Aberlour is a distillery that is well appreciated in France. You can find several core range releases in every hyper- and supermarket, and they’re the first single malt distillery in terms of sales in France, with back in 2018 a turnover of 40 million euros, while the number 2 in sales, Cardhu, was far behind at 25.9 million euros and the third, Glenfiddich, at 24.5 million euros. But before tasting a few Aberlour whiskies, let’s talk a (lengthy) bit about the distillery itself.
The life of James Fleming, founder of Aberlour Distillery
Year 1830 saw the birth of James Fleming, in the Tomfarclas farmhouse, lying south-west of Aberlour. James’ father was the tenant of that farm, part of the Ballindaloch estate. The farmer was raising beef cattle and growing barley and other cereals, and the young James helped him as soon as he was big enough. Though he was expected to take the tenancy of the farm in due course, James was of a delicate constitution, and his doctor ordered him to abandon farming and find something easier physically. So some time in the 1850s, James Fleming set up as a commission agent and dealer in the grain trade near Aberlour. Fleming was a hardworking man, and he quickly built an impressive list of clients that allowed him in 1865 to take on the lease of the Mill of Ruthrie. Ruthrie Glen is one of the names of a little valley through which flows the Lour on its way to the Spey. Fleming also became lessee of the distillery at Dailuaine, just two miles to the west. Whisky distilling was a convenient market for barley farmers so it made sense. And it was a very good investment for the future as the Scotch whisky industry was about to bloom thanks to a plague of phylloxera aphids which was going to devastate the French vineyards in the 1870s, and because of this, dry up supplies of wine and brandy. Many Englishmen were desperate for an alternative to their regular brandy and soda, and went to drink whisky instead. The demand for Scotch whisky exploded south of the border, but supply might not be enough.
James Fleming recognized the opportunity and seized it. He already ran Dailuaine distillery but it was a small distillery and the lease was about to expire. So he thought it would be best to plan and build is very own distillery. He was experienced, since he had been involved in whisky making and barley trading for a decade. He had premises with the long lease on the Mill of Ruthrie on the Lour burn. He had barley, and he had pure waters which sprang from the glen. Finally, he had money, as his business was successful, and in 1874 he had been appointed as a local agent for the North of Scotland Bank, which offices (and Fleming’s home) were in Aberlour’s main square. There was also rail transport, opening up distribution well outside the Spey Valley.
The conception of the distillery began around 1879. Fleming designed the buildings and the layout of the machinery inside. He obtained granite from the same quarry that had supplied the granite for the Craigellachie Bridge. He also hired as much local labour as possible, mostly from Aberlour itself. The building was complete by November 1880 and the production of whisky begun. When Alfred Barnard visited the distillery around 1886, he was surprised to discover that there was no steam power to drive all the machinery, but that the continuous flow of water from the Lour was sufficient. At the time, Barnard noted that the distillery’s annual output was 80.000 gallons of spirit (363.000 litres). The spirit was held in a spirit store vat with a capacity of 1.750 gallons, and 2.000 casks were maturing in the two bonded warehouses.
Fleming, with the success of Aberlour distillery, didn’t just bring prosperity to himself, but to the immediate community as well, as Aberlour distillery provided employment to local craftsmen and labourers. Farmers from the neighbourhood had a local and lucrative outlet for their barley, while the draff (the spent grains) was a cheap supply of food during winter for their livestock.
James Fleming married late and died without children. Fleming, during his life, helped the community a lot, by donating many of the lamps when gas lighting arrived in Aberlour, or by drawing up and financing the public hall (now known as Fleming Hall). But his most generous gifts were to be known after his death in 1895. In his will, he left £9.000 to build and equip a cottage hospital for the sick and poor of Aberlour and other nearby parishes. The Fleming Hospital opened in 1900 and had a huge influence on the improvement of health in the neighbourhood. Fleming also left £500 to build a suspension bridge across the Spey to Elchies.
Fleming is buried beneath a simply worded stone in Aberlour churchyard. He adopted a plain motto: “Let the Deed Show”, and boy, did they.
