"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, 9 May 2011

Glen Albyn Distillery, Inverness

Inverness, Inbhir Nis in Gaelic meaning the ‘Mouth of the River Ness’, the Capital of the Highlands, 'Inversnecky', call it what you like Inverness is one of the fastest growing cities in the UK.  It became Scotland’s fifth city in 2001 and its population has grown around 30% to over 57,000 in the decade since.  However, though once home to at least three licensed distilleries, now there are none.

Barnard was certainly impressed by the town when he visited, noting that “everything has been done for Inverness that could be effected by wood and cultivation” by which he was referring to the parklands around town and the fields beyond.  He hadn’t stayed overnight near Muir of Ord and instead returned to Beauly and hastened on to Inverness by train, a delightful journey of just half an hour.  He records in his next report that he had stayed at the Station Hotel, now the Royal Highland, in the centre of town.

Royal Highland Hotel, Inverness - The Station Hotel when Barnard visited
The Caledonian Canal, built by Thomas Telford to connect Inverness to the west coast near Fort William, was opened in 1822 and Glen Albyn Distillery was built right by the Muirtown Canal Basin in Inverness, not far from its sea lock connecting to the Beauly Firth.  The distillery was founded here in 1846, named after the long valley to the southwest in which Loch Ness sits (Albyn from Alba, the Gaelic name for Scotland).

Barnard notes that Inverness was once the chief malting town in Scotland, making use of the vast quantities of barley produced in the surrounding fertile lands.  There were many breweries in town until 1745 but Barnard records that “after the revolution…the trade was swept away”, likely referring to the Jacobite Revolution, the Battle of Culloden taking place in 1746 at Culloden Moor just a few miles east of Inverness.  Glen Albyn was built on the ruins of one brewery but had a troubled start and was turned into a flour mill just twenty years later, being rebuilt as a distillery in 1884 two years before Barnard’s visit.  Maps from a decade earlier record the buildings as just ‘Stores’ and the town of Inverness had not extended out this far, westward expansion not really taking hold until the mid 20th century.

Muirtown Basin on Caledonian Canal
The distillery sat by a quayside in the canal basin on which a railway extension was laid and from where Barnard was able to step into the Grain Lofts.  The lofts and the adjoining maltings were on floors above warehouses and the kiln at the end was heated by both peat (from Dava Moor in Speyside) and coke.  In a few of his reports around this stretch of his journey Barnard has taken to pointing out the lofty height of the drying floors above the “furnace/fireplace” in the kilns, designed to prevent any scorching of the malt.

The Mash “Tub” is worth noting as it was very different to any other we have seen.  It was fairly small at 14 feet wide by 4 1/2 deep and it was made from “best heart larch-wood”.  In place of the more common stirring gear the mash was mixed by wooden oars “so that there is no contact of metal with the worts”.  Barnard doesn’t record how the oars were worked so we don’t know if it was either mechanical or arduous manual labour employed.  He also doesn’t state the water source although it is recorded elsewhere as the River Ness.

River Ness in full spate, Inverness town centre
There were three washbacks holding 21,000 litres each and with “seats” for another three should production expand.  The two fire heated Pot stills took up the whole height of the Still House ,although Barnard doesn’t state what height that is and they have a relatively small charge of 8,200 litres of wash and 6,800 litres of low-wines.  He declares them to be “of the most improved and modern style” although with steam coil heated stills available by this time that seems a little subjective.

Barnard makes special mention of the condensing worms here which “are of the latest and best approved style”.  Each one was 300-400 feet long and branched into two smaller D shaped pipes after the first few turns.  He considers this to be an obvious development as with the flat side of the D on the base of the pipe the condensing liquid is spread over a larger surface than in a round pipe, thus cooling it quicker “which is a most important factor in the making of a good whisky”.

The output at that time was 340,000 litres p.a. but change was soon to follow that would eventually increase the capacity to around 1.5m litres.  The fortunes of the distillery became bound up with the founding of Glen Mhor Distillery in 1892, built just a hundred metres to the south and by the foot of the main canal locks that emptied into the Muirtown basin.  Glen Albyn is part of the ‘Great Glen’ which is a name given to a vast geological fault line from Inverness down to Fort William.  Great Glen in Gaelic is Gleann Mòr from where this new distillery created its name.

Muirtown Locks on Caledonian Canal, Glen Mhor was on the left bank
Glen Mhor was built by a former manager of Glen Albyn, John Birnie, and James Mackinlay of the blenders Charles Mackinlay & Co.  Their company then bought Glen Albyn distillery in 1920 and ran the two together until they were bought by DCL in 1972.  They installed some of the earliest Saladin Box maltings in 1954 and which were used until 1980 when they were shut down to save costs (Malt Madness.com).  It is likely that DCL’s drum malting plant at nearby Glen Ord would have supplied them for their final few years.  Malt Madness also records the stills as being converted to steam heating in 1963/4.

Closed B&Q on site of Glen Albyn Distillery
Glen Mhor seems to have become the dominant distillery between the two during that time but both were not to survive much longer, casualties of the DCL rationalisation in 1983 and demolished between 1986 and 1988 as the expansion of Inverness continued to spread westward and the land of both distilleries was sold for retail development.  The quayside location of Glen Albyn was most recently used by a B&Q hardware store, itself now lying silent and ready for redevelopment, the railway tracks on the quayside now gone and it now a berth for canal cruise boats.  The site of Glen Mhor is still an active and busy home to a number of retail outlets.

Retail development on site of Glen Mhor Distillery
In its early years some Glen Mhor production was being sold as a Single Malt at a time before it became fashionable, the Glen Albyn whisky going mainly into blends including Mackinlay's.  The Scottish author Neil M. Gunn was an Excise man at Glen Mhor for a time in the 1920s and his appreciation for Single Malt moved him to write “until a man has had the luck to chance upon a perfectly matured malt he does not really know what whisky is”.  His book Whisky & Scotland: A Practical and Spiritual Survey (1935) is next on my reading list and it also includes the comment “a single whisky can still be got by those genuinely concerned to find it” which is very telling for the time and he suggests that only fifteen distilleries were then active in Scotland, six of those only for grain whisky.  “The future of Highland malt whisky, other than as a flavouring ingredient of patent spirit, is very obscure” was his lament; thankfully that obscurity has been resolved in a manner he would be very much in favour of.

Writing in 1935, unknowing that the world was hurtling towards another great war, Gunn also provided these words of hope in relation to Single Malts:

"These generous whiskies, with their individual flavours, recall the world of hills and glens, of raging elements, of shelter, of divine ease.  The perfect moment of their reception is after bodily stress - or mental stress if the body be sound.  The essential oils that wind in the glass then uncurl their long fingers in lingering benediction and the whole works of creation are made manifest.  At such a moment the basest man would bless his enemy."

Perhaps in these difficult times there is a great need for indulging in some quality Single Malt to sooth the souls of a troubled humanity; to sit for a while by the fireplace of vision and reason, hearts warmed by its glimmering coals; to ponder and reflect on the importance of life, rather than the excuses for death; to answer the questions best resolved over a glass or two of uisge beatha.