Search This Blog

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Distillery in Detail: Edradour Distillery!

The first distillery experience on the mainland during my pilgrimage to Scotland was a very special one. For quite some time Edradour was the smallest single malt distillery in Scotland, and it's still positively tiny when compared to 99% of its fellow Scots. Located in a small valley in Perthshire, around 2 hours north of Edinburgh and 10 minutes south-east of the very pretty town of Pitlochry, the distillery tours and visitor's centre are quite popular with tourists, no doubt thanks to its very scenic surroundings, the very well equipped gift shop, and the separate tasting bar that is open to touring visitors, boasting a very large range and very reasonable prices. In fact Edradour is one of the most visited whisky distilleries in Scotland, and after my visit I can certainly see why. Thanks to Edradour & Signatory's Australian importer The Whisky Company I was lucky enough to get a personal tour from distillery manager Des McHagerty, who graciously gave me a very close look at both the distillery and its equipment, and the whiskies they produce!

Edradour was founded in 1837 as a farm distillery, and after a few changes of ownership the distillery ended up in the hands of the Pernod Ricard group of companies. But in 2002 it was deemed surplus to requirements, since Pernod had acquired Chivas Brothers and their distilleries not long before. It was snapped up by Andrew Symington, who along with his brother Brian owned independent bottling company Signatory Vintage, and had been keeping a close eye on what was (and still is) one of his favourite distilleries with the hope of eventually buying it. The distillery really is postcard-level beautiful, especially on a rare sunny day, and is very much what you imagine when you think of a small-scale traditional and 'romantic' Scottish whisky distillery, so I can see why Andrew first fell in love with the place! If you're not venturing too far from Edinburgh, I highly recommend stopping in here for a tour and a dram, it was definitely one of the highlights of my time on the mainland.

Edradour's still house, home to all of the production equipment!

While no longer growing its barley on site (it's now mostly sourced from Bairds Maltings in Inverness), the original farm buildings are still home to the distillery's equipment, and the distillery remains very "old school" and as original as possible, which certainly adds to its appeal. As much of the production process as possible is done by hand, despite there only being 2-3 production staff, and you'll find a very traditional setup in that old original farm building. The distillery uses wooden washbacks, an open-topped cast iron mash tun, very small copper pot stills with worm tub condensers and a spirit purifier (as does Ardbeg), and a Morton refrigerator (heat exchanger) which is used to cool the wort before yeast is added.

Above you can see the 4200-litre wash still on the left, and the 2200-litre spirit still on the right. For a point of reference here, the Islay giant Caol Ila Distillery's three wash stills are 19,000-litres each in capacity, while each of the three spirit stills hold 12,000-litres, so these really are very, very small! These small stills with their downward-angled lyne arms, and the two worm tub condensers, give Edradour's spirit a lovely oily, chewy and sweet spirit that works very well with a range of different casks. The distillery also has its own bottling line on site, which is quite uncommon in the industry, and negates the need for both Edradour and Signatory Vintage whiskies to be shipped in tankers to industrial-scale centralised bottling facilities.

One of Edradour's wormtub condensers. It was great to finally see one of these in action!

The small scale of the distillery is largely down to spacial restrictions, with all of the production equipment located in a single building, one of the original farm buildings in fact. As such there's only two washbacks and a single pair of stills, but there is a second distillery being built on site, which is on the other side of the Edradour burn (creek) that runs through the site. This new facility will have its own pair of small stills, to the same design and size as the originals, including the worm tub condensers and spirit purifier. It will be very exciting to see what Andrew and his team do with this new capacity, and I'm sure there are big things ahead!

The new second distillery being built on site, which should come online shortly.

This additional distillery has been very carefully designed to offer the same characteristics as the current one, but on a larger scale with six new wooden washbacks and an additional larger racked warehouse. The new distillery will initially produce around 200,000 litres of new make spirit per year, which will bring Edradour up to approximately 325,000 litres per year, with the potential for further production increases in the future. That's still tiny by Scotch whisky industry standards, but is a substantial increase for this little Highland distillery. The new distillery was still being setup during my visit, and it was a real treat to see the shiny new stills and equipment sitting in place waiting for the proverbial switch to be flicked.

The shiny new stills in their protective plastic wrapping.

Edradour use a large range of cask types to mature their whisky, including a lot of uncommon wine and fortified wine casks, such as Chardonnay and Madeira, Bordeaux and Sauternes casks, and crucially the vast majority of Edradour bottlings are fully matured in those casks, rather than being "finished" or "double matured" in those casks for short periods. There are around 5000 Edradour casks stored on site, along with around 1000 Signatory Vintage casks from various distilleries, and neither entity produces any whisky for blends, it's all bottled as single malt, often even from a single cask. The majority of warehousing on site is traditional earthen-floored dunnage style, although the racked warehouses are still earthen-floored and are typically only stacked 4-5 casks high, so they're essentially a combination of both styles. Edradour do remind me of a smaller scale Bruichladdich in a lot of ways, from the totally manual and very "hands on" production, to the open-topped iron mash tun and wooden washbacks, and especially in their use of uncommon wine casks and unusual limited bottlings. They also don't add any colouring to their whiskies, and aside from the entry-level Edradour 10-year old which is bottled at 40% ABV, none of their expressions are chill filtered, which is great to see.

