"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Monday, 28 February 2011

Nevis Distillery, Fort William

Barnard signed off his previous report on Ben Nevis Distillery with the words “urgent business at this time called us home” and that would have been sometime in late summer.  He returned to Fort William in winter to visit the Nevis Distillery but then doesn’t visit any more until the following spring/summer.  He doesn’t mention any other business he undertook on that winter journey but it would be strange to travel all the way north by train and then steamer to visit just one distillery.  He does begin his report “From Edinburgh to Oban, on a cold winter’s day” so perhaps he had previous business in Edinburgh to attend to and it made sense to fit in his last trip to the west coast at that time.

Barnard’s report begins with an appreciation of the scenery that they had witnessed the previous summer but this time from a winter perspective.  After a railway journey from Edinburgh to Oban through snow and “sleet beating against the windows of the railway carriage is no joke” he once more travelled aboard the steamer ‘Mountaineer’ from Oban to Fort William.  Despite the piercing wind his party was well wrapped and appreciated the views.

He twice notes that the scenery would be impossible to describe but he tries his best anyway, this time seemingly from his own observations rather than referring to a guide book.  He points out extraordinary ravines with frozen waterfalls, dark pine trees standing in relief against the snow, and Ben Nevis standing proud with its summit clear of clouds on this occasion, all beheld as the work of “the Great Creator”.  He notes a verse from a song by Mackellar that begins “Oh for a sight of Ben Nevis, Methinks I see him now, As the morning sunlight crimsoneth, The snow-wreath on his brow”, but I can’t find the full song anywhere nor who this Mackellar was.

They were met by friends at Fort William who may have put them up for the night and then proceeded to the distillery the following morning.  Nevis Distillery, number 50 on Barnard’s list, was mentioned in the previous report as it was built by Donald MacDonald of Ben Nevis Distillery to help meet the demand for ‘Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis’.  Ben Nevis Distillery was two miles north of Fort William town centre but Nevis Distillery was close by its north end, on the west bank of the River Nevis just before it made its final turn and poured out into Loch Linnhe.

River Nevis near its end, slopes of Ben Nevis behind, houses on right where distillery was
Perhaps because he only has one distillery to visit on this trip Barnard provides a lengthy description of the works which he found to be modern and with buildings mainly of concrete and iron built in 1878.  The place was very busy when they arrived as workmen from many departments were engaged in meeting an urgent export order to be sent out by steamer that day.  Barnard thought there was a “foreign air” about the place that reminded him of the champagne districts but his description reminded me of no less than the “scene of great commercial activity” he had witnessed at his very first distillery, Port Dundas in Glasgow.

He mentions the water source that we discussed last time and then moves through the usual order of the various processes.  Unlike Ben Nevis this place had all its own malting on site and the buildings were quite substantial.  I wondered if this might therefore be the place “in town” that Ben Nevis used as its maltings proper, but that had been described as being close to the harbour and convenient for unloading barley from the ships and Nevis was perhaps too far inland to fit that description.

Anyway, the first building had a barley loft above two large malting floors with two lofty kilns at the end; the second maltings was “the largest under one roof in the north of Scotland” with a withering floor “so capacious that 3,000 persons could be seated there with ease”.  A further kiln adjoins this building and is 40 feet square.  Barnard describes a “patent American Elevator” that can load the kiln with barley in just twenty minutes.  The barley was sourced from northeast Scotland, as is that used at Ben Nevis today.

The mash tun was large at 20 feet across by 6 deep and the final mash was floated to a separate drainer from where the water was returned to the heating tanks for the next run.  The tun room was the “lightest and cleanest we have seen”, again, until the next time, and contained 8 washbacks, 2 at 17,000 gallons (77,000 litres) and 6 at 8,000 gallons (36,000 litres).

Next was the still house containing seven “sma’ pot kind” stills, heated by furnace despite the rest of the works being considered very modern and including a number of powerful steam engines and pumps, although Barnard later noted that the power was mostly water driven from the River Nevis with steam power only supplemented where necessary.

There were two wash stills at 3,500 and 2,000 gallons (16,000 and 9,000 litres) and five spirit stills ranging from 580 to 450 gallons (2,635 to 2,045 l).  Barnard here describes the spirit in a first for him as “imperfect spirit, on leaving the Worm Tub, runs into the Spirit Stills to undergo a second and similar process of distillation, emerging therefrom a perfected spirit”.  He seems to be more familiar with terminology and ways of working now and we shall see more of this later.


His book includes this wonderful etching of the still room that shows some features that I am surprised he didn’t comment on, given the amount of detail in the rest of his report.  The wash stills had what look like large purifiers on their lye pipes and the far spirit still has a columnar neck that reminds me of the type seen at Hazelburn Distillery in Campbeltown, where the neck contained condensing tubes that throw back some of the fusel oils into the still to help purify the spirit.

Barnard is shown around the four warehouses by the chief Excise Officer and here he notes rather grandly that “for convenience, economy of space, light and ventilation, we commend them to the notice of distillers intending to build new warehouses”, now beginning to see himself as a bit of an expert on the subject?  These warehouses again hint at a move towards racking style storage, with “guantrees” being used to support second and sometimes third layers of casks without resting on each other.

The warehousing is also substantial and contained 9,915 casks “the whole of which has been bought and paid for by customers”, such was the demand for the ‘Dew’ distilled here.  Barnard also notes the pride of workmanship that takes place amongst the 200 men working here, with MacDonald being likened to an army general and the staff keen to show off their workmanship, often to Barnard’s amusement.  He comments on how much of the joinery work both here and in town and the wheelwright work for the carts and lorries is carried out by distillery staff.

Barnard’s report finishes with an unaccredited verse that I have tracked down to the song The Land of the Bright Blooming Heather by Hugh MacDonald, c1860.  There are four verses to the song, all similarly patriotic and sentimental and which would be quite at home in the Hector McDram school of emblems of Scotland, imagery that became very prominent during the Victorian Era.

"Here's a health to the land of the mountain and glen,
To the land of the lake and the river,
Where the wild thistle grows in her rude rocky den,
Proud Freedom's stern emblem for ever!
The land of the Claymore, the Kilt, and the Plaid,
The Bagpipe, the Bonnet, and Feather,
Let’s join heart and hand upstanding in pride,
Here's the land of the bright blooming heather."

Sentimentality doesn’t stand in the way of progress though and in 1894 the railway finally arrived in Fort William and a siding was built right into the heart of the Nevis Distillery complex.  Yet despite the large scale of operation and an annual production of some 1.2m litres the distillery was only operational for 30 years before MacDonald decided to merge it with Ben Nevis in 1908, long before the impacts of WWI and prohibition in America contributed to the devastation of the industry in the 1920s.  Perhaps the initial downturn at the beginning of the century led to a reappraisal of operations, and by the 1920s the whole business transferred out of the MacDonald family and the stills at Nevis were left silent.

