Ian Buxton goes to the “official” Glen Keith re-opening.
And so it proves. This time, it’s the eponymous Glen Keith (that means it’s located in the town of Keith, after which it takes its name – please excuse, I’m just showing off the thesaurus function on this computer). Mothballed in 1999 it’s been comprehensively overhauled, renewed and enlarged by owners Chivas Brothers (part of the giant Pernod Ricard group) and can now produce some 6 million lpa of new make annually.
Of course, it’s already going full blast. What are we to make of this?
I’ve been working in and around the Scotch whisky industry for more than 25 years (sometimes it feels longer; sometimes it seems to have passed in a moment) and I really have never seen anything like the present day. Nor has any other industry veteran that I talk to: “Let’s hope it carries on for another five years,” said one old hand I chatted to at the opening, no doubt with a keen eye on his pension.
If you’ll forgive a short reminiscence, I entered the Scotch whisky industry to work for a major company convinced that scotch had had its day and that white spirits were the future. While the cash still rolled in my job was to work on a diversification team. We bought a preserves (jam and marmalade; “jellies” for the U.S. reader) business and a biscuit (“cookies”) company. What a disaster!
Eventually both were sold, as they realized that they had overreacted, and the good times rolled round again. But nothing like today.
Frankly, most of the companies will tell you—off the record, of course, and well away from their spinmeisters—that they can’t believe their luck. For the first time in living memory (well, almost), everything has fallen just right for Scotch whisky, as emerging market after emerging market gets ever more affluent and develops an apparently insatiable demand for Scotch whisky. The fly in the ointment, of course, is that the new consumer appears to like things better the more expensive they are, and the industry is happy to oblige. That’s bad luck if you happen to have developed your scotch habit ten years or more ago, as Dave Broom pointed out in the last issue of Whisky Advocate.
But enough of my ramblings. You want to know about Glen Keith.
Well, it’s all about blends and emerging markets. Established in 1959 and opened in 1960, the distillery last worked in 1999 and required some major modifications to meet today’s health and safety standards. A curiosity is that for the first ten years or so of its operating life it operated a triple distillation process, highly unusually for Speyside. That, however, was in decline by 1970 and dropped entirely by the early 1980s. My question as to whether or not any triple-distilled stock remains from that period was politely glossed over. In all probability, the nice young PR person didn’t know (probably didn’t realize why I was interested!). Interestingly, a column still also ran here during the 1970s, but again, this has long since been retired.
In those early days there was a substantial malting operation here, complete with Saladin boxes. All that has been swept away in the expansion, which has added 6 new washbacks to increase the distillery’s capacity from 3.5 million to 6 million lpa. No increase was required to the three pairs of stills, but a brand new mashtun with a faster four-hour cycle has allowed output to be expanded. All the building at the rear of the distillery covered in white harling is new.
Chivas were at pains to stress the distillery’s environmental credentials, pointing out their new thermo-compressors, which recycle hot water with a heat recovery system that CEO Christian Porta noted, “makes Glen Keith an environmentally-friendly, responsible investment [that is] 15% more efficient than any other in the group.”
Historically, the distillery’s output went into Passport and 100 Pipers. That will continue, but with Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s crying out for stock, it isn’t too great an imaginative leap to work out where at least some will end up.
There are no visitor facilities, and for the foreseeable future all the output will be required for blending, though 800 bottles have been released in the Cask Strength Edition series (available only from the group’s visitor centers). This is a 54.9% 17 year old drawn from American oak and exhibiting typical vanilla and crème caramel notes, with flavors of pears, licorice, and citrus.
The opening ceremony was performed jointly by Christian Porta (left) and Richard Lochhead (right), Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment (or “Minister for Whisky,” as he termed himself), who said, “This is a vote of confidence in the future. A special day for Keith; for Speyside; for the local economy and for Chivas Brothers.”
Around $11 million was spent on the redevelopment; part of Chivas Brothers’ planned $63 million expansion of Scotch whisky production. So far as I could see…they have no plans to get into the cookie business.