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Glen Garioch was founded in 1797 by John Manson, making it one of the oldest operating distilleries in Scotland. During the 1800s it was a powerhouse of a distillery, producing a malt of great renown. Many are now predicting something of a rennaisance for this often-overlooked distillery, which recently launched a new 12-year-old single malt.
Glen Garioch originally incorporated a brewery and tannery and unlike many other distilleries, its disused maltings are still standing, although awaiting much needed renovation. Over the decades, the quaint town has grown around the distillery and a road, originally little more than a track, divides the distillery in two, making traffic awareness an unusual aspect of a distillery tour. Now appropriately named ‘Distillery Road’, this cut through is used by townsfolk as a shortcut to the main road between Aberdeen and Banff.
John Manson was only 27-years-old when he established his distillery. He was joined by his 19 year old brother, Alexander four years later: the Mansons were an industrious family, and while the brothers had a farming background their relations were merchants and tanners – the idea to move into the drinks industry may have come from an uncle who had been a vintner in Oldmeldrum.
In 1837, the year before John Manson died; the brothers were joined in the business by his son, also named John (1804-1877). He went on to take over the distillery and opened a snuff mill. He also maintained the family’s tannery and acquired neighbouring farms, the largest bringing with it the title ‘Laird of Fingask. Now properly a member of the landed gentry, he married Elizabeth Blaikie, a cousin of the explorer, David Livingstone.
By way of an aside, John and Elizabeth’s second son, Patrick Manson (1844-1922) was the first person to conclusively demonstrate the connection between mosquitos and malaria, earning him the nickname ‘Mosquito Manson’. One of his tests involved locking a healthy volunteer, his son in fact, in a room of mosquitos known to carry malaria, and proving the ‘volunteer’ became infected once bitten. He founded the London School of Hygiene and Tropical medicine, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1900 and was knighted for his services to medicine three years later.
The 1880s saw phylloxera annihilate Cognac’s vineyards and Scotch whisky took cognac’s place in the international market as the premium spirit of choice. Blended whisky too experienced a boom, its creation only made possible twenty years earlier by The Spirits Act of 1860 legalising the blending of whiskies from different distilleries before duty was paid. These developments went on to dramatically affect Glen Garioch and the Scotch whisky industry in general.
Glen Garioch Distillery remained in the ownership of ‘John Manson & Company’ until 1884 when it was bought by J.G. Thompson & Company, a firm of wine and spirits merchants from Leith. Around the same time, one William Sanderson, also a blender in Leith, was determined to prosper from the blended whisky boom. He produced 100 different blends and asked tasters to choose their favourite: they preferred sample number 69, and he started marketing his immediately successful ‘VAT 69’ brand in 1882. Shortly after J.G. Thompson’s purchase of the Glen Garioch Distillery, Sanderson bought into the combined company and much of Glen Garioch’s output subsequently went into producing the quickly growing VAT 69 blend.
In 1933, William Sanderson & Son merged with Booth’s Distillers Ltd and, four years later, a depression in whisky sales forced William Sanderson & Sons to join the Distillers Company Limited (D.C.L.). During World War II production ceased, and when it did resume remained at low levels due to barley rationing and other post war government restrictions. Things picked up in the early 1960s but full production only lasted until 1968 when Glen Garioch was mothballed due to “chronic water shortages and limited production potential”. In 1970 the distillery was sold to Stanley P. Morrison, the Glasgow whisky broker and owner of Bowmore Distillery.
Morrison resumed production and in 1972 appointed Joe Hughes as manager, with a brief to find another water source. Enter Alec ‘digger’ Grant, a local JCB driver and father of Glen Garioch’s current manager Kenny (now also nicknamed Digger). While digging nearby on Coutens Farm, Alec discovered a spring which has since been named, ‘Coutens’ Silent Spring’, since it could neither be seen or heard. The spring provided sufficient water to increase production ten-fold and the Morrisons extended the plant from two to three stills in 1972, then to four in 1973, when the distillery was largely rebuilt. That year, 1973 marked the relaunch of Glen Garioch as a single malt.
The maltings were closed in 1993 and around the same time the stills were converted from direct gas fired to indirect steam heated coils and pans.
The distillery was once again mothballed in October 1995 but to the relief of locals it reopened in 1997. It was during this closed period that the second, smaller wash still was removed and this now stands outside the entrance to Auchentoshan Distillery’s visitor centre (also owned by Morrison Bowmore).