We’ve landed in malt whisky country, Speyside, which has the largest number of distilleries anywhere in Scotland (around 50!). A soft blanket of snow envelops the town of Aberdeen, which sits in the north-east of Scotland, skimming the frigid waters of the North Sea. It’s a clear day with azure skies and a soft chill, as we drive past fields laden with fluffy sheep, up to the majestic 19th century Scottish mansion known as Linn House, where renowned Master Blender of Chivas Regal (all bottles carry his signature), Colin Scott greets us with a firm handshake. “This region is called Speyside because we are next to the river Spey, famous for its salmon,” says Colin. “The snow you see today fills the water, and it’s good for distilling, it’s good for us.” Over the next few days, we will learn the art of distilling, and tasting, as we visit some of the most coveted distilleries in the region, part of the Pernod-Ricard medley of blended whiskies and single malts.
Just down the road from the 12-room baron’s chateau where we are so comfortably ensconced, lies the much photographed Strathisla distillery, founded in 1786, with its shapely turrets, and the oldest operating distillery in the highlands of Scotland. “As the wild west wind blows in from the Atlantic, we at Speyside are sheltered from it, and this is what gives our malts a gentle, soft character,” says Colin. “Chivas Regal has at its heart the whisky Strathisla, used in every single blend, and this is an integral part of the portfolio.” The process of making whisky, he says, is the same in all distilleries — all you need are cereal, water, and yeast. But it’s those subtle differences — such as the waters used, the shape of the stills, and the casks the spirit ages in — that gives a whisky character.
THE HEART OF CHIVAS
At Strathisla, whisky makers get their ‘hero’ ingredient, the malted barley, from commercial malt stills. Maltsers germinate the barley in water to activate enzymes, converting starch to fermentable sugars; to halt germination they apply hot air.
We go through a door marked ‘distillery’, and up the metal stairs to the wooden mash tuns made of Oregon pine. “So our barley has been malted, sugars are formed, we mill it, exposing the sugar, and now it’s mashing — with hot water to create a sugar liquid,” says Colin. He points out where 20,000l of water come whooshing down at 65 C into the grist, the violent reaction making it bubble away, and tells us that the soluble sugars are taken out with the hot water. Another two rounds, and hot water is added twice, the second time at 78 C, to create a sugary liquid that’s low in alcohol (8 per cent). The sugar is never wasted, as whatever is left over, goes into the next batch (this process at Strathisla takes six hours; at The Glenlivet, it takes about three hours). This vessel has no impact on flavour; it’s the oak cask fermentation that creates the flavour.
When it comes to distillation, Strathisla has four copper stills, in two pairs. So 24,000l of this low alcohol is taken, split into each of the two stills, where the alcohol that evaporates first, is made into a liquid again via the copper ‘neck’ — there are two distillations, that bring the alcohol down to 75 per cent (from 86 per cent) — and that is when the distiller collects the ‘new spirit’ (between 67-75 per cent in strength – the ‘heart’ of the run, at 68 per cent alcohol). From the original 12,000l, you will get 20 per cent for the heart, that is 2,400l, says Colin. Water is added, and it’s brought down to 63 per cent alcohol, and it’s put into casks — American oak and sherry casks — to mature, for at least three years.
Inside the Strathisla warehouse, we spot American hogshead casks (bourbon casks with new oak ends) used to mature the Chivas 18, which gives it a rich golden colour. There are also 180l American oak barrels, as well as sherry casks of 500l; to change the taste, you change the cask formula. For a blend, you need to take malt and grain whiskies from different whiskies to make a complete formula.
We’ve been granted access to the Royal Salute vault which houses 3,500 casks — it takes a special key to open. For the Coronation cask, Colin says they put a 40-year-old blend, and matured it for 10 years, to celebrate the Queen’s 50th year on the throne in 2003. We stand around the Royal Salute Stone of Destiny 38-year-old cask. “This Royal Salute 38-year-old has been in the cask for 7-9 years, so you’re talking about a 45-year-old Royal Salute, which you will never taste the like of again,” he adds, and then ‘takes the dog for a walk’ — a small metal tumbler on a chain to dip into the cask, for a taste. And what a taste: Christmas pudding, spices, oranges, buttery toffee, flowers.
IN THE VALLEY OF GLEN
About an hour’s drive sits this pretty stone façade distillery. The story goes that George Smith founded it in 1824 and rebuilt it in the 1850s. At the time there were lots of illicit distillers in the valley. To distil legally, you had to take out a licence for a minimum of 2,000-5,000l a year, and Smith was the first to take out a licence. When King George IV came to Edinburgh to check out his Scottish allies, he asked for The Glenlivet in 1822, and this whisky came to be enjoyed by the King! Today, the malt whisky continues to be made from malted barley, yeast, and water from nearby Josie’s Well. The Glenlivet has eight stills, in four pairs. It was expanded in 2009, and was inaugurated by Prince Charles and Camilla. Colin tells us that the mashing process of the barley differs a bit from Strathisla: Here, they use five tonnes of malted barley (13 at Strathisla), but here you continuously add water, upping the temperature, drawing 60,000l of sugary liquid over four hours. After 52 hours, it bubbles up to give a beer like liquid with 8 per cent alcohol. The copper stills are of medium height, which gives a medium spirit. The ‘heart’ is 68 to 75 per cent alcohol at The Glenlivet.
