Unearthing the Magic Malts of Aberlour

Aberlour, a small village in Moray, Scotland, is ancient. It is situated at a confluence where a wild mountain stream cascades down the slopes of Ben Rinnes and Linn falls, and runs through wooded glens to meet the Spey. Aberlour is aptly named after that stream, Lour. In Gaelic, it means “the mouth of the chattering burn”. The druid priests of the Celts believed that the water of Lour had healing powers. They were the first to use it to distill alcohol for the elixir they produced to treat the ailing. They also believed that Lour spoke to them, imparted knowledge. Centuries later, this view was shared by another.

Around the 6th Century A.D. when the “Brethren of Saint Columba” travelled through Scotland, in an effort to bring Christianity to the people, they came across Lour. Saint Drostan, son of the King of Demetia, and his missionaries too had faith in the healing power of the pure water of Lour. But they believed in healing the soul instead of healing the body, through baptism. It is where the Aberlour distillery stands today that the local people welcomed a new religion, hoping for salvation. An old granite lintel, with the name “St.Drostan’s well” engraved on it, remains preserved at the distillery even today.

Aberlour through the Ages

James Fleming, son of a tenant farmer, spend a number of years selling barley to several local distilleries. Being a man of extraordinary enterprise and vision, he realized the potential of the spring water of Lour to make the finest of single malts in all of Speyside. With a long-standing ambition to build his own distillery, he soon acquired the land at Aberlour, and along with it came St. Drostan’s well. By 1879, his dream was a reality, and a year later, the whisky began to flow. The Lour itself, however, had another role to play. It turned the giant water-wheel that was installed to power the distillery, which it did until the 1960s.

Meanwhile, a couple of key events took place. In 1892, the distillery was sold to Robert Thorne & Sons. They managed the distillery for six years, after which a fire consumed most of the distillery and their inventory. Under Charles Doig, it was rebuilt and within six months, was thriving again. 1921 saw the distillery passing into the hands of W.H. Holt & Sons, where it remained for the next 24 years before Campbell & Sons acquired it in 1945. The distillery was further expanded, and two stills were added. Over the next century, modernization and technology altered several features of the distillery, but in essence, it remained true to tradition.  

Crafting Aberlour Single Malts

What distinguishes Aberlour from other malts is the presence of Scottish barley, which is malted for approximately a week and dried in an unpeated kiln. (They believe that peat imparts an earthy smokiness which masks the natural flavors.) The Aberlour 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky is an example. After distillation, the whisky is matured in a combination of two casks, one being an American oak cask that has been used to mature bourbon, and the other, an Oloroso sherry cask. It is the latter that infuses in the whisky subtle sweet notes of plums, caramel, cherries and dried fruits, and adds a remarkable layer of complexity. But that is true for several other single malts from the Aberlour house. They are unusually dense with crisp, redolent flavors of red berries and blackcurrants.

There was a time when a distillery manager used to serenade the casks of maturing spirit with his bagpipes. And then in 1975 during the installation of two new stills, a bottle of Aberlour was discovered with a newspaper from 1898 wrapped around it. In an attempt to recreate the whisky, the long process of making Aberlour A’bunadh began. First released in 1997, A’bunadh is still made without modern processes. Creamy and heavy with a palate of dark chocolate and oak, it has a long and robust finish. A’bunadh is undoubtedly rare. Released in small batches ranging from one to five per year, it is one of the best single malts of modern times. The Victorian era whisky journalist, Alfred Barnard, had described Aberlour as a perfect model of distillery from his visit during the 1880s. Today, Aberlour continues to live up to that very reputation with its quality and sophistication.