First Society bottling in 1987.
A Classic from Elgin. Richard Gordon renews some old acquaintances
"Tell me about the skulls Edwin." Truth be told, I jumped at the chance to renew my acquaintance with the Glen Moray Distillery, not just so that I could hear Edwin tell this story again, but also so that I could visit my 'fat ladies'. But, more of my dear friends later.
It had been a few years since I had visited the distillery but Edwin Dodson, the Distillery Manager since 1974, hadn't changed; indeed very little seemed to have changed since I took on the role of developing the market for Glen Moray many years ago.
The Glen Moray Distillery will celebrate its first centenary in September of this year; 100 years as a legal distillery and many years before that as a brewery in a town that was once home to over 80 brewers. Before the Union, Elgin was very much the capital of the North, its wealth fuelled through extensive trade with the Baltic states, not least in beer and aqua vitae.
The brewing is a natural result of the abundance of the surrounding area, the Laich of Moray, also known as the 'granary of Scotland'. The Laich, the seaboard plain along the Moray Firth, boasts a mild, even climate producing plentiful harvests and gives rise to the saying that 'Moray has forty days more summer than any other part of Scotland'. Well it wasn't true for my visit. It was chucking it down. Even so, for an area that lies within the 58th degree North Latitude, a little north of Moscow, it could have been much worse. The distillery and its grounds are steeped in history.
The old road into Elgin passes right through the distillery grounds which have been witness, through the centuries, to the ebb and flow of the nation's legends, triumphs and disasters. What a litany of names: St Columba, Edward the First, the 'Hammer of the Scots', the Wolf of Badenoch who burnt down the city's cathedral. Macbeth, High Steward of Moray, later King of Scotland pursued the wounded Duncan to his death in Elgin. Prince Charles retreated this way to Culloden Moor followed by 'Butcher' Cumberland and the Hanoverian forces. If no longer the capital of the world, then Elgin certainly lays claim to be its malt whisky capital.
The spirit from the Glen Moray distillery is a classic example of the area. Light, fragrant, complex and estery, it extols the virtues of Speyside distilling. Glen Moray can normally be found, in rather elegant blue packaging, at both 12 and 16 years of age. As you sweep in from the Inverness road you will see the low-roofed, traditional, warehouses (home to 50,000 casks) and the large black 1960s grain store (soon to be refurbished) that belies the distillery's rather attractive character.
Finding the distillery is another matter and many may not be aware of its existence, tucked away in a little hollow behind a residential area in the town. Glen Moray has a small and attractive central courtyard from which we started our tour. The distillery is very compact and makes best use of the original brewery buildings. We started with the grist mill which was in full flight. Dod Grant, who started work at Glen Moray before I was even born, was taking samples of the grist. A stillman by trade, he was learning the arts of the mashman, as part of Edwins's move to give the staff a wider range of skills. Dod is one of four stillmen who have a combined experience of 122 years. He still has a few years to go before his retirement which, being on the 1st of January 2000, should be quite a party.
We moved up to the mash room and the single stainless steel mash tun where the first water had just been added to the grist. A beautiful, sweet smell of warm, malty porridge hung in the air. This would be one of 14 mashes that week. The water for the mash comes from a well whose waters originally flowed off the Dhu Moor. The malt itself is lightly smoky but, interestingly, the water can add additional peat notes to the final spirit. In the tight space, we moved along to the five stainless steel wash backs. The smell reminded me of my early days of home brewing. "This one is going well" said Edwin. And, so it was as I got the salutary C02 kick in the head when I got too close to the opening of the washback. I never learn. As we walked through to the still room Edwin told me how he had recently been invited out to the US to help a bourbon distiller recreate the pot-still bourbons of old. Early records of distilling in the US are very hard to find so Edwin's expertise was asked for as they fired up their new pot still.
It was in 1789 that the Reverend Elijah Craig, also a Scotsman, distilled the first bourbon whisky in America. History repeating itself again. In the still room, the stills were coming to the end of a run. The two wash stills were fat and onion-shaped, the spirit stills, similar in shape but smaller and more elegant. In the corner, the original man-doors to the stills had been kept with 1897 marked clearly in the heavy gun metal. These doors used to be propped open with a stick so that people could lean in to clean the still. Given their weight, I would not have liked to have had my neck in there if the stick had moved. The stills were off spirit and just a trickle was passing through the two gleaming spirit safes. Over a year these safes see around 1.85m litres of alcohol pass through their glasses.
As we walked to the bonds, it was a chance to hear that story again. For Warehouse No 1 sits in the shadow of Gallow Crook Hill, once the place of work for the city's two executioners. Here murderers, thieves and witches were 'brint to the death, hanged by the craig, or droont' as fancy might dictate. Records show that the bodies of those executed were allowed to hang from the gallows until they fell down piecemeal or were removed to make way for succeeding unfortunates. These charming activities carried on to the late 17th Century, though remains of the gibbet were still to be seen in the 20th Century. Warehouse No 1 used to be three feet lower than present and prone to flooding. In the early 1960s it was decided to raise the level using in-fill from the hill above. As workmen dug up the hill they found seven skulls. Cleaned up, the skulls became an interesting addition to the still room.
David Mathieson who retired in 1975 was the Brewer at the time. Examining one skull he found a hole in the back of the head, behind the ear and a lead ball embedded in the jaw. Perhaps the master hangman had to finish off a botched hanging by his latest apprentice. Taking pity on the skull, David Mathieson felt that the man would enjoy a little outing. So, carefully placed on the dashboard, he took him on his first ever car journey round Elgin to show him how things had changed. It certainly beats a nodding dog in the back of the car! I am glad to say however that when the work finished on the warehouse the skulls were safely reburied. Edwin was finishing his story as the door to Warehouse No 1 swung open and the cold, damp air, heavy with oak and spirit greeted us.
The floor was earthen, the ceiling low, the casks stacked three high. A u'aditional warehouse is regarded as best for maturing whisky, with its close, dark atmosphere providing the right balance for the interaction of air, oak and spirit. This was a perfect example. And there they were, tucked away in a dark corner, my four 'fat ladies'.
In the semi-darkness, I went up to stroke those beautiful curves, those gently rising bellies. Yes, they were sleeping beautifully. Last year, a number of magnificent sherry casks were very carefully selected in Spain for the Society. We sent some up to Glen Moray for filling with new spirit. Larger even than sherry butts, these 'fat ladies' or Gordas, to use the correct term, hold 600 litres, enough whisky to keep our members quiet for a while. The only sad part of my visit was the knowledge that we will all be a lot older before these ladies of the dark reveal their secrets to us.