"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, 30 June 2011

Dallas Dhu Distillery Museum, Forres

The second distillery founded in Forres in 1898 was first named Dallasmore and it was built on land owned by Alexander Edward of Sanquhar beyond the south side of town.  It sat right beside the Highland Line mentioned in my last report, with its own railway siding connecting it to the network, and so it is now easily accessible as a stop off on the Dava Way or by scenic country road out of Forres.

Dallas Dhu Distillery Museum, railway siding ran here to the right
Benromach was built by MacCallum and Brickmann on land leased from Edward but Dallasmore was initially his own project.  However, by the time it was complete in 1899 he had leased it to Glasgow whisky blenders Wright & Greig Ltd.  They began production that same year under the name Dallas Dhu which was chosen to make a connection with their main blend called Roderick Dhu and which whisky from the new distillery would contribute to.  Dallas Dhu was the very last distillery licence granted in the 19th century.

Dallas Dhu kiln pagoda, viewed from the Dava Way
The distillery was designed by the same architect as Benromach, the famous Charles Chree Doig who came up with the pagoda kiln roof design in 1889 and who had a hand in many of the new distilleries built in the latter part of the 19th century.  The layout of Dallasmore was almost a mirror image of Benromach at that time - an E shape with barley loft and maltings stretching out at one end, the kiln leading to the mash tun in the middle, washbacks in the central extension then the still room leading to the filling store in the other end.

Turn this plan (click to enlarge) of Dallas Dhu upside down and place that mirror image on the other side of the Forres railway junction and you will have a good approximation of Benromach when it was built.  Benromach’s washbacks were moved into a combined room with the stills when it was redeveloped in the 1990s; Dallas Dhu remains true to an earlier layout after being mothballed in 1983 and now held under the guardianship of Historic Scotland, more on which later.

Seemingly uninterrupted by the Pattison’s crash that halted Benromach for a decade the new proprietors continued production until selling to another Glasgow company, J.P. O’Brien & Co Ltd in 1919, although closed for the intervening war years.  J.P. O’Brien only survived two more years at which point the distillery was taken over by Benmore Distilleries Ltd who owned Benmore and (later) Lochead distilleries in Campbeltown and Lochindaal distillery on Islay.

Benmore were taken over by DCL in 1929 and their four distilleries were all closed at that time.  Of the four, Dallas Dhu was the only one ever to resume production when it began again in 1936 under DCL’s subsidiary SMD.  This was a short venture to begin with as a major fire destroyed the still house in 1939 and the distillery then remained silent until 1947.

Benmore sign on filling store at Dallas Dhu
The fire damaged sections appear to have been rebuilt back to the way they were, externally at least, and the only real variation in the layout shown on maps from 1905 onwards is the extension of the warehouses westwards in the 1950s and an extension to the tun room for two new washbacks in 1964.  Production continued until that fateful year of 1983 when the last casks were filled.  Although economic conditions and overproduction were largely responsible for the number of closures that year, prolonged drought conditions between 1976 and 1983 were also a contributing factor in some cases and at Dallas Dhu the water supply crosses a broad flat plain south of the distillery and perhaps therefore more liable to disruption.

The water for mashing was piped from the Altyre Burn which is formed from the confluence of other burns, including the Romach Burn, on the west side of Romach Hill.  By the time it flows past the distillery, a kilometre to its south, it is known as the Burn of Mosset before it feeds the Sanquhar Loch, the source of Benromach’s cooling water and first created on the south side of Forres around the same time as the distilleries were built.  The Manachy Burn flows past Dallas Dhu just a few metres to its north and this was the source of its cooling water and powered a water wheel until the 1970s.

Maps from before the time of Barnard’s journey record the Burn of Mosset as the Burn of Bogs, recalling to mind a similar ‘sanitisation’ of a name at Cawdor which lies 20km east of here, the Bog of Cawdor there being renamed as Cawdor Moss.  The local name for the Altyre Burn is the Scourie Burn and there was a building (a scourie is a shed shieling) and a well named Scourie beside it, about a kilometre east of the distillery.  The name Dallas Dhu is interpreted as either ‘field by the black waterfall’ or ‘black water valley’, the latter I think a more likely reference due to that flat boggy (sorry, mossy) ground nearby.

The distillery was mothballed by DCL in 1983 and came under the care of Historic Scotland in 1986, albeit still owned by DCL.  HS reopened it as a distillery museum in 1988 and it has been run as such ever since.  The distilling licence was returned in 1992 but it is believed that the fixtures and fittings are all maintained in a way that could permit them to recommence production here relatively easily, although the operations now seem very dated and almost certainly uneconomical to run in their current form.

