The Old Fettercairn distillery (a.k.a. Fettercairn or Nethermill) was built in 1824 by Sir
Alexander Ramsay. So, that's the meaning of the number 1824 on the bottles - it's not the distillation year... The distillery was rebuilt between 1887 and 1890 after it was damaged by
a fire. Fettercairn was hardly the only distillery in Scotland to suffer such a fate. In fact, the
distilleries that were not damaged or even completely destroyed at least once in their lifetime
are the proverbial exceptions to the rule...
Fettercairn was silent between 1926 & 1939, when it was acquired by Associated Scottish Distilleries Ltd, a subsidiary of Train & McIntyre Ltd. (owned by National Distillers of America). The new owners resume production immediately and until the maltings were closed in 1960 the distillery enjoyed a few relatively quiet decades. Then things start to become 'fluid' again... In 1966 the number of stills was extended from two to four, but that was the last major change to the distillery itself - unless you count the visitor centre that was opened as early as 1989.
The story of Fettercairn is not all that different from that of other Scottish distilleries
either, in the sense that this whisky distillery had quite a few other owners and
licensees during the rest of the 19th century, including James Stewart & Co., Gibb,
Durie & Co., James Durie and David Durie.
Fettercairn was acquired by the Tomintoul-Glenlivet Distillery Co Ltd. in
1971 (owned by W. & S. Strong & Co. and Hay & MacLeod & Co. at the
time). Just two years later, the Tomintoul-Glenlivet Distillery Co Ltd. (who
founded Tomintoul in Speyside in 1964) is sold to Scottish & Universal
Investment Trust (owned by the Fraser family) who buy Whyte &
Mackay in the same year. Both the Fettercairn and Tomintoul
distilleries became part of Whyte & Mackay Distillers Ltd.
And that was just the start of it...
In 1974 Whyte & Mackay is bought by 'Lonhro' who sell it to the Brent Walker Group plc. in 1988.
Then, in 1990, Whyte & Mackay Distillers is purchased by American Brands, renamed to JBB
Greater Europe plc. in 1995. This company was bought by another company with the name
Kyndal International Ltd. in 2001, who shortly afterwards decided to change their name to...
Whyte & Mackay Ltd.
It's enough to make your head spin, isn't it?
And then, in 2007, the story of Fettercairn took another unexpected turn when owners
Whyte & Mackay were bought by the business tycoon Vijay Mallya from India. Some people
already voiced their doubts about the deal at the time and within a decade their concerns would
appear warranted. Vijay Mallya became embroiled in a large number of lawsuits about shady
dealings and his vast business empire started to crumble.
The Fettercairn distillery is one of a relatively small number in the
Eastern Highlands of Scotland. Its closest neighbours are Glencadam,
Hillside / Glenesk and Glenury Royal. Many distilleries in the area
were closed over the past decades, but there’s ‘fresh blood’ too.
A little to the south you can find the Strathearn micro-distillery while
Daftmill is located in the area near Dundee and Perth. Meanwhile,
towards the west Royal Lochnagar is available for distillery visits.
The Fettercairn distillery offers distillery tours as well. Opening hours on Tuesday to Saturday are 10:00 - 16:00.
1) There are 14 dunnage warehouses on the distillery grounds with room for
32,000 casks of whisky.
2) The Fettercairn distillery had stainless steel condensers during most of
the 20th century - as well as a cast iron mash tun.
4) The cooling 'system' of the spirit stills is quite unique: they simply run cold
water along the sides of the stills.
5) United Spirits seemed just as eager to maximise their profits as competitors like
Bacardi and Diageo. For one thing, they removed the age statement from their
standard expression when they changed it from 'twelve years' to 'Fior' - allowing
them to use casks of younger whisky for that bottling. At the same time they also
reduced the ABV of their whisky from 43% to 42%.
3) In 1995 the stainless steel condensers were replaced by condensers that
were made out of copper - which is much more common.
6) In the past Fettercairn used to produce a peaty version of their spirit as well, at a phenol level of 55 PPM.
2001 - New owners Kyndal Spirits buy Whyte & Mackay
from JBB Worldwide.
2007 - The company United Spirits (owned by Vijay Mallya)
buys Whyte & Mackay, including the brands and distilleries
that are owned by W&M.
2009 - The new owners aim for a more 'luxurious' image and introduce a 24yo, a 30yo and a 40yo whisky.
