"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

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Ben Wyvis Distillery, Dingwall

The train from Alness brought Barnard’s party to the town of Dingwall, at the head of the Cromarty Firth and guarding the eastern end of Strathpeffer valley, for two nights in an unnamed hotel.  The only hotel named on maps at that time is the National, not far from the station and still operating as a hotel today, but there were other hotels in town including the Caledonian so it is uncertain where they found a place to rest.

Dingwall Town House incorporating old Tolbooth tower
Waking the next morning they had a look at the town and its environs, Barnard commenting on “two remarkable buildings, the Court House, an ancient castellated edifice, and the Town House, a dignified looking building which possesses a spire”.  If this sounds familiar then there is a similarity to his description of similar buildings he noted at Tain before visiting Balblair Distillery.  The Town House was built around an old tollbooth in the 1730s and renovated a couple of times since and is still a standout building in the High Street.

Ben Wyvis mountain is again mentioned, this time with an appreciation for its place in the landscape and its local history.  Barnard has it at 3,722 feet high but it is now registered as 3,432 feet (1,046 metres) and regardless is a dominant land feature for many miles, from south and east of Inverness right round this stretch of the east coast up to the Dornoch Firth and beyond.

Ben Wyvis viewed from Culloden Moor, east of Inverness
Barnard notes that the only time anyone remembers the summit being free from snow was in September 1826 and he recounts from a version of an old royal charter that “the forest of Naish is held of the Crown, on condition of presenting at Court a snowball of three wains of snow gathered from the top of Ben Wyvis on any day in the year on which it may be required”, which would not have been a problem on the day I visited its surroundings.
Ben Wyvis etching in Barnard
The Ben Wyvis Distillery was of recent construction having been founded in 1879 by another distiller with the name Ross.  It was built on terraces on a hill slope facing the Cromarty Firth, making best use of gravitation in its design.  This layout is clearly shown in the etching in Barnard, although the angles appear exaggerated to show more detail, including Ben Wyvis looming behind.  Of note is the bay in front of the distillery with only a narrow stretch of land and the east coast railway separating the two, although the foreshore may have been shortened in the etching for perspective as a much wider stretch of land, some 5-600 yards, was reclaimed here many years earlier.  The place where my photo below is taken from is around the same as for the view point of the etching and was marked on an 1876 map as the 800 yard firing point of the “Volunteer Rifle Range”.

Ben Wyvis 'Old Distillery', now apartments, warehouse in middle ground
Barnard describes the buildings as having an imposing appearance, from the barley barns on the top terrace through the successive main distilling operations down to the spirit store and offices at street level.  From the etching the building at the front beside the railway was a bonded warehouse, the offices just behind it to the left.  These two buildings are the only ones that remain today, now converted into apartments, with the upper terraces now home to more modern apartments on the grounds where the distillery buildings were demolished.

The distillery was a substantial operation producing 727,000 litres p.a. and the water requirements were met by a 3 1/2 mile conduit from Loch Ussie to the west of Dingwall.  The barley was carted up the terraces from the barns by the railway and then raised to the grain loft at the highest point by elevator and an endless belt.

Barnard offers a fair bit of detail about the malting and milling processes although nothing particularly unusual to note.  He doesn’t mention the heat source for the kiln stating only that “by a simple arrangement of air passages the supply of hot air to the malt is under complete control”.  I imagine that it was peat that was burned in common with the availability in this area and its use across Scotland at that time, although a peat shed is not mentioned either.  Hhmm?

After the detail on the malt he then mentions the Mash Tun of which he sets up the tantalising “a vessel so excellently got up as to be worthy of special examination” – and then fails to really mention any observations from his examination.  He does later mention it as being 18 1/2 feet wide by 6 1/4 deep which was quite large, and he does mention a peculiarity about the draff which appears to be first dropped into the Underback before passing through “Sluice Ports” on to a “Draff loading bank”, which may just be the place from where the local farmers collected it.

There were four quite large washbacks at 59,000 litres each and two Pot stills with the Wash at 18,176 litres and the Spirit half that at 9,088.  Tubular condensers were employed which Barnard records as “more economical of water and space, and more rapid in [their] action” and in a fashion seen elsewhere the waste water from them powered a small water wheel to work the agitator in the Wash Still.

Barnard notes some early environmentally friendly practices with the heat from the still flues passing under the boiler before release, and from which “steam in the boiler is got up by this means alone”.  The steam was used for the engines, for cleaning the various vessels and also to heat the coppers for mashing water.  He doesn’t state the heating source for the stills, although as he describes flues taking the heat away this suggests coil or oil fired, perhaps built just before the technology for steam heating water tanks was adapted to heat stills?

Ben Wyvis Bonded Warehouse and grain store, now apartments
Spirit was casked in the spirit store underneath the Still House before being rolled across the main road, either for storage in the warehouse or directly onto railway trucks.  Barnard described the bonded warehouse as being of five stories, the top three actually storing grain, but the windows here suggest only four stories.  The railway siding that once ran along the wall has now been shortened and stops short of where the cask shed and cooperage were.  A Burnt Ale Tank was also stationed here to supply farmers.

Ben Wyvis cask shed and cooperage site
Despite all the new advances employed by the distillery the venture only survived until the 1920s, with a few hiccups along the way.  The year after Barnard visited it was sold to the Scotch Whisky Distillers Ltd consortium who only survived a further two years.  A new lease of life and a new name came in 1893 when Kirker Greer & Co from Belfast took over as the Ferintosh Distillery Co Ltd (Udo, 2005).  Ferintosh was a historic name long associated with distilling in this area up until a century before and I will cover that fascinating story in a later post before we leave this area.

