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Glenmorangie (pronounced: glen-MOR-an-gee) is one of the most famous names in malt whisky, one of only a handful of distilleries that got in on the marketing game early on and pushed their brand as a single malt long before other companies thought to do so. Today it is one of the top selling malts in the world and one of the top brands in its native Scottish market. Although it has seen some criticism in recent years it remains a fascinating distillery with many fine expressions and a bona fide leader in wood innovation and maturation research.
Stills: 6 Wash. 6 Spirit
Water Source: Tarlogie Springs
Capacity: 6 Million Litres
1960-1980: Early Years
Glenmorangie was not generally available as a single malt until official bottlings began to appear around the early 1970s. These bottlings were distilled in a time before the days of mass expansion, it is worth remembering that Glenmorangie’s transformation into the beast it is today has only happened in the last thirty years or so. Glenmorangie had been popular with blenders for many years and it had done well as a small, two still distillery for decades, quietly producing malt for the blenders. When it stuck its toe in the malt market water however, it began a slow but inevitable transition. The first bottlings of Glenmorangie reveal an old style highland malt, but one with more lightless than many of the other highland spirits of the time. A large part of Glenmorangie’s delicate character has always come from its very tall, swan neck stills. It has the tallest stills in Scotland, standing at 16ft and 10 inches tall and even today they account for a very important part of Glenmorangie’s character. Old style Glenmorangie is quite a dry, herbaceous spirit with lots of minerality, white fruits and waxy complexities. Old bottlings of the 10yo from the seventies and 80s can still be found for decent prices and they make for delicious and fascinating drinking. There are also early official aged bottlings such as the legendary 1963 22yo, which was one of the first (officially) 'finished’ whiskies ever bottled and a phenomenally rich and complex dram to boot.
In 1977 work was undertaken to partially modernize the distillery, this involved converting the worm tubs to condensers and also decommissioning the onsite floor maltings. This was a precursor of what was to come only a few years later.
1980-2004: Growth and Experimentation.
In 1980 the number of stills at Glenmorangie was doubled from two to four, only a decade later in 1990 they would be doubled again to eight. This meant that Glenmorangie was transformed from a small distillery of only two stills to one of the largest malt plants in only a decade. Much of this rapid grown was down to the drive behind the malt sales and the expansion of the range. Glenmorangie sold well throughout the 1980s and by the early nineties there was a huge amount of maturing stock ready to support new ongoing bottlings. Throughout the 1980s there was also an increasing amount of experimentation in the wood management. They began further experimentation with the process of finishing a their whisky in various other wine casks and they also began to commission designer hogsheads. These were American oak hogsheads which came from hand selected, slow growth trees, were air seasoned, filled with Jack Daniels for four years and treated with a very specific charring and toasting process.
In the early nineties Glenmorangie released the first of its new finished range. The first editions were bottled at a higher strength of 46% and are notoriously better than later batches. The delicate profile of Glenmorangie allows it to bend into the wine influenced profiles quite nicely, certainly more effectively than many other more vigorous malts. There were many batches of these finishes bottled between the early 90s and early 00s, unfortunately the consistency was not always so good so they can be a bit hit or miss. More consistent was the official 15 and 18yo expressions that were launched. Both offered excellent examples of the mature Glenmorangie style and early editions are well worth seeking out. There was also a fully sherried version of the 18yo for France in the late 80s which is a fantastic example of good sherry matured Glenmorangie, a rarity indeed as they use very few sherry casks outside the finishing process.
More aged and limited edition expression appeared throughout the late 90s and early 00s. The official 30yo was an excellent example of double maturation if a little lacking in complexity and some of the aged finishes were among the best examples of how to effectively use finishing. The best examples during these years were perhaps some of the natural cask strength editions, bottlings like Traditional or the 100 Proof that showed Glenmorangie in a much more natural and naked light. These were delicately fruity, scented and herbaceous bottlings which also showed a more frequent use of fresh bourbon influence. A tell tale sign of what was to come.
2004-Present: The LVMH years.
In 2004 Glenmorangie was sold, along with Ardbeg and Glen Moray, to French conglomerate LVMH. This signaled a big change in the way Glenmorangie was to progress. LVMH were more concerned with the idea of a brand than a distillery and soon there was a lot of money being pumped into re-constructing these whiskies as luxury brands. The packaging of Glenmorangie was given an overhaul and received a distinctly 'French’ twist to its look. The range was also revamped and many of the old expressions were scrapped to make way for revamped versions. The new finishes were more elegant but the taste of wood technology was all over them. The most significant change throughout all this was the profile of the 10yo. Since the early 90s it had been growing progressively sweeter and less complex. This was due to the amount of first fill bourbon casks the company was using along with the modernization of the production process and mass production. The 10yo is currently the epitome of 'modern’ malt whisky. Its recipe now contains a high proportion of Glenmorangie’s very active designer casks which provide its distinctive vanilla sweetness and cocoanut flavours, however they also rob it of its once fine mineral complexity.
Glenmorangie is perhaps the greatest exponent of wood technology today and much is still invested in advanced cask management. While this has disappointed some purists it has led to some excellent bottlings. The recent Astar bottling is an excellent example of top quality fresh bourbon and as a specific style in its own right is a fantastic whisky. Likewise the Signet bottling, though in some ways the epitome of pricey, designer bottlings, is also and excellent and intriguingly experimental dram.
While we will never have back the old style simplicity of the original Glenmorangie, they are an ever-reliable distillery for interesting bottlings. While some may curse them for starting the trend of wood finishes, it is also true that theirs have been among the best. Glenmorangie’s owners may think of it as a brand but it remains a classic, if very modern, distillery.