After the Spirit of Speyside Festival my travels led me to the eastern part of the Speyside region where I stayed in Huntly. I had made an appointment with distillery manager Gordon Bruce for a visit at Knockdhu distillery where anCnoc whisky is produced.
Public transport in this part of Scotland is not very well developped. It would have been next to impossible to reach the distillery by bus, so I gladly accepted Gordon’s offer to pick me up in Huntly to give me a lift to Knock which is approximately 10 miles away.
It is a cute little distillery located in a beautiful and very rural landscape, its most prominent feature being the Knock, a widely visible hill that gave the distillery its name and also supplies the water. Remains of an old railway platform can still be seen behind the stillhouse. The railway was used until the 1960s for the transport of barley, fuel and whisky but was then demolished.
Knockdhu is one of the smaller distilleries in Scotland with only one wash still and one spirit still, but production recently has increased to about 1.5 million litres of alcohol per year. Compared to other distilleries, Knockdhu has a distinctive “small buisiness” feel to it, even though it is part of the Inver House group that also includes Balblair and Old Pulteney among others. There is no visitor centre, but visits can be arranged. Apart from the manager and one person doing office work, there are only a handful of employees working in shifts in the stillhouse and the warehouses.
Speaking of warehouses, some of them had collapsed in the winter of 2009/2010 under heavy snow. They will be rebuilt in the near future, using the original stones and slate roof tiles.
Whisky production at Knockdhu is still very much hands-on without the level of automation that I could witness at the distilleries I had visited in Duftown. The malted barley is delivered by lorries, but contrary to other distilleries the kiln is not defunct but is ready to be fired any minute. They have also collected a nice museum-like assortment of ancient machinery from threshing to dressing that would in theory allow them to make whisky from freshly mowed barley.
But not everything is old-fashioned at Knockdhu, for example they have a very modern malt dresser that is doing its job much more efficiently than older machines. Efficiency seems to be a magic word here as they are proud to have tweaked the production process in a number of ways. The traditional underback was replaced by a nifty pipe construction that speeds up the mashing cycle, and a kind of mini condenser was added to the wash still to regain alcohol evaporating while filling the still.
But distillation itself is all done manually. “Mission Control” for the two stills just consists of two valves and thermometers. Modern technology has managed to sneak in in the form of a pocket calculator, though.
Like Mortlach, Knockdhu uses worm tubs to condense their spirit, but their sight is much more profane as the worms are submersed in a steel water tank.
A fact that is not widely known is that Knockdhu also distills peated spirit to be used in the Inver House blends. I was fortunate enough to try the newmake and a young bourbon aged spirit and I have to say they were excellent. Hopefully supply will allow a proper bottling of peated anCoc single malt in the future.
Like the other main Inver House distilleries Balblair and Old Pulteney, anCnoc has been increasingly promoted as a single malt brand in recent years. I had wondered if they would be able to fulfill a growing demand caused by this promotion, but the recent increase in output should be sufficient. anCnoc can’t be found in any supermarket, but general availability is pretty good.
The anCnoc core range consists of a 12 and a 16 year old and a yearly vintage bottling which is usually 13 or 14 years old. A new 35 yo will be released later this year that is to replace the now sold out 1975 vintage bottling. The house character of anCnoc could be described as typically “modern Speyside”, light to medium bodied, fruity and nutty.
I have to thank Gordon Bruce and the people at Knockdhu for making it possible to get a great insight into this small distillery that is a bit off the standard Speyside itinerary.