Ben Wyvis offices, now being redeveloped into housing
The distillery found its way into DCL in 1922 but was closed for good in 1926, although SMD continued using the warehouses until the 1980s.  The Ben Wyvis name was later used by Invergordon Distillers for the short lived malt whisky distillery built within their grain distillery complex a few miles north of here, that too now gone.  The original offices were turned into a business centre at one time and are currently being redeveloped again into housing.

The street name for the hillside terrace and the two blocks of modern apartments on the upper slope is now simply ‘Old Distillery’, the Ben Wyvis and Ferintosh names no longer in vogue.  The converted warehouse is recorded as part of Station Road and aside from the bars on some of the windows no other trace of the distillery remains.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Teaninich Distillery, Alness

From Dalmore Barnard walked back towards the town of Alness to cross the river and wander down the opposite side to reach Teaninich Distillery.  He enjoyed this walk and he comments on the “beauty of the corn-fields, ripe with golden-grain, and the verdant meadows in which cattle were placidly grazing”.  He is moved to quote a verse of poetry here, unaccredited but actually from a Percy Shelley poem called To Jane: The Recollection:

“All the tree tops lie asleep,
Like green waves on the sea,
As still as in the silent deep
The ocean woods may be;”

This must have been a glorious summer’s day as Barnard also appreciates the shade given by large trees which overhang the river and he notes that the summit of Ben Wyvis was bathed in sunshine.  It was a glorious spring day when I visited this area and given also how long it took me to find the entrance to the estate for the distillery I would have been better parking up in the town centre and enjoying a similar pleasant walk under the trees along the banks of the river.

Ben Wyvis at sunset, viewed from the fertile Black Isle
The position of the distillery in Barnard’s report is a bit confusing.  He records it as “beautifully situated on the margin of the sea” and “is only divided from the sea by a roadway”.  However, maps from before his visit, even back to Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland from 1747-55, show open land around the mouth of the River Alness, stretching for about three quarters of a mile before you reach the sea.  The A9 now dissects this land, almost equidistant between the distillery and the sea, but there was no road here in Barnard’s time.

View across the Dal More to Teaninich in the trees
The stretch of this land that lies between Teaninich and Dalmore distilleries is recorded in the 19th century as the ‘Dal More’, which translates to ‘big meadow land’ or just ‘big field’.  Some sources cite the fertile Black Isle farmlands on the opposite shore of the Cromarty Firth as the inspiration for the Dalmore name, but these older records suggest this source closer to home.  And did Barnard perhaps get his notes for Teaninich mixed up with Dalmore, which is separated from the sea by a little more than the width of its access road?

Reverse view from the middle of the Dal More, across the Cromarty Firth to the Black Isle
Barnard’s comments on the distillery were brief as he had to hurry to catch a train to Dingwall after already spending some time at Dalmore and walking around that day.  He lists the main buildings you would expect at a distillery, all apparently “neat and well arranged”.  The whole complex, including Manager’s house, cottages for workmen and a farmstead give him the impression of a small colony, not the first time he has used that description.  The kilns were peat burning and the stills were old Pot style.

Of interest though is his comment that Teaninich is “the only distillery north of Inverness that is lighted by electricity” and there are also telephone connections with the Proprietor and Excise.  He records the year it was founded as 1800 but the first licence was issued in 1817 and this later date is generally accepted as the true beginning of the distillery.  He doesn‘t mention the water source and despite being close to the River Alness there is a separate burn running into a small reservoir behind the distillery, the water originating from the Dairywell Spring to the west of the town.

The distillery had a few owners before Barnard’s arrival, including Robert Pattison (later infamous from the Pattison’s of Leith crash) from 1850-68 and John McGilchrist Ross, one of the Ross dynasty that had worked Balblair Distillery for most of the 19th century, from 1869-95.  It eventually became part of SMD in 1933 and from there ultimately into Diageo.

The plant has been extended and rebuilt a few times since.  The original two stills were increased to 4 in 1962 and then in 1971 a modern distillery building (named Side A) with a new still house containing 6 stills was built right beside the old buildings.  The original still house (Side B) was rebuilt in 1973 and the two houses operated together (although independently) until Side B was closed in 1984, Side A falling silent in 1985.  Side A restarted production in 1991 but Side B was now surplus and was demolished in 1998.  In between all of that a Dark Grains plant was built on site in 1975 to produce cattle feed from the draff and pot ale.

In place of the traditional mash tun/lautering process Teaninich now use a mash filter press to extract the wort by squeezing it through 24 cloth plates.  For this process to be effective the malted barley has to be ground more finely than normal grist for which they use a hammer mill.  The process is said to be more efficient than using a tun, with higher extraction rates and quicker turnaround.  It also leaves a drier draff of a different constitution that the livestock industry identifies separately as Teaninich Mash Filter Draff as opposed to normal Distillers Draff.  The filter press was installed in 2000 and remains unique in Scottish distilleries; it is more commonly used in the brewing industry.

Teaninich Still House
Barnard didn’t describe or quantify any of the vessels in use when he visited, and now with just the modern distillery left on site they have 8 larch washbacks at 60,000 litres each and the 3 wash and 3 spirit stills are 17,500 and 16,000 litres each respectively.  Production when Barnard visited was 364,000 litres p.a. and is now 10 times that with a capacity of 4m litres p.a.