At the tasting, The Glenlivet 12 has notes of tropical fruit, a bit of banana, a hint of pear, and a honey sweetness. In the 2000s, the company acquired French oak casks from Limousin, where a selection of The Glenlivet from three casks — sherry, the hogshead, and American white oak — along with some in the French oak cask was used to create the 15-year-old, which tastes of ripe pear, spicy cinnamon, ginger, liquorice, citrus, and flowers. The Glenlivet Nadura has hints of rose petal, tea leaves, scented vanilla sweetness, and dry oakiness. There is no age on the label.
A PRECIOUS MALT INDEED
Our final distillery is Aberlour, which produces the number one malt whisky consumed in France, and was built in 1879 by James Fleming and bought by Pernod Ricard in 1972. Aberlour in Gaelic means ‘little river’ and its water comes from Bronson’s Well. The Aberlour 12-year-old, ‘double cask matured’, after being aged in sherry casks, is filled into American white oak barrels. (Each lot is matured separately for 12 years). Add a splash of water to get the fruity richness of blackcurrant, apples, a creamy vanilla softness. We then jump to the Aberlour 16-year-old, also ‘double cask matured’, where the sherry cask gives a perfect balance of flavours — from heavily peaty to a light, sweet vanilla. So the notes are nuttier, spicier, with spring flowers and fruit. The 18-year-old is of ‘unsurpassed richness’, we are told, where only the best casks are used for it. It has a soft flavour of cream and peach with hints of ripe apricots balanced by dark chocolate, spicy orange, summer fruit, liquorice, and honey, like a fruitcake. Finally, the A’Bunadh (means ‘of the origin’ in Gaelic), was created 25 years ago, and matured solely in oloroso sherry butts that give it a beautiful red port colour. It’s bottled straight from the cask at 61 per cent alcohol, ensuring a dark and luxurious whisky,
On our penultimate night in Speyside, Colin Scott hosts a traditional dinner for us in the lavish dining hall of Linn House, with the men wearing kilts, and us ladies donning a sash in our favourite tartan on our dresses. A ceremonial taste of haggis, with a main course of lamb, finished with a panna cota and caramel sauce, is followed by much toasting with, perhaps, one of the most revered whiskies of all — the Royal Salute 62 Gun Salute in its decadent blue Dartington crystal decanter.
A history of Chivas
The Chivas brothers, James and John, first opened a grocer’s shop in 1801, in Aberdeen, with teas, coffees and spices for the local community. They only sold malt Scotch whisky (distilled in Scotland since before 1494). By the 1830s it had a reputation for consistent and high quality.
“Water of life’ is the Gaelic meaning for ‘uisce beatha’, which became ‘whisky’. In 1830, grain whisky was introduced, with four natural ingredients — wheat, malted barley, water and yeast. (The distillation process for grain whisky is completely different, yielding a 94.6 per cent alcohol that is filled solely in American oak barrels — while malt whisky needs to be aged in sherry casks and American oak.) Chivas whiskies are a blend, with a malt to grain ratio (in 1866 UK Customs and Excise recognised the art of blending malt and grain), whereas malt whisky, like The Glenlivet, number two in the world, is only a small part of the Chivas portfolio.
So James discovered a cask, and found a rich, easy drinking Scotch whisky — where he realised that aging was important. By the 1860s, they were producing 8- and 10-year-old blends in the shop, and by 1880, 20-year-old blends. After the brothers’ early deaths, Chivas was owned and bought by various people. In the 1900s, America beckoned — so master blender Charles Howard created an exceptional blend for the US, a blend fit for kings and queens, and called it Chivas Regal. Today it’s a global icon. “Every second someone in the world is taking the top off a Chivas Regal and enjoying its smooth rich taste,” says Colin.
The Chivas Regal 12-year-old: At the nose, it’s peppery. Add water, and the pepperiness disappears, replaced by apples, pears, nuts, honey, sweetness, almonds. It’s gentle on the palate, with no aggression.
The Chivas Regal XV: This blend was put into royal champagne cognac casks from Grand Champagne. It has a French accent, a rounded, spicy tropical fruit, with raisin and nuts, with a hint of liquorice. (It has been recently launched in India.)
The Chivas Regal 18-year-old: This one comes in a bigger bottle, with a brighter label, with Colin Scott’s signature in gold. Add water, and it’s tropical taste comes out, with sultanas, fruit cake, toffee, dark chocolate. It’s smooth and luxurious.