"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, 15 July 2011

Miltonduff Distillery, Elgin

“We arrived betimes the next morning at Elgin, and at once made our way to the Gordon Arms, a well-known hostelry”.

This is the opening line from Barnard’s report on his arrival at Elgin before visiting Milton Duff Distillery (sic).  I love the archaic sounding ‘betimes’ meaning early, or in good time, and this early start hastened in a few highly enjoyable days for Barnard as he visited the distilleries and other locations around Elgin and also used the hotel as his base for at least two trips down to Rothes.  This period also inspired some of the longer reports in his book and, as we shall see, also the shortest.

Elgin Town Centre, Gordon Arms building on right
The Gordon Arms was in the town centre beside the St Giles Church and the town fountain.  Barnard notes it as being “patronized by the Duke of Edinburgh and other notables”, the Commercial Hotel two doors down clearly not notable enough for him and the Temperance Hotel beside it an even less likely base.  In his next report he describes the Gordon Arms as a “substantially built rambling old place” and this photograph shows the building front today.

Once the Gordon Arms Hotel, Elgin
The grander looking section to the right above Burton is dated 1888 on the roof pediment, two years after his visit.  Local papers record completion of extension work in April 1889 so this section looks like an upgrade to the original hotel building which dates to the early 1800s.  The hotel closed in 1980 after which a demolition request was denied and it was therefore redeveloped into retail premises and is now a listed building.

After another of those substantial breakfasts that Barnard and I both enjoy on our travels he hired a horse drawn carriage and set off through the pleasant suburbs of Elgin to the distillery.  I arrived from the opposite direction, taking another road over Burgie Hill after my brief stop at Glenburgie and arriving first at Pluscarden Abbey which is the subject of the first tale within Barnard’s report on this day’s adventure, although it doesn’t seem that he actually visited the Abbey which was then in a ruinous state.

Pluscarden Abbey near Elgin
The abbey was founded in 1230 and was first home to the same order of Valliscaulians Monks as had founded Beauly Priory in the same year. It later changed to a Benedictine order but then deteriorated to ruin from the late 16th century on.  The monastery has gradually been restored over the last 60 years or so and is now the only medieval monastery in Britain still inhabited by monks and being used for its original purpose, the order once again Benedictine.  It was elevated from Priory to Abbey status in 1974 and restoration work continues today.

Pluscarden Abbey, west elevation with new accommodation block
Barnard mentions that the Black Burn which runs through the Pluscarden valley turns into a torrent after every storm.  This overflowing of the burn perhaps helped the fertility of the land here which Barnard calls “the Garden of Scotland”, celebrated for its barley, on a broad flat plain.  This valley was once known as Kail Glen, kail being a type of cabbage, and the Valliscaulians originated from Val des Choux in France, meaning the same (from Latin Vallis caulium), the verdant theme connecting the two distant locations.

The Black Burn flows alongside Miltonduff Distillery and supplies its water before joining the River Lossie just west of Elgin, it too prone to flooding, more on which when we arrive at Glen Moray Distillery.  The Burn actually rises on Romach Hill around 10 miles to the southwest of the distillery, from the same watershed that provides the water for Benromach Distillery and once also did for Dallas Dhu.

Barnard narrates a story about the monks and their use of the Burn for brewing fine ale that was so good that it:

"Made the hearts of all rejoice, and filled
The abbey with unutterable bliss;
Raised their devotions to that pitch
That Heldon's hills echo'd their hallelujahs.”

He doesn’t credit a source for the verse and I can’t find one either.  Heldon Hill is the slope above the abbey in the photo here and it is possible that he was paraphrasing from another work, or even trying his own hand at verse?  The hill and its woods were actually named Eildon in the mid 19th century but perhaps changed to Heldon later so as not to be confused with the Eildon Hill in the Scottish Borders.

Pluscarden 'garden', abbey in middle distance, Heldon hill behind
He continues with the record of an Abbot of the 15th century blessing the waters of the Burn so that the spirit distilled from it was thereafter known as ‘aqua vitae’.  The distillery was built in 1824 at the place where this blessing was said to have taken place.  Barnard notes that he was shown a stone in the wall of the Malt Mill bearing an “indistinct date” and which was claimed to be the stone upon which the Abbot had knelt for the blessing.  Hmmm?!

Before visiting the distillery Barnard was welcomed at the home of the owner Mr Stuart, the Old House of Miltonduff.  His party explored the house and gardens and were regaled with “a nip of creamy Old Milton Duff Whisky” before continuing the last quarter mile to the distillery. The house is now gone having been demolished sometime in the last century, the outline of the foundations all that can now be seen, near to a historic dovecot.

Miltonduff dovecot, old house was previously in the trees to the right

The array of buildings at the distillery first grabbed Barnard’s attention, apparently in “complete contrast to the other distilleries in the district…with scarcely a building alike.”  The same is true today but now from a mixture of harling covered edifices sitting alongside older rubble built barns and warehouses, some converted into modern offices, and extensive modern racking warehouses.  The original buildings date back to 1824 making Miltonduff one of the earliest distilleries licensed under the 1823 Excise Act.