Teaninich is one of Diageo’s workhorse distilleries producing non-peated whisky mainly for blending.  It is not open to the public and the information above on more recent developments is from Malt Madness and Udo (2005).  There are very few bottlings of whisky from here and the very first distillery bottle was in the Flora and Fauna range in 1992.  A few other independent releases can be found, although I don’t recall ever having tried any – must do something about that!

Monday, 25 April 2011

Invergordon Distillery

Three miles east of Dalmore is the Invergordon grain whisky distillery.  It was established in 1959 by Invergordon Distillers Ltd and started operation with one Coffey still in 1961.  A further two stills were added in 1963 and a fourth large Coffey still added in 1978 and they have an estimated annual production of 40m litres (Udo, 2005).  Invergordon is the only grain distillery in the Highlands, the others all being lowland operations.  This large industrial plant also has extensive warehousing on site and is understandably not open to the public.

In 1965 the Ben Wyvis Distillery was built within the Invergordon complex to produce malt whisky.  It had six cast-iron washbacks and two pot stills of 10,000 litres each, and produced a non-peated spirit until it was dismantled in 1977 (Udo, 2005).  The name Ben Wyvis had been used by another distillery for a time, also known as Ferintosh and visited by Barnard in the town of Dingwall a little further south, but it closed in 1926.  I will cover that one in the report after next but we have heard briefly about this more recent one before – the stills had remained here after it closed until they were moved to Campbeltown and installed, with some adjustments, in the new Mitchell’s Glengyle Distillery in 2003.

Invergordon Distillers have also owned other distilleries in the past.  They built Tamnavulin in 1966 and bought Bruichladdich in 1968, Tullibardine in 1971 and both Glenallachie and Isle of Jura in 1985.  Glenallachie was sold just two years later and then Invergordon were bought by Whyte & Mackay (also owners of nearby Dalmore) in 1993.  Bruichladdich was closed in 1995 until it was sold in 2001, Tullibardine was sold in 2003 and the Whyte & Mackay group was itself taken over by current owners United Spirits in 2007. (Details here with help from Malt Madness).

The town of Invergordon has also been heavily involved in the North Sea oil industry.  Many oil rigs were built in the huge fabrication sheds at Nigg to the east of here, before being assembled in the waters of the Cromarty Firth and towed out to sea.  Full scale commercial oil extraction began in the North Sea in the mid 1970s and from this ‘black gold’ and Invergordon’s ‘liquid gold’ the industry in this sheltered haven has made a substantial contribution to the UK economy over the last 50 years.  The yards at Invergordon have more recently been used to repair or decommission oil rigs and those at Nigg have been used to build wind turbines.

Oil rigs in Cromarty Firth
I wonder what Barnard would have made of these monstrous tower rigs?  In the latter half of the 19th century the heavy industry of iron forges, textile mills, ship building, steam powered machinery and even distilleries such as Port Dundas all operated on a massive scale that has been in decline ever since.  I think that the machinery required for oil extraction at sea might therefore not have been too out of place to his eyes, even if the level of technology was.

Not having toured inside I have nothing to add beyond my experience of the whisky in a glass.  Invergordon Single Grain was the first of that style that I ever tried, some years ago.  I think it was a youngish release and I recall warm peach and vanilla flavours covering a light spirity edge.  The occasional drams of older independent releases that I have had since have been quite enjoyable too - generally with a wonderful depth and with glorious vanilla and coconut notes enticed out of ex-bourbon casks.  There does now seem to be a renaissance in appreciation for some grain whiskies which I am happy, for those flavoursome reasons, to be part of.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Dalmore Distillery, Alness (part 1)

After a second night in Tain Barnard’s party continued south by railway to the small town of Alness to visit the two distilleries there.  Half way between Tain and Alness the train passes near to Balnagown Castle, crossing a bridge that Barnard describes as elegant but which you might barely notice through the trees now.  His descriptions of the castle (imposing and stately…combines all the appurtenances of feudal greatness with modern comfort) and flower garden (on a scale of magnificence unequalled in the north) are taken from Anderson’s Guide.

Railway bridge at Balnagown
Built in 1490 and once home to the Chiefs of Clan Ross, Balnagown Castle was gradually extended and redeveloped over the centuries but eventually fell into disrepair in the mid 1900s.  The castle and estate were then acquired by Mohamed Al Fayed in 1972 and have since been carefully restored and the estate enlarged as his family home in Scotland.  The castle walls are now returned to a light pink colour in a style not uncommon in medieval times, the colour originally being produced by mixing pigs blood with whitewash.

I didn’t know the above history as I drove around the walls of the estate looking for the castle to take a picture.  The estate is fairly secluded although you can rent cottages and participate in field sports there.  I eventually found the main gate at the end of the drive, complete with a number of CCTV cameras and a very secure electric gate.  Perhaps the new Laird was at home as, after I loitered for a few minutes of map reading, a Range Rover with blacked out windows appeared through the gate and remained behind me, even as I stopped by the next gate round the wall to see the coat of arms of Clan Ross (and which appears to have been rather controversially hung there by Mr Al Fayed).

