"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, 20 January 2012

Glen Elgin Distillery, near Elgin

The final working distillery I visited in the Elgin area is about three to four miles south of that important whisky town.  Glen Elgin distillery was located in open land when built but the hamlet of Fogwatt has since expanded into a small village up to the distillery boundary.  It was built right beside the railway line that continues on past Longmorn although it never had its own siding as the gradient from the line down to the yard was considered too steep.  Instead, goods were conveyed by road to and from Longmorn station, about a mile away by road.

The distillery is not open to the public but it is in Diageo’s Classic Malts range - anyone with an old style Classic Malts journal would need to get theirs stamped here to complete it.  Although this is no longer a requirement in the new journal, as a long time member of the Friends of the Classic Malts I was keen to attend to this small detail and the manager was also very helpful with information on the history and development of the distillery, some of which is included below.

Glen Elgin Distillery
Glen Elgin was founded by William Simpson who had previously been a manager at Glenfarclas, and James Carle who was a local agent for the North of Scotland Bank.  It was one of the last distilleries to be licensed at the end of the 19th century and construction started early in 1898.  This was another Charles Doig design, this time in an ‘F’ shape with the filling store in a detached building rather than completing an ‘E’ shape as elsewhere.  At the time Charles Doig is reported to have said that Glen Elgin would be the last distillery to open in Speyside for 50 years and it did turn out to be the last until Tormore was built in 1958.

Production started on 1 May 1900 but lasted only 5 months before the distillery closed later that year and was then sold at auction for a heavy loss early in 1901.  There were a couple of further changes in ownership and a few more silent years before it was bought by DCL subsidiary Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd in 1936 and from there ultimately into current owners Diageo.   The licence is now held by another subsidiary, White Horse Distillers, and some of the production is an important part of the White Horse blended whisky, more on which later.

White Horse sign at Glen Elgin
The distillery had originally been built on a relatively small scale but in 1964 it was rebuilt and production capacity trebled.  The stills were increased from 2 to 6 in a new extended still house and 6 large washbacks replaced 4 smaller ones.  The floor maltings were closed the same year and the pagoda roofed kiln that undoubtedly accompanied Doig’s original distillery was dismantled.  The distillery now has capacity to produce around 1.8m litres p.a.

Glen Elgin must have one of the highest ratios of washback to still size of any distillery in Scotland.  Udo (2005) records the 6 larch washbacks at 40,600 litres each but the charge into each wash still is only around 7,000 litres.  The contents of each washback are therefore split between the three wash stills twice each before charging the three slightly larger spirit stills in a balanced distillation process.

Glen Elgin worm tubs
The lyne arms on all the stills have a c20 degree downward angle to collect some of the heavier vapours and there are 6 worm tubs in the courtyard to condense them.  The cooling water for the worm tubs is collected in a small reservoir fed by the Glen Burn just before it becomes the Longmorn burn as it runs past on the other side of the railway.  The process water is drawn from springs in the area around nearby Millbuies Loch, the same spring area that supplies Linkwood Distillery.

Glen Elgin warehouses
There are a few small dunnage warehouses on site holding casks from some of the older production (MWYB 2011) but there have not been too many single malt releases.  They did release a 12yo in the Flora and Fauna range a decade ago and a more recent 16yo special release amongst others, but the standard OB is now a 12yo that replaced the F&F bottle and which I found to be malty, light to medium sweet with ‘signature tangerine fruitiness’, a nice warm mouth feel and a long drying finish.

White Horse Close, Edinburgh
The White Horse blend that was mentioned earlier has a history connecting it to Speyside and also to both Edinburgh and Islay.  The marque was founded by ‘restless’ Peter Mackie of Lagavulin fame and was named after the old White Horse Inn at the bottom of Canongate in Edinburgh, next door to which was Mackie’s family home.  The Inn was founded in 1742 and was a point of departure for coaches heading to London in the 18th and 19th centuries, but it no longer exists and the site is now residences around a courtyard called White Horse Close.  The close is opposite the Scottish Parliament buildings (more of a white elephant than a white horse) which were built on what was previously the site of William Younger’s Abbey Brewery.

