"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, 9 June 2011

Royal Brackla Distillery, Nairn

Leaving Inverness and heading east into Morayshire Barnard visited the last distillery, for now, in the whisky producing region we now know as Highland before reaching the region we know as Speyside.  The distinction wasn’t made back then, most of the whisky from these areas described by Barnard as Highland Malt with the first big Speyside expansion still a decade away.

The train first brought Barnard to Nairn which he notes as being called “The Brighton of Scotland”.  I’m not sure where he got that from, certainly not from Anderson’s Guide which was dated before the arrival of the railway in 1855 and the subsequent Victorian development of the town, with its glorious beaches, into a spa resort.  “Brighton of the North” does seem to have been a common appellation in guide books of his time though.  It also seems to have fallen out of use sometime since as the current Lord Cawdor stated in 2006 that he wanted Nairn to reclaim its title when announcing plans for a new spa hotel and golf resort.

Barnard may have stayed one night in Nairn as on arrival he states “we at once proceeded to the hotel, and were fortunate in securing an open landau and a good steed”, although he needed these to take him to the distillery which he discovered was six miles away “much to our chagrin”!  His next visit is to Glenburgie on the main road to Forres before arriving at Elgin “the next morning”, but his accommodation between Inverness and Elgin is unclear.

River Nairn valley viewed from site of Raitknock steading (lost)
His journey from Nairn to the distillery was delightful and he travelled through “undulating lands as pastoral as an English scene”.  Still not homesick, Alfred?  He describes reaching a place he calls “the Red Knock” and seeing “one of the finest landscape views at our feet that it is possible to witness”.  I think Red Knock may have been another of those names he had misheard and the place was in fact Raitknock, a farm steading.  This presents another conundrum – which road out of Nairn did he take?  He describes “crossing the bridge which spans the river” but this could either be the bridge in town to then take the road down the east side of the river, or the bridge further down another road on the west side.  Both roads passed by separate steadings called Raitknock, about 1km apart.

Rait Castle is nearby, sadly now an overgrown ruin although efforts are under way to try to preserve it.  Rait may be from the Gaelic word ‘rath’ meaning a small fortress but the castle was also once owned by a clan with the name Rait, although which was named after which is unclear.  Raitknock from Gaelic would mean ‘fortress hill’ which may reflect a land feature rather than buildings as neither of the steadings nor the castle are in particularly defensive positions, the land around all being fairly flat.

The view he witnessed included the River Nairn winding its way sinuously through trees, hillocks and barley fields in the midst of which Barnard espied the distillery.  Now I wonder if I needed to be sitting higher up in an open landau carriage like Barnard was to appreciate that view as the landscape here is flattish with scattered woods, the course of the river unseen from the roadside at either of the Raitknock steadings.  I think his most likely route was the west road as the Raitknock on the east road lay beyond woods and a rise in the landscape that completely obscure the river valley from view.  Both steadings have now gone and the only record is on older maps.

Barnard’s driver, “an intelligent fellow”, pointed out that this was Macbeth country and further on from the distillery lies Cawdor Castle, long associated (incorrectly) with Shakespeare’s ‘Scottish play’.  Above the castle the Cawdor Burn runs through a ravine in Cawdor Wood before passing the castle and on into the River Nairn.  This burn supplied all the water to the distillery when Barnard visited, now only supply the cooling water with mashing water being drawn from natural springs in the surrounding woods.  Barnard here mentions the burn as being a favoured old haunt of the “noted Tarrick and other smugglers” but I have been unable to find out anything about this Tarrick.

The Royal Brackla Distillery was built in 1812 by a Captain Fraser and then as now it “consists of several ranges of old and new buildings”.  The distillery is now owned by Bacardi through their subsidiary John Dewar & Sons and they had considered adding a visitor centre at one time but instead decided to maintain Dewar’s World of Whisky at Aberfeldy as the main visitor experience for the Group, so I was delighted to be allowed to see inside Royal Brackla with Distillery Production Manager Stewart Christine showing me round and providing some of the details included here.

Old warehouse and offices beside more recent malt barn
The Royal title to the distillery was granted by a warrant from King William IV in 1835, the first of only three distilleries ever to add the word Royal to their name and this really put them on the map and helped them compete against the local smugglers.  Yet when Barnard visited fifty years later the production was still only 318,000 litres p.a. which seems below capacity for the size of works he describes.

Barnard began his tour, as usual as he says, at the Barley Lofts and adjacent Malt Barns.  He particularly notes the use of friction hoists to raise the home-grown grain from farmer’s wagons to the lofts and then a sequence of elevators and a screw-box for further moving the grain around.  The kiln was heated by peat only, in this case dug locally from a “neighbouring moor” which may be the Cawdor Moss mentioned by Barnard, less glamorously named on maps as the Bog of Cawdor.  Today the barley is both sourced and malted locally and is non-peated, the floor maltings last used in 1966 and the kiln floor is all that is left.