Camanachd Crescent housing where Nevis Distillery once stood
The warehouses at Nevis continued to be used for decades after but they too have now gone.  The estuary at the mouth of the River Nevis was converted into reclaimed land in the 1980s and a new development opened in 1988 that included a leisure centre and supermarket.  The old distillery area was converted first into industrial units where the old telecoms company NTL once had a base but later redeveloped into the modern housing that stands today, the last of the old distillery demolished in the process.  The old gates from Nevis Distillery are now installed at Ben Nevis Distillery in memory, no other trace of it remains.

Nevis Distillery gate, now at Ben Nevis Distillery

  

Ben Nevis Distillery, Fort William

Returning once more to Oban, likely for another overnight stay there, Barnard’s party then made the memorable journey on the morning steamer up the coast and through Loch Linnhe to Fort William.  They travelled in fair weather on the steamship ‘Mountaineer’ enjoying “that sense of freedom and exhilaration which the modern invention of the railway line has struck out of the list of human enjoyments”, once more showing how much he enjoyed being outside and travelling around.  He hints here that he has been to many places in his life, having “travelled many a highway at home and abroad”, but the Scottish scenery holds a special place for him.

Such a trip would not be complete without seeing and commenting on Ben Nevis which dominates the view inland on approach to Fort William, on a fair day at least.  Barnard again dips into Anderson’s Guide to provide a description, at first holding off on adding any of his own interpretation but eventually giving in.  He does provide the updated and then accepted height for Britain’s highest mountain, 4,406 feet, the earlier figure of 4,370 recorded in Anderson at a time when Ben Nevis still only had “fair pretensions to be the highest mountain in Great Britain”.

Ben Nevis in cloud, summit hidden on the left
The name Nevis has been interpreted with two very different meanings, one being ‘malicious or venomous’ but I prefer the more gentle ‘head in the clouds’ or ‘the cloud-kissing hill’ and it is said that only about 1 in every 5 or 6 climbs will be rewarded with clear views.  I was lucky enough to enjoy such a day when I climbed it a number of years ago, at a time when the ice and snow on the top, even on a glorious June weekend, was deep enough to allow one to step almost straight onto the top of the 10 feet high summit cairn.  Now, for the summer months at least, it is no longer the case that “the brow of this majestic mountain is generally encircled with an icy diadem” and the rocky plateau is a more likely scene for many of the estimated 125,000 people who make the summit each year, most taking the well worn mountain track from Glen Nevis.

Barnard brings us up to date by mentioning the observatory which had only been opened in 1883 and where a few hardy souls lived the whole year round and provided hourly weather updates by telegraph for 21 years until it closed.  A summit hotel was also opened beside the observatory and ran as Britain’s highest hotel for around 25 years.  The ruins of these buildings can still be seen, an emergency shelter now sitting on top of the observatory tower being the highest man made structure in Britain.

Anderson’s Guide notes an ascent time via the path of around three and a half hours and a little over half that for the descent, timing’s that are still relevant today in good conditions.  The report also includes the interesting advice “the inexperienced traveller, also, may be the better of being reminded to carry with him some wine or spirits (which, however, should be used with caution), wherewith to qualify the spring water, which is fortunately abundant, and to which he will be fain to have frequent recourse, ere he attain the object of his labours.”  So, take a hip flask is the message, and enjoy a well earned dram when you reach the top of the land.

Old pier at Fort William, built by Ben Nevis Distillery for supplies

West End Hotel, Fort William















Before arriving at the separate landing stage for the steamer Barnard notes the concrete pier built by the distillery owner for use by their steamers bringing in barley and other supplies.  Beside the pier were storage warehouses, the main distillery maltings and houses for employees, all some 2 miles away from the distillery.  Barnard’s party stayed at the West End Hotel for one night, another one built in the few years before he arrived as railways opened up the north to tourists.  The same hotel still stands at the entrance to the town centre from the south, although Barnard’s stay there is not something they have a record of anymore.  The pier shown in an etching in Barnard still stands too, although now in poor repair, silted up and no longer used.

Inverlochy Castle
They made their way to the distillery the following morning, crossing the River Nevis by the old bridge and passing by the ruins of old Inverlochy Castle, beside which Mr Donald MacDonald the distillery owner had a farm, the area now used as playing fields for a sports club.  The distillery was built in 1825 by his father, known as ‘Long John’ MacDonald, the whisky produced here known as ‘Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis’.  Barnard notes the setting of the distillery as picturesque “in striking contrast to the background of the mountain [Ben Nevis] whose projections intrude themselves up to the walls of the distillery”.

Ben Nevis Distillery with the mountain projection behind
Barnard doesn’t mention the water supply anywhere in this report which is unusual for him.  In his next report, on the nearby Nevis Distillery also owned by MacDonald, he notes that they share the same water source saying only that it “has its source at the top of the mountain from the spring now known as “Buchan’s Well” which is the highest in the kingdom”.  I have been unable to find any precise information on this well, the location of which now seems lost, but we have some help on the source from Long John himself.  Writing in 1827 he says “On Ben Nevis I was fortunate to find a constant and consistent source of pure clean water in two small lochans” and he was refering to the lochans Coire Na Ciste and Coire Leis that feed the Allt a’ Mhuilinn (Mill Burn) from heights above 3,000 feet.

The Allt a’ Mhuilinn runs right past Ben Nevis Distillery into the River Lochy but it is unclear how this water was fed to the Nevis Distillery almost 2 miles away.  The water source has now changed and the distillery now relies on the water piped down the hill behind it, the end of a 24km pipeline from Loch Treig which lies due east of Fort William and which provides a huge volume of water to drive the large turbines at the nearby aluminium smelter.  Long John considered water as the most important ingredient for making whisky, with barley, yeast and a measure of peat reek from both water and kiln being next important in that order; no mention of the influence from either cask or location at this early time before such things were fully understood.

Water pipes for aluminium smelter turbines and distillery supply
There was a malting floor and a kiln at the distillery to compliment the main maltings in town (no mention of a kiln in town though) and the peat was dug from the slopes behind the distillery through which that burn had run.  Barley is now sourced from and malted in the northeast of Scotland.  The style of whisky has changed a little over the decades but the barley used now is very lightly peated, although peated cask versions are available from independent bottlers.

The milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling processes described by Barnard were all fairly standard, with six washbacks at 6,000 gallons each (27,000 litres), 2 wash stills at 1,000 and 800 gallons (4,500/3,600 l) and 3 spirit stills, one of 500 gallons (2,300 l) and 2 at just 350 gallons (1,590 l), all of the ‘sma pot’ style and condensed in two outside worm tubs.

A lot has changed since then and various stages of ownership are worth noting.  The distillery transferred out of the MacDonald family early in the 1900s although it continued trading under their name until 1955, the Long John brand name being sold in the 1920s to Seager Evans Ltd.  In 1955 the distillery was sold to Ben Nevis Distillery (Fort William) Ltd under the control of Joseph Hobbs who owned a few others around Scotland at that time, mostly on the east coast.

