Aultmore for most of its existence has flown under the radar of many enthusiasts. Established in 1896 to the north of the town of Keith, it’s a fairly remote distillery amidst the bustling Speyside region with the nearest neighbour being Strathisla. That’s in terms of legal distilleries, as Aultmore which is Gaelic for the big river, is situated in the heartland of illicit stills from a bygone era.
An excellent water source was often a critical component of any distiller looking to produce whisky. This area of Speyside was heavily vested in farming and somewhat remote, offered further incentives for distillation. Their ideal base camp was situated in the wilderness area known locally at the Foggie Moss. A wild and uncultivated segment, it offered the perfect camouflage to hide stills complete with burns for water and plenty of peat for fuel.
It seemed only a matter of time that a legal enterprise formed in the area which produced such good illicit whisky and offered the convenience of nearby rail access. Aultmore was built by Alexander Edward, who also owned the Benrinnes and Craigellachie distilleries and was designed by none other than Charles Doig. Its first spirit flowed in 1897 and it was already being sought out by blenders who would come to rely on its properties for years to come. This increased demand was met by improvements at the distillery shortly after opening but eventually the whisky boom came to a crashing halt with the Pattison crisis and this forced Edward to sell Aultmore to John Dewar & Sons in 1923.
This family firm from Perth had already established themselves as extremely successful blenders and businessmen, going so far as to build their own Aberfeldy distillery. Aultmore would exclusively produce a core ingredient to their own blends and enable them to have leverage with other blending houses for stock when they came asking for Aultmore. The distillery became synonymous with the Dewar label and even to this day continues to support it as part of the Bacardi group of distilleries.
In 1952 the distillery was then selected by Scottish Malt Distillers as the test site for its dark grain project. This simply entailed utilising the waste products of distilling and turning these into high protein animal feed; a process that soon became common across the industry. It’s remoteness and faithful natured is highlighted by the fact the distillery wasn’t connected to the National Grid until 1969 and once it was this ushered in a new age of change on across the site with the floor maltings closing around this time. Only then was the steam engine that was the main source of power and originally installed in 1898 formally retired. Whilst the distillery isn’t open to the public, the engine itself has been preserved as a reminder of its past and quality craftsmanship.
Significant changes were made at the distillery during 1970-1971 when it was completely rebuilt and the number of stills doubled to four. All of the distillery character externally was lost forever including the warehouses, but its spirit remained of excellent quality thanks partially due to the fat onion shaped stills, complete with elongated lyne arms that help define its style. The new make spirit is no longer matured on site and is instead shipped off by tanker to be filled into casks and matured just outside Glasgow.
Despite being highly regarded, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that Aultmore was first bottled as a single malt and even then in very low numbers. The most common bottling thereafter formed part of Diageo’s Flora & Fauna range in 1991 with a cask strength expression released in 1997. Tales of its single malt quality were just that until Bacardi acquired the distillery in 1998 with other producers towards the Dewar’s label for £1.15 billion. Then in 2014, Bacardi as part of its Last Great Malts initiative launched a series of age statement releases from Aultmore, which is what you’ll now seen at retail. The entry level 12-year-old is very light and engaging, with a fruity palate and light spices. It’s the perfect starting point to appreciate the qualities of a once rare whisky that has formed the cornerstone of many blends for generations.