Hello, ye laddies! We’re still recovering from an astonishing three-day trip to the Speyside region of Scotland. Our excursion was hosted by legendary distillery Glen Moray, who provided some of the best whiskies to ever cross our humbled lips. That was paired with cuisine and a masterclass we’re not likely to forget in our lifetimes. Ultimately, of course, it’s the delicious whisky that still lingers long on our palettes, with one particular expression standing out from the pack: Glen Moray Mastery. We’ll dive into the taste a little later, but let’s just say it was named accordingly.
As to why Glen Moray was so graciously hosting us, it was all part of their 120th anniversary celebration. Indeed, the label has been tirelessly crafting their product since before the turn of the last century. And while they’ve learned plenty of new tricks along the way, they’ve simultaneously retained many of the aging methods that made their whisky so unique in the first place. Such painstaking preservation is in no small part thanks to having only five Master Distillers over the course of twelve decades, each man proudly carrying the torch as opposed to reinventing the wheel.
Likewise, every bottle of Glen Moray is part of a lineage going back to 1897. That’s when the Elgin West Brewery, which had been crafting local ales since 1830, was converted into a whisky distillery with two stills. Operating under the name Glen Moray Glenlivet Distillery Company Ltd., the first spirit was made on September 13th using local barley.
Scotch whisky was a different animal back in those days. For starters, most labels were blends, not single malts. In fact, Glen Moray’s earliest single malts were not bottled individually, rather used in blends by the bigger names. The motive behind blending was that most producers valued consistency and familiarity over experimentation because an unpleasant result could ruin their reputation. Similarly, even most single malts at the time took a safe and straightforward approach toward production. After all, the long aging process left virtually no room for error.
Right from the start, Glen Moray quickly became the exception to the rule by aging their spirit in various types of casks. Hence, when they began bottling their own single malt for public consumption, drinkers definitely took notice. Needless to say, their outside-the-box (or should we say barrel) efforts had paid off and by 1924, demand for their 1893 vintage was through the roof. This was considered a relative rarity, given the infancy of single malt whisky released during the era.
Over the decades, Glen Moray would exchange hands a few times and even shut down for a brief stint during WWII. But they were back on their feet soon after and more popular than ever. Their next move was to buy the neighbouring farm that used to grow their barley. Having all that extra property allowed Glen Moray to add two new copper stills, a new still house, and later a malting facility. Yet even as they expanded and ramped up production in the 1950s–making Glen Moray one of the most up-to-date malt spirit producers in Scotland–the brand never forgot the methods that were passed down from previous generations of Master Distillers.
In the 1990s Glen Moray continued its ethos of innovation. Owners MacDonald and Muir changed their name to Glenmorangie and wanted to take a more traditional (and safe) approach on their own namesake expressions, using Glen Moray as a springboard for experimentation. This entailed maturing the Glen Moray spirit in a variety of non-traditional casks like port, sherry and chardonnay. They also tried things like changing the humidity and heat outside the barrel to see if it would accelerate the aging process (spoiler alert: it didn’t). While some experiments failed, Glen Moray’s foray into various types of aging and finishing yielded substantial and delicious results.
Glen Moray’s steadfast commitment to experimentation remains to this day. Now owned by French spirits company La Martiniquaise, the distillery stands at the forefront of Speyside whisky. Their innovative aging techniques–honed by decades of experience–lend each whisky unmistakable character and distinction. Every bottle combines the revolutionary efforts of the past with new ideas and advancements. That is, after all, the Glen Moray way.
Which brings us to our incredible experience and their limited edition expression: Glen Moray Mastery. Our trip began, naturally, with a dram of whisky. We were greeted at the distinguished Craigellachie Speyside Hotel by Glen Moray’s brand ambassador, Iain Allan. He poured us a drink and we raised a glass in the Quaich Bar. Surrounding us on all sides was elegant wood panels and an immediate sense of history. Scotland, in general, feels like a living relic in the best way. Everything from the rolling green hills to the historic buildings to the hotel itself feels undisturbed by the pressures of time. One couldn’t ask for better surroundings when enjoying a classic dram of the brown stuff.
After an introductory meet and greet, we were carted off to the distillery itself. Once there, we met the one and only Graham Coull. With his background in chemistry and previous roles at brands like Glenfiddich and Balvenie, Graham is basically a wizard when it comes to whisky. He’s also one of five men to hold the title of Master Distiller at Glen Moray over the course of 120 years.
On a tour of the distillery, we got up close and personal with the copper stills, the oak barrels and the various casks alike. Later we convened in a tasting room and learned about everything from the Glen Moray story to the story of each dram sitting in front of us. Meanwhile, Graham answered questions, educated us and, most importantly, poured us more samples of both heritage classics and new statements alike.
Among the new expressions we tried was Mastery. It’s at once a nod to Glen Moray’s previous Master Distillers and concurrently the pinnacle of Graham’s own achievements. The expression is also a firm indication that Graham has duly benefited from the innovations that came before him, and learned how to ply his personal craft accordingly.
Specifically, Mastery combines five choice vintages and thereby represents the ultimate blend. The base whiskies were aged in three different fortified wine casks: sherry, madeira and port. Three of the vintages were crafted by two of Graham’s predecessors: Robert Brown and Edwin Dodson. Ambitiously, Graham then threw in two of his own premium vintages. To create the blend, Graham employed in-house techniques dating back to the turn of the 20th century along with his own special “twist”. He didn’t stop tinkering with the various flavours until perfect balance was achieved.
The result is pure mastery, indeed. The five vintage whiskies selected by Graham form a flavour profile that’s resoundingly rich and bold. At the nose is a blast of sugar, chocolate, raisins, wood and smoked almonds. The taste is no less delectable, a striking combination of roasted coffee beans, dark chocolate and raisins. At the smooth finish comes a luxurious wave of spice and oak. While the liquid trails downward, the flavours remain.
Given its exquisite composite, Mastery takes the concept of “firing on all cylinders” to a whole new level. The port cask gives the expression a beautifully sweet backbone while the sherry and madeira cask aging along with muted notes of malted barley and oak lend balance and depth. One might even say that the spirit is greater than the sum of its parts. Limited to 1000 bottles, Mastery celebrates 120 years of eschewing norms in pursuit of the unconventional.
Of course, Glen Moray’s commitment to experimentation can be found not just in Mastery, but in virtually every expression they release. No matter how many times the company changes hands, they never forget their roots. To ensure as much, recipes and methods are passed down from Master Distiller to Master Distiller as if by sacred oath. And it all goes down on the very same land as it did 120 years ago. Like so much of the region that surrounds it, the distillery itself is a tribute to its own living history. Thank you, Glen Moray, for letting us have a taste.
Images couresy of Glen Moray.