Dallas Dhu courtyard
The museum is open all year round (see Historic Scotland website for details) and the tour allows you to get up close to all the major operations and vessels, albeit in a quiet, almost sterile environment.  The closest previous experiences I have had to the variety of things you can get close to here were at Springbank and Laphroaig, although they don’t let you photograph the inside of their stills.  That said, the atmosphere at Dallas Dhu is eerily quiet and at times it is hard to imagine what it would be like when operating without having experienced it elsewhere.

Dallas Dhu Barley Loft
The malting floor at Dallas Dhu has now been turned into a visitor centre and shop together with a media room for viewing their video take on the history, charm and romanticism of whisky production.  The barley loft is still intact above and that is where your self guided tour will begin at your own pace.  Audio recordings that describe each scene as you go round are available from a handset that is included in the standard admission price, and photographs are allowed everywhere!

Dallas Dhu Kiln
The kiln room has been fully opened up and you can wander round behind the killogie (the area in front of the kiln doors) and look up to see the flues that channelled the smoke up to the drying floor.  You next pass by the electricity meter room where you will discover that the distillery did not receive electricity until the 1950s, a water wheel providing all the power before then and some of it until the 1970s, but sadly no longer present on the burn.

Dallas Dhu washbacks
The mash tun was replaced in 1964 and is of a good size taking a 3.3 tonne mash, made from cast iron with a copper dome and the perforated floor plates have been partly lifted to show the draining mechanism.  The six Oregon pine washbacks are 45,000 litres each and have been left full of water to prevent the wood from drying out and shrinking, the switchers stationary below the open lids.

Glenlossie 1920s fire engine at Dallas Dhu
The still house contains two stills and their chargers, a large old gas fired boiler from the 1960s and, aptly given that this room burned down in 1939, the display also includes a steam powered fire engine dating from the 1920s, one that had last been used at Glenlossie Distillery near Elgin in 1929.

Dallas Dhu stills
Perhaps the most interesting part of the museum that you will not normally be able to experience at a working distillery is the opportunity to touch and see inside and all around the stills.  The stills are accessible by a raised platform where the steam coil heating, installed in 1971 to convert from coal fired heating, can be seen inside them.

Dallas Dhu steam coil heating inside the spirit still
The wash still held 11,828 litres and the spirit still was 10,428 litres.  The lyne arms descend into outside worms tubs at an angle of around 25 degrees and there are steps beside the tubs to allow you to climb up and see the coiled worm inside them.

Dallas Dhu worm tubs
The bases of the stills are now surrounded by wooden panels that are identical to those installed by DCL around the also mothballed stills at the old Brora distillery.  I am told these are there for cosmetic reasons, the stills having been direct coal fired previously, although they look quite substantial for just that purpose and I wonder if they have another one as well.

Dallas Dhu still bases
Beside the stills there is a separate room where the spirit safe sits atop the intermediate spirit receiver.  Water flowing through the glass bowls to represent the new make is triggered by stepping on a foot plate that looks like part of a reconditioned cask weighing machine.

Dallas Dhu spirit safe and receiver
The filling store and warehouse displays that complete your tour are fairly standard and the three warehouses here are all dunnage, the newest one to the west with two floors of dunnage style storage.  These warehouses now lie empty and you will need to hunt down some older independent bottles of Dallas Dhu malt if you would like to try it.

Dallas Dhu dunnage warehouses
If you like being tactile, or going at your own pace, then a visit here may satisfy you, without the buzz of industry all around but also without the enticing aromas.  The pace of life here is as slow as the burn that meanders gently by, the workings inside as open to curiosity as I was to the new lambs that eyed me cautiously from the other side.  This museum has a unique place in the industry and it may help those new to whisky to gain a fuller appreciation of the art of distilling than is often possible in a rushed tour round a working distillery with a large group of visitors, although I would recommend visiting both environments for a fuller experience.

Spring lambs by the Manachie Burn, Dallas Dhu

Sueno’s Stone

The last commemorative stone I visited in this area is also one of the most decorative and it stands on the east side of Forres, just off the main road to Elgin.  Sueno’s stone is a Class III Pictish symbol stone with panels detailing the story of a fierce battle on one face and a Celtic cross almost the full length on the reverse.  The sides of the stone are decorated with an intricate vine pattern.

This type of stone is known as a cross-slab and Sueno’s Stone is the tallest surviving example in Britain at over 6 metres and also one of the last known to be carved, the style suggesting a date around the 9th or 10th century.  The symbols are carved in relief and include many Pictish and Celtic motifs.  The tiered base that secures the stone upright was a later addition during restoration work in the early 1700s after the stone had been found buried; the name Sueno also relating to the finder of the stone rather than dating to it’s origins.

Like a number of other important carved stones in the north east this one has been surrounded by a glass canopy that is lit up in the dark evenings, designed to protect its already worn surfaces from further erosion by the elements and the touch of inquisitive hands.  You can be tactile with the recent history at Dallas Dhu but the unique carvings on this millennium old and now fragile stone require protection for future generations to appreciate.