A History of Glenlochy Distillery

Glenlochy in 1960 (Image courtesy of Glenlochy.com)

Glenlochy is one of the rarest, most difficult to find single malts in the world.  Located in Fort William, just north of Oban in the far west of the Highland region, the former distillery operated on and off between 1898 and 1983, when it became victim to one of Diageo's notorious mass-closures, also ending production at Banff, Brora, and Dallas Dhu. In 1992, the remaining buildings - a malt barn and kiln with pagoda roof - were sold to a hotel group and eventually turned into apartments, erasing the existence of a once prominent whisky distillery.  Today, the town of Fort William, sitting on the banks of Loch Morar (the deepest in Scotland), is more known by single malt drinkers for its other distillery, Ben Nevis, than for the eccentric history of Glenlochy.  The truth is, I'd never even seen a bottle of Glenlochy until last year.  In all of our tasting visits around Scotland, with our fascination for rare malts guiding our noses, we'd never come across a barrel.  It wasn't until late morning last May, while visiting Signatory in Pittlochry, that we discovered a cask sitting high above the others near the warehouse entry.  We had missed it on the way in and couldn't believe our eyes when it read Glenlochy 1980.  Much like last year, when we noticed the cask of 1974 Ladyburn resting in a corner, we wanted to try it simply for the experience.  Even if it was terrible, at least we could say we'd tried a sip.  Five minutes later, we would begin negotiations to make this whisky the cornerstone of the entire trip.

Production at Glenlochy has a history of instability.  The distillery was silent during WWI from 1919 to 1924.  In 1926, the stills were once again halted, this time until 1937 when Canadian businessman Joseph Hobbs purchased the distillery (he would later purchase Fort William's other distillery - Ben Nevis).  Hobbs' investment group would sell to DCL (now Diageo) in 1953, but Glenlochy would only run another fifteen years before it was closed again in 1968.  According to Louis Reps at Glenlochy.com, "the pot stills were converted to internal heating system by steam from an oil-fired boiler in 1971" when production began again and Glenlochy became a source of malt for White Horse, Johnnie Walker, and other DCL blended whiskies.  However, after the disastrous year of 1982 severely crippled the whisky industry, DCL would close Glenlochy one more time and this time it would not reopen.  May of 1983 was the final date of production and in 1986 the distillery was scheduled for demolition, before that decision was appealed by the Lochaber District Council. Eventually, most of the main infrastructure would be removed and converted into a hotel, on the condition that no distillation would ever take place there again (a typical Diageo deal).

Highland newspaper 1986 after demolition was blocked - Courtesy of Glenlochy.comAccording to the chart on Glenlochy.com only 81 expressions of Glenlochy have ever been bottled as a single malt, mostly single cask offerings from independents.  Diageo has bottled six itself.  Seeing that production didn't officially begin until 1901, that's about one cask for every year that Glenlochy was in theory a working distillery.  Like many silent distilleries, the whisky has a reputation for being more rare than good.  Since there haven't been many bottles to taste, there are few reviews.  The best I've found was written seven years ago and comes from Serge over at WhiskyFun - a 1980 single cask bottled exclusively for Switzerland from the same vintage and warehouse as the one we tasted, although seemingly different in style.

More than anything, Glenlochy just seems mysterious to me.  There's simply not much information about the distillery other than important dates and events.  I can't find a descriptor of the house style, or any tasting notes that paint a picture of consistancy.  Had the whisky we sampled from the cask of 1980 been simply run of the mill or lackluster, I wouldn't have put much more thought into the distillery.  However, the taste we had in Pittlochry was transcendent.  It was mindblowing whisky, easily ranking among the best I'd ever had.  Before writing this brief history I went back into my tasting book to see what I had scribbled down at the time:

Candied nuts, roasted almonds, rich toffee, cotton candy, oils with butter, butterscotch, unbelievably good.  Jesus!  WOW!

To me, there's nothing more exciting than when the whisky from the ghost of history past completely blows you away and exceeds any possible expectations.  Sampling single malt from places like Millburn or Ladyburn can be extremely exciting, until you get to the part where you actually taste it.  When it's good, however, there's something magical that happens - rarity, quality, and legend combine to create a total and complete whisky experience.  I've only ever tasted one Glenlochy single malt whisky and it's one of the top five in my career.  While I've tried to delve a bit deeper into what could have produced something so singular and incredible, there's simply not much information available, in my mind only adding to the mystique.

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll