Just outside the small Scottish village of Pencaitland, nestled in a pleasant green valley, lies Glenkinchie Distillery. It’s not an especially well known distillery, nor does it have much in terms of underground cred; I’ve never heard anyone speak in hushed tones about any bottlings, indie or otherwise, from there. It seems odd that for a distillery with a capacity of more than two million litres of pure alcohol per annum, you hear so little about it. Perhaps hoping to rectify that – or to simply pull in more tourism from Scotland’s capital Edinburgh which lies about 20 kilometres to the west – the distillery has recently been anointed as one of the ‘four corners’ of the Walker brand. Rebranded as ‘the lowland home of Johnnie Walker’, Glenkinchie recently underwent a multimillion pound revamp of its tourism offering, as did the other three corners – Caol Ila on the island of Islay, Clynelish in the Highlands, and Cardhu on Speyside. Glenkinchie is, to my mind, the least well-known of all these – it’s like the bass player in the band; nobody raves about them until they get killed in a bus crash. Most of the time you would barely know they were there, but take them away, and an absence is felt. This is Glenkinchie’s blessing and curse – essential and taken for granted all at once. One of the first Scotch whiskies I tried was the ubiquitous Glenkinchie 12 year old and I always found it to be a delightful, good value, easy drinking whisky. But aside from that, I knew almost nothing about the distillery, save that it was the closest distillery to the home of an old friend who lives in Tranent.
I had briefly considered a tour of the distillery five years ago, but arriving on a crowded day to a very stressed staff member who seemed not best pleased to see more cats to herd through the site, we thought it best to leave it to another day. My recent trip could not have been more different – our guide, John, knew the names of all 12 people on the tour, chatted to us all one by one, and was affable and genial throughout. He was born in the area and had worked at the distillery for about 12 years and his family’s links to Glenkinchie went back a few generations. He told us that what made Glenkinchie unique was its people and its place – East Lothian is known for its fertile land and if you come to the area at the right time of year you will see miles and miles of golden barley fields. Some 80% of the barley used at Glenkinchie comes from the surrounding farmland, according to our guide.
The tour starts with the ringing of a bell, previously used to signal the start of the working day and to call the workers to a morning dram. I’ve heard various accounts of the old practice of dramming in distilleries but few have stuck in my head like one delivered by a distillery manager on Speyside in 2015, who gave a scathing interpretation of what is often portrayed as a cosy bit of lore. He told us that workers in those days were effectively addicts, enslaved to the product they were making, as it dulled their minds and often broke their spirits. He said that workers did not fight for their rights as they should have because they were alcoholics. It was a rare moment of clarity about dramming, but not the sort of message you’d want to start a tour with. Our guide in Glenkinchie made brief mention of the practice, with no moral judgement, how it ended in the 1970s, and we moved on to a history of the distillery.
Founded in 1825 by farmers John and George Rate, Glenkinchie started life as Milton Distillery until it was licensed and renamed in 1837. In 1853 they were bankrupted, the site was converted to a sawmill, and then later turned back into a distillery. There is an excellent in-depth history on the oft-lamented ScotchWhisky.com which covers most of the two centuries Glenkinchie has been pumping out malt which rolls off the stills with a sulphuric element likened to ‘over-boiled broccoli’ but which softens in cask to a biscuity, floral number.
After a brief history of both the distillery and the Johnnie Walker brand itself, it was time for what one might call the experiential part of the tour. You can revamp a distillery, rebuild it all in exposed brick and beam and have the best tour guides in the world, but in a world where aesthetics are becoming more and more a part of drinking culture, you will need something more. Hardcore whisky fans tend to roll their bloodshot eyes at the more showbiz elements of modern distillery tours, but I love them. Blending light and sound with flavour is a fantastic way to deliver a message to newcomers, and the Glenkinchie tour was no different. In a room designed to look like a fairytale bower we sat around a large table; in front of each pair of us were three bell jars, and under each were three key scents of the distillery’s malt. One by one we were asked to raise the jar and identify the scent, all the while being entertained by synchronised video projections onto the table, lights underneath it and ambient music. It created an experience that was immersive and memorable. Most importantly, it was something that has to be experienced – photos, videos, and my inept descriptions will not do it justice. You have to be there.
