"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

Friday, 24 June 2011

Benromach Distillery, Forres

Barnard’s journey east of Inverness passed through the town of Forres on his way to Glenburgie Distillery, four miles further on.  His only comment on Forres was to record it as a railway junction on the Highland route between Perth and Inverness “which takes in the Pass of Killiecrankie and Blair Athole”.  I will save further description of those two places for when the journey reaches Pitlochry where Barnard also mentions them again.

The junction at Forres once connected the Highland line with the main line between Inverness and Aberdeen.  The Nairn Viaduct mentioned in a previous report now carries the Perth to Inverness line further to the west, the original line over the Dava Moor closing in 1965 and now converted into the 38km long Dava Way, a way marked path through woodland and moorland between Forres and Grantown-on-Spey where it joins the Speyside Way.  During his two year whisky adventure Barnard appeared to travel that section of the line just once, on his way north to Thurso and on to Orkney in 1886 when he recommenced his journey after a long winter break.

Benromach Distillery
Forres became home to two distilleries in 1898, the same year that the Nairn Viaduct opened.  Benromach was the first of them to be licensed, founded by none other than Duncan MacCallum of Campbeltown fame (Chairman of the firm that owned Glen Nevis and Scotia distilleries at the time) and a spirit broker from Leith called FW Brickmann.  It was built just to the north of the railway junction for ease of transport, although the sidings into the yards of the Waterford Mills that lay between the distillery and the railway were never extended to the distillery yard.

The distillery did not have an auspicious start as the market crash created by Pattison’s of Leith was just around the corner and was to be the hammer for a number of the distilleries that had recently opened to ride the boom in the 1890s.  Both MacCallum and Brickmann were experiencing business difficulties and apart from trial runs that were reported to have taken place in May 1900 the distillery remained silent for the first decade after it was built.

MacCallum finally started production in 1909, trading for a couple of years as Forres Distillery (Udo, 2005) before selling to Harvey McNair & Co of London in 1911 and they would see it through until 1919, albeit closed during the war years.  The next few decades saw further changes in ownership and periods of closure until the distillery became part of the DCL subsidiary SMD in 1953, closing again, along with many others, in 1983.

Benromach Distillery c1930
This picture in the visitor centre shows how the distillery looked from the railway around 1930.  The low building at the front, which was not part of the original buildings in 1898, is now the visitor centre.  The large pagoda kiln roof was removed in the early 1970’s when the distillery was refurbished.  The tall red brick chimney still stands as a landmark, proud but now unused.

During their ownership SMD made a number of improvements, including changing the coal fired stills to direct oil firing in 1966, one of the first distillers to adopt this.  The floor maltings were last used in 1968, the same year that the huge drum maltings were opened at Glen Ord on the other side of Inverness and so likely their new source.  The old maltings were then used as a cask store.  Further modernisation took place in 1974 but after it was closed in 1983 the stills, mash tun and copper piping were all removed by SMD; the washbacks, spirit VAT and the boilers left behind.

Benromach granary and malting floors, now a cask store
There is a more detailed history of events in the distillery’s life on the Benromach website and the above covers just a few of the key points listed there.  They also have a statistics section covering the volumes of the main vessels and processes that us whisky buffs like to know about (I wish every distillery did the same!) and the data below is either taken from there or from the informative tour that Sandy took me on when I visited.

The Benromach story continues a decade after the SMD closure when it was bought by Gordon & MacPhail in 1993.  Gordon & MacPhail are perhaps better known as an independent whisky bottler and retailer and they are based in Elgin just along the Moray coast from Forres.  They rescued the distillery and began a five year programme of planning and renovating that culminated with a grand reopening in October 1998, Prince Charles performing the ceremony, a century after it was first founded.

Old malt screen (or dresser) and filter press in the museum room
My tour began in a museum room that has been built in the old malt deposit and where various displays are now exhibited.  The barley is now malted at maltings throughout Scotland and is peated to around 8-12ppm for most of their production, with Peat Smoke considerably higher.  The peat used is from the Highlands and imparts a lighter, more floral smoke than the Islay and Orkney peats.