In 1892, Fleming was feeling old, having worked hard all his life. He was in his early sixties, and his first step was to sell Aberlour Distillery to Robert Thorne & Sons. The new owners had been intimately involved in the business since its creation, being routinely referred by Fleming as “my sole agents”, and he remained a substantial shareholder of the new company as well as the distillery manager. Thorne & Sons were in the whisky industry for longer than Fleming in fact, as their distillery in Greenock had been established back in 1824 and Thorne had taken it over in 1831 and soon became well known as a whisky distillery, blender and warehouse keeper. Thorne invested heavily in Aberlour distillery: improvement of the equipment to economize labour, improved kilns, malt grading and cleaning appliances, grist mills, mashing device, cooling appliances… At that time, everyone in the whisky trade was rushing to build new distilleries and expand existing ones, in order to satisfy the demand by expanding the production. While in 1892 they were 130 Scottish distilleries in operations, they would be 161 in 1898…
James Fleming died in 1895 and at that time, activity was at its height. A year later, Charles Doig of Elgin, the pre-eminent distillery architect at that time, was commissioned to design various additions to the Aberlour distillery. An extension to the tun room was planned as well as new filter tanks to cleanse the pot ale and prevent any pollution of the small river. The annual output of the distillery passed 80.000 gallons of pure alcohol per year, and the construction of two new Duty-Free warehouses started.
However, an unexpected event happened on a cold morning of January 1898, with a loud bang in the malt mill. A skylight was destroyed, but no one was that disturbed, as explosions in the mill room were not unusual. The mill itself could occasionally overheat, igniting the dry barley dust hanging in the air. The distillery workers stopped the mill and cleaned the mess, but they didn’t know a spark was remaining hidden, buried in the malt. The following night, Alexander Davidson, a carter, was sleeping in his house next to the distillery when he was abruptly woken up by an enormous crashing sound. He rushed outside his bed and his house to see that the malt barn was on fire. The roof had collapsed, and the flames were rapidly propagating to the other buildings.
Fire was a deep-rooted fear for distillery workers, as they are surrounded by thousands of casks and other reservoirs of highly inflammable and explosive spirit. And not only a fire could kill, it also meant destroying years of stock, seriously endangering the future of the distillery. Davidson rushed to the street to raise the alarm and soon the villagers, led by the distillery manager, were fighting against the fire with buckets of water from the burn (note the irony for a burn is a local synonym of a small river!) The wind helped them as it blew away the flames from the buildings, but when the fire was finally vanquished, the malt mill, the tun room, the still and mash houses were completely destroyed. The whisky in the store vat also exploded, though it was a minor explosion, and a way bigger one could have happened but the spirit received sprang a leak and the alcohol slowly burnt out.
The fire caused approximately £6.000 of damage to the distillery at the time (about £800.000 now). Malt, whisky and other materials were destroyed in large quantities, as well as the malt mill, tun room, still house, mash house, the brewer’s office and… probably less deeply mourned, the excise office with all its records.
But it was not a bankruptcy-inducing disaster, as the distillery was insured. Thorne’s used that opportunity to rebuild and remodel the whole distillery, once again with the help of Charles Doig as the architect, and only six months later, the restoration was complete and the production resumed. Buildings got larger, more modern and with more efficient machinery. Electric lighting was obtained from water power, and a tall 120-foot chimney dominated the site.
At the end of the year 1898 though, overproduction and falling demand caused the whisky industry to go from boom to bust. Many whisky merchants went bankrupt in the coming months. The fire in early January 1898 at Aberlour was a chance as would it have happened a year later, no one would have bothered to rebuild a burnt-out distillery as the demand had tanked.
Production continued to go down over the years. The efficiency and free water from the river at Aberlour helped to maintain low costs, but in the 1910-1911 season, distilling only took place in nine weeks and the output went down to just 21.000 gallons. Over the same dozen years, the number of distilleries in Scotland went from 161 down to 122. The start of the First World War in 1914 generated a brief surge of production up to 74.000 gallons, but in mid-1917, the UK Government banned all pot-distilling in order to maintain barley stocks. And thus, Aberlour as all the other distilleries, went silent for a year.
After the war, the excise duty went from 15 to 30 shillings a gallon, then an enormous 72 shillings in 1920. Moreover, The Robert Thorne & sons firm was no more, as when the four Thorne sons returned from war, they discovered their uncle William, who apparently made a fortune by liquidating companies, had bought out many of the minor shareholders of Thorne’s, taken control of the firm and dismantled it. The stocks were bought by the Canadian company Hiram Walker, and the Greenock distillery was sold to a sugar refinery next door and demolished shortly after.
