Review No. 9 – Glenugie 1977 Signatory Vintage 32 Year Old

Alfred Barnard’s wonderfully detailed illustration of Glenugie Distillery (formerly Invernettie), 1887

Distilleries have come and gone in the whisky industry for centuries, and today, in a hugely competitive single malt whisky market, old ones are rejuvenated and new distilleries are being built. Some of these include distilleries with legendary status that fell silent many years ago, such as Brora and Port Ellen, and new distilleries like Raasay, scheduled to release it’s first single malt in September 2020.

Conversely, there are some distilleries that it is almost certain will never retain their former status. These distilleries have not just fallen silent, but their warehouses have been demolished, equipment removed, and old stock sold on. These distilleries are lost, and the whisky they distilled is finite.

Some of these silent distilleries, notably Brora and Port Ellen, currently achieve huge prices on the secondary markets, and for a lot of whisky fans trying the liquid gold that is out there either isn’t attainable.

However, there are some silent distilleries released via Independent Bottlers (Douglas Laing, Signatory Vintage, Cadenheads) which tend to be more ‘affordable’. I say that because I (long ago, when I once had more money than sense – I possess neither now) purchased a bottle from SV for the princely sum of £380 (or thereabouts – we can add a functioning memory to my lack of sense and money). Whilst expensive, it’s not quite in Brora range, yet some may say the quality is This bottle was from Glenugie Distillery, once of Peterhead and, during it’s tenure, the most easterly distillery in Scotland. A victim of the early 1980s, when distilleries were closing due to yet another market downturn caused by over-production and falling sales. It was the final distillery of four in the area which could not survive a fractured market – Glenaden, Kirktown, and Longside also suffered the same fate in previous years.

Glenugie’s tumultuous history reads like many distilleries which have been lost: periods of inactivity over many years including closure during World War 1; multiple owners, most of whom failed when it came to the running of the business and site; it was even converted to a brewery for almost 40 years. With such instability, it almost came as no surprise that distilleries like Glenugie would struggle, particularly when difficult and trying times arrived.

Nonetheless, in 1831 there was much excitement when Donald Macleod & Sons first opened the site and named it Invernettie after the area. The positivity did not last long, and Macleod & Sons closed after only 3 years of operating. The first period of inactivity had befallen the distillery. Then, in 1837, the Glenugie Distillery Company acquired the site and turned it in to a brewery. For 38 years the brewery worked away without much fanfare, and then in 1875 it was taken over for a second time, this time by the Scottish Highland Distillery Company Ltd, who gave it the name Glenugie Distillery. Like numerous distilleries, the name comes from the local water source, in this case the River Ugie, and is prefixed with the Gaelic word for Valley.

Unfortunately, even after reinstalling distilling equipment, Glenugie’s fortunes did not change. The familiar pattern of poor management and product, combined with poor sales meant that the new owners would, yet again, fall short.

In 1879 new owners arrived and they too lasted a little over two years. George Whyte & Company were another chapter of continued failure in Glenugie’s history to that.

For three more years, the site would be inactive, until 1884 when Simon Forbes took over the distilling license. Investment was much needed from the new owners. They had their work cut out to install new, modern equipment – times had changed since the 1830s, and for Glenugie to finally begin to realise its potential, it would need funding. Fortunately, this was provided, the distillery was modernised, and it was done to such an extent that the Crown’s Excise Officers would describe it as one of the finest in all of Scotland.

This was also just in time for Glenugie to appear in Alfred Barnard’s informative, detailed, and beautifully illustrated book, The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom. With 162 distilleries covered, and 129 in Scotland, it was the first comprehensive research undertaken of the whisky-making industry; a painstaking methodology of visiting and studying each distillery from 1885 to 1887. Barnard covers everything from local history and colourful stories, right down to still sizes and production quantities. Strangely though, he is limited in information about the whisky characteristics of each distillery, yet the book is invaluable in providing a glimpse in to the industry at a point when it was in the ascendancy, and proffers details and imagery about Glenugie, including the illustration at the beginning of this blog, that would otherwise have been lost to time.

Forbes would run the distillery through the turn of the century, right up until 1915 when it ceased production. For another 8 years the distillery would remain inactive, then in 1923 it began production again, only to cease in 1925 – strangely, only half of Glenugie’s existence up to this point had actually been as a working distillery. For the next 12 years Glenugie would sleep, with production ceased and stills silent, yet by 1937 there was interest again in the old site – this seems to be in keeping with the history: lots of promise, but a repeated struggle to turn potential in to genuine and sustained success.