2010 - The old 12yo expression is replaced with the Fettercairn Fior - which is packaged not unlike a liqueur.
The bottling does not have an age statement - but it DOES contain some peated malt...
2002 - A new packaging is introduced for the official bottlings
and the old 10yo bottling is replaced with a 12yo. The name
is changed from 'Old Fettercairn' to 'Fettercairn 1824'. The
new name was supposedly chosen to stress Fettercairn's
long and respectable history. Hmmm.... Perhaps they simply
should have hung on to the word "old" in the title?
2012 - Another bottling without an age statement is released - the Fettercairn ‘Fasque’.
Fettercairn 14yo 1996/2011 (46%, Signatory Vintage Un-Chillfiltered for LMdW, C#4241, 304 Bts.)
Nose: Starts of 'veggy'. Grain and bread aroma's. Fairly nondescript, though... Is that vanilla?
It grows a little more complex after a few minutes of breathing. More power and spices over time.
In fact, even after adding a drop of water it almost smells like a cask strength whisky.
Taste: Starts off round and smooth - almost like a grain whisky. Not a lot of taste, though...
Score: 81 points - this makes it into recommendable territory on its expressiveness. Not really my style.
Fettercairn 34yo 1975/2009 (57%, The Whisky Agency, Ex Bourbon Hogshead, 132 Bottles)
Nose: Whoah! Something else entirely! Shoe polish? Rubber? Clay? Odd - but extremely interesting.
Oddly enough the nose shows none of the fruity elements I found on the palate. Well, not at first...
Taste: Strong tertiary fruits, milk powder, speculaas. I'd have picked this as a sherry casked whisky.
The fruits are really nice. Towards the finish it stayed chewy and moved in the direction of pine and resin.
Score: 87 points - and I should add that bourbon casked malts don't often get that high on my scale...
Like the Coleburn, I'd say it takes some malt whisky experience to fully appreciate its complexities.
I wouldn't put it in the 90's myself, but I can see how some other people might. Very special...
Two young expressions by Signatory that were distilled in 1980 scored in the upper 80's too...
Fettercairn 12yo '1824' (40%, OB, Bottled +/- 2007) - quite a drop down from the 'Old' Fettercairn.
Nose: Grainy and quite sharp. Not very expressive or complex though. Sweetens out after breathing.
Taste: A flat profile with a rough and sharp mouth feel. Quite bitter, especially in the finish.
Score: 61 points - a significant drop down from some 1990's batches that scored in the lower 70's.
(However, keep in mind that a malt whisky with a score below 75 points isn't recommendable to begin with.)
Fettercairn 13yo 1980/1994 (43%, Signatory Vintage, Cask 2001-02, 750 Bts.)
Nose: Liquorice. Sour. Rancio. Raisin skins. Warm strawberry sauce. A tad more expressive than the 14yo?
Taste: Winey. Bubblegum. Oranges. Bitter woodiness. Roasted nuts and chocolate. A highly engaging malt.
Score: 89 points - and once again Serge served me a 'best expression ever'! Just short of the nineties.
Fettercairn 13yo 1993/2007 (59%, Cadenhead's, 318 Bts.)
Nose: Sharp and sweetish. developing spices. Developing farmy and organics. Interesting.
Taste: Sweet start, smooth centre, fruity finish retreating on the sides of the tongue.
Score: 80 points - despite the rather bourbony finish. Nothing really remarkable about this whisky...
Well, one aspect IS remarkable - until now I haven't seen many independent bottlings of Old Fettercairn.
Fettercairn 1992 (60.5%, James MacArthur, +/- 2003, 5cl)
Nose: Soft and creamy. Bakery aroma's. Seems quite gentle at cask strength. A little sour.
With a few drops of water some citrus emerged. Not much else to excite me in this whisky though.
Taste: Farmy and metallic at first. The high proof disguises the subtler elements; let's add water.
Hmmmm... Not much change it seems, apart from the fact that it became sweeter & easier to swallow.
Score: 76 points - an interesting and better than average whisky, but by no means spectacular.
Old Fettercairn 10yo (40.0%, OB, Bottled +/- 2000, 100cl)
Nose: Nondescript. Slightly oily. Dusty. Nuttier and maltier with time.
A lot of the character seems to have evaporated since I opened the bottle.