Old Still room at Ben Nevis where a Coffey Still once stood
Hobbs set about rebuilding much of the property, with a lot of the work being done by distillery employees, but he also made two very significant changes in the late 1950s.  First he installed a Coffey Still and so it became one of the few distilleries producing both grain and malt whisky then, a practice more common in Barnard’s time but quite rare in the 20th century.  They did at one time produce a Single Blended whisky with the grain and malt spirits being married together before being placed in the cask to mature as a blend, a practice thought to be unique to Ben Nevis.

The second major change took place in 1957/58 when Hobbs changed the washbacks from Oregon Pine to concrete!  Yup, the once and only place I think you will hear that.  You will not be surprised to hear that they didn’t last, the cleaning process taking its toll on the material.  Hobbs passed away in 1970 and the distillery closed the following year, the last time either of his innovations were used.

The distillery was purchased in 1980 by Long John International, originally a subsidiary of Seager Evans Ltd that then became part of Whitbread, perhaps keen to ensure the source of the whisky that gave them their name.  After £2m of investment the distillery reopened in 1985 but closed again within two years as the economic realities of the 1980s took their toll on the industry.  The Coffey Still was stripped out and 8 stainless steel washbacks installed during this time.

Ben Nevis washbacks, six stainless steel, two of Douglas Spruce
The distillery was then sold in 1989 to Mitsui, a partner of the Japanese Nikka Distillery who reopened it in 1990 and it has been operational as a malt distillery ever since.  Four years ago two of the washbacks were changed from stainless steel to Douglas Spruce to provide a different spirit for the Japanese market, the wash from these two being distilled separately from the others.  Most of the distillery output goes into blending but there are some single malts produced here that have often received great praise from those who know about these things.

Ben Nevis Still House
The current still house dates from 1965 and contains 2 wash and 2 spirit stills, all steam coil heated and with condensers.  The base of one of the spirit stills and a boiler had just been replaced and were going through final commissioning when I visited.  Ben Nevis is a distillery to visit if you want to see whisky produced as an industrial operation, without the polished tourist trail common in many other distilleries that are open to the public.  The emphasis here is on the product rather than the romantic gloss that sometimes gets in the way (I know, I’m guilty of it occasionally as well) but John Carmichael, the Visitor Centre Manager is nonetheless happy to share anecdotes about the history and development of the distillery.

Function room in old warehouse with original rafters and columns
The visitor centre here was created in 1992 inside an old warehouse and bottling hall dating from 1862.  The old structure of the building can still be seen upstairs in a function room often used for ceilidhs.  The tour begins with a display area about the distillery and a short film where you will meet ‘Hector McDram’ to tell you the story of the Dew of Ben Nevis.  This is perhaps entertaining for tourists but a bit of a stereotypical ‘hairy Highlander in a kilt’ kind of image.  The video seems very dated now, perhaps time for Hector to be left to history and his own part of the Angels Share?

Barnard noted ten warehouses on the site, each one entirely detached from any other building as a fire precaution.  The three newest were large structures that sounded like racking warehouses from his description, the other seven, including the original single warehouse from 1825 were all much smaller.  The stock when he visited in 1885 was a substantial 8,161 casks holding over 523,722 gallons (2.4m litres).  Old Long John MacDonald had only been producing around 200 gallons per week (47,000 litres p.a.) but by the time Barnard visited, his son Donald had increased this to around 3,000 gallons per week (700,000 litres p.a.) plus a further 260,000 gallons (1.2million litres) from nearby Nevis Distillery.  Nevis has long since gone but Ben Nevis now has an annual capacity of 3m litres.

Barnard finishes his report by noting that “urgent business at this time called us home” and it must have been an emergency of some kind as he doesn’t stay in town just another day to see the Nevis Distillery, instead returning all the way north to visit it in the winter before recommencing his travels the following spring/summer with a trip to Orkney.  That winter journey he endured to visit just one distillery will be up next.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Talisker Distillery, Isle of Skye

From Tobermory Barnard’s party returned to Oban for another night at the “well-appointed” Craigard Hotel, perhaps having stayed for just one night on Mull although he doesn’t say, and then left for Skye early the following morning on MacBrayne's steamship ‘Glencoe’.  This journey began with a trip straight back up the Sound of Mull to Tobermory and it is unclear why they didn’t join the ferry there rather than return to Oban first.

Barnard records that they had been anticipating this part of the journey for weeks “and consequently were anxious about the weather”, which turned out to be rather fine in the end, only occasional showers driving them below deck.  They began the day with a hearty breakfast and I am beginning to see that Barnard regularly enjoyed the simple pleasure of a good feed, a practice I have happily adopted for my own journey.  It is hard work visiting all these distilleries, honest it is; hearty sustenance is indeed required!

Their steamer was to take a two hour detour on route to Portree, the capital of Skye.  They stopped by Loch Coruisk on the south coast and were transferred to shore in a couple of large boats “manned by a sturdy set of Skyemen” who wore the uniform of MacBraynes.  I am somewhat envious of Barnard as he makes the short five minute walk inland to the edge of one of the most spectacular views in Britain, one that I have yet to see.  Loch Coruisk stretches for two miles into the very heart of the Cuillin Mountains, cliffs rising on all sides.

For once Barnard is almost lost for words, his normal ebullient descriptions of the landscape seemingly deserting him.  He records that the “awful grandeur would be impossible to describe” and leaves the romanticism to Sir Walter Scott, the lines here from his epic poem from 1815 The Lord of the Isles:

“A scene so wild, so rude as this,
Yet so sublime in barrenness,
Ne’er did my wandering footsteps press
Where’er they happ’d to roam.”

You will need to search online for images of the loch; for now I can leave you with the only slightly less grand view of the Cuillins from the other side, this picture taken near dusk in Glen Brittle.  Those of you lucky enough to visit Skye in the summer can take a short boat trip to witness the same unspoilt view that Barnard did.

Cuillin Mountains from Glen Brittle
After their detour the ferry progressed up the Sound of Sleat and through Kyle Akin towards the island of Raasay off the east coast of Skye.  Kyle Akin is where the Skye Bridge now crosses the sea in a sweeping arc of controversy.  Connecting Skye directly to the mainland for the first time when it was opened in 1995, the bridge was privately funded and excessive tolls were levied, once the highest of any bridge in Europe, until they were abolished at the end of 2004.  The bridge design split opinion as well, many thinking it spoiled the view of Skye from the mainland, but I find it somewhat elegant.

Portree Harbour
Arriving at the pier in Portree harbour Barnard’s party made their way to the Portree Hotel on Somerled Square which is named after the first Lord of the Isles.  The Portree Hotel stills stands today, the façade largely unchanged from when it first opened in 1865.  The hotel rooms were temporarily closed when I visited but I did enjoy a decent beer in their Camanachd Bar before spending a comfortable night in the Portree Independent Hostel just off the square.

Portree Hotel and Camanachd Bar
Barnard and I both visited Talisker Distillery the day after arriving although we took different routes to get there.  Barnard’s party travelled by horse and trap, first heading south to the Sligachan Hotel and “fortifying ourselves with a substantial meal” (told you!) while resting the horse for an hour.  The Sligachan was also closed for winter when I visited so I missed out on that treat.  The bar is well known amongst hill walkers who often start or finish their Cuillin Mountain adventures here.

