Speyside, Scotland has long been established as the source for some of the world’s most refined single malt Scotch whiskies. Across the magnificent region, well-known distilleries dot the landscape with obscure facilities nestled between. There, in a town from which the brand took its name, Aberlour exemplifies the craft and continues to produce a range of the tastiest, most-thoughtful single malts—incredibly smooth, and much like others in the Highlands, steering clear of smokiness with an emphasis of other complex notes. While the region plays its part regarding the three principle components (water, malted barley and casks), it’s the makers of the spirit who define its unique drinkability.
Master Distiller Douglas Cruickshank has been working with spirits since he was a teenager, and has worked in the whisky world for 47 years. He’s also been with Aberlour since 1992, initially joining as the director of the distillery. According to Cruickshank, “Pernod Ricard bought Aberlour in 1975, even before they were Pernod Ricard. Aberlour was basically our flagship at the time. It was a very, very small whisky company.” Things have escalated substantially since, as both Pernod Ricard grew and the demand for single malts surged. And yet, Aberlour maintains the integrity of its origins which date back to 1879 and a local philanthropist, banker and distiller named James Fleming.
As Master Distiller, Cruickshank prefers to talk about the responsibilities for the Master “which is obviously the new make product (the spirit before aging), and from the new make product, the maturation side of the product and then the range of different products that have the Aberlour name on them.” His approach to all of the above has long been a focus on quality and efficiency and it’s his personal relationships that offer Aberlour an edge. Over the years, he has befriended the maltsters who supply the barley, the copper manufacturers who have crafted Aberlour’s uniquely-shaped copper stills, and those at Speyside Cooperage, where Cruickshank hand-selects casks for aging.
Because of these relationships and their historic backgrounds, Aberlour holds the strong position of being able to buy the best malted barley—much of which hails from Scotland (but Cruickshank does source from the UK at large). While it’s malted offsite, with no smokiness, it’s milled at the Aberlour distillery. Cruickshank describes this as one of the most fundamentally important parts in whisky-making, and one he has personally overseen. There, grist is separated and Cruickshank notes, “If you do not get this right, you’ll never be able to recup in the next part.” After 2.5 hours of supervised grinding, water then enters the mix.
Fleming placed the Aberlour distillery in close proximity to pristine water sources: the Birkenbush Springs and the Lour Burn (river). After rainwater has settled atop Ben Rinnes, one of the area’s tallest hills, it trickles over pink granite before funneling into both. The uniquely soft water from the Birkenbush Springs is an influential component regarding the whisky’s taste. Nothing is ever added, and nothing is taken out, preserving the minerality. The Lour ultimately feeds into the River Spey, but not before playing its own role in production, when some is whisked up for cooling the whisky. From variation in springs and locations in the river, no two distilleries draw the exact same water. The liquid joins the milled malt and distillation begins in Aberlour’s four giant copper stills. The end result (or new make spirit), if perfect, is ready for aging.
While there is tremendous importance placed on aging and the way it alters flavors, it wouldn’t be bottled and distributed if the youngest product itself wasn’t perfect.
Aberlour ages in two distinct cask types: from Spain, ex-Oloroso sherry casks and ex-American whiskey casks from the US, both culled from oak—each lending a distinct flavor profile to the new make spirit placed within. Cruickshank has always hand-selected them. For their youngest expression, the whisky has been aged at a minimum of 10 years. Without pretense, Cruickshank notes that despite the various expressions, there’s nothing wrong with sipping on the 10-year variant. While there is tremendous importance placed on aging and the way it alters flavors, it wouldn’t be bottled and distributed if the youngest product itself wasn’t perfect. And every single cask is nosed before moving forward.
Across Aberlour’s expressions, the whisky itself runs the gamut from velvety smooth to lightly floral, with notes of citrus and even dried fruit. While the 18-year makes use of the sherry influence to emphasize spice, the A’bunadh avoids chill-filtration for a truly one-of-a-kind richness. And everything in between offers an opportunity to explore aged perfection. Speyside was once known for its mystic relationship to water. Today, it’s regaled for its whisky. The two go hand-in-hand and with the direct approach of those crafting it daily Aberlour stands as one of the best—a dram of something truly unique.
Aberlour whiskys start at $40 and can be purchased online from Master of Malt.
Photos by David Graver