I spent a week on the Black Isle recently, full of sun, rain and pretty much everything in between, and of course I couldn’t leave without checking out the local distillery. Being the Highlands, ‘local’ means ‘within 50 miles’, but I had a designated driver and Glen Ord are a distillery I’ve always been curious about.
Glen Ord is one of three distilleries that comprise Diageo’s Singleton brand – drinkers fom Europe will better know the releases from Dufftown distillery like Spey Cascade and Tailfire, while North American whisky fans will have seen the Singleton of Glendullan. The Singleton of Glen Ord is bottled primarily for the Asian market, and as such I’d only ever had the 12yo, which I’d found to be a very more-ish introduction to their range.
The distillery itself is much like any other – you’ll wander through from mash tun to washback to still room and spot the same familiar setup, the only small difference being that our guide Charlie (fantastic fellow, by the way, shout out to him) told us the sparging of the mash happens as a continuous process with hot water added while the mash is stirred and wort is drawn off, whereas most of the distilleries I had visited before would add water to the mash first and hold it in the tun for a while before draining the wort. A quick search revealed these two methods as, respectively, fly sparging and batch sparging, but you’d need a greater knowledge of the process than I to say exactly what advantages each style would have over the other. (If this has all been Greek, see here for some context about the overall process)
What I really enjoyed about the tour though was how frank Charlie was about what really goes on at a working distillery. A lot of places will wax lyrical about the old traditional methods and proudly show you their barely used malting floors and warehouses that contain about 10% of their casks. Charlie, on the other hand, was quite happy to show us the tankers taking off the spirit to be casked elsewhere, and told us up front that most of the casks in the warehouse actually belonged to other distilleries in the Diageo family. This is part of a practice of ensuring no distillery has too many of their casks in one place, which makes a lot of sense.
The other thing to mention is the distillery malts its own barley. A proper industrial setup with big drums and all, the Glen Ord maltings are one of four, alongside Roseisle, Port Ellen and Burghead, which malt barley for Diageo’s distilleries. In particular, a lot of the malt for Talisker will have come from Glen Ord.
The tour finished, as they all should, with a vertical tasting of the Singleton of Glen Ord range, 12yo, 15yo and 18yo. Here are my thoughts:
Singleton of Glen Ord 12yo, 40% ABV – 78/100
Light on the nose, but nonetheless quite juicy, with pears and a bit of citrus. Becomes more rounded with a drop of water, with buttercoming through as the citrus departs. The palate is dangerously close to Glenfiddich 12 levels of gentleness, with red apples and poached pears sitting on a slightly butterscotchy base. There’s currants and ginger there as well, but none of it is quite strong enough to make the whisky stand out. Saved somewhat by a moreish and creamy finish, this is one I’d quite happily drink all evening. But if I didn’t know what I was drinking, I wouldn’t make much effort to find out.
Singleton of Glen Ord 15yo, 40% ABV – 89/100
This is my nectar, and I bought a bottle there and then. It’s the kind of versatile whisky I really appreciate which starts off full and tangy, but becomes warm and mellow with a drop of water without losing the strength of flavour. The nose brings warm gingerbread, stewed apples and a little bit of brandy showing through after a while. On the tongue I was getting a perfect black forest gateau, the juiciness of the cherries rounded out by the thick chocolate. Spiciness develops as the palate evolves, with ginger returning and bringing some anise to the party. But like a tiger that rolls over for belly scratches, water brings out a soft underbelly, revealing a buttery biscuit base that would make Gregg Wallace swoon. A very fine example of that part-tamed Highland style which keeps us coming back time after time.
Singleton of Glen Ord 18yo, 40% ABV – 75/100
For me, this is a whisky that has tried too much, and just over-reached itself. Glen Ord mature in a mix of ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks, and while it has taken a back seat in the younger expressions, the sherry cask influence is much more pronounced here. The nose is brilliant – thick with toffee and blackberries, with a warm ginger that makes me hope this will be a heavyset big brother of the 15yo. The palate is more tart, with Granny Smiths, blackcurrant and port. There’s something slightly herbal and peppery on the finish, but the body of the whisky feels a bit thin, and the overall effect comes across rather sharp and tannic. A splash of water improves it, bringing out some of the toffee that I found on the nose, but not quite hiding the tannins. There’s a lot of potential in this whisky, and I wonder if bottling at a slightly higher ABV might give it the weight to carry the depth of flavour that is undeniably present. As things stand though, this wasn’t the dram for me.