soft? But a real drinker – balanced, easy going and complex. One for a stroll round the garden with.
Cutty Sark, 25 year old sample blend, 47.7%.
This was an experimental blend of Cutty that didn’t make it to a commercial release. Probably Thamdu and Glenrothes with only 2% grain (assumed to be North British). One of the highlights of the trip, too.
Body - Amazingly fruity, light sulphur, complex and balanced. Almost red wine-like tannins. Just beautiful.
Finish - Long, spicy, balanced toffee. Fabulous stuff.
I've been on the lookout for interesting Cutty ever since and found a few… post coming soon!
Glenrothes Oldest Reserve, 43%, travel retail only
Contains whisky from 1967, 1972, 1977, 1979 and 1980.
Body - Varnish, furniture polish, spicy wood, red berries.
Finish - Long tannins, fresh spicy and clean. This is a cracker, highly recommended.
Glenrothes 1978, 43%
We were rather indulgently given a 10cl “double-double” of these each to drink after dinner. I kept a little back for some proper notes though… I’ve tasted this before (sample from Yoav) but hadn’t had the education last time.
Body – Fresh, delicate, balanced spices. Rounded, but structured, lightly spiced and very polite. Almost Japanese in its courtesy.
Finish – A waxy oil develops, reminiscent of the Sichuan on the nose before. Quite structured at the end. Dignified.
Another lovely drinker. These Glenrothes are well prepared and ready to go, making quite a welcome break from the cask strength single cask stuff!
All in all a rather wonderful trip, thanks so much to our hosts Ronnie, Eric, Caroline and Sophie. Thanks also to Ben from BBR, Prentron and Matt the list for the great company. I had a wonderful time and gained a real appreciation of a really classy malt. Cheers!
* Shai on Kosher whisky:
There are two prohibitions when it comes to sacramental wine: consumption and benefit/enjoyment. Whisky that benefits from aging in wine casks that aged wine from papal estates would fall under the benefit category**. There is not enough physical wine present to fall under the consumption prohibition.
Sherry carries no benefit prohibition, being unkosher wine which is not sacramental. Therefore it is fine to consume whisky that benefits from sherry, but not the sherry itself.
Alba reserve is aimed at people with minority stringencies regarding benefit from nonsacramental wines.
** Glenmorangie Companta falls into this category being aged in wine casks from papal estates.