The buildings around the close were renovated in 1964, the same year as Glen Elgin was rebuilt, and they are now mostly brick and harl replicas incorporating sections of the original (RCAHMS).  The archways for the original stables have been reflected in the design at the rear of the building but otherwise there is no evidence of the old coaching inn.

Old stables at White Horse Inn
White Horse whisky contains more than 35 different malts but three in particular contribute to its flavour – Lagavulin, Glen Elgin and Craigellachie.  Adverts in the past have also recorded Malt Mill (built by Mackie beside Lagavulin in 1908) and Cragganmore as key malts in the blend at one time.  Mackie launched the brand and registered the name as a trademark in 1890, however one old advert also records it as “Good whisky for 179 years, from the Original Recipe 1746” claiming a heritage dating back to the house blend of the Inn, but also a bit of marketing license there as the earliest of those distilleries listed was Lagavulin, founded in 1816, and the others were up to 90 years later.

There is now a White Horse Bar further up Canongate which I remembered from some years ago as a traditional wee Scots howff.  It was refurbished a year or two ago and is now a comfortable and relaxing place to spend an hour away from the January cold and sleet.  I stopped by to see if they knew about the history of the whisky and while I was there I tried a wee nip of … something else.  Sadly they had run out of White Horse which was a real shame as I don’t recall trying it before.  Still, the barman was friendly and knew a fair bit about the history, and there were posters on the walls recording the story of the whisky to keep me amused while sipping my dram.

One poster carried some apocryphal entries from a shepherd’s diary that recorded his reasons for dramming White Horse regularly over the course of a week, including “to wash awa’ the effects of a dry sermon; to wet ma’ lips for dog whistling; mair dog whistling; sundry dog whistling; and “on a wet mornin’, there being some holes in my plaid [kilt]”.  Another one records that in 1754 the coach for London left twice a week and “which performs the journey in eight days (if God permits)”.  I wonder how often Barnard set out on a journey wondering if he would arrive God willing, and did he have travel insurance, ‘if God permits’ being the equivalent of the Act of God get out clause in our modern policies.  The advert concludes “allowing each passenger 14 pounds weight1, and all above, 6 pence per pound” – and we wonder where Ryanair get their ideas from?

I wish you a permit from God and a large drap o’ whisky on all your travels in the year ahead.

1 Equivalent to c8.75 kilos according to the Tron Measure, the standard measure of Edinburgh adopted in 1661, or only 6.5 kilos if recorded under the imperial weight system.


Monday, 16 January 2012

BenRiach Distillery, near Elgin

While John Duff’s Longmorn Distillery survived the Pattison crash after his company was sold in 1899, neighbouring Ben Riach-Glenlivet was only in production for a couple of years after its 1898 opening before it was closed by the company in 1900.  No distilling then took place at Ben Riach until it was reopened in 1965 although the floor malting did supply Longmorn throughout this time, the distillery also being known as Longmorn II for a while.

The distillery was another one designed by Charles Doig but it didn’t follow his oft used ‘E’ shape layout.  Here the malt barns and kiln were on one side of the railway spur that ran up from Longmorn junction, with the mash, tun room and still house parallel to it on the other side, perhaps to make best use of the railway access to all parts of the site.

Ben Riach is another of those names with an uncertain Gaelic origin.  Ben we know is from ‘beinn’ meaning mountain and a map from 1905 records the name as Ben Riach-Glenlivet, the merging of the first two words coming at a much later date.  There is an old farm named Riach nearby which was recorded as Rioch as far back as Roy’s military map from around 1750, both spellings from a root that is variously translated as grey/speckled/grizzly, giving us perhaps grey mountain as a translation.  It may also be from fiadh meaning deer, and possibly even from Righ meaning royal or king, and given the boggy terrain that permeates throughout the wider area I wonder if even riasg could be an origin, meaning marsh or wet moorland.  We could be here all day debating this, plus I’m not a linguist and there’s whisky to be having so let’s move on.