Benromach Boby Mill
(picture courtesy of Gordon & MacPhail)
The mill is a relatively small Boby Mill dating from 1913 and refurbished in 1996.  The mash tun is a modern style stainless steel semi-lauter with smaller perforations that permit finer milled grains to be used.  There is just one mash per day from Monday to Friday at 1.5 tonnes each time, three waters passing through with the last one held over to begin the next day.  Mashing water is piped from Chapelton Springs on the south side of Forres which draw from the Romach Hills a little further south, the same source as when it first opened.  Cooling water is piped from the Sanquhar Loch near to the springs.

Larch washbacks (picture courtesy of Gordon & MacPhail)
The four Larch washbacks were converted and cut to size from the backs that were left behind by SMD.  They previously held 23,000 litres and the four now are just 11,000 litres each. Fermentation runs from 3 to 5 days and with a fill level of just 7,500 litres there are no switchers required.

Benromach stills
(picture courtesy of Gordon & MacPhail)
The two stills were newly commissioned for the reopening, the wash taking a 7,500 litres charge and the spirit at 4,500 litres.  Both are heated by steam plates and have near-horizontal lyne arms and the spirit still has a reflux bowl at the base of the neck.  The shell and tube condensers are placed just outside the still house wall where the original worm tubs once sat.  

The middle cut runs for just 1 1/2 hours, from 75% down to 60% abv and Benromach is currently producing around 1000 litres of spirit from each day’s mash and totalling around 150-250,000 litres p.a.   The production is run by just two people, and with no computer control this is very much a hands-on traditional craft approach to distilling.  All this makes them the smallest working distillery in the SWA’s Speyside Region.

Benromach dunnage warehouse
Despite the relatively small production volumes and a short life in its current form, Benromach produce a significant range of different styles from a variety of cask types.  Gordon and MacPhail consider cask quality to be an important factor in producing their whisky with various wine casks and virgin American Oak casks having been employed alongside the more traditional cask types.  Variations in the malted barley also contribute to the range available, including 100% Organic and more heavily peated.  The casks are all stored onsite in one of four dunnage warehouses all with earthen floors.

Benromach Visitor Centre, built in an old ‘drier house’
The Visitor Centre where my tour finished with a tasting was opened in 1999, built in what was originally known as a ‘drier house’, although what was dried there is now uncertain.  Perhaps it was either grain from the field prior to storage, or possibly draff before being taken for animal feed.  There is a high level door giving direct access to the old loft where produce could be raised to.  Older maps show outside cooling tanks and a small chimney as part of the grounds for this building but the actual workings are now a mystery.  The walls of one of the tanks are still here, the location of another now turned over to a shrubbery beside a small pond, all nestling under pine trees in a delightful setting.

The first bottling by the new enterprise was the ‘Traditional’ bottled in 2004, with a 10yo appearing in 2009 after spending 9 years in bourbon and a final year in sherry casks.  There was still some old stock available when Gordon & MacPhail took over, with whiskies ranging from 21 up to 55yo now released as official bottles.  After a wee taste of that 10yo - vanilla, cream soda, fudge and apricot notes under a drifting smoke that intensified a little with water – I gleefully sipped a little of the Origins Batch 2 that had spent its whole 11 years maturing in port pipes.  I have a thing for port finished whisky and this smooth, luscious dram with both sweet and drier bitter notes did not disappoint.

Gordon & MacPhail emporium in Elgin
Gordon & MacPhail were established in 1895 just three years before the distillery.  The company is owned by the fourth generation of the Urquhart family to have been associated with the business and their world renowned whisky shop and delicatessen still stands on the same corner of Elgin as it always has.  Their bottling operation is also in Elgin and they bottle whiskies from all over Scotland that they have been acquiring for many years.  They recently launched the world’s oldest bottled whisky, a 70yo Mortlach, followed by a 70yo Glenlivet which can be seen in a display in their shop.

These old whiskies reflect the long history that the company has for providing wonderful whisky; Benromach Distillery a modern chapter in their evolution, yet one with traditions and one that earlier generations of the family had dreamed of.  The distillery may be small, nestling quietly under tall pine trees, but the whisky produced here has a lot to shout about.  My thanks to Sandy for the tour and the chance to try a port influenced whisky that was new to me, and to Russell at Gordon and MacPhail for providing additional information and images.