Aberlour distillery itself, however, remained untouched. It was bought by W.H. Holt & Sons, a little-known firm from the Manchester neighbourhood. But during the next two decades, the output climbed quickly up to 200.000 gallons per season in 1924 before dropping down to an average of 150.000 gallons by the end of the 1930s. New equipments were installed to permit these results: a new draff drier, a new spirit still, new wooden malt bins (still here to this day!) Another important addition was the new coke towers and effluent collection beds (that you can also still see at the back of the distillery), for the cleaning of burnt ale and other liquid wastes before returning them to the Lour and thus participate in keeping the River Spey clean and healthy.
The Second World War started in 1939 and in 1940 the Scotch whisky was being rationed again. Excise duty also went up to 97 shillings per proof gallon. Grain distilling was forbidden in 1941 and pot-distilling strongly limited. Finally, Aberlour went once again silent from 1943 to 1945. During that time, Aberlour distillery changed owners twice. In 1942, W.H. Holt was bought by the entrepreneur James Donald Stewart, who himself sold the distillery, still closed, to S. Campbell & Son in 1944.
This was truly a new beginning for Aberlour as the new owner was a robust one. In 1954, barley import restrictions were lifted, and the rationing of Scotch whisky stopped. And at the same time, export markets were quickly opening, especially in the USA and in Europe. Samuel Campbell was also really appreciated by the distillery workers, as on his periodic visits, “the old man” would make a point to share hands to every employee, even the ones with the more coal-stained hands, as he would say, “those are the hands that make my money!” Campbell installed a new Duty Free warehouse and a new malt mill. In 1960 the stills went from direct fired to heating by internal steam coils. The malt floor was closed in favour of buying malt from specialist malters. Production went up quite quickly: from 124.000 gallons in the 1954-1955 season to 370.000 gallons ten years later! A season of whisky making was 9 months in length, going from September to June or July the next year. On the summer, it would be the silent season, and most of the distillery employees were laid off until the new season starts in the autumn. A few of them, however would stay, to repair and refurbish the plant.
During the production season, work was physical and hard, muscle power was still very much needed, but there was the usual compensation for this hard labour. Each worker would have the visit, three times a day, at 9a.m., midday and 5p.m., the visit of the brewer doing his round with a jug of new make spirit and give the workers a dram. That custom of “dramming” would, however, stop at Aberlour, as well as other distilleries, in 1978.
Dramming was not the only thing that would disappear. The timber malt bins were replaced by metal ones. The malt barns were converted to another Duty Free warehouse. They stopped using coal for heating and replaced it with oil.
In 1966, Ian Mitchell was appointed as the new distillery manager, and he would become of the most successful and cherished figures in the whisky industry. Mitchell was working at Aberlour for twenty years already, starting as an apprentice cooper. And his father and grandfather both had worked at Aberlour. Mitchell quickly saw that the capacity of the distillery was too small and that it needed to be dramatically raised in order to keep up with demand. He told the director, Arnold Campbell, that the production had to be doubled. Asked about the cost, Mitchell answered it would cost half a million pounds (the equivalent of more than 6.6 million pounds nowadays), surprising Campbell about the cost. But three days later, Campbell phoned Mitchell to give the go-ahead. And there was no letter, no contract. Just trust. In June 1973, the rebuilding program started. New washbacks were installed as well as a new and larger mash tun. A new pair of stills was added, doubling the potential distilling capacity, and another boiler was added in the boiler house to provide the extra heat required by the additional stills. Around Christmas the rebuild was complete, production resumed, and Mitchell could proudly tell Campbell that it had only cost £443.000 (£5.4 million today).
A year later in 1974, the owning company, House of Campbell, was bought by the French Pernod-Ricard group, still owners of Aberlour to this day. Under Ian Mitchell’s management, Aberlour’s reputation soared. Their spirit became recognized as one of the greatest of Speyside malts thanks to an improved cask management. And in 1986, Aberlour won the Gold Medal and the Pot Still Trophy at the International Wines and Spirits competition in London.
In the following years, production continued to soar, awards to be won, and international sales to break records year by year. In 2019, Aberlour was the eighth best-selling single malt with 3.6 million bottles, and the capacity of the distillery is now 3.8 million litres (836.000 gallons) of pure alcohol per year.
Well, I’ve talked quite a lot (my Circus friends were expecting that from me I’m sure), I’m thirsty, so let’s taste some Aberlour whiskies!
Aberlour 2007 White Oak
The White Oak is an annual release from Aberlour, using a vintage each time. It is always a 10-year-old whisky matured in ex-bourbon American white oak (Quercus Alba) casks. By the way, if you’re interested to learn about the differences between the different kinds of oak used for whisky maturation, I highly recommend going to read my good friend Brian @MaltMusings‘ blog post. Wait! Not now, you’re not finished here! This one is the 2017 release, with a whisky distilled in 2007. As this is an entry-level release mostly for supermarkets, it is chill-filtered, coloured, and bottled at only 40% abv. I bought this bottle at about 25 or 30€ in France a couple years ago on offer, while its usual price may have been more around 35€ (£32).
