Visiting Strathisla Distillery
Strathisla Distillery must be one of the most picturesque distilleries in the world. It is just plain beautiful. You just want to move in a live there happily ever after. But… I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start over.
A few weeks back I visited Strathisla Distillery, for the second time. My first visit was about three years ago. It was just a quick pit stop, though. Ten minutes in the distillery shop, then a couple of pictures outside, and back in the bus.
This time it was to be a proper visit. With plenty of time to go in depth.
The distillery was established in 1786, and the original name was Milltown. Soon after it changed name to Milton Distillery. In 1870 it changed name to Strathisla, in 1890 it was back to Milton Distillery. In 1950 Chivas Brothers bought he distillery and a year later changed the name back to Strathisla.
Strathisla Distillery is the “spiritual home” of the very popular blended whisky Chivas Regal. Strathisla single malt is not necessarily the main component of the different expressions in the Chivas Regal series of products though.
The first half of the name Strathisla, “strath”, means a valley with sloping hills, whereas a more ‘proper’ valley surrounded by steeper hills or mountains is called a “glen”. The second half of the name is taken from the local river “Isla”.
A fun fact is that Strathisla is the only distillery to officially have been located in three different whisky regions without ever having moved physically. Initially Strathisla was defined as being within the Lowland region; the region border located just across the river Isla. Then the region borders were re-defined, and Strathisla was placed within the Highland region. Finally the “region” (actually “protected locality”) Speyside was defined, and now Strathisla was a Speyside distillery.
Strathisla Distillery is located in Keith, in the heart of Speyside. The easiest way to get there is to fly in to Aberdeen Airport, then hire a car. Follow the A96 for about aan hours and you are there.
Arriving at the distillery the first thing that meets you is the beautiful old distillery houses, with the iconic pagoda roofs. It is so pretty you just have to stop and take pictures – lots of pictures.
After the initial photo shoot we were taken on a tour of the distillery.
Here are a few notes I made on the tour:
- The mill we was shown was 53 years old, and still going strong.
- Production is currently at 3 000 000 litres annually
- The distillery is in 24 hour operation, 5 days a week
- Fermentation is typically 52 hours, but over the weekends it is around 100 hours
- During distillation the heart is taken from from 70 % ABV to 65 % ABV
- The newmake is casked at 63 % ABV
In the warehouse we got to taste a very unique Chivas Regal. They had a 1st fill Oloroso sherry butt filled with Chivas 25 YO, vatted but still at cask strength. The spirit had been in the butt for around two years by now, and the strength was at around 55 % ABV. And it was a really impressive dram. A true sherry bomb, very rich and fruity in character.
Any below par or off-profile whisky detected during the regular quality control of matured whisky, is sold off to India, to be included as a small component of Scotch in many popular molasses based Indian whisky products. We were told that Chivas Brothers ship a full tanker to India per day. However, this does not mean there is a lot of off-profile whisky produced by the company; good quality / on-profile whisky will always be used to fulfill the orders.
Now that I look back on my notes, I am sure they must have meant one tanker per week, though, rather than one per day. Googling 'tanker size' I understand a typical tanker is anywhere between 25 000 and 35 000 litres. Now, let's say they ship on average 30 000 litres at a time. One tanker per day will result in almost 11 million litres per year (365 days). That equals the full production capacity of Glenlivet today! Even with only one tanker per regular work day we end up with 6 million litres! If, however, we use the more moderate estimate of one tanker per week, we end up with around 1.5 million litres. Either way this makes for a very significant business deal!
There is today only one widely available core range whisky from the distillery, the Strathisla 12 YO. Most of the production goes into the Chivas Regal range of products. The Chivas Regal is predominantly a Speyside blend. It was launched as the world’s first luxury blended whisky as a 25 YO as early as 1909.
After prohibition the Chivas Regal was relaunched as a 12 YO expression to keep up with the increased demands on stock. The Chivas Regal 12 YO then remained the only product in the series up until 1997 when the Chivas Regal 18 YO was launched.
After the tour and warehouse visit we has a tasting where the following was served:
- Strathisla newmake, 67,5 %
- A very drinkable newmake, with notes of hay, nuts, and apples. Malty and rich.
- Strathisla 12 YO, 40 %
- Vatted Grain 12 YO, 40 %
- A vatting consisting of grain whisky used in Chivas Regal, produced at Strathclyde and Girvan
- Chivas Regal 12 YO, 40 %
- Chivas Regal Extra, 40 %
- An expression with a higher proportion of sherry casks than the others, priced between the 12 YO and the 18 YO
- Chivas Regal 18 YO Gold Signature, 40 %
- Chivas Regal Ultis
- A new product that I will take a closer look at in a separate review.
Ingvar Rönde’s brilliant Malt Whisky Yearbook 2017 states that Strathisla sees about 15 000 visitors per year. That is way too low a number, whisky fans! Get off your collective behind and get thee to this pretty little gem of a distillery.
Sláinte! - Thomas
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Please note that my visit to Strathisla Distillery was a press trip sponsored by Pernod Ricard / Chivas Brothers. All the text and the opinions are my own, but you deserve to know.