The Long Read: A History of Glendronach 12 Year Old

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The Long Read: A History of Glendronach 12 Year Old

There’s been some controversy in the last few months over at Glendronach, where the 2021 editions of the Glendronach 12 Year Old Original and Glendronach 15 Year Old Revival have removed the Non Chill Filtered statement from their packaging.

It’s fair to say that this particular tweak to what is a much-loved bottling has not gone over very well in some quarters. Having seen the strong reaction to the change on various social media fora, we thought it might be interesting to talk a little about the history of Glendronach 12 year Old to put the current furore into context. We’ll also discuss this particular change and how it may or may not affect Glendronach 12 Year Old.

First, though, let’s get one thing straight: it is always folly to expect or assume that any whisky - or even any distillery - will remain exactly the same forever. This has never happened, because it's impossible. In the world of whisky, the concepts of Tradition, Consistency and Originality are shimmering, mutable, equivocal notions, as we shall see. 

Glendronach distillery and Glendronach 12-year-old (Original or otherwise) are very good examples of this simple truth, as a cursory examination of its character and history will show. In fact, Glendronach distillery has had something of a chimerical character for at least the last fifty years. It’s worth remembering that for a considerable time in the relatively recent past there was no agreement even on which region Glendronach was a part of.

We’ll go into the classificatory confusion another day, but first let’s look at Glendronach 12 Year Old in detail. Prior to the removal of the Non Chill Filtered statement, the salient characteristics of Glendronach 12 Year Old were as follows:

  • It was 12 Years Old
  • It was bottled at 43%
  • It had no colouring added
  • It was not chill filtered
  • It was matured exclusively in Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sherry casks

In the long history of Glendronach 12 Year Old, the only one of these characteristics that has never changed is that it is 12 years old - and without that it wouldn’t be Glendronach 12 Year Old, so it doesn’t really count. Let’s see how this whisky has evolved.

The first official bottlings of Glendronach 12 Year Old in the 1970s were originally single vintage bottlings from 1962, 1963 and 1964. These were bottled at 75 proof - 43%. However, the majority of these editions had very little or no sherry influence. They were often massive, waxy fruitbombs and frequently had a phenolic dimension as well, with smoke, ash and sooty notes quite common. It goes without saying that these were incredible whiskies, but they are utterly dissimilar to Glendronach 12 Year Old as we know it today.

Thereafter, however, the picture gets rather more complicated. After the vintage statements were dropped various non-vintage Glendronach 12 year olds were bottled, still in the original dumpy green glass bottles. However, at some point in the late 1970s, after Glendronach’s parent company Teacher’s had been bought by Allied Breweries, the UK bottlings switched to 70 proof (40%). Italian and Spanish bottlings of the 12 year old remained at 43% for a little longer.

During the early to mid 1980s the dumpy green bottle was abandoned in favour of clear, standard shape bottles. The strength of Glendronach 12 year old fluctuated between 40-43% thereafter, but for most of the ‘90s and early 2000s it was 40%, before being resurrected in 2009 by Billy Walker back at 43%.

By the way, it’s a racing certainty that all the pre-2009 bottlings were chill-filtered from at least the mid 1980s if not earlier, and in all likelihood they were probably colour adjusted as well. Let’s not forget that chill filtration for spirits has been around since the 14th century. We’re not saying that makes it good, but it is a traditional practice that became widespread in the whisky industry from around the late 1930s and was universally adopted by the 1960s.

The most intriguing differences in Glendronach 12 year old, though, have not been in cosmetic tweaks, but in rather more fundamental details such as cask type. As I mentioned, the green dumpy bottlings of the 1970s were notable by their almost total lack of sherry influence. It was only in the 1980s that sherry influence on Glendronach 12 year olds began to appear (or at least to be officially acknowledged).

For a period of about a decade from around the mid-1980s, Glendronach had two 12 Year Old expressions. These were a new Glendronach 12 Year Old Matured in Sherry Casks; and the first incarnation of Glendronach Original, which was matured in a mix of plain casks and sherry casks. There are a large number of slightly different editions of both these whiskies, at both 40% and 43%.

The colour of different bottlings of Glendronach Original also varies dramatically over this period, from a light gold reminiscent of, say, Glenmorangie, through deep gold to reddish copper, where evidently some rather more active sherry casks were used. Many of the '80s-’90s bottlings of both Original and Sherry 12 Year Old are absolutely superb, and we can say without doubt that all of them would have been both coloured and chill filtered.

By the late 1990s, however, the Glendronach distillery had been shuttered, and the Original had been replaced with the short-lived Glendronach 12 Year Old Traditional - a perfectly doublethink name for something that was the exact opposite of what it was called.  

Glendronach Traditional was a darker, more sherry influenced whisky matured in ‘Seasoned Oak and Sherry Casks’ - it seemed the 'plain' oak era was now over - and was bottled at 43%. Meanwhile, the Glendronach Sherry Matured had its age upped to 15 years old and the strength remained at 40%. Remarkably, even this brilliant whisky definitely had colouring added, and there is zero doubt that it would also have been chill filtered.

 

Glendronach 12 Whisky-Online Blog

Glendronach 15 year old with the dreaded 'Mit Farbstoff'. Pic from Whiskybase

In 2004, with the Sherry 15-year-old now discontinued, Glendronach 12 Year Old Original was revived, with the strength at 40% but retaining its ‘original’ 1980s cask recipe of ‘Sherry Wood and Traditional Oak Barrels’. This unloved Original was the last of its type before Billy Walker’s Benriach company bought Glendronach in 2008.