He complains of the rain that washes the dust from clothes “and pierces your mackintosh like duck-shot through a boat’s sail” and despairing about how bleak and desolate the landscape was, not passing through any village on the 19 mile trip to the distillery.  They admire the mountains when the rain subsided, here calling them the Cuchullin Mountains after Cúchulainn, one of the heroes in the Ulster Cycle of Irish folklore, Cuillin being a short Scottish form of the name.  Legend has it that Cúchulainn travelled to Skye to be schooled in the art of war and fought in a great battle here.

My own journey began north of Portree as I wanted to see the stunning landscape in the Trotternish peninsula and to drive on two great scenic routes before reaching the distillery.  Iain Banks considers that all Skye roads are generally to be classed as “Great Wee Roads” and I almost agree with him.  The day began with duck-shot rain but soon eased into greyish but quiet skies that permitted some of these photographs of the scenery (click to enlarge).

Old Man of Storr and Trotternish landslip

Kilt Rock


Mealt Waterfall and Kilt Rock


















I first stopped by the Old Man of Storr, a pinnacle formed from a land slip that is a landmark beyond Portree.  Next came the evocatively descriptive Kilt Rock with its 200 feet high ‘pleats’ of basalt and the stunning Mealt waterfall nearby.  The first driving test was the single track road that rises from the landslip feature known as the Quirang, hairpin bends escorting my car to a great view across the land.  A massive landslip runs for 19 miles up the centre of almost the whole length of Trotternish and this road climbs a pass across it and down to Uig on the west coast.

The Quirang and the road through the pass
From there I returned to Portree to take the equally wonderful B885 to Bracadale which must have been built for driving on rather than for getting anywhere in particular, although once I had stopped taking pictures I did eventually reach the west side of Skye to see sheep ‘grazing’ on the beach and the first views of the Cuillins to beckon me onward to the distillery.

Seafood loving sheep on Skye?
Barnard arrived to find a lively scene at the village of Carbost in contrast to the desolate road he had travelled, with crofter’s working the slopes of the hill behind a distillery full of life and motion.  The distillery actually takes it name from the land on the other side of the hills, the River Talisker falling west past Talisker Farm and into a bay of the same name.  The water running past the distillery is the Carbost Burn which supplied all the distillery water in Barnard’s time, a lade tapping the water around 100 yards above the works that still supplies the cooling water today.  The mashing water is now drawn from the Hawkhill Springs in the hill just behind the distillery.  The 14 springs run very deep and the water is consequently very pure and unpeated.


Founded in 1830 the distillery had changed owners a few times and was substantially improved and updated in the nine years before Barnard arrived, two-thirds of the then property being modern and containing the latest in distilling appliances and vessels including a new kiln and still house.  Despite all this modernisation the supplies were still brought in and out from offshore, steamers using smaller boats to transfer barley ashore which was then carted up to the granaries, full casks being floated out to sea for uplift.  Various owners battled with the laird to get permission to build a new pier which was eventually constructed in 1900 and included a tram way for horse drawn trolleys to ease the delivery of supplies.

Talisker pier and old tram way
The main buildings were built in a quadrangle and included the usual granaries and malt barns that Barnard visited first, with two peat fired kilns adjoining each other but which have now been demolished.  Peats were originally dug in a moor about a mile away and Barnard notes “a number of hardy women busy digging and bringing home this fuel.”  The maltings were last used in 1972, the barley now sourced and malted from north-east Scotland and peated to around 22ppm before arriving by road.

The mashing and fermenting processes were standard and Barnard has little to say about them.  The current mash tun was installed in 1998 and is a good size with a high copper dome and currently running 19 mashes per week as production has increase in the last couple of years.  Barnard recorded six washbacks but doesn’t give the sizes.  There are now eight, two more having been added in 2008, made from Oregon pine with a full capacity of 53,000 litres each.

Talisker was set up for triple distillation and Barnard observed the three Pot Stills but doesn’t give the sizes.  They were condensed in two worm tubs fed from the burn here.  Two more stills were later added and they were all coal fired and ran triple distillation until 1928.  Alas, in November 1960 some spirit boiled over onto the coals and the entire still house was destroyed by fire.  The distillery closed until a new still house was opened in 1962 with five brand new stills faithfully replicating the previous design.  Remarkably, despite that fire, they remained coal fired until converted to steam heating in 1972.  The two wash stills are 14,706 litres and the three spirit stills are 11,024, the spirit stills appearing much smaller as the necks are much shorter than on the wash.

Talisker worm tubs
Talisker still uses outside worm tubs fed from the burn, the current ones installed in 1998 with the unique shape of the lye pipes being maintained, the wash still vapour having to pass through a near horizontal lye pipe and no less than six right angle turns before reaching the worm tub, a reflux pipe feeding back into the still half way through this process.  The spirit stills have a more conventional approach with a long horizontal pipe but the design of the pipes apparently dates right back to 1830.

Old no. 4 Warehouse with old Managers House (now offices), Carbost Burn in foreground
There were five warehouses on the site, two new large ones built not long before Barnard visited, altogether holding 2,000 casks.  Some of the older warehouses have since been demolished as the brick had deteriorated but others were built and now hold around 5,000 casks on site but with most of the output maturing on the mainland.  The oldest whisky on site is from 1979 and special 30yo limited bottlings have been released in recent years.  The annual output averaged 40,000 gallons (182,000 litres) around Barnard’s time but has now increased to near 3m litres p.a., up from around 2m in 2009.

Cask display in No. 4 Warehouse
In 1898 Talisker merged business with Dailuaine Distillery in Speyside, a link that can be seen on the stencils on those 1979 casks in the warehouse.  In 1916 they joined a consortium including John Walker and John Dewar and from there a path through SMD/DCL in 1925 and into Diageo where Talisker became the Island whisky representative in the classic malt range.  Apart from a few short closures Talisker has enjoyed a long and successful life and the distillery continues to grow and the whisky continues to win awards.  60% of production now goes for blending in Johnnie Walker, Bells and others, including of course the Isle of Skye blend, Talisker currently being the only distillery on the island.  There is planning permission for another to be built in Sleat on the south of the island but that may be a few years away from production yet.

The distillery paraphrases a line from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem as part of their promotion, noting that Talisker was recorded by him as “The king o’ drinks”.  A little cheeky perhaps as I think that RLS actually has the hero of the poem indicating that Scotch Whisky in general (the blood of Scots) is the “king o’ drinks”, regardless of where in Scotland it came from, but Talisker is an exceptional whisky so perhaps we can let them off with a bit of poetic licence.  The line comes from the poem The Scotsman's Return From Abroad, and the extended verse is:

“At last, across the weary faem,
Frae far, outlandish pairts I came.
On ilka side o' me I fand
Fresh tokens o' my native land.
Wi' whatna joy I hailed them a' -
The hilltaps standin' raw by raw,
The public house, the Hielan' birks,
And a' the bonny U.P. kirks!
But maistly thee, the bluid o' Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to John o' Grots,
The king o' drinks, as I conceive it,
Talisker, Isla, or Glenlivet!”

