"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, 12 May 2011

Millburn Distillery, Inverness

Barnard continues his appreciation for Inverness in his next report, describing the town as “lively and interesting”.  He could have been describing the Inverness of today, or the last decade at least, with the comment “the constant influx of tourists [him and me both], from all parts, and the ever increasing bustle, combine to invest it with light and life”.

Inverness Castle, now Sherriff Court
He left the Station Hotel to ascend the nearby Castle Hill on what appears to be his second and last day in town before continuing east.  He doesn’t discuss the castle which was built in 1835 on the site of an earlier medieval stronghold and which has since been converted into the sheriff court.  It was the view that captured his attention - mountains and valleys, river and sea all seemingly visible from the hill.  The modern developments around here obscure the picture a little but even then I think that the mountains and sea may have been a little far off for true appreciation.
River Ness and Inverness Cathedral, viewed from Castle Hill
From below the Castle Barnard took a cab to reach Millburn Distillery, a mile out of town along “the old Roman Road, which leads to Fort George”.  Fort George stands guard at a narrow pinch point in the Moray Firth, protecting the inner waters and the town from a long way out.  Originally built to help quell Jacobite uprisings in the 1700s it is one of the largest fortifications in Europe and is still used as Army barracks today, albeit one with museums and tourist facilities.  Well worth a day’s visit if you like military history.

The old Roman Road is named Millburn Road after the water supply for corn mills and the distillery, the Allt a’ mhuilinn (Mill Burn), which passes under it after providing water for the mill/distillery lade.  Barnard doesn’t name the burn, calling it just a “pretty stream which rattles under the bridge”, but it was likely the source of all the water and power requirements in the 1800s.  It later seems to have been the source of just the cooling water with mashing water coming from Loch Duntelchaig which lies 8 miles south of Inverness (Townsend, 1993) and which drains into the River Nairn running to the east of the city.

Barnard records the distillery as first established in 1805 so fairly early, but like Glen Albyn it also had mixed fortunes and was also converted into a flour mill, from around 1853-75 (Udo, 2005).  A map dated 1868-71 shows the mill and two cottages with no record of a distillery.  It later changed again and Barnard records the distillery being “rebuilt on a larger and more improved scale in 1876” and it then operated for over a century until the 1980s.  The name Millburn was first used by the distillery in 1876, previously having been called just ‘Inverness’ (Udo, 2005).

There is not much of note in the distilling process described by Barnard in a relatively short report.  The kiln was heated by peat only, there were four washbacks at 18,200 litres each and two old Pot Stills whose capacity was not recorded.  The output was 273,000 litres p.a. and overall it seems that Barnard’s visit was fairly short, perhaps just in the morning after his walk up to the castle, before he caught a train east for his afternoon visit to Royal Brackla.

Remaining Millburn buildings
There were several phases of rebuilding in the 20th century making the most of a narrow space with little room for expansion.  By 1930 the archway entrance to the central courtyard, around which the original buildings were arranged, may have been too small as the front wing of the distillery beside the road had been demolished by then to allow more open access.  Additional maltings were built over the course of the burn to the east and a second kiln installed creating a new courtyard.  Saladin Box maltings were installed in 1964 (Malt Madness.com) and the old kiln pagodas removed at that time.

During this period there were a few changes in ownership and the main developments were Andrew Haig & Son taking over in 1892, Booths of London (more famous for gin) in 1921, then DCL from 1937, initially under their subsidiary MacLeay Duff (Distillers) Ltd, until finally closing in 1985 (Udo, 2005).  It was the manager from here that met Philip Morrice when he visited Glenlochy Distillery in 1985 on his centenary tour in Barnard’s footsteps.  There are some Millburn whiskies still available including some from the Rare Malts series and also Gordon & MacPhail Connoisseurs Choice bottles, but I have yet to try one.

Site of old flour mill, later part of distillery
Some of the buildings were demolished in 1988 and others converted.  By the early 1990s a Beefeater restaurant was on site and then later, and still now, a Premier Inn with its ‘Auld Distillery Restaurant and Bar’.  This development included further extension of the old buildings and the filling in of the original entrance archway.  The old mill that predated the rebuilding of the distillery in 1876 has also been developed into the main hotel block, although how much of the actual mill building remains is uncertain.

Old Excise office on left, now adjoined to hotel extension, barracks on the hill
The burn is now channelled under modern housing but the lade sluice can still be seen and the distillery chimney still stands proud.  The old Excise office has been maintained, a quaint old building with an outside stair to the office above a store room, although the hotel has been extended further to incorporate it in the main complex.  Sadly we can no longer identify the cooperage which Barnard had noted as “generally an unsightly building [but] here beautified with enclosed trellis-work, painted a rich green”.

The Mill Burn sluice where the lade began
My own stay in town for two nights was at the Youth Hostel which is just a ten minute walk from the city centre and a five minute walk in the other direction to the distillery site.  I ventured there for an evening meal inside the last remaining distillery buildings in Inverness.  It sat at the base of a steep hill, overlooked by another barracks that are still in use.  The Cameron Highlanders stationed there in 1922 helped to ensure the survival of the distillery as a fire took hold in April that year which they helped to extinguish and save some of the main buildings, allowing it to be rebuilt the same year.  In light of this I thought a medium grilled steak would be appropriate, sadly with no Millburn whisky to wash it down.