One of my most inspired birthday presents for my husband was membership of the Scotch Malt Whisky society. Over the years we’ve enjoyed sampling malts from all over Scotland but knew very little about how it is made.
When I saw the competition being run by The Glenrothes for four people to become a whisky maker at their distillery in Speyside for a week, I was very keen to win to find out more. Out of 8,000 entries from all over the world, I was chosen together with Elliott from Idaho, Hao Shen from Taiwan and Tony from Scotland. I am still pinching myself, I can tell you!
The village of Rothes has around 1200 inhabitants and is located 10 miles from Elgin in Speyside, Scotland. It is home to no less than 5 distilleries – whisky making started there in 1840. The Glenrothes was founded in 1879. Nowadays, 5% of the production is bottled as malts – the Special Reserve described by whisky writer Charles McLean (who just happened to be one of the judges of the competition) as “Sweet, rich and fruit; a heavy style of Speyside”.
Our base for the week was Rothes House, just 5 minutes walk from the distillery – just look at the view! We had exceptional weather all week, rain on just one day. Brand Ambassador Ronnie Cox was our guide, mentor and teacher throughout the week.
As you can imagine, a lot of preparation was needed in the months up to our visit. The distillery is not open to general visitors, and we going to have access to all areas to experience and take part in every process. After an induction, we were provided with coat, safety hat and safety shoes to be worn at all times.
Throughout an amazing week, we followed and participated in the whisky making process from discovering the Brauchill Spring to savouring and bottling our own particular choice from the Glenrothes’ casks.
Whisky Making Highlights
It’s a big distillery, but I swear if you were blindfold you could tell where you were: the toasty fresh baked bread smell in the mash tun area, the lively, intense fragrance when casks were being filled; the deeply satisfying smell of gently maturing casks.
This is palpable throughout the distillery. Everyone is passionate about what they do. We asked hundreds of questions and were with patience and delight as a particular process was explained.
Making and Doing
I just love the chance to take part in creating something. A particularly fine experience was attempting to assemble a whisky barrel. The distillery has its own cooperage repairing and remaking casks. It’s a difficult job trying to juggle all the staves! Filling barrels with new make spirit is rather like filling the car up with petrol, except rather than being over powered with petrol fumes, you can smell the spirits as it whooshes into the cask.
We also learnt how to cask the whisky – taking a sample out to test and to tell whether there were leaks and how to deal with them.
Mashing and Distilling
We watched the processes on the computer then peeked into each process to really understand what was going on.
The mash tun mightily turning as the ground malted barley has progressively hotter and hotter water added over 4 mashes, before being fermented in one of 20 wash backs.
Waiting in anticipating in the distillery as the foreshots (the first spirits which are blueish in colour which are not used for the whisky making) run through and the middle cut starts flowing (the very important part that will be used to create the whisky).
Nosing and Blending
Ever competitive, I was delighted to earn top marks identifying 7 flavours in a test – apparently I have a good nose! Smell is such an important part of tasting. We learnt how to “park” scents. You ignore the dominant one, such a vanilla, to get underneath to find the spice, citrus or fruit and of course, each and everyone has a different perspective.
Master Blender Gordon Motion explained how casks for a particular vintage are selected, painstaking work which can take many attempts to reach the perfect combination requested by Ronnie and his team.
The culmination of our stay at the Glenrothes was the chance to choose whisky from a single cask to put into our personalised bottles. We chose from 3 samples, savouring the flavours that would suit our palates. We wrote descriptions and filled our bottles. As just in case we want to keep them a while, we have a small sample bottle to savour!
Getting to know the Glenrothes Country and beyond
After busy days in the distillery, we tried fly fishing (a first for me) and had some memorable walks to discover the countryside, the source of the water for the malt and lovely meals. A highlight for me was dinner at the Laird’s house complete with piper to pipe us in – magical. And, back in Edinburgh on our last night discussing whisky with Charles MacLean was just the icing on the cake.
I think we all feel part of the Glenrothes family, we are certainly all now “vice ambassadors” for the brand. Fellow participants, Elliott, Hao Shen, Tony; all the staff at the distillery, Ronnie thank you for making it so special. What an adventure, never to be forgotten.
There is so much more to describe, but I will leave you there. I’d suggest signing up for the Glenrothes newsletter and enter the competition when it is run next year for your trip of a lifetime. In the meantime, do discover the videos of our trip.
Whisky Makers on YouTube
Do have a look at the short videos made during our whisky adventure.