Aerial view of Glenugie Distillery, circa 1960s

The new owners, Seagar & Evans, then ran the business for almost two decades before they were bought over by an American company, Schenley Industries, who were one of the largest liquor groups of the 20th century. They had a desire to increase the production, so installed further two stills, to bring the total to four, converted the coal-firing system to a gas-burning, and converted the maltings to bonded storage to increase warehouse space. By this point in 1963, Glenugie was making 1.5 million gallons of spirit, the bulk of which was delivered to Glasgow, where it was being used for Seagar & Evans’ primary blended whisky, Long John.

By the mid-1970s, Glenugie sadly did not have much time left, but it did have time for one more takeover, when it was sold to Whitbread & Co. Ltd. There were a further 8 years left for Glenugie before, in 1983, it was finally closed down. Nor was it alone, with a dozen other distilleries suffering the same fate that year.

The distillery premises was then sold off to Score Group Plc, an Oil & Gas company. With land at a premium in the area during the fossil fuel boom of the 70s onwards has sadly meant that the warehouses and storage, malting rooms, and other structures, have since been demolished. I believe that in the past few years almost all remaining buildings have gone. Glenugie is now fully silent.

However, thankfully, the whisky is still speaking volumes. Since closure there have only been two official bottlings, both released under the Deoch an Doras range in 2010 & 2011 by Chivas Reagal who own the Glenugie rights, however there are multiple incarnations of Glenugie Single Malts from Independent Bottlers. My bottle, by Signatory Vintage, was distilled in December 1977, remained casked for 25.5 years. During this time, SV have purchased remaining Glenugie casks, re-racked the whisky in to Oloroso Sherry Butts around 2002 for a punchy 7.5 years, before bottling it in March 2010 with a 32 Year Old age statement. Glenugie IBs can also be found from Douglas Laing and Cadenheads, amongst others.

I had been sitting on the bottle for a while, waiting for a special occasion (marriage / first born / terminal illness diagnosis) to open it, however I actually ended up opening it to send a sample to someone who had been kind enough to send me one.

During this two year period of my own Glenugie inactivity, I had affixed a certain level of mystery and mystique to the whisky and it’s creator. Not only because the distillery is now silent, but also because there are a dearth of reviews for this particular dram, and any reviews I could find attributed wonderful descriptions and reports about it, and other IB Glenugie bottlings and expressions that are around. I was actually nervous about opening it in case it disappointed me.

Fortunately, it didn’t disappoint. If anything, it excelled. I personally found that it lacked the varied complexities that many great drams exude, however this allows the Glenugie to really stand on it’s own by allowing it to exhibit such a wonderful example of a rich Highland single malt.

So, this is bottle number 583 of 809, it’s aged 32 for a total of 32 Years, and is bottled at a warming 46%. It’s also NCF and NCA, which is always nice to see.

Nose: The sherry influence is pungent, warming, welcoming, but never overpowering. There’s a slight leathery aroma, slightly musty, but it’s never prominent – it’s almost a faint finish on each whiff. The sherry notes slowly change in to raisins. It’s followed by the typical notes of many Highland single malts such as Christmas spice, like nutmeg and cinnamon, wonderfully warm and inviting. 9/10

Palate: First take is that the dram has a waxy/oily feel to it. Dark chocolate, brown sugar…it’s sweet, but never sickly. The fruit flavours remain, still dark, but quite cherry-like now. There’s still a bit of Christmas spice lingering, but it dissipates as the finish begins. 9/10

Finish: Buttery! Very buttery. Possibly that waxy/oily sensation I had on the palate, but it definitely seems to have become buttery on the finish. There’s also almost no spice or burn, and I find it still quite punchy in terms of dark fruits, namely the cherry taste I experienced prior. It’s really very good. 9/10

Total: 27/30

I am yet to enjoy another whisky like I have enjoyed this one. The expected Highland style really comes to the fore and, although these days the lines are blurred when it comes to regional styles, I do think this radiates the full-bodied, dark, fruity character that used to be associated with area (well, central and eastern, I guess).

A purchase I do not regret, regardless of the prohibitive pricing. I’d definitely buy another bottle if given the chance (and the money). Would love to try another Glenugie expression, just to try and get a comparison going.

Finally, I have a dram or two set aside, so if we follow one another on twitter then let me know if you would like to try one.

Slainte.

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