I finally shook off my tail (I think they just got bored) and continued on towards Alness.  Barnard’s train first passed Invergorden (sic) Castle although he couldn’t see it from the line due to a dense foliage of American and Australian shrubs (and due to it not actually being there, having been destroyed by fire in the early 1800s and replaced with a mansion house in 1872, that too now demolished).  The area is now a golf course although some of the ‘American’ gardens have been maintained.  His party then took a ten minute walk from Alness station and arrived at a “thickly wooded hill overlooking the Dalmore Distillery”.

Cromarty Firth and Dalmore 'Yankee' Pier
The distillery had both a branch line from the railway and “sea communication almost at its doors” which then would have been the Belleport Pier a little to the east of the distillery.  The railway siding has since gone and the old pier is no longer in use, a new deep water pier being built at the end of the First World War to the west of the distillery.  It was known as the Yankee Pier as it was built by American Navy personnel who were stationed at Dalmore from 1917.  The distillery became the headquarters of U.S. Naval Base 17 as part of the Northern Barrage defences.  The pier wasn’t finished until after the war and is now recorded on maps as Dalmore Pier.  Details here are from http://www.theinvergordonarchive.org/.

Dalmore during WWI, from The Library of Congress
From the small hillock above the distillery Barnard admired the beauty of the Cromarty Firth and the view across to the Black Isle.  He also had a good view over the layout of the distillery below him which he describes as a double quadrangle on the slope of a hill.  He mentions that the distillery has “sole command of the river Alness” although I’m not sure what he means by that.  The river (also known as the River Averon) is around a kilometre to the west and water “of the finest quality for distilling purposes”, also used to drive a water wheel, was brought in by a lade that runs from a weir on the river and is still the water source used today.

River Alness weir and source of Dalmore water
The River Alness is recorded by Barnard as issuing from the Loch of Gildermory close to Ben Wyvis, which is the dominant mountain from many views in the wider region.  The loch itself is actually Loch Morie in English, from the Gaelic word Mhuire meaning Mary.  The remains of Cille Mhuire (Church of Mary) lie right by the loch with a nearby Tobar Mhuire (well of Mary), so the waters running to Dalmore may indeed be blessed.  The Kildermorie Lodge near the church is an Anglicisation of its pronunciation and a possible source of Barnard’s record of the name.

Covenanter's Stone at Dalmore
A commemorative stone just above the distillery is more recent than the Neolithic and Pictish stones of before, although it’s exact date seems uncertain.  The date recorded on the stone has been worn away but it first appears on a map dated 1906 and wasn’t recorded on a map from 1880 (and not mentioned by Barnard).  Known as the Covenanters Stone it commemorates “the only place in Ross-shire in which the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is known to have been dispensed to the Covenanters during the days of persecution…in Sept 1675.”  The older map does record a ‘Covenanters Tree’ nearby but that seems to have been cut down around the same time as the stone was erected.

Dalmore Distillery from shore
Dalmore Distillery was established in 1839 and has been regularly enlarged and rebuilt in various ways since.  Sadly they were closed for renovations when I passed through the region so I was unable to take a tour.  There were some staff still around, working amidst one of the nicest settings for a building site anywhere, and they very kindly allowed me to take pictures from the shore to record my brief visit.  If you wish to visit this idyllic spot and tour the distillery, and there are many reasons why you should, then they expect to reopen in the middle of May.  I hope to return for a tour after then and so will save my comparison with Barnard’s informative report for another time.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Glenmorangie Distillery, Tain

After visiting Balblair Distillery Barnard’s party made their way back towards Tain and called first at the residence of the owner of Glenmorangie Distillery, a Mr Matheson, who lived half a mile away from the distillery.  After entertaining them he accompanied the party to the distillery which was then “the most ancient and primitive we have seen, and now almost in ruins”.

Thankfully the proprietor was about to completely rebuild the distillery without which we might not have the Glenmorangie we know today.  The old buildings were originally a brewery built in 1738 at Morangie Farm.  Distillery founder William Matheson applied for a distilling licence in 1843 and then converted the brewery of which Barnard noted “ever since has had to be renewed and repaired to keep it together” so the rebuilding exercise seemed overdue.  That was in 1886 and the distillery was reopened and relicensed the following year as Glenmorangie Distillery Co (Udo, 2005).

Old malt barns and kiln
In light of the imminent works Barnard’s only comment on the actual distillery is “only Pot Stills have been in use”, the second least informative description in the book.  He does also advise that the water source for driving the water-wheel and for distilling comes from the hills of Tarlogie and that peat dug locally is the only fuel used.  The output was then just 91,000 litres p.a. but expected to double after rebuilding, a large stock of spirit being held to supply customers while the works are undertaken.  He states that the stock is “not less than 5 years old” so perhaps the owner had been planning the work for some time and had sold on all recent distillate to clear space.

In the absence of a fuller report from Barnard we can run through the main developments that have occurred here since.  I had been looking forward to my visit here for some time as I have enjoyed some great Glenmorangie tastings over the years, including that early experience when I first discovered Ardbeg, and I had heard many stories about its setting and its history.  Now I had the chance to actually visit the ‘Glen of tranquillity’ that the name translates from Gaelic to.  It was a good omen that the weather on that trip had returned to something more tranquil than I had experienced to the north.

I was welcomed at the visitor centre for a tour and Eva began with a bit more history, including the important year of 1918 when the distillery was bought by blenders MacDonald and Muir and a whisky broker.  MacDonald and Muir later became sole owners and grew the business until it converted to a public company in 1996.  The company purchased the almost silent Ardbeg distillery in 1997 and re-launched that brand.

