Impressed by its Single Grain Whiskies, our Fellow, Dr Heinz Weinberger from Whisky-Connaisseur, delves briefly into the history of Garnheath Distillery…
When I became a Douglas Laing's Fellow a little more than four years ago, the then Brand Ambassador, Jan Beckers, suggested to meet at the Whisky Show "Whisky Village" in Nuremberg/Germany to discuss this new program at Douglas Laing in person. Although I only knew Jan from social media at that time, I had easily discovered him in Nuremberg at the stand of the German importer of Douglas Laing bottlings, Bremer Spirituosen Contor. Jan explained the background of the Fellow's Program to me, as well as the benefits and tasks that a volunteer brand ambassador should fulfil. The Fellow's Program was established in 2016 to recognize a handful of whisky lovers for their passion and commitment to the world of Scotch Whisky in general and Douglas Laing in particular. The aim of the program is to provide these volunteer brand ambassadors with selected whiskies at regular intervals, who will then taste and describe them, as well as fly the Douglas Laing flag online, and offline at trade fairs or tasting events. In addition, the Fellows are expected to publish one or two blog posts a year on the subject of whisky - of their choice - on the company website. There are now 17 Douglas Laing's Fellows in Europe and Asia, whose names are printed on the prestigious Hall of Fame board at Douglas Laing’s headquarter.
During our conversation Jan asked me if I would like to taste the newly bottled Garnheath Single Grain Whisky from the XOP series. Garn what?, I thought to myself. To my shame, I have to admit that I had never heard of a distillery called Garnheath before. And I also have to admit that until the meeting with Jan I had been more or less exclusively focused on Single Malt Whisky, mostly those from Scotland and at most one or two from Ireland. Blended Malts (like Chairman Fred Laing, I also prefer the term Vatted Malt), Blended Scotch or Grain Whiskies were not in my focus at all. From 2016 on I was to find out how little my knowledge about Whisky, especially about Grain Whisky, was. Jan poured a dram of a 41 Years Old Garnheath Single Grain from Douglas Laing in my glass, which was distilled in February 1974 and, after more than four decades of maturation in a refill barrel, bottled in December 2015 for the Xtra Old Particular Series (XOP). When this single grain filled my mouth and warmed it up immediately, I was completely thrilled by its creamy and smooth consistency, the aromas of toffee, vanilla and coconut. After this long ageing period, the influence of the wood was obvious. However, the oak was by no means too dominant, but conveyed wonderful notes of sandalwood and cedar, in perfect balance with the other flavours. Simply stunning!
I was absolutely overwhelmed by the variety of flavours of this Single Grain Whisky, so I wanted to learn more about the distillery where this dram originally came from.
It turned out that Garnheath was not destined to live a long life, as its history as a distillery was extremely short, with only 21 years of Whisky distilling. Garnheath was established in 1964 (a very good year, by the way!) on the site of the former Moffat paper mill in Airdrie in the Lowlands, about 12 miles east of Glasgow. This was converted by the then owner, Inver House Distillers, into a combined Malt and Grain distillery complex to provide liquid supplies for their Blended Scotch "Inver House Rare". On the site, the two distilleries Glen Flagler and Killyloch produced Malt Whisky in copper pot stills, while Garnheath produced both Neutral Grain Spirit and Single Grain Whisky using five continuous column stills. This was necessary because the demand for Blended Scotch Whisky boomed in the 1960s. Such a hybrid distillery, which produced both Malt and Grain Whiskies, was considered at the time by blenders as an economically viable model that protected them from possible supply shortages in the production of their blends. Production at Airdrie started in 1965 and the site had a total of 32 warehouses and a cooperage. At the end of the 1960s, the complex was then expanded with its own blending and filling plant as well as a malting site – the Moffat Maltings, which at the time was considered the largest commercial malting plant in Europe. But, as we know today, times for Scotch Whisky changed dramatically in the 1970s and especially in the 1980s. These changes did not leave the Moffat complex unaffected. The owners were forced to react and stopped the production of Killyloch Malt Whisky in the early 70's. In 1985, with Glen Flagler the second malt distillery closed on the site. And only one year later, the Garnheath Distillery finally stopped production and even was subsequently demolished in 1988. The maltings and bottling plant also disappeared, leaving only the warehouses. No doubt, Garnheath is now a lost distillery.
As for whisky, Garnheath has never been officially bottled as a Single Grain by Inver House. And the short production span of 21 years means that it really is very rare. But thank God there are a handful of independent bottlers who bought casks during Garnheath's active period. On the Whiskybase website a total of 31 Garnheath bottlings are listed in April 2020. By far the most bottlings, 14 in total, were launched by Douglas Laing. The Douglas Laing Company has such good stocks of Grain Whisky only because they come with a history of blending, and Grains were always used in a higher proportion of Malts. Around 2006, the company started to introduce Grain Whisky to the consumers with many sampling sessions at tastings and trade shows as well as corresponding giveaways to former non-believers. Convinced of the success, the company considered it commercially appropriate to bottle these old Grain stocks into their two flagship brands, Old Particular and Xtra Old Particular from 2013 onwards. A correct decision. In addition to the 41 Years Old bottling described above, I was lucky to try another XOP expression from the same distillation year 1974: Garnheath 42 Years Old, bottled in June 2016 from a single refill barrel. This time, it was a rich and spicy Single Grain with a pleasant earthy note on the one hand as well as sweet and fruity with cheering up on cake aromas on the other. Extremely appealing and very well balanced with wonderful length and impressive complexity.
There are only seven Grain distilleries operating in Scotland today, which together have an annual production capacity of over 420 million litres of pure alcohol (LPA). In total, they produce slightly more alcohol per year than all the Malt Distilleries in Scotland combined (about 400 million LPA). Admittedly, due to their appearance, which is more like an oil refinery, Grain Whisky distilleries in Scotland do not have the same charm for tourists and whisky lovers as their partly romantic looking Single Malt counterparts. Nevertheless, in the past they played a pivotal role in the success story of Scotch Whisky, and today they form the basis for a billion dollar Blend Whisky industry. Grain Whisky is a great, diverse and excellent tasting product, representing a spirit in its own right, whose popularity is growing worldwide. Grain Whisky will increasingly receive the recognition it deserves and some experts say it may even become "the next big thing in whisky". And who knows, maybe a barrel or two of Garnheath Grain whisky is still slumbering in the Douglas Laing warehouses, just waiting to be bottled at the right time...
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