Miltonduff Distillery etching in Barnard

Some of the practices still seemed to date back to the 1820s, in keeping with the smuggler operations that Barnard notes were rife along the Black Burn before then, with up to fifty illicit stills in the glen.  He records that “some of the oldest fads and methods are in use, and the ancient style of stills and utensils as carried on by the smugglers”.

Their tour was conducted by the manager Mr Ross whom Barnard describes as a friend.  As usual the malt barns are the starting point and this building is recorded as triangular.  No triangular building has been indicated on any maps so this may have been demolished or amended during major renovations and extensions to the operations that took place just a decade later.

Old Miltonduff Malt Barn
The kiln is described as an ancient structure and the peat used in the kiln was all imported from Eday which is one of the islands of Orkney, two ship loads having recently been brought in to the adjoining peat sheds when Barnard visited.  He doesn’t mention it but the proprietor, William Stuart who had met them earlier at the Old House, also owned Highland Park at that time and clearly had a preference for the Orkney style of peat over the more local sources such as Dava moor.  The kiln has now gone, replaced with the malt deposit building on the left of this picture.

The mill was steam powered and the grist then carried to the Mash House in sacks before being dropped into the grist hopper over a 14 feet x 4 feet mash tun.  The worts here were stirred by oars, a similar arrangement to that described for Glen Albyn in Inverness.  The adjoining building held 7 washbacks, 3 at 18,176 litres and 4 at 13,632 litres so a decent capacity although total annual output at the time was just 343,000 litres.

Barnard then retraced his steps back to the Still House which shared with the Mash House in a building described as venerable but also with rickety stone stairs, ‘depressions’ as steps, low roof sections and quaint and antiquated vessels.  Tradition had this building as originally a brewhouse for the monks.  The reason for the relatively low production lay in the “two old Pot Stills of great age” which were just 6,800 and 5,450 litres respectively and which were running triple distillation.  Barnard considers this the most interesting part of the process here and regrets not having space nor time to describe it fully.

Miltonduff mill lade
After dallying at the stills longer than his guide approved they then moved on to the worm tub which was a bit unusual.  There was just one tub, actually a square tank built of cement containing 400 feet of worm coils.  The cooling water was provided by a mill lade which was fed from a dam set off from the Black Burn, the lade splitting in two directions in the grounds before returning water to the Burn.  There were at least two water wheels providing power for the rummagers and the saw mill machinery, possibly more for other works.

There were five warehouses on the grounds holding 3,100 casks/1.2m litres of whisky of various ages with capacity for another 1,000 casks.  Stables on site housed a dozen horses for carting the casks to the railway station, which was probably Mosstowie Station about 2 miles away on the main Elgin to Inverness line.  The station on the single track line has now gone, replaced with a bank of colourful foxgloves, a flower that seems to propagate beside fields of barley all over this part of Scotland.

Site of old Mosstowie Station
The redevelopment in the 1890s included a new Still House and Mash House (Udo, 2005) along with substantial new warehousing shown on a map from 1905.  In 1936 the distillery and surrounding farmland was bought by Hiram Walker who also bought nearby Glenburgie Distillery the same year, from there following the same path into Allied Lyons and now to Chivas/Pernod Ricard.

Main distillery buildings and Black Burn
Following the story of Glencraig whisky and the Lomond Stills at Glenburgie we find that the very next distillery on Barnard’s itinerary was the only other one to ever receive a pair of Lomond Stills.  Mosstowie was the name of the whisky produced from these stills (like Glencraig it was not a separate distillery, just a brand name) which were installed later than at Glenburgie in 1964 (1958) and ran until the same final year of 1981.  Mosstowie was a mossy/boggy area to the west of Miltonduff.

The distillery was often known to experiment with new techniques including pre-heating their wash in heat exchangers fed by hot water from the condensers and then further heated by drawing some wash and heating it with steam to boiling point to then further raise the wash still temperature in a circular process until distillation was complete (wormtub.com).  The Lomond stills were also experimented with by spraying cold water onto the outside to increase reflux action (SMWS).

Distillery viewed from the Miltonduff Bridge (compare to etching above) 
The distillery was substantially redeveloped in 1974 and little now remains of the rambling old buildings and operations that Barnard witnessed.  The number of washbacks then increased from 8 to 18, each now 38,000 litres, built from stainless steel and enclosed to allow for full CO2 capture.  With the conversion of the Lomond Stills into two normal pot stills in 1981 they were up to 6 pot stills, three at 18,000 litres for the wash and three at 17,500 for the spirit (Udo, 2005).  They run a fairly long, slow distillation and the lyne arms are relatively steep at around 30 degrees.  A dark grains plant was also added in 1974 along with technical laboratories.

The distillery now has a capacity of 5.5m litres p.a., more than 15 times that of Barnard’s day and placing it just outside the top 10 in Scotland and the second largest in the Chivas Group after Glenlivet.  There are now 54,000 casks stored on site, mainly ex-bourbon.  Like Glenburgie, Miltonduff is a major component of the Ballantine’s blend and the site is now also home to the headquarters of Pernod Ricard’s Northern Division (MWYB, 2010).