I had a similar experience in Strathisla where tubes of light were used to illustrate a message about flavour (or to represent the firing of the synapses in the brain, take your pick) and I loved that too. All of these devices are about entertainment and storytelling, and while they may seem frivolous to some diehard fans who want to talk copper and yeast, they have a hugely important role to play in engaging newcomers to the category. The Walker four corners all have had revamps in this style, which only give a taste of the brand HQ in Prince’s Street in the former House Of Fraser building. It is a sight to behold, offering five floors of Instagrammable splendour. If the four corners are the satellites of the Walker empire, Princes Street is the mothership. Again, hardcore whisky fans might say that the HQ is utterly detached from the reality of production and as such has nothing to do with whisky. Without branding, without marketing, without various forms of commercial storytelling, whisky is nothing. It would be an inert liquid sold in unmarked bottles. Where is the joy in that? Johnnie Walker himself was not a distiller – he was a salesman, a shop owner, who understood that appearance is important when selling goods, be it his natty attire or his shop window. We covet first with our eyes.
The company that oversaw the recent redesign of the Diageo visitors centres is BRC Imagination Arts – they were also behind visitors centres at NASA Kennedy Space Centre, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the new Las Vegas Raiders tour Experience at Allegiant Stadium, The Grand Ole Opry Backstage Tour, and The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, along with the Guinness Storehouse (the biggest tourist attraction in Ireland) and the rebooted Jameson Heritage Centre at Bow Street. In operation for four decades, they are masters of the experiential tour. According to our guide, the four corners all have elements of their tours which link them but this was not a copy and paste – each one has moments that make it unique and which speak to the distillery’s unique heritage.
Back to Glenkinchie. There are two items of note in the distillery – one is the largest wash still on mainland Scotland – the spirit still has a capacity of 17,200 litres, while the wash still holds up to 30,963 litres (Islay’s Bunnahabhain Distillery boasts two wash stills with a capacity of 35,386 litres each). This monster was replaced in 2008 and the roof had to be taken off and the new still hoisted into place, as it was too vast to enter any other way.
The second item of note is that the distillery is also home to two of the smallest stills in Scotland, just part of a one-sixth size model of a malt whisky distillery built by Basset-Lowke of Northampton for the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, of 1924-25 (there is a video of it here). According to our guide, excise gaugers used to check the tiny stills annually to make sure they were not in use.
At one point during the tour, our guide told us about a young physics student who took an interest in whisky, starting with the tourism side then moving into production before going to work in a distillery in Tasmania. He then returned home where he continued to work in the industry and is now master blender with Edrington’s The Famous Grouse. This, our guide told us, was his son, Craig (who featured on a BBC documentary series a couple of years ago when he was working at Lark). So despite the vastness of the Scotch whisky industry, at its core is a relatively small community – from those who make it to those who drink it and everyone in between. But it also gave us a really human moment on the tour – a father, speaking with immense pride of his son, and the career he had forged in the industry. Frankly, no amount of chemistry chat or distillery spec can compare. That said, here’s some distillery spec:
- The washback woods are mixed – some made from Oregon pine, some from Canadian larch, and they range from a few years old to a staggering 40 years of service.
- Glenkinchie used to do a peated ten year old single but stopped in 2005 and peat has not played a role there since.
- The maltings – out of use since 1968 in favour of Roseisle – predate the Victorian red-brick of the distillery, as can be seen in photos.
- The ‘unusually hard’ process waters are drawn from an on-site well having previously come from Hopes Reservoir in the Lammermuir Hills; the cooling waters come from the Kinchie Burn.
- The distillery uses a steel wormtub with an odd rectangular coil.
- Only 250,000 bottles of Glenkinchie are sold in a year, which means their bottling output – as opposed to their far more significant blending output – can be distilled within a three-week period.
- Unlike other distilleries that had a cat to keep the moose unloose aboot the hoose, Glenkinchie had a dog (photo from c. 1900 of the workers and dog here). The dog has been immortalised in statue form with the striding man to the front of the building.
The close of the tour was the tasting, where we were given the 12 year old, the 2022 Tattoo release, Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve, and a highball for good measure. My personal favourite was the 12 – I felt the Tattoo lacked depth and the Walker, while showcasing Glenkinchie’s role in the brand, felt mildly irrelevant. The highball was great though. My friend – and designated driver – was given a nifty box with three sample bottles in it to decant his samples into. This should be on offer at all distilleries – there will come a time when takeaway samples from distillery tours will be the default so you might as well start getting ready for that day.
So in summary – is it worth a trip? If you are in Edinburgh or its environs, yes. If you are in the Outer Hebrides, perhaps not. It’s a great tour, and we were very lucky to have such a great guide, but this is not a pilgrimage distillery – not a sacred site, a place of holy worship. It’s a grunt. It would be nice to see that change, for there to be more accessible bottlings than the 12 (there are older expressions in the gift shop but these all sit in the premium range and as such are invisible to me). Perhaps that will happen – the rest of the four corners all have their space on the shelf, so surely there is room for the Edinburgh malt?