Following its silent beginning to last century the distillery was completely refurbished and re-opened in 1965.  I am a little confused about one aspect of this re-opening - Ben Riach is reported to have been refurbished by The Glenlivet Distillers Company Ltd (TGD) in 1965 yet it is also widely reported that Longmorn, Glenlivet and Glen Grant amalgamated to form TGD in 1970.  Did the company already exist in a previous form that bought Ben Riach from the Longmorn-Glenlivet Distillery Co with the objective of re-opening it, or is it a another case of the exact dates of change in ownership being lost in time?  Any accurate and supported information on this would be welcome.

Main distillery buildings after refurbishment
The new owners were then one of the first to reintroduce peated barley into Speyside whisky production in 1972, mainly to add that character to some of their house blends and recreating a style that Barnard would have been more familiar with on his travels through the region.  They also experimented with triple distillation with a third still installed at one time.  TGD were then taken over by Seagrams in 1978 and from there the distillery became part of Chivas in 2001 along with neighbouring Longmorn.  Once more, while Longmorn continued unabated, Benriach production is immediately slowed down and then stopped the following year, the distillery then being mothballed in August 2002.

This time the period of closure is far shorter than the previous 65 year hibernation and after just 20 months the distillery has another new owner.  In April 2004, Billy Walker led a consortium to create the BenRiach Distillery Company who bought the distillery and stock from Chivas.  With the internal workings all still in place they start production in September that year after a closure of just two years.  Although BenRiach is not open to the public I was delighted to be offered a tour with distillery manager Stewart Buchanan who brought me up to date with the recent history.

BenRiach malting floor
The 10 tonne malting floor was last used in 1998 but has been maintained in good order and this large open space could be used for malting again.  The kiln is also still intact beside it, refreshing to see after so many I have been to that have had their heart removed and only the shell remains, a shadow of their former self, no warmth left.  However, the killogie1 at BenRiach, even while still unused, would be an atmospheric and comforting place to sit by some smouldering embers and enjoy a dram in good company.

BenRiach kiln and killogie
The barley used here is both grown and malted locally and the traditional cast iron mash tun takes a 5.8 tonne mash with 16 mashes per week.  There are four waters run through each mash, the water coming from boreholes that draw from spring water deep below the site.  The water is classed as fairly hard, which together with a lower temperature profile for the mashing water contributes to a lighter character in the wash.  30,000 litres of wash are produced from each mash and filled into each washback.

BenRiach washbacks
The washbacks were changed from wood to stainless steel during a refurbishment around 1977 when there were six in place, a further two added in 1985.  The house style at BenRiach includes a fairly long fermentation of between 3-4 days which produces green apple notes in the wash flowing through into a dry, light spirit off the still.  The switchers in the backs are run generally between hours 12-18 of the fermentation to control the froth at peak activity.

In 1985 the stills were increased from 2 to 4, and although the old third still used for triple distillation was removed in 1998 there is still a small amount of production triple distilled each year.  The two wash stills have a capacity of 20,912 litres each and the 30,000 litres from each washback is split into two charges of 15,000 litres.  The spirit stills have a capacity of 12,729 but are charged with 10,000 litres each time.  All the stills are fairy tall with a shallow downward angle on the lyne arms leading to shell and tube condensers placed externally, all helping to keep the spirit light.  The middle cut averages around 2 hours, down to a relatively low 60.5% cut off and slightly lower again for peated spirit.

BenRiach stills, wash near side
The new make averages around 67% as a result and has a dry yet full mouth feel with those apple and cereal notes sitting comfortably together.  Although the distillery has capacity to produce 2.8m litres p.a. they have recently been producing around 1.4m litres p.a., with around 200k litres of peated spirit.  The peated barley starts with a hefty phenol count at 55ppm dropping to a still robust 30-35ppm in the bottle.  The new make is casked at a standard 63.5% abv.

BenRiach dunnage warehouses, looking towards Longmorn
A warehouse numbering system applied from earlier days when Longmorn and Ben Riach were worked together is still maintained here, from number 1 in the east beside Longmorn up to 17 to the west beyond Benriach.  Low and high numbered warehouses are still owned by Chivas and BenRiach have the middle numbers, all dunnage warehouses with earthen floors, currently holding around 28,000 casks.  The oldest cask on site dates from 1966 and there is also some of the old triple distilled whisky in the warehouses.