In 2004 the company bought the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) and later that year were themselves taken over by Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy (LVMH) who have since reinvented the Glenmorangie brand and further extended the distillery, a 50% increase in capacity coming on-line in April 2009 after a few months of work.  Those new works erected in 1886 after Barnard’s visit were just the first in a series of developments which include three significant expansions during the last forty years.

Glenmorangie reservoir
The Tarlogie Springs and 650 acres of land surrounding them are now owned by Glenmorangie to secure and protect their historic water source.  Water flowing through Morangie Forest on the Hill of Tain is captured in a small reservoir just above the distillery and then runs past the distillery to the Dornoch Firth, on whose shore the distillery sits.  The spring water used for distilling is piped in from the springs and is graded as hard which is unusual for highland distillery water.

Mash Tun

Older washbacks
Malting stopped on site in 1977 but barley is still sourced locally and is now malted nearby at Inverness and very lightly peated to a max of 2ppm.  The large Mash Tun installed in 2008/09 is a stainless steel full-lauter tun taking a hefty 9.8 tonne mash.  The distillery changed to stainless steel wash backs in the 1950s and with an additional four being installed during the 2009 expansion there are now 12 of them, each holding 50,000 litres for a 52 hour fermentation.

Older stills pre 2009, wash stills on left
The still house is one of the most absorbing buildings I have visited at any distillery.  When Matheson rebuilt the distillery he experimented by installing gin stills which were much taller than conventional whisky stills of the time.  They also had shell and tube condensers rather than worm tubs and they were steam coil heated.  Glenmorangie was one of the earliest distilleries to install both of these innovations and they can be seen here in an architect’s drawing from the time, with the tall stills extending through the roof to the condensers outside.  With all these changes it is interesting that Matheson only held stock over 5 years old, with no younger whisky to ease a transition to what would be a new style for the new company.  My thanks go to Iain Russell at Glenmorangie for the drawing and for an interesting discussion about the stills.

Architect's drawing of stills, courtesy of Glenmorangie
(click to enlarge)
The stills here now are the tallest in Scotland at 16’ 10 ¼” (5.14m) from top of pot to top of neck, apparently the same height as an adult giraffe, a symbolism that is subtly incorporated in the word ‘The’ in the distillery name on the wall of the still house.  There is a small reflux bowl at the base of each neck which together with the height ensures that only the lighter vapours reach the near horizontal lyne arms and are in contact with copper for longer as a result.

Glenmorangie 'giraffe' house
The number of stills has been gradually increased over the last forty years, from 2 to 4 in 1970, to 8 in 1990 and now up to 12 from 2009.  The wash stills on one side of this ‘cathedral’ are 11,400 litres and the spirit stills on the other are 8,200, the newest four sitting at the rear which was extended to accommodate them and the spirit safe.  With the new stills and washbacks the production is gradually being expanding from 4m litres p.a. up to a projected 6m p.a.

Glenmorangie casks beside East Coast railway and Dornoch Firth
There are currently 14 warehouses on site, some racking and some dunnage like Number 3 that we visited and which is one of the smallest.  The casks here are only ever used twice for whisky, having first begun their working lives holding bourbon for 4 years before being brought here whole.  The micro climate experienced here by the coast ensures a more consistent temperature than inland, with mild winters and cool summer breezes drifting in from the North Sea.  The matured whisky is married on site before being taken for bottling at the new Alba plant in Livingston.

Extra maturation casks
Glenmorangie were one of the first distilleries to experiment with different ‘finishes’ to their whisky.  The current “extra matured” range, launched with a new bottle shape in 2007, is matured solely in American Oak for ten years followed by two further years maturation in Port, Sherry or Sauternes casks.  The Gaelic names provided to these whiskies reflect the final stage and this mix of the New World and the Old seems appropriate to a distillery that has its origins in ruinous buildings and tradition but which has also embraced new ideas and modern design.

I was introduced to Chocolate Malt here for the first time, a dark toasted barley that Glenmorangie use as a component for their Signet whisky and which has a wonderful decadent aroma.  The Signet is a bold expression of whisky that has been maturing for over 30 years, distilled when barley was still malted on site, and adding a different dimension to the range of whisky produced here.  It takes its name from the emblem that is now used as Glenmorangie’s signet, more on which later.

Glenmorangie Signet Whisky and signet emblem in background
Tradition has it that Glenmorangie whisky is produced by the “Sixteen Men of Tain”, an appellation that hints at a proud and exclusive club, one that demands craft and skill of its members to contribute to the creation of the whisky.  There may be just a few more men here now (sixteen-ish) to work the extended production, but their traditions are still held dear.  I need to thank Eva for an inspiring tour, a sample of the velvety Quinta Ruban and for digging out answers to some of my usual awkward questions.  Additional info here is from their new website launched at the end of last year which is bright and welcoming, and which has an interactive schematic of how a distillery works that is quirky and shows a lighter side to a serious business.

Tradition and history extend beyond the distillery and the landscape stones that have become thematic on this stage of the journey provide two separate markers in different locations and from different eras.  Near the distillery lies the rather boisterous sounding Big Stone of Morangie, a granite boulder deposited after the passing of the glaciers some 12,000 or so years ago.  Just as our distant ancestors had done elsewhere this stone has been used as a canvas to commemorate an event, in this case the passing of Sir Walter Scott in 1832.

