It’s first light. Andy steps out from his home on the hill above the Glenmorangie Distillery. The view is of the Dornoch Firth and The North Sea beyond, but soon the distillery hoves into view, just a quick quarter of a mile march downhill.
“I’m lucky, taking pleasure in going to work,” says Andy MacDonald, the Glenmorangie Distillery Manager. “Honestly, it puts a spring in my step. Not everyone can say that, but most of us who work here can. The distillery is extraordinary. We’re in stunning surrounds. And we make something consistently marvellous. I can’t believe work gets much better than that.
“Glenmorangie is in great demand. It’s Scotland’s favourite single malt whisky and the international appetite for it is growing fast. Our production is almost 24/7, as they say. So when I arrive in the morning I’m checking up on what I’ve missed, what’s happened through the night, making sure all the little details are just so, every measurement spot on. I enter through the mash house and make my way to the stillhouse, the best sight of the day, the best sound of the day.”
First Sight, First Sound
“I remember clearly the first time I saw the stills. It was 10 years ago and Dr Bill Lumsden, the Director of Distilling & Whisky Creation, had invited me to meet him here. He was so enthusiastic, passionate about every aspect of the production and the place and, of course, he gave the stills a big introduction. But he could have said nothing and I’d still have been amazed because they’re simply mesmerising.
“I love to look at them, love to hear them too. They’re the tallest in Scotland, entirely unique to Glenmorangie, completely necessary to our complex whiskies. The gentle sound they make is music to my ears.
“I’ve worked in the whisky industry all my life. I know lots of excellent whisky is made from smaller stills. But here at Glenmorangie, well, the difference is clear. It’s not just the sight and sound of them. It’s what they bring to the taste, a unique quality. I truly believe our single malts are the best in the business, the zenith of whisky production. And the tall stills play no small part in that…”
Why So Tall?
Well, here’s some background…
In the mid-19th century our founder, William Matheson, bought Morangie Farm on the shores of the Dornoch Firth. Here, in the far north of Scotland - where the air is crystalline, where the spring waters are chill and mineral, where the barley bends in the breeze - he began whisky production. Experimenting with two unusually tall stills he was able to produce a smooth spirit which even then was noted for its elegance. Today, 170 years later, our twelve stills are closely modelled on Matheson’s innovative originals, but their remarkable height is just one aspect of the acknowledged lengths we go to in making our award winning whiskies.
Why such lengths? We are in pursuit of perfection, making the most of nature’s bounty and bringing our own passion and expertise to bear on it. There are simpler, shorter routes in whisky production, but not in creating something of genuine quality. We use the finest barley. We are no doubt fortunate in enjoying lavish levels of that much maligned Scottish resource, rainfall. We are uncompromising in using the tallest stills. And we are favoured with the foresight of our founder in setting our distillery beside the Tarlogie Spring where that rainfall reappears a hundred years after it has first fallen, deliciously filtered and enriched by ancient stone. We travel the world seeking the best wood for our casks, using them judiciously, imaginatively and only ever twice on our flagship expression, Glenmorangie Original.
It’s what we like to call Unnecessarily Well Made. You can certainly taste it, though much of it goes unseen. Yet our soaring stills are very visible, justly famous. People travel from across the globe to see them, those who simply like whisky and those aficionados who love Glenmorangie. Sometimes there’s an awed silence from visitors when they enter the stillhouse, a cathedral like hush amidst the hum of industry, for they are things of beauty in themselves, their elegant necks, their considered curvature. Like the finished product itself, these copper giantesses have a sensual power and their purpose is no less than alchemy.
Our founder was pioneering, eschewing the traditional onion-shaped cauldrons for the towering copper-necked stills which have become key to creating our extraordinary whisky. He discovered that only the freshest, most delicate alcohol vapours can reach the top, in our case, the necks at 5.14 metres high, almost 17 feet, the height of a fully grown adult male giraffe! The taller the still, the purer the spirit which finally flows through. It’s this superior spirit which we take and add flavour to through careful cask maturation. Only then can we sit back and let nature take its course. We’d put our feet up if we could, but there’s always more to be done, demand to be met! And anyway, we’re talking about passing years, not fleeting moments. And so it is that over time the precious liquid takes on something of the chosen cask, something of the Highland air as well. The result is a whisky of great stature. Take some time. Enjoy a dram and raise your glass (to the heights).