Visiting Glenora Distillery
TL;DR: Gianluigi went on a work trip to Nova Scotia, Canada, and sneaked in a visit to the first single malt distillery in North America: Glenora! Although a bit expensive (compared to Scotland prices) the visit was definitely worth it and the whisky had its own very fruity character. If you find yourself in the area, it’s strongly suggested.
(This post is written in first person by Gianluigi, since he was the only one on this trip)
In the academic world, one of the last things to come back after Covid were in-person international conferences, of course. Hundreds of researchers coming from all over the world and staying together in closed spaces for a week, what could go wrong?!? In my field of study, infectious diseases epidemiology, people have been particular cautious…guess why. So after 2020 and 2021 without meetings, in August 2022 I finally went to my first in-person conference in Halifax, a quite touristy city in Nova Scotia, on the Atlantic coast of Canada.
Once flight and accommodation were booked, I looked for activities to do in the couple of days before the conference. And what I really mean, is “whisky activities”, or even better “whisky distilleries to visit”. I found out that Nova Scotia has some relative recent ones (Caldera, Authentic Seacoast, among others), but the one that grabbed my attention was Glenora Distillery, located in Cape Breton Island, the north of Nova Scotia province. The mighty David taking down the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) Goliath.
For those who don’t know the story: Glenora Distillery was founded by Bruce Jardine, a local entrepreneur, and it was the first North-American single malt distillery, during a time when distilleries in Scotland were still shutting down following the whisky loch. He decided to go back to his Scottish roots, and start producing the most iconic Scottish product in a province literally called “New Scotland”. He moved for over a year in Scotland to learn the nitty and gritty about distilling, in particular at Bowmore, and after coming back to Nova Scotia he acquired the land and built the distillery. After an unfortunate start which saw the distillery change owner twice, in 2000 they released their first single malt (an 8-year old), the Glen Breton Rare. Proudly advertising it as the “only/first single malt in Canada/North America” didn’t prevent the SWA to sue them over the use of the world “Glen”. But well, they are literally located in a “glen”, and the village is called Glenville. After 9 years of trials and appeals, they had the last word and could keep the “Glen”.
So, you could understand my excitement to visit them! However, the visit almost didn’t happen, because of the shortage of cars for rental in the whole region. That meant zero cars available at the airport, despite looking 4 months ahead. After bothering a number of people through emails (taxi/shuttle companies, Nova Scotia tourist service, hotels, etc.), I was about to give up the trip, but then I decided to try Turo. This is a company that hires private car, like Goboony does for campervan, but they aren’t a scam like the latter. So, I booked a car, not cheap but what the hell, when will I be in the area again?
Unfortunately, another challenge was behind the corner: the disastrous situation of Toronto International airport, where I had my layover, which I learned a mere 10 days before the trip. And in fact, my first flight was almost 2 hours late, but the second was 75 minutes late as well, so I didn’t lose the coincidence. This meant to change the time of the rented car pick up though, and when I called the owner to ask him to come later, he blathered some excuse and said he wasn’t allowed to hire cars anymore. I called Turo, which very professionally (unlike Goboony, sorry if I stress this but they are really terrible) provided me a different car and covered most of the price difference. So, finally, at 9.20pm local time, I was on a car directed to a B&B not too far from the airport.
Because of the jet lag, I woke up quite early, and after a good breakfast I was already on my way to Cape Breton Island. I arrived at the site around 2.30pm, ready to check in for the night: I didn’t tell you already, but at Glenora they have a hotel on site and a lodge just up the road, where I stayed. They also run a pub and a fine dining restaurant on site, so I was all sorted. The distillery offers two tours, the regular (CAD 7.00 + taxes, one dram) and the VIP, which I signed up for.
The tour started at 3pm, and it was conducted by Donnie, the manager of the hospitality side of the business. He is a huge malt whisky fan, so the tour was extremely entertaining and all the information really in depth. We started outside the shop building near the stream where they source their water from (first time I am bothered by bugs during a distillery tour).
