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The Glenrothes: a brand history

Speyside distillery The Glenrothes has played a starring role in shaping the region’s single malt history.

Brands heritage director, Ronnie Cox

As the home of one of the most highly regarded single malt Scotch whisky ranges on the market – and a heavyweight spirit producer for a wealth of beloved blends – it seems almost implausible that The Glenrothes Distillery very nearly crumbled before it even came to exist.

In the 1870s, The Macallan’s James Stuart & Co. bought a sawmill on the site of the current distillery with the intention of creating a “lighter, fruitier” style of whisky to appeal to a different kind of malt drinker.

A short while later a banking crisis rocked the UK, and the distillery was near-condemned to a failed existence, had it not been for a generous £600 contribution from the local church. “The irony, of course, is that the minister would be saying from his pulpit ‘thou shalt not drink’,” says The Glenrothes brands heritage director, Ronnie Cox. “And yet the collection was going towards finishing the distillery.”

Seven years after the first spirit flowed from The Glenrothes stills, the distillery joined Bunnahabhain on Islay to form Highland Distillers Ltd. – the company that would retain ownership of the site until 1999.

Over the 60 years that followed, production peaked and troughed amidst external economic turbulence, and all the while The Glenrothes was privy to troubles of its own. In 1922, a fire destroyed more than 200,000 gallons of maturing whisky, after the great uncle of an unnamed distillery manager accidentally knocked over a candle while repairing casks, sending the whole warehouse up in flames.

“Every villager came up to Glenrothes distillery with containers to collect the whisky, which was running down the street,” says Cox. “They say the following day the cows were swaying from side to side, and the trout were a lot easier to catch than they had been in the past.”

Blended beginning

Just a year later, a long-standing partnership with wine merchant Berry Bros. & Rudd would begin with the creation of blended Scotch Cutty Sark, in which spirit from The Glenrothes is a major component. Cutty Sark was an “incredibly profitable exercise” thanks to Captain Bill McCoy – aka ‘the real McCoy’ – who facilitated its entry into the US during prohibition. His success paved the way for The Glenrothes to become the brand it is today.

In 1982, Berry Bros. & Rudd’s then-deputy chairman Christopher Berry Green decided to launch a single malt Scotch whisky for his discerning clientele. He approached Highland Distillers, who suggested several distilleries for commercialisation, including The Glenrothes which up until that point had only produced liquid for blends.

As the “backbone” of Cutty Sark it was the clear choice, and after a shaky start with its inaugural release in 1987 – a 12-year-old expression – the brand decided to abandon the age-statement route and go off-piste.

“In those days little was known about maturation,” says Cox. “We looked at various different things, and decided that really it’s not about age – what’s important in maturation is the type of cask that the liquid is in. If that cask has been used once or twice then it’s fine, if it’s been used three or four or five times then it’s not fine – it’ll take 100 years to reach the same maturation as it would for a cask that has been only used once.”

The resulting expression, Vintage 1979, was a pioneering concept in the industry when it launched in 1993, and as with such expressions thereafter, was selected from 2% of the total quantity produced in that particular year. To this day just two casks in 100 are destined to become a vintage single malt for Glenrothes.

The distillery went on to launch three vintages in each market, exploring emotion to offer “whiskies for different moods” – a concept that forms the basis of the series even now.

“In much the same way a bottle of Champagne is considered to be an upper and a stimulant, and a bottle of port wine is considered to be a relaxer, you have whiskies that are ‘uppers’ and whiskies that are ‘relaxers’ and a lot of whiskies that are in the middle – conversational styles,” says Cox.

“When I give the approval to each of the vintages, it’s normally to replace one that has run out – so if it was ‘conversational’ then I’ll replace it with another expression in that style.”

Introducing the Reserves

With such a small amount of spirit dedicated to the finite-by-nature vintages, a widening consumer base, and skyrocketing demand, in 2005 the Reserves were introduced: a consistent group of cask types put together to deliver the same flavour profile every time.

They were a sure-fire success, and further cemented the brand’s reputation as a firm favourite with serious Scotch whisky connoisseurs.

However, the distillery has not forgotten its fraught beginnings, maintaining its link with the church ever since that generous landmark donation. In 1989, Berry Bros. and Rudd bought and renovated Rothes House on Manse Brae, formerly the home of the Parish minister.

In 2007, The Glenrothes transformed its Old Brewer’s office into The Inner Sanctum in another nod to the church, and in 2012 the brand launched its travel retail exclusive Manse Brae range of Reserves: Manse Reserve, Elders’ Reserve and Minister’s Reserve – which was personally selected by Rothes’ current minister, a “great friend” of Cox.

“There’s due reverence to the church in that respect,” he says. But certainly the most spiritual link of all is the tale of Biawa ‘Bye-way’ Makalanga, a well-loved local character and “general dogsbody” of the neighbouring Glen Grant distillery, who was so named because he was found orphaned on a byway in Africa by Major Grant.

Bye-way died in 1972 and was buried in the Rothes cemetery, which lies in close proximity to The Glenrothes distillery. When the new stillhouse was built on the site in 1979, Bye-way spookily “reappeared”. Kept a secret between the distillery workers, his ghostly activities were eventually brought to light by a visiting manager who’d overheard their hushed conversations.

“The manager had a friend called Cedric Wilson, who was a professor in mathematics but interested in the paranormal, and he quickly found out that there was a broken ley line – an energy line – going through the distillery, which had been upset by the construction,” says Cox.

“Having never been to the graveyard before, he walked straight up to Bye-way’s gravestone and talked to him, and we haven’t seen him since.”

Click through the following pages to see the timeline of The Glenrothes’ brand history.

1870s James Stuart takes over the sawmill on the site of the current distillery
1879 The first spirit flows from the distillery – on the same day as the Tay Bridge disaster
1887 The Glenrothes joins Bunnahabhain on Islay to form Highland Distillers Ltd.

1922 Warehouse fire destroys more than 200,000 gallons of maturing whisky
1923 Berry Bros. & Rudd uses The Glenrothes to enhance Cutty Sark whisky
1978 Work begins on converting the old malt barn into a new still house. Spirit for first ever Vintage Single malt is laid down in cask

1982 First discussions take place between Christopher Berry Green and John Goodwin about a Glenrothes single malt

1987 Launch of Glenrothes 12-year-old single malt
1989 Berry Bros. and Rudd purchases and renovate Rothes House on Manse Brae
2005 The Select Reserve is released
2014 Vintage Reserve is created and launched

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