The Glendronach, like most older Scottish distilleries has seen some serious ups and downs since its inception in 1826. The latest chapter sees the Highland distillery under the stewardship of an American firm and for the first time in its history a female master blender in Dr Rachel Barrie.
We take a quick look at how we got here, why it seems to be working and most importantly (to us the drinkers!) the effect this has had on the whisky coming out of The GlenDronach.
Rewinding the clock to April 2016, an announcement is made by Brown Forman Corporation that they are acquiring The BenRiach Distillery Company Limited for approximately £285 million from a private consortium fronted by Billy Walker. This elicits an outpouring of sentiment from consumers and industry pundits alike, both positive and negative. July 2016 The BenRiach Distillery Company Limited comprised of The GlenDronach, The BenRiach and Glenglassaugh (and all the bits and pieces that go with them) change hands.
Fortunately for all concerned the Brown Forman Corporation have a good track record of acquiring brands and injecting capital and expertise while maintaining the spirit and DNA of the acquisition. Having previously held a minority stake in and distributing Glenmorangie in the USA and other territories through most of the 90's and early 2000's obviously whetted Brown Forman's appetite for Scotch and made the decision to keep an eye open for a good brand to purchase an easy one, which makes more sense when you consider the US is THE largest export market for Scotch.
With the sale to Brown Forman and the exit of Billy Walker a new master blender was needed, to not only continue the legacy and loyalty built by Billy Walker during his tenure, but to move The GlenDronach and its stablemates (The BenRiach and Glenglassaugh) in to the future, building on the past and navigating the uncertainties of; Brexit, increasingly supply constrained and cost prohibitive sherry barrel availability (for maturation, a must in particular for the The GlenDronach house style), increased competition from new and expanding distilleries both at home and overseas, and the ever changing, fickle consumer palate.
From consumer sentiment and demand, industry murmurings and our own not inconsequential interactions with The GlenDronach (including visits in 2017 and 2019), and a LOT of tasting, it appears that the future is in great hands. Most of the fears (both those realistic and hyperbolic) have not materialised. Allocation to smaller markets like Australia are increasing, not decreasing as was forecast by some, with the American market not gobbling up all of the international allocation from smaller markets. The move to bourbon barrels as the primary maturation stock is NOT in evidence (although this would make sense economically on the production side - not so much from a marketing and sales perspective with a distillery built on a rusted-on sherry hungry audience). Prices have risen slightly on some lines but remained the same or even reduced in real terms on some core expressions, not jumping markedly as predicted by some ‘to recoup the capital outlay as quickly as possible’ or ‘exploit’ the appetite for properly aged, sherried whiskies which are seemingly becoming harder to come by.
The biggest story for us of course is the whisky itself. The GlenDronach, being one of the favourite sherry houses around The Whisky List offices, is always in decent supply in our personal and business whisky cabinets. Being fans we do tend to go through a lot of the core expression bottles on a regular basis. Changes in the makeup and taste profiles of the core and semi-regular release expressions are much in evidence under the stewardship of the current Master Blender, Rachel Barrie, and excepting the recent batches of the 15 Revival (which we will get into below), are rated around The Whisky List office as 'much improved' all the way to 'OMG What!?!? Amazing!' than before.
The 15 Revival for us (and a lot of online pundits) is the odd one out and has seen the most scrutiny for many reasons. The 15 Revival garnered a cult following before its hiatus in 2015 (BEFORE Brown Forman took over it is worth mentioning), in no small part due to the fact that most of the whisky was MUCH older than 15 years, and definitely showed this in the way it presented on the nose and palate. Sadly, like all good things, this came to an end, thanks to a voracious fanbase, its near cult like status for its price/quality ratio and the fact that the distillery was shuttered for several years from 1996 to 2002 (hence not making any spirit during those years leading to a shortfall suitably aged stock around 15 years old, with the dwindling levels of older stocks being reserved for the 18 and 21 year old expressions). The new 15 Revival is still objectively a good whisky, and arguably more complex and vibrant than previous bottlings (The Whisky List office is divided in the New VS Old debate), but thanks to an unavoidable change in recipe with the addition of PX matured stock due to a shortage of Oloroso casks and whiskies aged more closely to the 15 year old age statement it is not an open and shut case.
On the very good news side of the ledger, the more recent bottlings of the 18 year old Allardice show a massively improved poise, balance and depth when compared with previous generations, taking an already impressive whisky to must have status for us, and the Grandeur batch 9 is by far the best batch we've tried this far (still waiting to get our hands on the batch 10!), once again delivering everything we want in an older Sherried whisky in spades, with an excellent richness and flavour, with nary a trace of sulphur, ‘over-oaking’ or 'flatness' of cask or spirit, maintaining a juicy, rich, dreamy sultana saturated, mature body. Even the 12 year old Original and 21 year old Parliament show improvement, with the 21 Parliament showing more dimension and depth than its 'behemoth' sherry bomb character from before and the 12 Original still showing plenty of that thick, bold Highland spirit but with a seemingly more rounded and more mature profile.
How has this happened?
When discussing the changed (and improved for our minds) profiles with those working for The GlenDronach or Brown Forman, all conversations lead back to Rachel Barrie. Look for our upcoming interview with Rachel in the coming weeks!
The Whisky List
PS - We have some very exciting news for GlenDronach lovers coming very soon!