Big Stone of Morangie
The stone’s connection to the distillery is not just by name and location but also, tenuously, through whisky.  Sir Walter Scott’s novel Rob Roy includes the fictional character Bailie Nicol Jarvie which is the name given to a blended whisky first produced in Leith by Macdonald and Muir in 1893 and still produced by Glenmorangie today.  More affectionately known as BNJ or The Bailie it has one of the highest malt contents of any malt and grain blended whisky.

Sir Walter Scott had other associations with whisky, details for another time, but surprisingly I haven’t been able to find any relevant quotes or poems from him about whisky generally.  Barnard doesn’t mention the Big Stone although his horse drawn journey to and from Tain would have passed right by it twice that day.  He does include two verses from Robert Burns’ poem Scotch Drink in his report, although totally unconnected to the distillery and there is no evidence that RB ever travelled this far north.

Cadboll Stone at Museum of Scotland,
triskele in lower half

Glenmorangie House, the distillery owned accommodation that sits southeast of the distillery by the shore of the Moray Firth, is close to where a Pictish cross-slab called The Cadboll Stone once stood.  The original stone, one of the most decorated Pictish monuments in Scotland, now stands in the Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh although without the original broken base section which is on display in a local hall following its discovery in an excavation in 2001.  The rear of the stone was once decorated with a cross and other Christian emblems but they were removed in the late 17th century when the stone was reused as a grave slab.

A newly carved full size stone with a replica of the Pictish side, save for a millennium or so of weathering, was erected on the site in 2000 and an interpretation of the Christian side, based on the lower portion and on broken fragments found in the excavation, was added on the reverse in 2002.  The Pictish side includes many of their historic and enigmatic emblems together with a scene of deer hunting and also a spiral pattern known as a ‘triskele’ – the inspiration for the new brand logo and signet of Glenmorangie.

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Balblair Distillery, Edderton

Barnard doesn’t name the place he stayed in Brora after visiting Clynelish Distillery but he begins his report on Balblair with the telling line “From Brora to Tain is a sabbath day’s journey”.  For someone who has not always been happy with rail travel he was actually quite content with this long crawl through “scenery in some parts most interesting and beautiful”, a marked change from his view further north.

Arriving at Tain he again, unusually, doesn’t name the comfortable hotel that they were based in for a couple of days.  The town was fairly large at that time but there is only one hotel marked as such on the old maps, then St Duthus Hotel, now The Royal.  St Duthus is the Patron Saint of the town and the hotel stands on the street named after him.  It is also beside the buildings that Barnard does name, the court-house which he describes as elegant and the contiguous tower with its conical spire, both of which still stand today, if perhaps a little less conspicuous in the landscape than when he found them.

Tain Court-house
The following morning his party first travelled to Balblair Distillery before returning to Tain via Glenmorangie.  He must have made the journey by horse and trap as he complains about the trains being “so infrequent it was impossible to make use of them”.  Just no pleasing some people, but he did enjoy the sea view all the way along the six mile journey.

The distillery buildings that Barnard visited are not the same as those that stand today which were built in 1894 just under a kilometre away.  The new buildings took advantage of a site by the railway and close to the station, with a siding then added right beside the north wall of the works.  The station closed in 1960 and the siding has now gone but this is still the main east coast line that Barnard enjoyed that earlier Sabbath journey on.

Balblair Farm on original distillery site
The original distillery site is now home to farm buildings but we can take a quick look at what Barnard saw before we consider how the distillery has developed since.  The first record of distilling here was in 1749 but the formally recognised distillery was built in 1790 by John Ross making it one of the oldest working distilleries in Scotland.  His son and grandson were the licence holders when Barnard visited and they had enlarged the original works by moving the malting and mashing works uphill to take advantage of gravitation, the previous buildings then being converted into warehouses for the increased production.

Barnard then seems to find some sudden brevity in his description noting “as the internal arrangements and vessels are like the other Distilleries in the district, it is not worth while to recapitulate them”.  This comment could apply to many of the distilleries he visited but that hasn’t stopped him going into detail before, as if the process was somehow new each time.  He does return to detail in the coming distillery visits so we do get to see some of the operations in this district at the time.

He does offer the gem of a moniker for Edderton which was known as the “Parish of Peats” due to the inexhaustible supply in the area.  Balblair translates to either battlefield or town of the plain and the name appears in a few places around here, the land around the Dornoch Firth being quite flat and often reclaimed from the sea with large sand banks lying along the shore, quite in contrast to the steep cliffs that we traversed further north on the way down to Brora.  There is also evidence that the Battle of Carriblair between Picts and Vikings may have taken place here many centuries ago, so either translation may be appropriate.

Balblair Residential Home beside old distillery site
Beside the original site there was a house connected to the distillery, perhaps the home of its founder, which has now been converted into a residential care home.  It appears to be unoccupied at the moment though; perhaps the whisky in the air here helps the local population maintain a long, active life with no need for retirement.

The current site was developed in 1894 by Alexander Cowan after he had taken on a 60 year lease, moving the distillery from its previous location for over a century and marking the end of the Ross dynasty owning Balblair.  The name Ross is synonymous with this area - Easter Ross is the name for the wider region and we will meet Clan Ross on our journey down to Dalmore later.  Four of the seven employees here today are named Ross so the association with the distillery has not been lost.

Barnard didn’t record the water supply simply noting that “all the streams in the district of Edderton are considered suitable for distilling purposes”, but the original source for Balblair, the Allt Dearg, is still used to this day.  Dearg is Gaelic for red, allt is a burn or stream and the burn here rises in the nearby Struie Hills before meandering through 4 1/2 miles of peaty ground direct to the distillery who have sole rights to this soft water.

