How Coastal Terroir Defines Glenglassaugh’s Excellent Whiskies

The coastal Scottish distillery just took home top honors from “Whisky Advocate”

December 18, 2023 6:35 am
A bottle of Glenglassaugh near the North Sea distillery
The coastal air helps shape the final profile of Glenglassaugh.
Dylan Ettinger

The stony, rugged bay of Sandsend and the verdant hills surrounding it are striking. On a sunny and crisp October morning, the ocean reflects the bright blue sky and its wisps of grey clouds, amplifying the brightness of the vegetation. As the tide rolls back in, the cold North Sea laps at the beach, leaving ripples in the sand. Long windswept grasses and spiny, fragrant gorse hedges with their bright yellow flowers line the winding path from the beach up the hill to the old Glenglassaugh distillery. All the while, a cool, salty sea breeze carries the coconut and vanilla aroma of the gorse flowers up to the distillery.

“It’s impossible to separate Glenglassaugh the whisky from Glenglassaugh the place,” says Master Blender Dr. Rachel Barrie. “Its whole essence is created by both the visible and invisible influences of land, sea, air and spring water.” Dr. Barrie is one of the most accomplished and respected master blenders in the Scotch whisky industry. With more than 30 years of experience leading distilleries, she is currently the Master Blender for Glenglassaugh (which just won the top whisky award at Whisky Advocate), along with the Benriach and the GlenDronach.

“The distillery has kind of a checkered past,” says Global Brand Ambassador Stewart Buchanan. The Glenglassaugh Distillery was originally built in 1875. The location, chosen for its access to fresh water and barley, straddles the whisky-producing regions of Speyside and the Highlands. Dating back to the founding of the distillery, Glenglassaugh has produced whisky with a unique character. During the blending boom of the mid-20th century, the distillery was expanded to increase production, but the spirit was still too unctuous to appeal to blenders, who preferred less intense whisky at the time. The stills were eventually rebuilt with the intention of producing a cleaner, softer distillate, but the immutable wildness left the finished whisky undesirable to blenders.

The yellow gorse surrounding the Glenglassaugh distillery
The yellow gorse surrounding the Glenglassaugh distillery
Dylan Ettinger

“There are so many times people have tried to tame the spirit, and they just couldn’t do it,” Buchanan says. The new-make spirit that comes off of the stills today has a high-ester fruit quality to it with notes of overripe banana, bruised pineapple and mango juice; it’s not entirely dissimilar from an unaged pot still Jamaican rum. What was too unique for blenders turned out to be the perfect base for a single malt.

The distillery was shuttered for a spell but reopened and has been in operation since 2008. Thankfully, most of the antique equipment, including its two massive copper pot stills, is still in use at Glenglassaugh. The distillery is also one of the few in Scotland that’s not computer-automated. “This manual operation and the fact that the same equipment we use to make the new range is what we made the old and rare vintages means we know how the spirit is going to mature with age,” Dr. Barrie says.

The environment is also playing a role in the unique flavor of Glenglassaugh. “The yellow gorse fills the air at Glenglassaugh, and this microflora drifts into every corner of the distillery, molding a whisky that embodies the character of the region,” Dr. Barrie says. “The coastal warehouses are deeply nourished by the North Sea air, which drifts throughout.”

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After Dr. Barrie took the reins in 2017, Glenglassaugh began preparing for a relaunch of its core lineup. “Rachel wanted each expression to identify a place,” Buchanan says. “It’s an easy thing to say but difficult to do.” 

“My approach to creating the new core lineup for Glenglassaugh was to ‘nurture the best nature’ of the distillery,” Dr. Barrie says. “The flavor and essence of the whiskey are all inspired by the distillery’s truly unique location.” 

The launched lineup consists of three expressions: a 12-year-old Glenglassaugh, along with the non-age-stated Portsoy and Sandend expressions. Each comes packaged in a bottle designed to emulate the ripples of sand on the nearby beach.

Glenglassaugh core range
The core range of Glenglassaugh, including the award-winning Sandend

The standard bearer for the new line is also its only bottle with an age statement. Glenglassaugh 12 Year is a great introduction to the distillery’s idiosyncratic style without straying too far from what fans of single malt whisky expect. Thanks to its aging in bourbon, sherry and red wine barrels, both nose and palate are full of sweet fruit notes like fig, apricot, vanilla and caramel, all tied together with a wisp of saltwater brine.

Sandend, named for a small nearby fishing village and bay is perhaps the most evocative of Glenglassaugh’s locale. The aromas of toasted coconut and vanilla mimic the pervasive scent of the gorse flowers that overwhelm the distillery grounds during the summer and fall. Aged in ex-bourbon barrels, Pedro Ximinez sherry and Manzanilla casks, Sandend has a slight minerality and salted caramel flavor reminiscent of the salty sea air. 

Portsoy is named after a small ancient harbor village further down the coast. In addition to the standard bourbon and sherry casks, Portsoy sees the addition of Port casks. The ripe mango and vanilla notes common to Glenglassaugh are bolstered with notes of dark chocolate, soy and saltwater taffy that combine to make a complex balance of sweetness and umami.

Dr. Barrie has managed to create a distinct identity for each new expression with a through line that ties each bottle back to the place it was crafted. Through conscious and thoughtful blending and allowing the idiosyncratic character of the old distillery to shine, Glenglassaugh now has three whiskies that are perfectly designed to transport the drinker to the unforgettably gorgeous place where it’s distilled.

“This is just the start of Glenglassaugh,” Buchanan says. “What’s coming will blow people away.” With casks of whisky that have been aging in the cold sea air since the 1960s and 70s, along with Dr. Barrie’s unimpeachable blending prowess, Glenglassaugh’s future seems very bright.


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