Maidenkirk, now Kirkmaiden, is a small village about as far south in Scotland as you can get and on the far opposite corner of the country from John O’ Groats, the line in the poem above being the old Scottish version of ‘from Land’s End to John O’ Groats’.  First published in 1880 just five years before Barnard’s visit, the poem is written in the Scots tongue and it is a satirical comic gem of character, nostalgia and the hypocrisy of dour sectarian prejudice which I think Barnard would have thoroughly enjoyed if he had understood it.  It also includes a comment on happily enjoying the nosing of whisky:

“Syne, weel contentit wi' it a',
Pour in the sperrits wi' a jaw!
I didnae drink, I didnae speak, -
I only snowkit up the reek.”

Talisker and Cuillin Mountains
Iain Banks in Raw Spirit compared Talisker to the Black Cuillins as “not for the faint hearted but widely rewarding for those prepared to tackle it.”  The Black Cuillin ridge is the mountainous scene behind the distillery in the photo here and 11 of the 12 Munros on Skye are in the 7 mile ridge.  An experienced climber can traverse the ridge in under 24 hours if the conditions are right, but it can catch out anyone unprepared, even on a bright summer’s day when the weather can change very quickly.  The sensational whisky that I was welcomed with at the distillery was certainly bold with peaks of pepper, smoke and spice and definitely something to experience.  If it’s wet and windy on the ridge then repair to a public house and explore the whisky with your senses instead.
  

Monday, 21 February 2011

Tobermory Distillery, Isle of Mull

From Oban, Barnard travelled by steamer up the Sound of Mull to Tobermory, enjoying fine weather and beautiful scenery that he claims no guide book has ever done justice to.  That said, some of his descriptions seem a little strange and don’t match the detail on the old maps and when I dug further I realised where they have come from.  I mentioned in my post on Loch Finlaggan on Islay that Barnard likely carried a copy of Anderson’s Guide to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and here Barnard seems to quote or paraphrase from it quite liberally, and as before sometimes embellishing the story, often misleadingly.

He records a journey of two hours after passing the ruins of Aros Castle on the east coast of Mull but this is more likely the total journey time from Oban, the ruin standing two thirds along the way to Tobermory.  He paraphrases here that Mull is “uneven and mountainous, but nevertheless the soil is deep and fertile, therefore better adapted for pasturage than Skye, to which island it bears great resemblance.”  The original is similar except for the ending “to which island it otherwise bears a strong resemblance”, neither of which I find particularly convincing having driven extensively on both.  Perhaps I need to see more of them from the sea?

Flood basalt layers create the terraced summit of Bearraich on the west coast of Mull
Of the mountains he again paraphrases “the mountains rise in terraces, by stages from the shore, the highest being Benmore, which we saw from the boat; the next, Benychat, 2,294 feet above sea level”.  I was unsure which mountain was referred to as Benychat as the name is not similar to any other there, and the way he records them as “the highest…the next” makes it sound like it is the next highest on Mull.  However, the original line in Anderson stated “Ben More, the highest mountain, being 3097 feet; and the next to it, Benychat, 2294 feet by barometrical measurement” which therefore could be an anglicised name for the summit along the ridge beside Ben More which is called A’ Chioch (sounding like Y Chat perhaps?).  Barnard omits to mention that these heights were taken by barometrical measurement many years earlier and Ben More, the only Munro (Scottish Mountains over 3,000 feet) on Mull, was resurveyed to 3,169 feet no later than 1860 and A’ Chioch is actually 2,844 feet so I’m still unsure about that one!  The second highest on Mull is Dun da Ghaoithe at 2,513 feet.

He next mentions the area called Drumfin to the left of Tobermory, better known as “St Mary’s Lake”, again taken from Anderson, although he changes the words ‘mansion-house’ here to “Drumfin Castle”.   The house had in fact been renamed to Aros House around the 1840s (since demolished in the 1960s).  Barnard’s copy of Anderson’s Guide appears to be either an old edition (first published in 1834, three years before he was born) or is a more recent edition that has not been updated (link above is to 1850 edition).  Either way we now need to take care with some of his descriptions of scenery and location, much of which he likely never visited.

Tobermory with distillery on left
Barnard also places St Mary’s Well in close proximity to Drumfin, perhaps assuming it’s position from the name of the lake, yet it was in fact on the slopes above Tobermory on the other side of the bay.  Tobermory is the modern name for Tobar Mhoire which means Well of Mary in English, named after the well which Martin Martin had recorded around 1700 as having medicinal water.  A medieval chapel had been built beside it but that has now gone; the well itself is now overgrown and lost, replaced with a modern drinking fountain of the same name.

Western Isles Hotel, Tobermory
On arrival in Tobermory Barnard’s party visited the distillery straight away, having first left their luggage with a porter from the Western Isles Hotel where they stayed perhaps for just one night.  He would have been glad of the porter as the hotel stands on a rocky cliff above the north end of town.  It was purpose built just three years earlier in 1882 and has now just recently been renovated by new owners to bring it back to its former glory.  Tobermory is built on the harbour front and on the terraced slopes behind and in the 1960s the front of the harbour buildings were first painted in a stunning range of bright colours that make the harbour one of the most photographed views in Scotland.

Tobermory harbour
They first visited the distillery water supply, the Tobermory River, which flows from the Mishnish Lochs into the bay just beside the distillery, dropping over numerous falls along the way.  The suffix nish appears all over Mull, its English meaning is from the old Norse word ness that is also common in Scotland, meaning a point or headland.  Around Mull we find names like Mishnish, Treshnish and Fishnish.

Ledaig end of harbour with Calve island on left
The distillery stands at the south end of the harbour, an area of town known as Ledaig which is Gaelic for safe haven, the harbour here being sheltered by the low lying Calve Island.  Barnard records the distillery as being established in 1823 but this was the date they were licensed, the established date being as far back as 1798 when it converted from a brewery and was first known as Ledaig Distillery.  When he visited it had only been reopened from around 1878 having closed in 1837 for reasons now lost.  Maps from around the 1860s record the buildings as a saw mill.
Distillery sign, painted by Mashman and artist Stewart O'Donnell
The barley was brought in from Ross and Inverness-shires, as it is today, but malted on site back then in the usual manner.  The kiln, once heated by peat dug nearby, is now gone.  Tobermory whisky is very lightly peated now at 2-3ppm but the barley for Ledaig whisky, at 37ppm, is brought in from Port Ellen maltings on Islay.  The mashing and fermenting process was all very standard, Barnard giving the precise sizes of four washbacks all around 7,400 gallons (33,600 litres).  Today there are still four backs, although around 60 years old, made from Oregon pine and holding around 27,000 litres each.