Taste: Sweet and malty. A hint of oil. Nutty. Peanut butter?
Slightly watery. Some liquorice in the background. Short finish.
Score: 72 points - this bottling seems not as good as my first bottle from +/- 1995 that scored 74 points.
No top shelf candidate, but decent value. A good base for vattings as well, because it's quite 'neutral'.
Fettercairn 25yo 1970/1996 (57%, Signatory Vintage, Distilled 10/9/1970, Bottled 01/1996)
(Cask #4709, bottle #114 of 202, brought from Australia to Scotland by Craig in 2003).
Nose: appears grainy and quite harsh at first. Over time it grew bolder and sweeter.
Slightly oily with something fishy in the background. Milk powder? Quite interesting.
Taste: At c/s it was flat and numbing. With some water more woody elements emerged.
Dry finish. I'm not really into these 'natural' malts, but Craig, Serge and Krishna liked it.
Score: 76 points - but the maniacal opinions about this bottling varied a lot.
Fettercairn 14yo 1980/1994 (43%, Signatory Vintage, Cask 2003-04, 680 Bts.)
Nose: Leather. Sweeter and spicier than the 13yo. meaty. Tea. Hint of antiquity, perhaps?
Taste: Not quite as extreme as the 13yo. Just a little tannic in comparison. Peppery mouth feel.
Score: 87 points - another distillery that I wasn't all that interested in jumps into the limelight!
My own tasting notes for some expressions of Fettercairn malt whisky are collected on this distillery profile.
Those were not all (official & independent) bottlings of Fettercairn I've tried over the years, but the notes should
convey how I felt about those whiskies. However, these tasting notes only reflect my purely personal opinion.
Your tastes might be different from mine - so it would be prudent to check out some other opinions as well.
Serge Valentin’s Whiskyfun website offers tasting notes on thousands of whisky bottlings, including Fettercairn.
The Malt Maniacs Monitor provides opinions of several other aficionados on over 15,000 different whiskies.
But perhaps you'd like to read a little bit more about whisky in general or single malt Scotch whisky in particular?
In that case, you might want to check out the Beginner's Guide to Scotch whisky - 10 chapters filled with (almost)
everything you need to know in order to fully enjoy and appreciate a glass of single malt whisky. Or, if you’d like
to dig a little deeper, the Whisky Lexicon offers more detailed information on a bunch of whisky-related topics.
Over the years all the other representatives of the area were closed or mothballed;
Glencadam (in 2000), Glenury Royal (in 1985), Hillside - Glenesk (in 1985),
Lochside (in 1992) and North Port (a.k.a. Brechin, the first one to go in 1983).
Fortunately, the Glencadam distillery was brought back to life again in 2003 by
the company Angus Dundee...
In 2002 the ‘1990s’ design of the bottle and label of 'Old Fettercairn' (shown above)
were changed to 'Fettercairn 1824' shown at the left. At that time, Fettercairn was
the only remaining active distillery in that part of the Eastern Highlands.
As I mentioned earlier, the ownership of the Fettercairn distillery changed in 2007.
After the take-over, many people felt uncertain about the future of Fettercairn and its
sister distilleries Dalmore and Isle of Jura under the stewardship of their new owners
Whyte & Mackay. The Indian overlords United Spirits (lead by mogul Vijay Mallya)
had paid a top price when the whisky market was at one of its peaks but the credit
crunch of 2008 came as a nasty surprise...
Thanks to growing whisky exports to South America and Asia, the Scotch whisky industry
as a whole didn't suffer as much from the credit crisis as some people had expected.
However, it seems the take-over of W&M was leveraged quite heavily. This suppressed
the profits of the company in the years after the deal, putting them at a disadvantage
compared to other whisky companies.
While the shift of focus from quality to luxury worked out beautifully for some brands like
Macallan, it didn't work too well for the Dalmore distillery and its products. While they
managed to generate lots of free publicity with the hefty price tags they stuck on many
of their older releases, some of those bottles remained unsold and kept gathering dust
on the shelves of luxury liquorists around the world.
By the late noughties many whisky connoisseurs had discovered that the ‘quality’ of
many of the recent releases was hardly comparable to the average malt whisky that
was released in the last decades of the 20th century. For the price of a single bottle
of one of those ‘deluxe’ Dalmores, they could also acquire quite a few ‘antique’ bottles.
A growing number of customers chose the more sensible option.