A Speyside saunter to Strathisla
by Inverness Whisky Shop
With a rare day off together, and Anna looking for an opportunity to try out her new camera, we though what better way to spend a fine spring day then take a wee road trip!
Just over an hour’s journey from Inverness, in the picturesque town of Keith, is Strathisla distillery. Reputedly the oldest operating distillery in Scotland, Strathisla has stood on the bonny banks of the River Isla since 1786. It is one of the most photographed distilleries for good reason – with its’ twin pagodas, old stone buildings and immaculately kept site, it is a picture-perfect working distillery. The visitor centre was awarded 5-star status by Visit Scotland recently.
Having said this, we arrived on a day when production was briefly suspended, but this gave an added interest. From the road outside, we saw an enormous crane holding a very large cylindrical piece of copper – this was a condenser, from wash still No.2, being replaced. The pagodas actually detach, to give access to the pot stills from the outside!
Strathisla produces a 12 year old, and 15 year old cask strength single malt, but is also at the heart of the famous blend Chivas Regal, and the distillery is the spiritual home of Chivas Brothers, who began trading in Aberdeen in 1801. Upon entering the distillery, we see a lovely old painted sign bearing the legend ‘It does your heart good to drink Strathisla’!.
We also catch a rare glimpse of the most expensive and exclusive whisky we are ever likely to see – The Royal Salute Tribute to Honour – 45 years in the making, and even if you have the £200,000 asking price in your pocket, that does not guarantee you a bottle. You’d have to submit an application to parent company Pernod Ricard, or, as they would prefer, travel to Strathisla for an interview with the man who made it – Strathisla’s master blender Colin Scott – more on this man’s legend later. This blend includes Scott’s selections from the Chivas Brothers high aged whiskies at Strathisla – each of which is at least 45 years old. The bottle itself is designed by London based jeweller to royalty, Garrard, using black porcelain set with 413 diamonds.
Back to the distillery tour we see the washbacks – made mainly from Oregon pine, but also some local pine from Strathdon. In the sweet smelling tun room, every 6 hours one batch is ready for distillation. There is one new steel washback, and this sparked the debate on pine versus steel – after many years of maturation in wood, could anyone really tell by taste if the washback had been made of pine or steel?
We then see the two squat and short necked Strathisla stills. Both the copper and the shape of the stills are important to the flavour of the whisky produced, in this case producing the full flavoured spirit of Strathisla. These stills are in operation for 48 or 49 weeks each year, and the spirit produced is in the cask within 24 hours of being made.
We view the mysteries of the spirit safe, and although there are computers now to help, this is still very much the distillers art – when to make the cut of the ‘heart’ of the spirit, between the ‘heads and tails’, as it travels through the safe. Sometimes tiny turquoise crystals can be seen in the spirit safe, a result of copper in the system. The copper also acts as a catalyst to remove impurities. Normally tourists are not allowed to take ‘photos of the spirit safe, due to risk of explosion from flash photography, but this is where we were lucky, as production had briefly been stopped for the condenser replacement, and just to be sure we had a co2/ethanol meter reading done before gettng these photos for you!
After travelling through the spirit safe, from this point on the liquid is subject to taxation, and as 1000 casks a day are being filled here, you can imagine the importance of the industrly to the country’s wealth, Strathisla being one of over 100 operating distilleries in Scotland. So this naturally brings us on to the storage of these wonderful casks, kept strictly under lock, key, and supervision by customs and excise, at all times. Strathisla’s large traditional dunnage (earthen floor, stone walls) warehouse is a fascinating sight to see. There are hundreds of casks, of three different sizes – Bourbon barrels from America, the larger hogshead cask, and the very large Sherry butts, each one being used no more than 3 times, or up to a maximum of 60 years. There are between 6 and 7 million casks of whisky maturing at any one time in Scotland, and with the entire population being around 5 million, that’s enough for one each and plenty to go round!
At one end of the warehouse, we get to see the famous Royal Salute Vault, with it’s leather armchair, writing desk, and precious stores of Royal Salute. The name comes from an old Naval tradition, of firing a cannon shot into the water as ships from another country approached, indicating parley. The Queen confers a Royal Salute from the Tower of London when a head of state visits. There are the emerald, sapphire and ruby flagons of the Chivas Royal Salute, the rarer 100 cask selection, the fabulous Tribute to Honour, and even a small quantity of Royal Salute from the Queen’s coronation in 1953 – which we hear may be presented to a certain young couple on the birth of their new baby!
We are reminded by our guide that the whisky here is evaporating at a rate of 2% per year, known as ‘the angels share’. Over 12 years that means one quarter of the liquid in the cask is gone, so the distillery has to distill double what it expects to sell. If you are ever lucky enough to visit such a warehouse, take a deep breath in of this quite magical air, remember the lovely aroma, then, if you ever get to heaven, you can close your eyes and imagine you’re back in Speyside!
From here we go to the tasting room, to sample some delights laid out for us by Colin Scott, master blender. This is strictly for work and research purposes, remember! We tasted first the Strathisla single malt, then a grain whisky used in the blending, next we tried the Chivas Regal 12 year old, then the 21 year old Royal Salute, and our final tasting treat was the Chivas Regal 25 year old – which Jim Murray describes in the Whisky Bible as ‘beautiful… unbelievably juicy and mouthwatering…unadulterated class… leaves you demanding another glass.. brilliant’. He was clearly as taken with it as we were, so much so that when it was launched in 2010 it won the Scotch blend of the year (18 years and over). We did try to ask how much Strathisla goes into the Chivas blend – Colin’s answer to this was ‘enough’ - other such percentage related questions were met with the same answer! The man is clearly a master of his art, and the tasting session was a very enjoyable part of the day, although, as already stated, all in the line of duty for The Whisky Shop!
We had a fantastic day at Strathisla, and would thoroughly recommend a visit to anyone who can take the opportunity to do the same.
Lorna & Anna