Still House from town approach road
The still house had two old pot stills, a fire heated wash still at 2,530 gallons (11,500 litres) and a steam heated spirit still at 1,710 g (7,770), and both condensed in an outside worm tub fed direct from the river.  There are now four tall stills dating from 1972, two wash at 18,000 litres and two spirit at 15,000 litres, all steam heated and, quite literally, with an interesting twist.  The short Lyne Arms continue to rise slightly from the neck of the still and then go through a 90 degree turn before reaching the condensers which are high up on a platform. This helps provide a lighter spirit, those heavier oils falling back from the challenges set before them.  Tobermory is a ‘no photos inside’ distillery but there are some pictures of these unique stills available on the web.

Two water wheels once stood behind the distillery and were powered by the river, one for grinding and mashing and one to power the switchers and rummagers.  These are now gone and the warehouses on the opposite side of the river have been converted into flats.  The whisky produced here is now matured at Deanston in Doune, the distillery there also owned by Burn Stewart Distillers (as well as Bunnahabhain on Islay) although a small warehouse behind the distillery is still used.  Producing 62,000 gallons (282,000 litres) of “pure Highland Malt called “Mull Whisky” in 1885, the distillery now has a capacity of 1m litres p.a.

Warehouses opposite distillery now converted to flats
Although established over 200 years ago, the distillery has been closed for almost half its life.  Following that earlier 40 year gap in the 1800s the distillery continued on until 1916 when it was acquired by DCL.  It lasted through the troublesome 1920s but closed again from 1930 to 1972.  The stills and much of the equipment were stripped out during this closure and the new stills were commissioned in 1972 when it reopened as Ledaig Distillery for just 3 years.  After some further opening and closing during the equally troublesome 1980s it was eventually bought by Burn Stewart in 1993 and has gone from strength to strength since then.

At the end of last year all the single malts in the Burn Stewart range were changed to un-chillfiltered and are now bottled at 46.3%, a welcome change for us whisky enthusiasts.  I mentioned the improvement in the new version of the Bunnahabhain 12yo at Whisky Fringe last summer and I now need to hunt down the new version of that peaty Ledaig to see how it has changed.  The oldest whisky in the warehouse is 38yo from that 1972 restart, so perhaps a 40yo bottling to look forward to next year.
   

Friday, 18 February 2011

Oban Distillery

Barnard’s party left Ardrishaig the afternoon after enjoying the hospitality of the owner of Glendarroch Distillery.  They travelled up the Crinan Canal on the ‘SS Linnet’ which covers the 9 miles in around 2 hours.  The canal was opened in 1809 and Thomas Telford was a superintendant on the work.  It has often been described as “the most scenic short cut in Britain”, as the journey through Knapdale at the top of Kintyre to the Sound of Jura saves over 100 miles of difficult sea navigation down past Campbeltown and the tip of the peninsula.

There were four people in Barnard’s party on this stage of his journey.  He mentions Cruickshank and Cook of Edinburgh but not the other one.  They would sometimes walk along beside the boat as it passed through the 15 locks, enjoying “milk and wild strawberries, vended on the canal banks”.  He regales us with a story about the last known witch to be burned near here, some thirty-four years earlier, although accidentally having “dosed herself with the contents of her whisky keg” and falling drunkenly into her fire.

On approaching the small village of Crinan, Barnard observes the promontory of Kilmahumaig that guards the mouth of the River Add and a brief glimpse of the small canonical mound, or Law, called Dundonald (Dun Domhnuill) where he says that the Lords of the Isles sat to deliver judgement when visiting this area.  If he had looked northeast across the flat plain of Mòine Mhòr he would have seen the fort of Dunadd where the Kings of Dalriada sat 500 years before the Lords of the Isles, those Lords preferring their own symbolic station in the landscape to confer authority to them.

Reaching Crinan they transferred to the ‘Chevalier’ which ran the line up to Oban, being greeted by the “welcome sound of the dinner-bell”.  After a “sumptuous repast” they once more enjoyed the scenery from the deck, except for Cruickshank and Cook “who occasionally dived down to the saloon to taste the drink of their country”, Barnard here seeming to prefer the view to the whisky.  Strangely he makes no mention of the Corryvreckan whirlpool, the third largest tidal whirlpool on Earth, which they must have passed by as it lies in the straight between the northern tip of Jura and Scarba.  I would have thought that this was the kind of phenomenon that would have excited Barnard.

Craigard Hotel on cliff above Oban Distillery
They arrived in Oban at 7pm and made their way up the slope behind the distillery to their accommodation at the Craigard Hotel.  The hotel sat on a rocky crag above the distillery with views across the whole town and bay below.  The hotel has since been converted to private apartments but the view still shows the activity on the water below, albeit perhaps quieter than in Barnard’s time.  The railway arrived here in 1880, 5 years before he arrived, and would gradually replace much of the trade by sea.

Oban Bay from behind Craigard
They visited the distillery the next morning and describe it as a “quaint old-fashioned work” which first grew out of a brewery in 1794, one of the oldest recognised distilleries in Scotland.  Before the distillery was built Oban had been a small fishing village and it was the arrival of the entrepreneurial Stevenson family that turned Oban into “the Charing Cross of the Highlands” as Barnard was to describe it in a later report.  The Stevensons laid out the plans for the town in the 1780s and 90s and owned the distillery until the 1860s.  They had started as slate quarriers and ship builders but became the founders of a busy town now known as the Gateway to the Isles.


When Barnard visited the distillery was in the hands of Walter Higgin who had taken over just two years earlier and who had already made improvements to the old buildings and built new warehouses.  He widely promoted both the distillery and its whisky as the finest available and he went on to refurbish the entire plant in the early 1890s, replicating the shape of the stills to preserve the character of the whisky but making some changes to the layout of the operation.

During the refurbishment a cave was found in 1890 in the cliff behind the distillery and an archaeological excavation there found remains and artefacts from the Mesolithic period, around 4,500 BC.  There is a long history of human activity in the Oban area and a number of similar sites have been found just inland on the raised beaches that were created after the last ice age, as the land rebounded from the depressing weight of the 1km thick ice sheet that was centred on Rannoch Moor northeast of here.
  
Oban Distillery and McCaig's Tower (built c1900) above, early 1900s
The main distillery buildings were, and still are three long oblong annexes, with warehouses built at the base of the cliffs to the rear.  Barnard first visited the Granaries and Malt-barns which he describes as being in the form of a triangle, later straightened out by Higgin’s refurbishment and now being used as the visitor centre.  There was a kiln at the west end of the building, heated by peat only, and a peat shed on the hill behind held enough for two years supply.  The kiln was later to have a pagoda roof with a tall slender shape, as seen in this old photograph from the distillery visitor centre, that is sadly no longer there as it would provide an interesting landmark for the town, although dwarfed by the chimney stack built in the 1890s.

Oban Distillery today, Craigard Hotel top left
The water supply ran through peaty uplands and came from two lochs by Ardconnel, one mile above Oban, and this is still the mains supply for the town and the distillery today.  The lochs lie below a hill called Black Mount, further up the hills are the ‘Black Lochs’ and another one to the north of Oban is called Lochan Dubh, dubh being Gaelic for black, so you can get an idea of just how peaty this whisky may once have been.  The maltings were last used in 1968 when the distillery closed for four years, the barley now malted in Morayshire and now only to 2ppm.

