Glen Garioch is one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries having been founded way back in 1797 by John Manson although records show the distillery being built as early as 1785 and a brewery and tannery being present on the site. It’s a survivor in the Northeast Highland region which has suffered several casualties and struggled to establish its own identity.
The distillery license was acquired in 1827 for a short period by Ingram, Lamb & Company before being retained by the family of John Manson, who also owned Strathmeldrum. This distillery has been lost to time, being only in existence until the late 1830’s, whereas the ownership of Glen Garioch proves more successful. Ownership endures into the 1880’s, when the Edinburgh Leith blenders J.G. Thomson take over and the state of the distillery is documented by the visit of Alfred Barnard, who is impressed by the new Still House and a very fine worm tub. The distinctive Glen Garioch chimney that dominated the landscape for generations is added in 1901, but has since been removed. The owner merry-go-round continues with another family in Sanderson & Sons taking overall control and focusing on the blended market with great success. Even during the First World War the distillery continues to produce and lay down stock for when the economic conditions become favourable.
In 1929 Kenneth Sanderson takes over the family distillery and sensing that Prohibition was coming to an end, has a shipment of VAT69 ready for the momentous day when it was sent across the Atlantic. Enthusiasm waned and before too long the Sanderson company is swallowed up by Booths Distillery Limited in 1933. Their interest is fuelled by the fact that Glen Garioch is a major component of the internationally popular VAT69 blended Scotch. Then just a couple years later, the familiar name of the Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD) moves into Glen Garioch.
By 1968 the Glen Garioch is mothballed by SMD before being snapped up by Stanley Morrison Agencies Limited for £100,000, who also own another historical icon in Bowmore distillery. Under their ownership the distillery receives more single malt recognition being bottled in 1973 and welcoming visitors at the distillery, which wasn’t always the case just a couple of decades ago. There is a timeless aspect to Glen Garioch that you’ll find in the former market town of Old Meldrum, which resides in Garioch valley. This valley is traditionally barley growing country and would have ensured easy access to this valuable resource locally. Oddly, one aspect the distillery has struggled to maintain at times is a reliable water source which was cited as a major reason for its closure in 1968 and SMD looking to dispense with ownership.
Morrison had faith in Glen Garioch’s potential and began a period of investment. Utilising an unorthodox method to find an additional water source in a neighbouring field. The problem is solved and a more sustainable and tenfold increased water supply means production can be up scaled, with the number of stills increased to four by 1978. Other sizeable production improvements are carried out including heat from the production of whisky being diverted to warm the maltings and the legendary onsite greenhouses that at one stage produced 30 tons of tomatoes annually, before closing in 1993. Oddly for the period, these maltings are upgraded and continue to be used on site until the 1990’s when the last batches are destined for Bowmore distillery. For most of its life the maltings were smoked by the peat from a local resource and many enthusiasts lament the loss of this distinctive characteristic. It’s certainly worth considering when purchasing Glen Garioch if the whisky was distilled prior to 1994 and if it is, then potentially its more representative of this older style. Although it must be said that the level of peat was being reduced onwards from the 1980’s until its total removal.
It’s well worth the effort to visit Glen Garioch, as its relatively unspoilt with many of the features dating from the late 1700’s and the imposing stonework being circa 1880. It’s a remarkable distillery to explore, with a character of its own and visitors are still made to feel welcome. Being just 18 miles from the city of Aberdeen, it’s fairly accessible as well. Today, the distillery is owned by Japanese giant Suntory, who purchased the parent Morrison company in 1994 and it has remained in their hands ever since. The four warehouses on site are used for maturation but the filling of casks is done centrally, with a modest annual production capacity of 1.5 million litres. The current range of Glen Garioch is widely supported by the independent bottlers but also a strong official range exists. This offers a variety of age statements and cask finishes, with the starting point being the No Age Statement 1797 Founders Reserve.