Here is my sixth report on a visit to a distillery in the Speyside and it’s finally one that I toured. (Previous stops were at Cragganmore, Glenfiddich, Strathisla, Glen Moray and Glen Grant.) I was very much looking forward to this visit as I’d heard a lot about their distillery exclusive bottles and was hoping to taste and purchase one of each, and certainly at least the ex-bourbon cask they’re said to always have on offer. And the tour itself has a very good reputation—it’s one of those that is always recommended by whisky geeks to people making their first visit to the Speyside. Well, I was disappointed on one score and pleased on the other.
I might as well start with the disappointment as it came first. I asked about the fill-your-own options in the little shop/visitor centre by the entrance to the distillery (even smaller than Cragganmore’s) and was told that they’d not had a true fill-your-own for a while, and that to boot at the time they were completely out of the pre-bottled distillery exclusives. Just my luck. The tour, however, did turn out to be very good, though things didn’t get off to a great start there either. First, I was a little surprised to have to pay for the sample bottles in which to take away the little bits of whisky that are part of the tasting at the end of the tour (my friend Daniel and I were both driving). This was the case at Highland Park a week later as well, but everywhere else I’ve been, the sample bottles have been complimentary. As far as I can tell, very few people ask for these and so it surprises me that a company like Pernod-Ricard feels the need to charge visitors £3 for them.
Then there was a bit of an annoyance with the start of the tour. We were doing the basic tour; it was supposed to start at 10 am. We were all milling around outside and at 10.10 the guide came out of the shop to say that they were waiting for one more person who was signed up to show up. Five minutes later she came out again and this time she mentioned the name of the person we were waiting for. Oh, that’s me, said a woman who’d been standing with us all along! Apparently, she had not checked in at the shop. But to be fair, nowhere in the booking process had it said to check in at the shop—we only did it ourselves because we wanted to let them know we’d be driving after the tour. And they could have just done a head count of the people waiting outside instead of waiting for the person to check in. This delay was to screw us a little at the end.
The tour itself, I am glad to report, was very good once it got started. Our guide, Kirsten, was good-humoured and knowledgeable and kept the marketing flim-flam to a minimum. It was a pleasant group (nobody was drunk at 10 am—which, alas, cannot be taken for granted on distillery tours in Scotland, as we discovered later at Tomatin). Though we did have one member of the party who at one point turned out to have been eavesdropping on my friend’s questions to me about a production issue Kirsten had mentioned and took it upon himself to give us an unwanted lecture on caramel colouring etc., completely unmoved by our absolute lack of interest. Please do not be that guy if you go on a distillery tour.
The tour is quite comprehensive. Aberlour does not have floor maltings, so you don’t start there. Instead there’s a nice bit of talk about the history of the distillery and the town, most of it in a room with some very nice old photographs (I am always a sucker for old photographs, especially of distilleries). From there we went on to the production areas. Alas, Aberlour—like all the group’s distilleries—does not allow photographs in production areas. And so I can show you none of that except for a picture of the stills, which I was allowed to take from outside the still house door. I can tell you that the distillery was in production when we were there and so it was bloody hot inside. In a first for me, we were offered sips of the wash to try—both Daniel and I did, and we both liked the beer (later we got to taste the new make it was distilled into as well). The production bits are no different than they are at any other distillery and if you’ve done many other tours that will not hold anything new for you (beyond getting to taste the wash). However, for a first-timer—like Daniel—it was quite thorough and interesting.
Emerging from the still house we popped into Warehouse No. 1 for a quick look. No photography was allowed in there either. I think that in the past the tours culminated in a tasting in this warehouse and that it was here that the fill-your-own casks were located. If I’m wrong about that, please let me know. The tasting portion of our tour was not in here, however. We went across the yard and upstairs to a nice, clubby tasting room with long tables that had already been set up with tasting flights. There were two casks in here but neither was set up for bottling (at least not that I could tell). There was a delay here as well as our guide disappeared for a bit. When she came back the tasting began. There were six pre-poured portions in each person’s flight (and the pours were not very consistent—I got about 10 ml of a few and trace amounts of a few). The first of these was the new make, which we were interested to try. After that were a 12 yo ex-bourbon cask, a 12 yo ex-sherry butt and the regular 10 and 16 yo; the flight culminated with the A’bunadh (Batch 61, I want to say). Of these, we only tasted the new make there, filling our purchased sample bottles with the rest.
The tasting seemed like it would have been interesting anyway, as Kirsten continued to talk about their production process. Alas, between the delay at the start of the tour and the delay at the start of the tasting, Daniel and I had to leave to catch up with our families for lunch. In the rush to leave, we failed to ask if the larger tasting glasses on the flights were ours to keep—if so, we left ours behind. I also did not have time to ask Kirsten about the fate of the fill-your-own casks. I certainly hope that those two casks in the room (one ex-bourbon and one ex-sherry) were not, in contradiction to what I had been told in the shop, tapped at the end of the tasting.
The distillery itself is quite small, though it does not feel as compact as Strathisla. The aesthetic of the visitor centre—as you can tell—is similar to that of Strathisla and also Glen Grant. And the tasting room was also of the clubby kind now quite common at many Scottish distilleries. What the Fleming Rooms—pictured in a couple of photographs below—are for I’m not sure, but they looked fancier still from the outside.
Launch the slideshow to take a look at the pictures of the parts of the distillery I was allowed to photograph. If you can i.d any of the buildings/structures or correct any errors please do so below. Scroll down for some final thoughts on the comparative quality of the tour and to see what’s coming next.
So, what’s my take on the tour as a whole? Well, I have not toured any other distilleries in the Speyside and so cannot tell you if the Aberlour tour is the best in the area. I can tell you that it is very good indeed. Still though far better than Talisker’s perfunctory tour, it’s not the best tour I’d be on till that point—both Bowmore and Laphroaig on Islay were better. And it was not the best tour on this trip either: Tomatin, Highland Park and especially Pulteney were quite a bit better and more comprehensive. But the average visitor to Scotland is unlikely to go to Orkney on their first trip and as good as the Pulteney tour is, it’s not enough reason to go to Wick. So if the Speyside is where you’re going and you’re only going to do one tour, Aberlour’s standard tour is certainly a good one. At £15 it costs a bit more than most others (well, it costs 3x Glen Moray’s) but you get to taste the wash and the new make and five more whiskies besides. That’s not a bad deal even if you don’t in fact get to keep the tasting glass (please tell me you don’t). But if you’re going to be tooling around the Inverness/Drumnadrochit area as well, and are only looking to do one tour, I think Tomatin’s basic tour is superior. If you are going to do the tour at Aberlour, keep in mind that they only do two a day and that they fill up quickly in peak season: make your bookings early on their website.
Up next: a review of a widely available Aberlour. I still have a bunch of distillery reports to post: quick stops at Glenfarclas, Balblair, Clynelish and Scapa, and more in-depth reports of tours at Pulteney, Highland Park and Tomatin. Not to mention, a micro-report on a certain micro-distillery in Dornoch. I’ll try to get them all out before the end of August. And I still have reports on whisky stores in Edinburgh plus meals in Edinburgh, the Speyside and Orkeny to write up as well. It’s a good thing I’m paid so well to write this blog.