From the kiln the dried malt was wheeled by barrow over a “rustic timber bridge” to the Mill House with an adjacent Mash House.  The Mash Tun is described as “peculiar” and was only 9 feet across by 5 1/2 feet deep, one of the smallest at the time but containing the usual stirring gear.  The tun today is of fairly standard size at 18 feet across but is described as ‘traditional’ as it doesn’t contain the Lauter style stirring gear of most others, just a mixing arm mainly used to remove the draff.

The roof above the Tun Room once contained open shallow cooling tanks of a style we have seen elsewhere, the worts then flowing straight down to the tuns below, but they have since been removed.  Barnard records 7 washbacks in the “antiquated” tun room, each holding just 1,200 gallons (5,450 litres), amongst the smallest I can recall mentioned.  The plans for the redevelopment in 1890 show 8 washbacks but don’t state their sizes.  Now there are 4 of European Larch with a capacity of 36,000 litres each.

The Still House was once overlooked by the private residence of the Stevenson family, a peep-hole door allowing them to check on the operation below in the years before spirit safes were introduced in 1824.  Barnard describes the Still House as “monastic” and it contained two old pot stills, a wash still at 1,000 gallons (4,544 litres) and a spirit still at just half that size.  They were directly heated by fire and the rummager on the wash still was driven by water flowing from the worm tub.

When the distillery closed in 1968 it was due to its size being ‘too small’ and unable to be extended due to its location in a town centre and with cliffs behind.  A reprieve was granted in 1972 when a new still house was built and the stills were changed to steam coil heating.  The two stills are now just under 19,000 and just over 8,000 litres, a similar 2:1 ratio as before.  The stills have unusually short Lyne arms and the spirit is condensed in a single rectangular worm tub as it had been in Barnard’s time.

Oban Distillery from cliff behind showing tall warehouses
There were four warehouses, two of which had been built recently, and Barnard notes that although not of large dimensions they are of great height both being three stories high, the upward growth required due to the small footprint of the distillery in this crowded end of town.  He describes “fixed gauntrees (sic) on every floor…arranged so that any cask can be removed without affecting its neighbour” and a total of 3,500 casks.  Is this the first mention of a racking style warehouse?

Today, like many Diageo distilleries, most of the production is matured in centralised warehouses although some casks do still lie here.  Oban has the second smallest production volume of all the Diageo distilleries at 720,000 litres p.a., compared to just 159,000 litres produced from those small washbacks and stills when Barnard visited.

In 1898 Higgin sold the distillery to Oban and Aultmore Distilleries Ltd during a period of growth in the industry, although a downturn was just around the corner.  It separated again in 1923 and after a brief ownership by John Dewar & Sons it joined the Scottish Malt Distillers portfolio in 1930 and thence into Diageo.  Apart from that short closure from 1968 to 1972, Oban has flourished and became the West Highland whisky in the Classic Malts range in 1989.

Barnard describes Oban whisky as “not only pure Highland Malt, but a good self whisky” and today the output is kept solely for bottling as single malt.  Oban may have been the first bottle of single malt that I bought with a view to enjoying whisky in earnest.  It was certainly one of the first two and I remember enjoying it immensely compared to the blends I had known before.  The combination of flavours (orange, salt, a little smoke and honey are the key notes explained on a ‘tour of the senses’ at the distillery) with not too much of any one thing dominant may have been the key at that early stage.  That was in the mid 90s so I don’t recall anything more specific, and this was a couple of years before those Ardbeg aromatics came to sweep me away.

The standard bottling is an uncommon 14yo and will give your senses a wee workout trying to spot the flavours.  The tour at Oban is one of the most interesting and well planned that I have been on, the warehouse sample from a cask and a wee piece of crystallised ginger with your dram at the end are nice touches that set it apart from other tours.  The warehouse also contains an interesting display showing the development in the colour of whisky at different ages and from different types of casks and refill levels.

I had toured Oban twice before so only stopped by for another photo on this stage of my journey, and my thanks go to Distillery Manager Brendan McCarron for answering my later questions by telephone to help fill in some of the gaps.
  

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Quick update

Hi folks, just back from a fantastic tour round the north of Scotland covering 12 distillery sites, 9 of which were visited by Barnard between 1885 and 1886.  Sadly my luck with the weather ran out and after blue skies at Campbletown and Islay I now had to endure snow, wind, cold and rain as winter reminded me that it's not quite finished yet.  Barnard only made one trip north in winter, to see the now demolished Nevis Distillery, but he was travelling around by train and horse and cart so that's perhaps understandable.  I wonder if the rail service complained of the wrong type of snow on the line back then?

Cuillin Mountains, Skye
I did enjoy fantastic weather on one of the two days I was driving the most on, the pictures here testament to that.  I had never been north of Skye before and my journey round the northwest corner of Scotland offered spectacular views that kept stopping me in my tracks.  This part of God's own country is often a bleak and empty wilderness where mountains stand in stark relief against the landscape, in contrast to the closer peaks and glens of the central highland massifs, and the coastline is battered by Atlantic waves that carve out dramatic cliffs and secluded bays with golden sands.

Secret Beach, Durness
I am back at my writing desk now and will post up the next distilleries, Oban and Tobermory, from Friday evening onward.  Hoping for a quicker turnaround on the next stories as I can't wait to get back on the road for the next stage.  Despite the weather it was great fun driving on some amazing roads through epic scenery and also meeting some wonderful people at the distilleries, and I can't wait for more of the same as the days get longer and the distilleries closer.  For now, I am pouring a dram, sharpening my quill pen and reminiscing about some of the oldest distilleries in Scotland.  See you soon.


Road to Diabaig, Torridon

An Teallach, Wester Ross

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Glendarroch Distillery, Ardrishaig

Alfred, Alfred, Alfred!!!  What are you doing to me???  Just when I thought I had got to grips with the rough timings of his journey he throws me a curve ball!  He claims to have travelled on the steamer ‘Columba’ from Greenock to Ardrishaig, home of Glendarroch Distillery, on the 26th of July, the only time in his entire book that he provides a specific date for anything.  On his journey from Greenock to Campbeltown some 3-4 weeks earlier he noted that the steamer ‘Davaar’ to Campbeltown would be busy with Glasgow Fair holiday makers.  Glasgow Fair is the last two weeks in July, so how can he then travel to Ardrishaig on the 26th?   Grrr!

There are a number of possible answers to this, and to some other anomalies in his recent travel record, but you will have to hold on a while for a later post on the subject as it is too much to cover here on a distillery report.  It also needs just a little more research and I did promise you a post this weekend, so on with the story.

Barnard’s report on Glendarroch is one of the longest in his book although more than half of it is actually a description of his journey to Ardrishaig, the area around the distillery, the Crinan Canal that flows past it and the owner and manager’s houses and gardens.  The report also contains six etchings, more than any other single report, although again three of them are of the canal and general landscape.