The shop is topped by a pagoda roof, but it is just for aesthetic purposes and was never meant to be a kiln. In fact they source their malted barley from Sasquetwchan, but until the early 2000s they were buying it inScotland (some peated as well). My visit happened in their silent season, which goes from the late spring to the Fall, and during which they mostly run the hospitality side. For this reason their production is currently about 50,000 mlpa, although Donnie later told me that they could easily crank it up. All their equipment came from Scotland, including the two Forsyths stills. Differently to many distilleries, the wash and spirit still are of the same size, approximately 5,600 litres. A particular difference is that they fill their barrels with 70% newmake spirit, unlike the greatest majority of distilleries we visited which fill at the standard 63.5%.
We moved to the dunnage warehouse, one of their three, and for the first time the air was warm and humid instead of cold and humid: what a difference! Donnie explained us their maturation process: they source the barrels from Kentucky (we could see many Buffalo Trace’s ones) and they rarely mature for less than 10 years. Apparently they don’t re-use them, so all their barrels are first fill ex-bourbon. They had used sherry and other casks in the past, but for very specific releases. We tried one sample from the cask of a 26y/o, which was very creamy and quite fruity, in particular after adding water (collected from the stream!): after 26 years it was still 64%! Donnie said their angels’ share (the % lost to evaporation) is still 2%, similar to Scotland, although with huge seasonal variation. They bottle everything on site, without adding artificial colouring nor chill filtering.
We moved the tasting room, near the restaurant, where 5 drams were ready in front of us: we started with the newmake spirit (at 70%!), which after the 64% in the warehouse wasn’t too hard to drink, followed by the Battle of the Glen, a very sweet and balanced 15y (43%) celebrative of the victory of the trial vs. the SWA. We moved on to the 12y Ice (43%), finished for a short time (average 3 months) in ice wine casks. I was totally unaware about ice wine before this tasting: it is wine made with grapes harvested in February, and the frozen water allows the sugar to be retained to make a very sweet dessert wine (I bought a 5cl at the airport, I’m very curious to try it!). They also have 10y and 15y cask strength versions of the Ice in 25cl bottles (the latter available at the Halifax Airport). The final two drams were distillery casks: a peated 18y old, still made with Scottish barley, and an unpeated 12y, both cask strength. These two were the standout of the line-up, in particular the peated one.
As I was by myself, Donnie joined me over dinner for a nice chat, where I bought another couple of their drams (they were selling by the half-ounce, 15 ml): their main expression (the Glen Breton Rare 10y, 43%), and the 14y, which was truly delicious (still 43%). Not too late, we called it a day and a driver took me to the lodge.
I was very satisfied with the visit to Glenora, it was a very different experience to our usual trips around Scotland. Being a very touristy area, and isolated from other whisky distilleries, I could see how this makes them more of a tourist attraction, almost a “boutique distillery”, if you want. I could fully appreciate how good their single malt can be though, starting from one of the best newmake spirits I tried so far. The hot/cold maturation process definitely influences the whisky compared to most Scottish malts, but probably other factors are important too, like filling the barrels at 70%. I am really having a hard time comparing their prices with other tours or other whiskies, as during the whole time I spent in Nova Scotia, I felt that the cost of living is just much higher. Nonetheless, if you are travelling to the area or nearby, as I did, it is a must-do experience for any whisky lover.
Until next time, slainte!
Glenora VIP Tour and Tasting
Price: CAD 125.00 pp + taxes (total CAD 143.75, August 2022)
Duration: 2-3 hours
Tasting: in the warehouse, sample from the cask (26y, ex-bourbon barrel); in the tasting room, new make spirit (70%), the Battle of the Glen (15y, 43%, *NC, NCF), ICE 12y (43%, NC, NCF), Barrel #67 2010 (12y, 59%, NC, NCF), Barrel #132 2004 (12y, 59.0%, NC, NCF)
Target: whisky lovers and geeks
Value for money: Good+
Distillery Exclusive: Barrel #67 2010, Barrel #132 2004 (see above, CAD 125/375 for 25/75cl), Barrel #129 1995 (27y, 65.4%, NC, NCF, CAD 250/750 for 25/75cl)
*NC: not artificially coloured, NCF: non chill-filtered
+at the time of the visit 1 GBP = 1.55 CAD. If compared to Scottish distilleries tours it was pricey, but after a few days in Nova Scotia and on Cape Breton Island I think that it reflects the high prices in the province.