E150 caramel colouring, unfortunately.
The nose greets you with a bit of acetone, a light spiciness (nutmeg), fruit notes of pear, apricots and apples and the expected caramel and vanilla. There’s also some kind of sweet nuttiness, maybe pecan nut. Everything is delivered lightly, everything is very safe and gentle here.
The arrival is underwhelming, slightly sweet and spicy, but immediately you get a very thin mouthfeel. There’s a bitterness from the oak, damp cardboard, faint notes of vanilla, and maybe if you look for them, notes of pear and dried apricot, and perhaps some nuts. But you’ll mostly notice the bitter oak and the watery feeling.
Very short, with the bitter oak and the general sweetness staying a bit on the tongue.
This is a 40% abv entry-level whisky for supermarkets, so unfortunately you cannot expect much from it, and you really don’t. I don’t say it’s all bad, it’s just not memorable. For a sip while doing something else without thinking too much, this is all good. And perfect if you have friends – used to supermarket blends – coming over, they’ll get quite an upgrade and the feeling you took care of them with a well-known single malt, without having to go to your top shelf. I feel a bit harsh today as I’m writing this, I have the feeling I usually like this whisky more. Maybe my palate is now expecting more than before.
Aberlour 12-year-old Non chill-filtered
The Aberlour 12-year-old Non chill-filtered is not a core range release, but one made from select markets, especially France, as Pernod-Ricard’s country is an avid drinker and lover of Aberlour. Here, instead of doing a 3, 4 or worse, 7 types of wood special release, they went to simplicity with a maturation in both bourbon and sherry casks, but a bottling at a respectful 48% abv, without adding colouring, and especially no chill-filtration, hence the name. And they do insist about it on the label, and I quote:
This Twelve Year Old Aberlour has been bottled without chill-filtration. Today, most malt whiskies are chill-filtered to prevent the whisky becoming cloudy when adding water or ice. Omitting modern chill-filtering preserves intact the full flavour of the malt and adds a richer and creamier mouth-feel to the distinctive sweet fruity and rich flavours of Aberlour.
You’ll be able to find this bottle in France at Le Comptoir Irlandais for about 48€ and AmazonFR for a bit more than 46€, while in the UK you’ll be able to get it at the Whisky Shop for £48.
The nose is immediately rich, wrapping you up with scents of figs, raisins, caramel and brown sugar. There’s also a buttery side to it, with shortbread. The sherry comes back and keeps on with strawberry jam, but without giving the dark chocolate I usually get. The nose here stays very sweet.
The arrival here is sweet before spices slowly ramp up. You get the richness of a plum pie with the slightly overcooked plums having caramelized, while at the same time cinnamon, nutmeg and a bit of chilli give out some spiciness. The bitter oak from the 2007 is still noticeable but way more on the back, more discreet, better integrated. The mouthfeel, thanks to the 8 extra percent, is oily and warming and coating the palate. Almonds, both salted and unsalted, complete the palate.
The finish is long, with the bitterness of dark chocolate, maybe even a craft chocolate with very small strawberry shavings inside, and a pinch of pepper. It leaves you a nice and cosy warmth on the throat and on the tongue.
Ah now we’re talking. The addition of sherry casks, two more years and especially a bottling at 48% abv without chill filtration change everything. Now we have a whisky that is rich, tasty, full of flavours. And despite all that, the price is I think quite contained, especially in France. When you taste this, you understand why Aberlour is the first single malt brand in France, even though most people will only know its 40% abv core range. However, there’s a bit of a problem with this release. It’s so easily drinkable and good that I had to pour two more drams in order to finish this review. That is dangerous. Well, so dangerous that I’ve just killed my bottle. Damn.
Aberlour 12-year-old Distillery Exclusive
This whisky was previously a hand-filled one, probably until 2018, but when I visited Aberlour last year during the Spirit of Speyside Festival, it had become a “simple” distillery exclusive. They didn’t offer for you to bottle it any more, as their visitor centre is very small, and there were too many people visiting now for them to be able to maintain the hand fill. And with 2020 and its Covid-19 public health crisis, we won’t see hand fills any time soon I fear. Anyway. This whisky is a 12-year-old matured in ex-Bourbon casks bought in May 2019, and delivered uncoloured, non chill-filtered and at cask strength. Perfectly natural. I think I paid £75 for it? Strangely, I didn’t write it down my whisky Google sheet. I’ve sent the question to the Aberlour Visitor Centre and will edit here when I get an answer.
