Featured Whisky: Glen Garioch - To Peat or Not To Peat

When it comes to whisky, there can be many surprises, and very often we, whisky lovers, are willingly expectant of them. The surprises may lie in many aspects of our whisky journey: seeking for best price-quality options, determining the perfect age for the whisky, distinguishing the nuances of the eponymous official and independent bottlings, you name it…

Our last whisky dinner propelled us with the chance to “meet” one such surprise whisky, a new limited edition from the Glen Garioch Distillery, Glen Garioch Founder’s Reserve. You’ll be able to sample the finest range of Glen Garioch whiskies at both WoW San Francisco and Austin, but we’ll reveal a few enigmatic facts in this section.

The Glen Garioch Distillery may well be Scotland’s first licensed distillery. Varying dates are given as to its founding, but all are predated by an article in the Aberdeen Journal in 1785. Located on the eastern end of the Scottish Highlands, it’s also Scotland’s most easterly distillery, enjoying its own microclimate of Olmendrum town, famous for producing the finest barley in all of Scotland.

The taste of fine barley—sweet, fruity, and of a lightly spicy Highland character—all fell into place when we tasted the Glen Garioch 12- and 16-year-old expressions. But something felt different when we took a sip of the Founder’s Reserve, a bottling with no age statement. Was it a slight phenolic taste, raw spirit peat? Then how come the 12 and 16 year olds didn’t have even a slightest hint of peat? While we could actually stop right here to leave you mystified and waiting to find the answer from the whisky makers at the Expo, we’ll offer our version.

In its late history, the distillery overcame several changes of ownership, and in the mid-20th century, found itself in the hands of Stanley P. Morrison. Having learned the joys of peated whiskies at the malt maker’s schooling on Islay, Mr. Morrison (later becoming the owner of Morrison Bowmore), recognized the fashion and demand for peatier Islay whiskies, and added a light peat component to create a “traditional Highland malt.” This did much to the robust character of new Glen Garioch, and for the fortunes of the distillery.

Later in the century, the company was acquired by the Japanese Suntory, and Glen Garioch became part of the Morrison Bowmore Group, which includes Bowmore, Auchentoshan, and Glen Garioch. The distillery was mothballed, and when re-opened, the whisky was redone back to the total non-peaty style. The reason? We don’t know for sure; it may be that Suntory intended to diversify their portfolio with a distinct representative of each whisky region: Bowmore as a heavily peated Islander, Auchentoshan as the Lowland “gentlemen,” and Glen Garioch as a sweet and pleasing Highlander, with the right amount of spiciness, but not impish peat.

So, the subtle peat that we tasted in the Reserve could only have come from the old stock, old-style batches, notably the 1978 and 1990 vintage expressions, both of which are in the previous lightly peated style.

We are glad to have made your acquaintance, Glen Garioch, the surprise whisky of the evening. Paraphrasing the famous saying: “You never know what’s gonna come from that whisky bottle.”