The new distillery hadn't been going for too long when for some lost reason it closed in 1911.  By 1932 the last of the whisky had left the warehouses and apart from some buildings being commandeered by the army during the war the site remained silent until 1948.  Robert ‘Bertie’ Cumming then bought the distillery and reopened it the following year.  He also owned Pulteney Distillery from 1951 before selling it to Hiram Walker in 1955, Balblair also going to them in 1970 after he had expanded it further in 1964.

Old malt barn
The floor maltings were used until 1975 but malt is now supplied from Baird’s and peated to a max of 1.5 ppm.  Ten new malt bins were installed in 1981 and hold 30 tonnes each to help ensure continuous production, especially as the distillery is sometimes snowbound in winter.  A new stainless steel mash tun was installed in 1998 to replace the previous cast iron tun.  It has a deep bed for slow draining that produces a nice clear wort and they are currently running 17 mashes per week.

Deep bed mash tun
There were four washbacks until the 1964 expansion when two more were added in a newly built extension to the tun room.  All six were replaced in 2002, made from Oregon Pine and with a full capacity of 21,500 litres each but a fill level of two thirds meaning no switchers are required.  They don’t run a balanced distillation here and fermentation during the week of 48-60 hours is not married with a run over the weekend which is left for 73 hours.

The still house has an interesting history and also some wonderful aromas that stopped us by the spirit safe for a few moments.  Originally with just two stills in 1894, a third was added when the distillery reopened in 1949.  After the 1964 expansion the extra wash from the those new washbacks needed somewhere to go and, in an already tight space, two of the stills were significantly increased in size which actually made the third still redundant.  The heating was changed from coal fire to steam coil at the same time.

Balblair Stills - silent still at far end
The current stills have wide bases and short dumpy necks ensuring lots of copper contact, and they have external condensers installed in 1970 to replace the worm tubs used before then.  The wash still is 19,093 litres, the spirit 11,751 litres and they both have a copper ‘skirt’ around the base for heat retention.  The old 1948 still stands silently beside them, its lowly 8,182 litre capacity no longer required.  The connections between the copper plates on this still are riveted, the only one remaining like it, and tests for operational fitness indicate that it could still be re-commissioned if needed.

As I was discussing the stills with Distillery Manager John MacDonald who had been showing me round, the spirit began to flow through the safe beside us and we stopped for a moment while he indicated that I should take a deep breath or two.  Lovely sweet aromas of mellon, pear and pineapple appeared with a localised intensity that I had only really experienced before at Laphroaig, albeit with a very different aroma there.

Bringing the story up to date, the distillery was bought by Inver House in 1996 and they have overseen the recent developments here.  The original site visited by Barnard produced 226,000 litres p.a. at the time; now they produce 1.4m litres p.a. from a 6 day cycle that will increase to 7 days later this year.  Around 12% of their production now goes into single malt, the remainder contributing to blends like Hankey Bannister and others in the Inver House stable.

Once the longest bonded warehouse in Scotland
Balblair once had the longest bonded warehouse of any distillery in Scotland until fire regulations required that a dividing wall be built to split it, so my earlier observation about the warehouses at Brora has already been superseded, externally at least.  All of Balblair’s whisky is stored on site in their eight warehouses, all dunnage and stacked just three casks high, and all but one with a beaten earth floor.  The capacity here is 26,000 casks and 95% are ex-bourbon, shipped in whole from Jim Beam and Makers Mark.

In the last decade they have released a series of single malts from these casks, a number of them award winning.  John recommended the 38yo distilled in 1966 and released in 2004 which I may be lucky to try someday.  My current favourite is the 1989 which is one of their three Vintage format whiskies released in 2007, whiskies bottled and named from a single year distillate rather than carrying an age statement.  I first tried the 89 when it won the Spirit of Whisky Fringe in 2008 and it was my favourite whisky that weekend as well, however I am working my way through a dram or two of the delicious 1997 Vintage as I write this.  I think the 89 has a longer finish to savour but the 97 has also been a favourite shared from my hip flask when visiting Copenhagen.

New visitor centre and tasting room
The distillery is currently only open to privately arranged visits, but John doesn’t like turning people away and so a visitor centre with an exhibition and tasting room has been built inside an old malt barn and organised tours will be launched this summer for the first time.  This informal and atmospheric place will be a welcome addition to the whisky trail once open; for now, I am very grateful to John for his hospitality and for allowing me to keep him from his very important chores (cask sampling!) for a short while.

Clach Biorach
Having previously visited the standing stones on Orkney there seems to be a theme developing on this eastern edge of the journey, one that continues at Balblair and beyond.  Near to the distillery there is a single stone in a field, The Clach Biorach or ‘sharp stone’.  It is 3m tall by 1m wide and was possibly erected in the Bronze Age, around 3,000 years ago.  The Pictish symbols of a salmon and a double disc with a ‘Z-Rod’ were etched on the stone by later tribes marking their own association with this location.

These stones stand like sentinels watching over us; guardians of a landscape shaped by geology, nature and human interaction that have combined to produce the water and grain so essential to our whisky.  Balblair continue the tradition of association with the landscape by incorporating the stone and the scene across the hills into their packaging, and the scripted emblem ‘B’ that appears on their bottles has its roots in Pictish design.

