An Impostor Abroad: Stephen visits Strathisla Distillery

Strathisla, in the heart of Speyside (near Keith), is a truly picturesque old distillery–so picturesque, in fact, that there are many who maintain Strathisla is the most picturesque distillery. And though I have many more distilleries to see before I could make an informed judgment on that point, I wouldn’t bet against Strathisla in a contest for the most beautiful or picturesque distillery–or at least as long as the focus was distillery exteriors.

The twin pagodas of Strathisla are a big part of the reason I say this. They’re iconic, but the environs surrounding them are equally stunning: basically, the whole thing is a lush, manicured, yet nonetheless sylvan setting demarcated by stone buildings, cobblestone pathways, and greenery at every turn. I couldn’t help but look through the trees to see if I might be able to spot a hobbit-hole or two set into a shaded hillock.

On the inside, the distillery workings themselves are laid out far less elegantly than are the grounds of the distillery’s exterior. This is, of course, a result of pragmatic decisions made long ago to fit more equipment into the space. In this way, Strathisla is no different from many other older distilleries. But as also sometimes happens with older distilleries, Strathisla has maintained some endearing remnants of previous distilling eras: my personal favorite example was having the control room for the still house be in the distillery’s Old Coal Store room.

The stills at Strathisla

But other such remnants have a more direct impact on the spirit itself, like its cast-iron, semi-open mashtun. I say “semi-open” because there’s actually a top on it, but at the top of the sides of the mashtun is a large mesh that lets in the air from the distillery–or from outside, if they open the windows. And this allows for different strains of yeast to make their way into the fermentation process. I’m sure that doesn’t have a huge effect, since commercial yeasts are designed to do their work fast and well, and thus probably won’t give wild yeasts too much of a chance. But it does allow them something of a chance, and that could make for some interesting variations in batches.

Older washbacks

The old washbacks at Strathisla represent another remnant from the past that still has an effect on Strathisla’s liquid: they are made from Oregon pine. This also may not have a huge effect on the fermentation process, but the company thought it important enough to make sure that when they added new washbacks, they had the new ones made from wood as well. But since Oregon pine of the size needed for massive washbacks is quite difficult to find (and thus is quite expensive), Strathisla had the newer washbacks be fashioned out of Scottish or Siberian larch. I don’t know how many other distilleries have washbacks made from Siberian larch, but I’m guessing there are very few, if any.

Newer washbacks

But Chivas, the parent company of Strathisla, apparently was not willing to have Strathisla try to get by on its stunning exterior looks and its quirky innards. So in the last year, Chivas had the whole visitor centre renovated. And let me tell you, the visitor centre on the inside is every bit as classy and gorgeous as Strathisla’s exterior (which is really saying something).

But it is no normal visitor centre. As the distillery home (and “heart and soul”) of the Chivas Regal blends, Strathisla devoted a whole studio, a whole lab, to leading visitors through the blending experience. I’ve noted this before, but blending is hard–very hard–and more single malt fans should try their hand at it, because if they did, they’d have a deeper appreciation for the malts they often disparage.

Once again, I found myself humbled at the spigots of blending vials, though this time the vials were as swank and beautiful as any I’d ever had the chance to play with. My blend was fair to middling, but that didn’t keep me from enjoying the hell out of my 200 ml bottle of it after I’d gotten back to my hotel for the night.

But one other note I’d be remiss if I did not make here: the dunnage warehouses at Strathisla are fantastic. Inside of them the company has built the Chivas Regal Cellar and the Royal Salute Vault, both of which add a wonderful twist to the already charming place where casks go to mature. Inside, with the right tour guide, you can get tastes from select casks that are already duty-paid. Of course, it’s a clever marketing move to have the padlocked gates so you feel more special once you’ve been granted entrance to it–but my God, does it ever work. Standing inside with the iron gates thrown open and my glass freshly filled straight from a cask, I felt like a prince who’d just stumbled upon a pirate’s hidden loot.

Overall, if you want to be charmed by a distillery and the natural beauty that surrounds it, Strathisla is about as safe a bet as you can get (especially if you know the weather will be fair enough for you to take pictures outside). But the spirit itself is excellent–and is now out in a 12 year old bottling in the UK–and the blending experience is a massive, eye-opening bonus that I’m sure will make visitors appreciate all that the parent company does as well.

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