Malt fans who weren’t active in the 1990s may find it surprising that Glendronach was not always a sherry monster. In fact, as we have seen, the real ‘original’ batches of Glendronach 12 year-old frequently showed no sherry influence at all and furthermore the presence or absence of sherry casks was an entirely incidental feature of Glendronach 12 year old bottlings until the mid-1980s. 

It was only after Billy Walker’s 2008 takeover of Glendronach that the Glendronach Original familiar to today’s drinkers first appeared. The strength had been upped back to 43%, and the whisky was no longer chill filtered, but Mr Walker’s most crucial innovation was to change the cask recipe once again - for the very first time, Glendronach Original 12 Year Old was 100% sherry matured. This was original indeed.

Let’s circle back to the present, and the outrage that has greeted the dropping of the Non Chill FIltered pledge from Glendronach 12 Year Old’s packaging. 

In all the current hoo-hah, it’s rarely mentioned that it’s actually extremely unusual for any whisky under 46% not to be chill filtered. The haze that chill filtration is designed to remove is caused by long chain fatty acids forming in the whisky in cold conditions (which frequently occur during transit). However, the magic 46% at which chill filtration is not required is just a rough guide - different whiskies will have fatty acids whose lipid tails clump together at slightly varying temperatures, so not all sub-46% whiskies exposed to low temperatures will automatically immediately go hazy. 

It’s quite possible that Glendronach is just lucky in that regard, but it’s natural for a large company such as Brown-Forman not to want to take the chance. It’s also worth pointing out that Glendronach are not saying that they will definitely chill filter all Glendronach 12 year old in the future - they have just removed the description so that they have the opportunity to do so.

It could be argued that the last decade or so has been an aberration in the history of Glendronach 12 Year Old, in that most if not all previous bottlings prior to 2009 were almost certain to have been both coloured and chill filtered. There’s no question that the 2009 Glendronach Original was better than the immediately previous lacklustre bottlings, but whether that was on account of removing colour and chill filtration is a trickier point. 

More likely, the immediate improvements to the Walker Glendronachs can be attributed to the switch to 100% sherry casks and upping the strength to 43%, both of which would have a far greater impact on the whisky’s flavour than the presence or absence of colouring or chill filtration.

It’s also undeniable that a great many of the previous bottlings from the 1980s and 1990s, while different to the Walker Glendronachs, are absolutely fantastic whiskies in their own right, however uninterested the paying public were at the time - and those are the whiskies that were almost certainly both chill filtered and coloured.

It’s understandable that many malt fans are upset with Glendronach for dropping the promise not to chill filter the 12 year old. Many people believe that chill filtration removes elements of both flavour and texture from the final whisky. 

All chill filtration is not the same, though. The temperature and pressure at which the whisky goes through the filter are crucial factors, and there is no data available on how the whisky is affected by these variations - and no evidence that people can tell the difference between chill-filtered and non chill filtered whiskies. That doesn’t mean it’s fine to do it - just that we don’t know for sure that it’s not fine. A lot of people would say, why take the risk? Others would counter that removing the haze eliminates a cosmetic risk and protects the brand in developing markets where long transit is a prerequisite.

Before embarking on draconian measures, boycotts, tattoo removal etc, it might be best to consider that this is without a doubt the most minor change ever to occur in the history of this long-storied single malt whisky. 

Glendronach 12 Year Old has survived the last forty-something years simply because Glendronach is a great distillery. In that time the 12 Year Old Glendronach has undergone all manner of changes - and we’ve not even mentioned the end of coal-fired distillation at Glendronach, which only happened in 2005 and will have had a hugely significant impact on the character of the spirit.  Perhaps because that occurred before Billy Walker took over nobody cares? 

Yet the modern Glendronach Original must have been made from steam-distilled spirit since around 2017. Evidently the change in spirit character was hidden or smoothed by sherry casks and skillful blending, and if they can balance that big of a change we’d imagine that the present challenge should be a doddle for someone as talented as Rachel Barrie. If there wasn’t an uproar after the seismic switch from coal to steam powered distillation, it seems unlikely that a change as relatively minor as chill filtration should make that much of a difference. 

To conclude, let’s agree that Glendronach 12 Year Old has stood the test of time. This is a whisky that has been full sherried, half sherried and unsherried, Speyside and Highland (more of that in another blog soon), 40% and 43%, chill-filtered and non-chill filtered, coloured and uncoloured. Almost without exception the results have been very good to spectacular single malt whiskies. 

For anyone who is worried about changes to favourite whiskies, unfortunately this is just part and parcel of being a single malt whisky fan. Your favourite whisky will change in character over the years, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. Batch variation is the reality we all live with, so it’s better to embrace it, as brand consistency over anything but the shortest timescales is an utter myth.

It may be that future chill filtered batches of Glendronach 12 Year Old will suffer by comparison to previous batches. Or they may be better. The influence of chill filtration on those changes is sadly unmeasurable, but is likely to be way down the list of contributing factors to any perceived difference in quality. The only certainty is that any new batches will be slightly different to each other, and that will always be the case whether they are chill filtered or not. 

At least before taking to the streets of Huntly with flaming pitchforks, try the new whisky for yourself, and ask yourself, honestly - if I didn’t already know that this has been chill filtered, would I *really* be able to tell? I’ll leave you with the wise words of Aeneas MacDonald in his 1930 classic, Whisky:

Children of the Highland hills,
Products of the Highland stills,
Now’s no hour to ponder faults,
Toy with test-tubes, sniff at malts,
Open-chested must we sing:
Away with care - the drink’s the thing!

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