The Clach Biorach may have been part of an ancient calendar built into the landscape but Balblair Distillery is one of those timeless places where the passing of time has little meaning save to allow their spirit to mature.  Symbol stones and circles were gathering places - places for celebration and ceremony; places to meet ancestors and future partners; places to share produce, stories and wisdom.  The new visitor centre at Balblair will allow these traditions to continue alongside their Vintage whisky - a product for which time is not of the essence but rather an essence itself.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Clynelish Distillery (from 1968), Brora

When I was at Pulteney I met a German couple who were on a tour of Scotland in their camper van and were visiting a few distilleries.  I mentioned to them that I was visiting Clynelish that afternoon and they could also take a tour there and I was delighted to meet them again when I arrived.  I was even more delighted when they kindly gifted me a couple of bottles of German ale that were very tasty.  Thank you folks, I hope you enjoyed your visit to Schottland and arrived back home safely.  Sorry about the weather. 

The new Clynelish Distillery opened in 1968, the same year as the new mechanical floor maltings opened at Glen Ord further south and which could supply the vastly increased quantities of very lightly peated (<1ppm) barley required for the production from the 6 large stills here.  We have already seen the change in distillery names and the other changes at the original Clynelish/Brora Distillery but the two really need to be considered together so let’s continue in Claire’s company before I return to Barnard’s list.

Still House at the new Clynelish
The Mash Tun is a full lauter tun of stainless steel and is quite large at 22 feet wide by about 6 deep with a first water of 50,000 litres.  There are 10 washbacks, 8 of them original from 1968 and made from Oregon pine and two new stainless steel backs added in 2008 to increase production.  Their capacity is 58,000 litres each and there is a long fermentation of 80 hours reaching an abv of 8-9%.

The stills are all larger that the old Clynelish stills but retaining the same shape, including the reflux bowls on the neck.  Uniquely (perhaps) the wash stills are slightly smaller (25,060 litres) than the spirit (26,241).  The long lyne arms are almost horizontal on the wash stills but drop around 20 degrees on the spirit before reaching tube condensers inside the still house.  There is a fairly long distillation time on the spirit stills totalling 12 hours with a middle cut of around 5 hours, lots of reflux being developed in the process.

Output has now reached 4.2m litres p.a. after those 2 new washbacks were installed and production went to 7 days a week in 2008.  From one of the smallest outputs in Scotland when Barnard visited the old distillery, Clynelish now has one of the largest.  The spirit is transported to Diageo’s central Scotland operations for casking but there are over 6,000 casks stored in those long warehouses at Clynelish.

Brora and Clynelish Warehouses
There is a long history of distilleries providing draff to local farmers for cattle feed and early distillery owners were often farmers as well, sometimes starting the distillery to make use of excess grain production.  In Diageo’s previous guises such as DCL and SMD they also acquired some of the farms associated with the distilleries when they took them over.  The Clynelish Farm beside the distillery is now the last farm owned by Diageo, an echo of those first farms created on this land as a precursor to almost two centuries of distilling.

The distillery symbol on the OBs is a wildcat, a protected species that still roams wild in the highlands around here.  A wildcat also appears in the Sutherland Clan Crest so the symbol on the bottle reflects the distillery heritage as well.  The standard distillery bottle is a 14yo which is part of the second wave of whiskies to join Diageo’s Classic Malts range.  They also produce a Distiller’s Edition bottling at 1 year older having been double matured in Oloroso Seco casks, and a distillery only bottle of cask strength whisky matured only in American Oak.

Wildcat logo on label and jugs; mirror behind from James Ainslie & Co, owner from 1896
There is a sweet maltiness to the 14yo and you can tell it’s from a coastal distillery, and there is also a rich waxy texture that Claire pointed out to me as a characteristic of this whisky that I hadn’t quite been able to place before.  There are also some independent bottles available but 95% of production goes for blending, including into the Johnnie Walker Gold and Blue Labels.  Clynelish is the main malt in the Gold Label, so named after the gold that has sometimes been found in the hills near the distillery through which their water supply flows.

Don’t rush to them thar hills with yer hillbilly gold pan though; the returns are slim at best from hours and hours of standing in highland streams where you are more likely to catch a cold than nuggets of gold.  You might be better off investing in some old bottles of Brora, not that I’d recommend that either (yer mileage may vary, or some other legal cop out) but I would definitely recommend tasting some if you can.  The annual release of a limited number of 30yo bottles regularly impresses and the 2004 release I sampled at The Gathering in Edinburgh in 2009 was exceptionally complex and flavoursome.

Brora Distillery, 1930s - backdrop to one of the best whisky tastings I have ever enjoyed
So I prefer the Brora to the Clynelish but then I am biased towards the peaty whiskies; but time is almost running out for the 30yo with 2013 being the final release possible at that age.  Are Diageo holding back stock for older releases and will it hold up to what we have enjoyed so far, and at what price?  Maybe I should try some gold panning after all, just to fund a bottle or two.

Claire pointed out that the distillery bicentenary will come round in 2019 and 6 special casks of Clynelish from 1998 are being held to bottle a 21yo then.  What she didn’t mention was that the same year will be the 50th anniversary of Brora commencing its peaty production!  What are the odds on 6 casks of that first nectar also being available then?  Standing in a cold stream panning for gold while fighting off wildcats is not conducive to surviving the next 8 years to find out, so I think instead I will try to preserve myself by way of their fine whisky available now.