    One of Edradour's dunnage warehouses, also home to some Signatory casks.

There are over 25 Edradour expressions in the current range, including the heavily peated (to 50 ppm) Ballechin expressions (10-year old reviewed here) which were first distilled in 2003 and are named after a long-extinct farm distillery that was located a few miles from Edradour and was known for its peated whisky. I was lucky enough to try quite a few of these drams at the incredible tasting bar at the distillery, staffed by Alan, a very friendly and helpful gent that was very accommodating. These drams included some very rare and unusual bottlings of both Edradour and Ballechin, and I was able to take a few tasting notes and first impressions after the tour. The gift shop also offers a couple of different distillery exclusive single cask bottlings, so naturally I had to try some of those as well! 

I started off with the very nice 15-year old "Fairy Flag" sherry cask-finished expression of Edradour to get into the mood, then went for the one pictured above, a 12-year old "Straight From the Cask" (SFTC) Edradour that was fully matured in a single Chardonnay wine cask, and was bottled at cask strength without any colouring or chill filtration. Extremely rich, sweet and fruity, the Chardonnay cask had really worked well with the heavy, oily Edradour spirit, even at "only" 12 years of age. This was an absolutely fantastic drop, and I just had to stop in and buy one of these on my way past the distillery at the end of the trip!

Next up was one of the oldest Edradour expressions to date, a 21-year old that was matured in ex-bourbon barrels for almost 10 years, then transferred into Oloroso sherry casks for a further 12 years. So "Oloroso cask finish" doesn't really tell the full story! This one was also bottled at cask strength, and was also very rich and fruity, but with a darker character and a lovely musty, spicy flavour from the sherry casks that was just delicious. And having the opportunity to taste a 21-year old cask strength whisky, at the distillery it came from, is not something to be taken lightly!

Then I was treated to something pretty special and very unusual. While this is an un-peated Edradour whisky, it was matured in a cask that previously held a heavily peated Islay whisky, hence the "PTM" acronym: Peated Through Maturation. But that wasn't just any Islay whisky cask, it was a Signatory Vintage Port Ellen cask! Now that's not something you see every day! The Edradour spirit spent 14 years in that ex-Port Ellen cask before being bottled at cask strength, and it made for a delicious combination of the sweet, oily Edradour spirit with soft influences of coastal peaty-ness. And what an idea!

Then we were in to the heavily peated Ballechins, starting with this Straight From The Cask bottling that was fully matured in a single Port cask for 13 years, before being bottled at cask strength with no colouring or chill filtration. This was yet another delicious dram, with sweet strawberries balancing with a musty, earthy peat and a very nice waxy red fruit finish. These SFTC expressions are also 500 ml bottlings, which helps to keep the cost down to a very reasonable level.

Then we were into the first of two distillery exclusive single cask Ballechin bottlings. This expression pictured above was fully matured in a Sauternes dessert wine cask for 10 years, before being bottled at 58.5%, without any added colouring or chill filtration. Despite being a cask strength 700 ml bottling that was fully matured in an exotic wine cask, this was very reasonably priced at just 69 pounds from the distillery shop. It was a very interesting dram too, and was a lot dryer than I had expected with the sweet wine cask maturation. There was a lot of musty white grape on the nose, with the peat hidden away until you took a sip, when it showed itself as a lovely ashy smoke alongside the fruit.

The last dram of the visit was the second of the distillery exclusive Ballechins, and was my favourite of the range. This one is another 10-year old cask strength bottling, naturally coloured and non-chill filtered, and also selling for a very reasonable 69 pounds from the distillery shop. The difference here is that this one was fully matured in a single Madeira wine cask, before being bottled at 59.1%. And it was absolutely delicious, and dangerously drinkable! Sweet and thick on the nose with roasted nuts and lightly burnt caramel, the palate was also gorgeous, with dark maple syrup sweetness and a little soft smoke and earthy peat behind. Unfortunately I couldn't squeeze one of these into my suitcase, so I went for the smaller Chardonnay-matured Edradour instead, but I'll be leaving some more room in my luggage on the next visit!

As you can probably tell, this was one fantastic distillery experience, and I can't thank Des, Andrew and Alan enough for their hospitality, and for all of their hard work in general! And a huge thanks must go to Craig from The Whisky Company, the Australian importer of both Edradour and Signatory Vintage, for organising such a brilliant visit to this little gem of a distillery. Craig has a great range of Edradour, Ballechin and Signatory bottlings on his website, so make sure you check them out! Naturally I also highly recommend that you check out Edradour Distillery if you're making your pilgrimage to Scotland. It's a unique experience and really gives a close-up and approachable view of the entire whisky making process that is somewhat easier to relate to than its bigger, more industrial cousins. I'm already looking forward to the next time!