Glencraig: The special one that got away

By Anthony Troon
Reproduced from the SWMS newsletter, Spring 1994, with permission

The Glenburgie-Glenlivet Distillery does not exactly flaunt itself. It lies up a Morayshire back road between Forres and Elgin without even a sign to declare its presence. It is a distillery that metaphorically keeps its head down and gets on with the job.

There's a reason for this. Glenburgie's job is to produce high-quality malt whisky for blending purposes -- reliably and efficiently -- adding its special qualities to the Ballantine's range and others such as the export blend Old Smuggler. Its owners, Allied Distillers, do not bottle the Glenburgie as a single, although it has been bottled by Gordon & MacPhail and, of course, at cask-strength by the Society as No 71.

But if almost all of the Glenburgie "disappears" into the blends which make Scotch whisky an international phenomenon, let us think now about a whisky from the same distillery which has almost completely vanished. But not quite.

This is called Glencraig. Between 1958 and 1981, the Glenburgie-Glenlivet Distillery had two contrasting pairs of pot-stills, one pair of the familiar swan-necked shape and the other pair with shorter, cylindrical necks. These were known as Lomond stills.

Because of the quite different character of the whisky these stills produced -- richer and heavier, although from the same mash -- their product was given another name, Glencraig. Of course, none has been produced since the Lomond stills were replaced by swan-necks in 1981. So the Society's new bottling of this whisky, as No 104, is a taste of a disappearing heritage.

In the Fifties, Glenburgie belonged to the Hiram Walker stable of Scotch whisky distilleries and a spirit of experimentation was abroad. The idea was to widen the character and style of the company's malts with stills which altered the "reflux" action by passing on heavier vapours to the condenser.

The Lomond stills were designed to this end, made by coppersmiths in Govan, Glasgow, and installed in pairs at Glenburgie, Miltonduff and Inverleven. (Only one Lomond still -- a wash still in tandem with a traditional spirit still -- is thought to survive in operation, at Scapa Distillery in Orkney.)

At Glenburgie-Glenlivet, the whisky from the Lomond stills was named after the late Willie Craig, the company's production director. His son Bill, now retired after becoming general manager of Hiram Walker's Highland malt operations recalls this episode -- and also the fact that not all malt connoisseurs were convinced that the Lomond stills significantly altered the character of the dram.

Feel free to argue about this, of course, if you order No 104. It's not likely to be around long, for the Lomond stills had to be dismantled before they were removed from Glenburgie, a very interesting distillery established in 1810 and now managed by Brian Thomas.

There is one unusual consequence from this time. Because the Glencraig from the Lomond stills had to be kept apart from the Glenburgie, there had to be two separate spirit safes and spirit receiving vessels. These survive: so Glenburgie is probably the only small malt distillery with just two pairs of stills which enjoys this doubling-up.

Among Glenburgie's other historical relics is the tiny cottage-like building which first housed its original offices and maturing cellar. Here is an indication of how the whisky business has grown.

It has changed, too. The time when every distillery had its resident excisemen is recalled by a door which once closed off the cabinet where the excise officials kept their hydrometers and other instruments for checking the government's share. On the back of this door, generations of excisemen scrawled their names, the way school pupils once did on their desk-lids.

But in whisky-making today, Glenburgie-Glenlivet has another distinction. It is one of the few distilleries where at the mashing stage, four waters are applied instead of the usual three.

First, of course, the malted barley (grown in Moray or Tayside, brought in at about 100 tonnes a week) is ground in the Porteous mill. Brian Thomas tries to produce as fine a grist as possible, which is always a balance between extraction of the sugars and drainage requirements. He is working on proportions of 11 per cent flour, 22 per cent husks, and 67 per cent middles.

The first water is pumped into the mash tun at 63.5 degrees C, and it takes two hours to complete the filling. In due course, the worts progress to the fermenting stage. When the second water is added at 95 degrees, from a smaller tank, it is sprayed from above to get a good even mix through the "bed" of grains. This raises the temperature of the "bed" to 80 degrees. These worts then go to fill the same washback.

Two final waters are sprayed into the mash tun, by which time the temperature has reached boiling point. They extract the final traces of sugars from the mash, and are retrieved to form the first waters of the next cycle.

Brian Thomas's ideal final product is a sweetish, fruity and estery whisky. He believes strongly in the effect of yeasts upon the final spirit, and unusually employs two distiller's and two brewer's yeasts for each fermentation.

We lifted the lid on one of the 13 washbacks and looked inside. The fermentation had died back, and we saw a dense and creamy head, the colour of an Italian footballer's suntan. "That's what you want," said Brian. It smelt delicious. God, I could have taken a dram of that and it hadn't even been distilled. I had a good sniff, and I can smell it still.
© (1994) Anthony Troon, SMWS

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