Distillery Tour: Glenfarclas

For this post, a departure: not a whisky review, but a distillery tour review, of Glenfarclas. This was my first tour of a distillery, so the whole thing was new and fascinating. That’s fortunate, as I had planned no less than nine tours for our two-week vacation in Scotland. Frankly, my wife was dubious, but she came to really enjoy them. As we progressed across the whisky-making regions of Scotland, we did six other tours and learned that no two tours are the same. We also discovered aspects of the distillery experience we did not expect, and fortunately, we both found compelling. Onward! (Note, most photos can be clicked for higher res images.)

Glenfarclas Lobby Shop. You can see the entrance to the tasting room at the far end.
Glenfarclas rare bottles. Can’t buy these, but…

Glenfarclas is about 20 minutes south of Dufftown. It’s set in a broad valley, which you can see in a flyover view here, at their website. The entrance is easy to miss driving south, so if you find yourself up among the piney hills, you’ve gone too far.

You’ll gather in a lounge off the lobby. I couldn’t sit for long, I was too busy gazing at all the rare bottles (pic at right) they had on display. Not all were off-limits, there were some old releases (the Family Casks) still available for the (very) well-heeled.

…the Family Casks can be bought. My birthyear bottle was about £3K, if I remember correctly. Click for hi-res.

We were shepherded by our hostess for the morning, Kirstin, and we headed outside to the millhouse. Fortunately, we had a bright, sunny morning, so everyone was in good humor. Our guide proved to be witty, a touch arch and quite refreshing. That was one aspect of our tours we grew to appreciate — at most of the distilleries, the guides felt comfortable being themselves, and they proved to be quite an enjoyable lot.

In the millhouse, we were introduced to the raw ingredients. Kirstin passed around jars of ripe barley and the malted end product. Note, they do not malt on site, so we were in a shipping bay where malt is brought in. But we all had the opportunity to try munching some malted barley, that was exciting. Tastes pretty good.

Next up we met their one milling machine, and I found it surprising that they had no backup for this critical machine. Kirstin explained that these machines were so reliable that the company which made them went out of business. The mill at Glenfarclas is relatively new (1960s model I believe) and kind of bland in appearance. (I have better photos of older mills still in production in future tour reviews.) We passed by a big electrical panel with important-looking red lights and switches. I was impressed that they Glenfarclas folks trusted complete strangers to keep their hands to themselves. As I learned at all these tours, you really climb around in the guts of these facilities.

Up a steel staircase from the mill, Glenfarclas has a lovely malt de-stoner, pictured below. I find this hilarious as I live in a town where cannabis is legal. We could use a de-stoner.

At one time in my life the studious label of the de-stoner would have sent me into fits of laughter. The dresser evokes its name with a touch of attractive woodwork, a hallmark of malt distilleries: custom handiwork.
The mash tun. Nuff said.

Next we marched into the heart of the distillery and met their mash tun. At 16.5 tonnes capacity, this stainless steel beast is an indication of Glenfarclas’s industrial focus: modern equipment, run efficiently. But this is industry at a small scale. At 3.5 million liters per year, their output is a fraction of true giants like Macallan. (I lost many notes when I destroyed my phone later on the journey, but I’m remembering that Glenfarclas brings in about 10 tonnes of malt per week, whereas Macallan would use that in less than a day.) You could call Glenfarclas a boutique maker: they boast modest production levels and focus only on unpeated, sherry-cask-aged releases. They pursue their niche with well-capitalized, modern efficiency. There are no Oregon pine washbacks or bragging about old-time methods. Everything about the place conveys a sense of focus and attention to detail.

Spick and span is Glenfarclas. Underneath the big Tun Room.

The facilities are spectacularly well-kept and clean, as you can see from the photos. Efficiency leads to opportunity; our guide boasted that in the downturns of the industry, the owners of Glenfarclas, a family-run concern ( J. & G. Grant), always expanded their contracts. Their good management is evident in the way they deliver an excellent product at very reasonable retail prices. They find efficiency in bottling and malting offsite. The heart of the process, distilling and aging, is handled here.

No worries taking photos at Glenfarclas.

Next up was the still house (click to expand photo at left.) There was no wash running at the time; maybe that’s why we were able to photograph (other distilleries disallowed photography in their still houses). The wash still reads 28,000 liters. That’s a fairly big still — compare to Caol Isla, no slouch in production whose wash stills are 19,000 liters. The stills are highly polished at Glenfarclas, not a job I would relish. A real industrial work of art, the whole of the still house, and topping all, the pièce de résistance: their spirit safe.

Keep it secret, keep it safe.

Spirit safes, from the grungier facilities like Bunnahabhain (review coming) to spiff places like Glenfarclas, are always gorgeous, the jewel in the crown of any distillery.

If the spirit safe is the heart of a distillery, this is the brain.

Yet I always keep a lookout for organic decrepitude. It’s an aesthetic interest I have: as beautiful as we can make any piece of equipment, the natural wear, tear and grunge that accumulates from time and heavy use adds an air of history and accidental art to ordinary objects. Such a subject is tough to find at Glenfarclas, but find it I did: the control center of their still house. Can’t you just imagine the malt master sipping a cup of coffee as he pores over the temperatures and pressures? I’m leaving this photo at full res so you can click it and zoom in on all the cool buttons and gauges. Check out the gloves under the desk, how all the switches require a key, the old brass padlock. Add a lovely patina of wear and yes, (rare for Glenfarclas) a touch of grime.

Warehouse 1, with guide.

On to the great old dunnage (stone walled, dirt floor) warehouse. We were not allowed to wander about the casks (there’s a rope across the way). Some places let you do that, other distilleries have their casks behind gates and do not allow photography at all for fear of explosion. (I found that a weak excuse after photographing in several warehouses). We had a good view of the place and of some casks dating back to the 1950s.

Barrels stacked 3 high, as per tradition.

On to tasting. The tasting room sports very intricately carved woodwork, as it is all salvaged from an old steamship’s lounge. Click on the photo below for super detail.

A room that is quite…tasteful. Sorry,

We had the basic tour, which comes with two tastes, the 10 and if I remember correctly, the 15. You can see my little bottle there, that’s for drivers.

Two for my baby, and one more for (after) the road.

Altogether, Glenfarclas was a delightful introduction to distillery tours. They have a spit-and-polish air and a no-nonsense approach to production. Their packaging is similarly no-nonsense — nothing fancy, as you can see from the photos of the lobby shop: they’ve had the same style, the Glenfarclas script and Roman font describing the release on a square tan label, their stout-shouldered bottle, for many years.

Is it worth the drive out of Dufftown? Absolutely. We enjoyed the lively guide and cheerful tasting room atmosphere. It was great education and entertainment for about $10 US. And that included a discount certificate in the lobby shop, which helped buy us a bottle of the 15-year-old to take home. As with other distilleries, there are more in-depth tasting tours available. Certainly recommended.


Author: H.W. MacNaughton

Technologist and communicator. Into technology, jazz, Formula One, sci-fi and any good writing about real stuff.

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