A salad of summer fruit welcomes you immediately: apricots, peaches, with vanilla sugar. There is also a citrusy feeling, like maybe lemon curd, but maybe sweetened, it almost makes me think of something that must be absolutely amazing: lemon curd mixed with custard cream (I HAVE to test and taste this). There’s a slight oakiness but really measured, we’re not talking virgin oak. Reduction by adding a few drops of water add a little citrus, with grapefruit and blood orange.
The arrival is slightly hot, spicy, on caramel and vanilla at first. The abv shows, without feeling too much. Chocolate then appears with coffee beans while the mouthfeel becomes creamy. A second sip brings citrus notes and a drying feeling on the gums. Black pepper tingles on the tongue, mixing with the chocolate for a delicious result. The oak from the nose comes out a little bit, gently reinforcing the bitterness of the chocolate, yet it does so as an additional layer, rather giving contrast to the other flavours than masking everything else. Water provides a brief additional sweetness before igniting an explosion of pepper.
Lemon zest and black pepper provide an energetic but dry finish that then fades to floral notes, while the heat tones down synchronously, with an overall medium length.
This whisky brings back memories of a fantastic distillery tour, led by Nikki, a really great tour guide full of stories and humour and freshness. I remember the stones and the rooms and the beautiful tasting room at the end (where we didn’t even taste this dram, but others, blind, from black Aberlour copitas, great fun!), and the absolutely charming but very small visitor centre at the entrance of the Aberlour distillery. This is a great summer whisky, where the fruits on the nose make you crave to have a sip, but is so good that you cannot stop nosing and smelling and enjoying the flavours that radiate from the glass. The nose really brings me back to the distillery and the beautiful weather we had that day of May 2019, during the Spirit of Speyside festival with my friends. The palate is a wee tone down from the palate, not as exalting, but still with great flavours and a good complexity, with many layers to unfold. The finish steps right up with enthusiasm and energy, though I’d love for it to last a bit longer.
Overall, a delicious summer dram that brings back lots of memories, as you have to go to the distillery itself to be able to buy it (usually, as the current situation makes that they’ll happily ship you some if you’re in the UK). And that’s all you want from a whisky, right?
Aberlour 13-year-old Distillery Exclusive
This whisky also was at first a hand-fill at the distillery, and since I bought it on my only (for now) visit there, obviously like the 12yo Bourbon one, it was already filled for us to buy. This is matured for 13 years in Oloroso sherry casks, and by the colour, natural, I guess it’s first fill casks. Bottle at the nice strength of 57.4% abv, it’s obviously non chill-filtered. I probably paid around £75 like the 12yo, though I can’t remember exactly either.
Old mahogany oak
The nose is an immediate explosion of dark and red fruits, dried figs, dates, we’re in 1st fill Oloroso territory. There’s also a nutty side with hazelnuts, almonds and pecans. It then moves to a continental breakfast with strawberry and blackcurrant jam spread on French toast, this is just gorgeous. Adding a few drops of water unlocks very light notes of mint as well as a feint saltiness.
The arrival is surprisingly thin and delicate for a very brief moment, before getting suddenly thick, creamy and with a spice explosion. Dark and peppery chocolate meet tannins and the tingling of a sharp fruit lollipop. Tobacco leaves make you crave for a cigar, with bitter wood notes too. The high abv is quite noticeable but stays easy to handle neat. Reduction tones down the pepper as the palate stays sweet longer before the pepper slowly rises in strength, without ever going as high as neat.
The tobacco leaves, black pepper and dried fruits provide a fruity and spicy finish, a bit dry, and strangely not that long.
What a delight. The nose is a tornado of fruits and sherry and deliciousness, while the palate surprises you on the first sip, letting you think it’s going to be very gentle and explodes in your mouth. Afterwards, it calms down a bit and let you enjoy it and pick out all the flavours it contains. At first you’d think it’s the perfect dram to drink on Christmas, in your club chair by the fireplace with a cigar and a good book, but its energy, and dare I say, youthfulness, make me instead think still of Christmas or New Year Eve, probably still with a cigar sometimes in the evening, but with friends, having fun and playing card or a board game by the fire. I’ll want to make sure I still have some for next year, this year it seems quite compromised.