Vacuum de-stoner and dust extractor
I don’t recall any mention of grain ‘dressers’ or other stone removal methods in Barnard’s reports so far, yet this is an important part of the process before milling to prevent sparks in the mill that could ignite the flour and as Stewart pointed out also to prevent damage over time to the mill rollers themselves.  I had seen a few old ‘wooden box’ style dressers at other distilleries but at Royal Brackla the equipment for removing dust (blowers), metals (magnets/witchcraft) and then de-stoning (sieve/vacuum) is of modern design.

External stainless steel washbacks
The Mash Tun then was a good size at 17 feet by 6 with the usual stirring gear and draining plates.  The current stainless steel tun was installed in 1997 and is a large full lauter tun taking a 12.5 tonne mash.  The 8 washbacks observed by Barnard held 22,700 litres each; the eight now are 60,000 litres each and, uniquely amongst Scottish Distilleries I think, two stainless steel backs are situated outside.  Viewed form the courtyard you get a real sense of the true size of these vessels that is not often perceived when looking down through a latticed floor or into a bubbling fermentation.

Oregon pine washbacks with stainless steel domes
The other 6 backs are made from Oregon pine and there is a fairly long fermentation of 70 hours to contribute to a light grassy character in the whisky.  Barnard had made special mention of the switchers which were “driven by machinery, move at a high and low speed, and, by the ingenious arrangement of a lever, each can be worked separately”.  Aside from electric motors and buttons instead of levers I’m not sure switchers have moved on much from then.  Although the internal washbacks are made from wood their domed tops are made from steel to allow for fuller CO2 capture.

Still House
The still house was then a large stone building with two old Pot Stills at 21,360 and 12,180 litres which were partly heated by steam coils.  Assuming the other heating method was coal fire this is an arrangement Barnard hasn’t mentioned before and the only other place I have seen anything similar is at Springbank where the wash still is now partly heated by oil burners and partly by steam coil, although not in Barnard’s day.  The number of stills was increased from 2 to 4 in 1965/66 when they were also changed from coal to steam heating, the same time as the floor maltings were closed.

Spirit stills near side, wash to rear
These are tall stills with large rounded bases for lots of copper contact.  The wash stills take a 20,000 litre charge and the spirit stills a 23,000 litre charge using a 2>1 balanced distillation approach, although the wash stills are nonetheless slightly bigger in size.  The wash stills are steam coil heated and the spirit stills have both coil and steam pan.  The long fermentation time with a middle cut of 4-4 1/2 hours, and slightly rising lyne arms both help to create a light character to the spirit.  They are currently working 7 days a week and producing 3.4m litres p.a., ten times the volume when Barnard visited.

Old rubble warehouses, c.1900, beside cooling water reservoir
Barnard noted 5 bonded warehouses, all substantial in size and containing a total of 2,000 casks.  There has been a sequence of building and demolishing of warehouses since, the ebb and flow marked as outlines on maps over time.  The original main warehouses by the distillery have all been demolished along with the malting floors and kiln.  Around the year 1900 there were four long dunnage warehouses built to the east of the distillery but three of them were demolished in 1983/4.  A further five small rubble warehouses were built by the reservoirs around 1900 and three of these remain.  Two huge racking warehouses were built towards the main road in the 1970’s and these are still used.

Racking warehouses, the newest built on site
Other aspects of the operation that impressed Barnard were the very complete fire extinguishing arrangements (hoses and extincteurs) and a traction engine to transfer casks over the six miles to Nairn and to bring back coal.  He also notes the three reservoirs fed [by a lade] from the Cawdor Burn that still sit in a line southwest of the distillery, although the arrangement he records of placing the coolers in the stream is interesting.  This must have been where the lade from the reservoir leaves under the north side of the buildings beside the tun room, where he had previously only mentioned a Morton’s Refrigerator, as the actual stream is some distance away.

The ownership of the distillery became incorporated as Brackla Distillery Co Ltd in 1898 when it was also refurbished and the new warehouses added.  It was next taken over by a blending company called John Bissett & Co Ltd in 1926 who themselves were taken over by DCL in 1943 and the distillery remained with them until closing in 1985 for 6 years (Udo, 2005).  It then became one of the few 1980s closures to have a new lease of life when DCL reopened it in 1991 and then sold it to John Dewar & Sons in 1998.  Only the distillery was sold at that time, the earlier stocks in the warehouses here remain with DCL.

Royal Brackla was one of the key whiskies used by Andrew Usher when he began experimenting with blending whisky in the 1860s, the Ushers being amongst the partners in the distillery.  The whisky is still mostly used for blends, with some of the older DCL stocks in Johnnie Walker and the newer stock in Dewar’s blends, but occasional OBs and some independent bottles of single malt are available as well as.  Barnard had noted a “Duty-Paid Racking Store for the convenience of local customers” and the distillery still has the modern equivalent ‘off-sales’ today.

I had arrived late for my appointment after losing my way in the surrounding countryside yet Stewart kindly gave me more time to see around this historic distillery for which I am very grateful; my thanks to him also for showing me some old pictures that helped place the various phases of development.  My visit here was towards the end of a busy and eventful trip to the Highlands, and the calm, pastoral setting of the River Nairn valley and the tranquillity of Cawdor village and the woods beyond were the perfect relaxant before the long drive back to Edinburgh.