WHISKY IS ALL that Robbie Hughes has ever known. And as the manager of Glengoyne – one of Scotland’s best respected distilleries known for taking their time to get things right – he knows a thing or two about what makes a good single malt.
He has also picked up his fair share of trade stories over the years. Naturally, then, we didn’t have to ply him with too many drams of his own whisky to hear a few of them…
What is your first whisky memory?
Like many youngsters, I had tried the blended whisky at the back of Dad’s drinks cabinet and then thought maybe Mum’s vodka would taste nicer. It wasn’t until I turned 18 and started working in a distillery that I had my first taste of the stuff that makes your toes curl, but in a good way.
Back then I was working at a certain distillery in the far north of Scotland and one day we had a visit at the distillery by two tax officers who wanted to do a re-gauge of a 1964 cask. A re-gauge is when you check the volume of whisky and alcohol strength in the cask (so you know roughly how much duty is payable on the liquid inside).
You get a glass beaker, add two litres of whisky from the cask, swirl with a thermometer and drop in a hydrometer. Write down the temperature and hydrometer readings and go back to the office to work it all out. Normally at this point, the whisky is poured back into the cask and the bung knocked back in to seal the cask. There were seven of us standing around the re-gauged cask; the two tax guys, one distillery manager, one head warehouseman, his assistant and two warehousemen, of which I was one.
Looking back I now realise what followed was a ‘setup’. The first warehouseman raised the beaker to his lips and “necked” it. He then passed the beaker to his left and the next man also took a large swig. He passed it left until everyone took their turn and the beaker eventually reached me. This whisky was approximately 55 percent alcohol and had spent 20 years developing flavours you would expect from a full-bodied Highland single malt whisky.
The six of them had made a large dent in the contents of the beaker and now they were all staring at me. I had never tried whisky straight from the cask before this, but not to be outdone, I drank the stuff as if it were apple juice. I will never have the exact words to describe what it was like drinking that whisky but if I told you it came out of my nose while I was coughing, holding my throat, gasping for breath and the colour red filled my vision, you may get the picture. All I could hear was laughter.
How do you end up running a whisky distillery?
I have spent my entire adult life working in single-malt distilleries. At the age of 18, I started working for Hiram Walker at Balblair Distillery as a warehouse operator and had the best time. I knew even then that this could be a pretty good way to spend my working life.
I was working with men who had started at Balblair in the 1940s just after the war. They were all rogues and amazing characters. I became an operator at Balblair and spent the next eight years producing whisky.
When I was 27, my wife and I moved to Tormore Distillery in Speyside and I trained as a Brewer. Allied Distillers Ltd now owned Hiram Walker's distilleries. For the next six years I spent my time working at a number of the old Allied Distillers sites namely, Imperial, Glentauchers, Glenburgie, Miltonduff and Glendronach. The experience was great and I enjoyed every moment.
At the age of 33, I left Allied and started work with Diageo as a Site Operations Manager. I looked after Linkwood Distillery and Glen Elgin Distillery for a couple of years and then moved to Mannochmore Distillery and Glenlossie Distillery. Diageo improved my understanding of different New Make spirit characters and how best to achieve them.
In October 2003, I jumped ship one more time and started working for Ian MacLeod Distillers Ltd at Glengoyne Distillery as the distillery manager. I always wanted to manage a distillery and at Glengoyne I was able to do this and use all of the knowledge and experience I had gained over the years. It couldn’t have worked out any better.
All time favourite bottling of Glengoyne?
A difficult question. As you can imagine, I have tried hundreds of different styles and ages of Glengoyne over the years, so to land on one isn’t easy. Around Christmas 2019, our then Assistant Distillery Manager, Duncan McNicol retired after nearly 43 years of service. One of the last things Duncan did was to go into our warehouses and select a cask to be bottled to commemorate his long and dedicated service to Glengoyne.
He did just that and handpicked a 17 year old American Oak Sherry Butt, cask No 561 of 2002, which we bottled for Duncan without chill filtration and at a punchy strength of 57.3% ABV. Duncan’s whisky was so well balanced between the spiciness from the Oloroso sherry and the vanilla sweet zesty notes of the American oak that it landed on every section of your tongue and revealed amazing flavours, from the sweet fruitiness of the Glengoyne spirit character at the tip of your tongue to the gentle oak tannins at the back. Meanwhile the spicy notes from the sherry are trampolining all around the midsection of your tongue; a truly breathtaking example of what a single malt whisky can be.
Glengoyne boasts of having the slowest distillation process in the trade. What does that mean and how does it carry through into the end whisky?
After the cask in which the whisky is matured, the next greatest influence on the flavour of the whisky comes from the distillation of the spirit itself. Distillation is the last point in the distillery process where we can leave our fingerprint on the final product; when we can produce something which is different from other distilleries.
During distillation, flavour compounds rise with the alcohol and desperately try to reach the neck of the copper still, at which point they’re cooled down in a condenser back to a liquid to eventually become whisky. But not all of these flavour compounds are desired; some of the heavier flavours must be removed even before they reach the condenser. We do this by operating the stills painfully slowly. If we were to speed up the distillation by adding more steam in the stills, we’d force those undesirable compounds over the next of the still and eventually into the cask. Other distilleries may thrive on these heavier flavours but they simply aren’t what we are looking for at Glengoyne.
Our whisky also must have maximum contact of the spirit vapours with the copper skin of our stills, which have a bulbous “boiling ball” just above the shoulder. These wider sections of the still provide a few extra inches of copper contact with the rising vapour.
Any unwanted flavours in the rising vapour, such as sulphur, will be reduced significantly by that extra copper contact. Eventually, after a number of years we will need to replace the still as it starts to wear thin. Our slow distillation allows the copper contact at Glengoyne to be maximised; we aren’t pushing the vapours over the neck of the still at a great pace, it is more like nursing the vapour over the neck just to get exactly what we need.
Glengoyne has some rather old stock, with 25 and 30 year old releases in its core range. Do you find that Glengoyne has a maturation “peak”, an approximate age when it is at its best?
Glengoyne seems to be able to spend a particularly long time maturing in the cask before its character starts to diminish. Even at a younger age, we find Glengoyne is very approachable. We have bottled Glengoyne when it is fairly young i.e. less than 10 year old, they are all excellent whiskies.
For me, though, Glengoyne whisky is at its peak when it is a teenager. At this age, it still holds much of that underlying spirit character and the cask is likewise playing its part to influence, but not to overpower it.
Best way to enjoy a whisky?
Single malt whisky is always best enjoyed with company; it is a sociable drink and it needs to be shared. A good dram will start a conversation, even with a stranger.
I always have my whisky neat first and then make a call for adding water.
I try not to get too precious about how people enjoy their dram, it is subjective and it's your whisky so do whatever you please. That said, though, fizzy drinks in expensive single malt? Really?
For more information, see glengoyne.com