His report begins with a description of the “Columba”, the steamer from Greenock to Ardrishaig, which contains “every imaginable convenience and contrivance for the comfort of passengers” including a post office, fruit shop, bookstall and a “magnificent dining saloon”.   None of yer CalMac curry and chips here then!  CalMac, short for Caledonian MacBrayne, is the current operator on most of the island ferry routes, the company having grown from David MacBrayne’s summer tours that Barnard followed to travel around the west coast.

From Greenock the ferry passed by the Kyles of Bute through scenery that Barnard considered “most picturesque and varied…and romantic” and he arrived at Ardrishaig at 1pm.  After securing quarters at the hotel, now the Royal Hotel I think as this site was the only one marked ‘hotel’ on the old maps, and also the same half mile distant from the distillery that Barnard then made his way along, following the banks of the Crinan Canal.  He here mentions the SS Linnet which is a small canal steamer that travels along the nine miles of the canal and which he later takes on his journey to Oban.

Darroch waterfall
Behind the distillery site is ‘Robber’s Glen’, once used by smugglers and rising high into the hills behind.  The Darroch Burn flows through the glen and passed by the distillery before being channelled under the canal and out to the loch, powering the distillery water wheels on its way.  The last drop of the burn beside the distillery was a 70 foot waterfall that has now been fenced off by the council to protect children playing in the park on the slope beside it.  There was also a small reservoir behind the distillery which was fed by the Ard Burn and which supplied the mashing water.

Barnard’s party climbed up the thickly wooded hill behind and he embarks on another of his ‘best scenery in the world’ monologues.  He finds a “scene of indescribable charm and beauty” – heather covered hills above the sylvan lower slopes with Loch Fyne stretching away below.  On the opposite bank of the loch is Kilmory Castle, “the whole tinged with a roseate suffusion of the setting sun”, and this in the middle of the afternoon on a bright summer’s day!

They dallied longer than expected with this scenery, keeping friends waiting at the distillery below.  Barnard shows no remorse at this, stating “it is a spot of enchantment, and no wonder that such a scene should excite us to enthusiasm when recalling those days spent at Ardrishaig”.  They eventually descended via the Ard Burn and passed the distillery reservoir it fed into.

Ard Burn behind distillery site
Standing on the north bank of the canal the distillery was built in the form of a quadrangle and with a frontage of 500 feet to the canal.  It had its own small wharf for unloading supplies and barley was brought up the canal and discharged at the granary doors, hoisted direct from the ships to the barley loft.  Barnard first visited the granary and maltings which had a kiln at one end that was “one of the finest we have seen in this part of Scotland”, heated with peats only, dug from nearby.

Distillery wharf on Crinan Canal
The Mash Tun here was 17 feet by 6 1/2 feet, a fairly average size for that time, and it contained treble acting stirring gear driven by the water wheel.  The old fashioned coolers (large open tanks that cool by surface area) had been removed by that time and a Miller’s Refrigerator was handling all the cooling requirements.  The Tun Room had 5 washbacks averaging 5,500 gallons (25,000 litres) each and the switchers powered by a second water wheel were apparently “to keep the liquor in motion during the process of fermentation”, although I think that may just be a misunderstanding of their purpose.  It occurred to me here that he hasn’t yet mentioned yeast in any report; I will look out for it later as he may comment as his understanding of the brewing process develops.

The Still House sounds like a bright building with eleven large windows.  There were three "sma’ Pot Stills" - a hefty Wash Still at 4,726 gallons (21,475 litres) and then a big drop in size to 2 x low wines at 1,000 gallons (4,544) and 500 gallons (2,272).  The Worm Tub stood close to the Darroch Burn but was actually fed continuously from the reservoir.  Barnard notes it as a “conspicuous object from the canal”, attracting the attention of tourists and it can be seen in the etching here.


The Spirit Store contained both a Spirit Vat and a much smaller Ullage Vat holding only 231 gallons (1,000 litres).  This is Barnard’s first mention of ullage and he doesn’t elaborate on it.  In one sense it is the technical word for the more romantic ‘Angel’s share’, but in the sense of a separate Vat it must be an overspill or pressure buffer for the spirit vat.

There were four warehouses on site for 2,000 casks and more were stored at Waterloo Street in Glasgow.  All the operations on site except pumping the worts were done by gravitation and elevators.  Apparently the Excise authorities considered it “one of the most complete distilleries in the district”, the district possibly being all of Argyll as the next closest was Oban, 30 miles away.  The annual output of pure Highland Malt was 80,000 gallons (364,000 litres).

Barnard describes the neighbouring houses in a little detail.  Glengilp House was the residence of the former proprietor and now of the manager and was also a previous name for the distillery.  There were houses for the Excise men in the grounds and further houses in the park for workmen.

Glendarroch House still hidden by trees
The House of Glendarroch on the other side of the Darroch Burn had been recently acquired by the proprietor William Gillies as his summer residence, so the distillery seems to have done very well for him although he was only there from 1884-87.  The house was almost hidden by trees and roses climbing the walls and roof, and fuschia (sic) trees lining the path “testify to the mildness of the climate in this district”.  After the distillery tour Barnard’s party returned to their hotel to don their “war paint” (his inverted commas) and then returned to Glendarroch House to enjoy the hospitality of the owner.

Glendarroh Distillery was only known as such from 1870-87.  It was founded as Glenfyne Distillery in 1831 and had also been known as Glengilp for a time, probably when owned by William Hay, who also once owned Lochgilphead distillery that stood just four miles away at the top of Argyll Street in that town until around 1860, marked on maps from 1870 up to 1938 as just ‘Old Distillery’.  Two years after Barnard’s visit Glendarroch joined the Scotch Whisky Distillers Ltd consortium and the name once more reverted to Glenfyne.  It continued operating under that name until 1937 when production ceased for reasons no longer known, although the warehouses still stored whisky until the 1970s.

Linnet Court on site of distillery facing the canal
The buildings were then used for various functions including a joinery and then a fish hatchery that utilised the old distillery reservoir.  Townsend reports that by 1993 all had been demolished save a 100ft section of wall facing the canal.  Now even that appears to be gone and the site is now all new housing.  The two streets here are named Linnet Court and Columba Court after the steamers mentioned earlier.  Glendarroch house is still there, still surrounded by trees; Glengilp House went with the distillery; the Darroch Burn now renamed Kilduskland Burn as it is known further up the hill.

One lasting memory of the distillery comes by way of a whisky called ‘The Loch Fyne Blend’ which has an artists impression of the old distillery on its label, an image designed around the report provided by Barnard.  Loch Fyne Whiskies are based in Inveraray near the top end of the loch and they have a very welcoming whisky shop there.  LFW is owned by Richard Joynson who also wrote the introductions to both the 2003 and 2008 copies of Barnard which include his profile of the man based on the character that appears through his writing.  Richard imagines what it would be like if Barnard could have visited his shop and seen how the industry has changed, and he is certain that he would “light up the shop with his presence”.  Now that would be something to witness.