Benriach was first bottled as a Single Malt in 1994 by Seagram, as a 10yo release, and given the quality and age of some of the whiskies in the warehouse it is no surprise that the current owners have taken to releasing far more expressions.  Some experimenting took place at the distillery in the past including lots of different wine finishes alongside the triple distilled and peated spirit, and the current owners have been releasing one of the widest ranges of whisky styles of any distillery along with a classic range of aged whiskies and some vintage bottlings.

Regular readers will know that I’m not a big fan of wine finishes but their peated spirit has produced the 10yo Curiositas and 21yo Authenticus bottlings that I do find very appealing.  In addition, the very first bottling of whisky produced entirely by the current owners is the young and heavily peated Birnie Moss, launched in 2009.  It is named after an area of moorland in the hills a few miles to the south of the distillery and this is a fantastic dram with lots of flavour for its young age.  If Birnie makes you think of burning then you may not be far wrong as it is almost as if the peat is still smouldering in your glass, just the way I like it.

A few years ago I had the pleasure of taking part in an archaeological excavation on an Iron Age site called Birnie which was not far from the distillery.  One of the central features was a large timber built roundhouse that had been burnt-down at the end of its occupation.  If Birnie Moss had been available to us then it would have been a fitting dram to offer a toast to the people who had lived there around 2000 years ago and who had left a fascinating story to uncover.  Curiositas is also an appropriately named whisky for all archaeology and nothing better than a hit of peat smoke to revive you at the end of a long day of hard digging.

BenRiach is an independently owned distillery that is going from strength to strength and who knows what may still be lurking in those mid-range warehouses for future release.  Hopefully that extensive closure after it was founded was just the postponement of a long future that will continue on from the near 50 years that have now passed since it was re-opened.  My thanks go to Stewart, and also to Alistair Walker at the company headquarters in Newbridge.  We will see more of the company story when the journey reaches GlenDronach Distillery near Huntly.

1 Killogie is an old Scots word for the space in front of a fire or kiln, see the middle of my Bowmore report for some more thoughts.

Additional information in this post is from the BenRiach website.


Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Longmorn Distillery, near Elgin

The first of the distilleries to be built south of Elgin in the 1890s was Longmorn which opened in 1894.  One of its founders, John Duff, had also been one of the founders of nearby Glenlossie Distillery in 1876 and would go on to build Ben Riach Distillery close to Longmorn in 1898, more on which in my next report.

Reservoir beside Longmorn Distillery, looking towards BenRiach
The name Longmorn is variously translated from different interpretations of a chapel that once stood nearby, either from Lhan-Morgan meaning Morgan’s Chapel or Lanmarnoch meaning Church of St Marnoch.  It had been demolished and its location ploughed over long before the distillery was built and maps show the creation of a dammed reservoir on the west side of the distillery that flooded the place where the chapel was previously marked.  The reservoir sits on the Longmorn Burn that runs past both distilleries here and which starts as the Glen Burn high up towards the Glen of Rothes south of the distillery.

The outflow from the reservoir runs northwest and meets the Foths Burn out of Glenlossie to form the Burn of Linkwood which supplies the distillery of that name.  A separate small reservoir on the east side of Longmorn supplies cooling water to the distillery and the process water is drawn from boreholes.  There is a large cistern beside the distillery, shown in the photo here complete with a flotation gauge on the outside wall.

Longmorn cistern
The distillery was built beside Longmorn station on the Elgin to Craigellachie railway line which opened in 1862 and was connected to the Strathspey railway at Craigellachie a year later.  The granary and malt barns were built at the east end of the distillery just a few yards from the line, perhaps to take easy advantage of the movement of grain by rail.  The new buildings were built beside an old corn mill and saw mill which both operated in the decades before, with buildings named Longmorn to the west of the mills later being demolished and a new warehouse built on the site.

Longmorn malt barn and kiln
In 1898 the Longmorn distillery branch line opened from a junction just north of the station.  This line included spurs that ran directly into the yards of both Longmorn and the then newly built Ben Riach, plus a longer line that ran between the two and onward a further mile west to Glenlossie Distillery.  Longmorn station closed along with the line in 1968 but the station building still stands, derelict, just to the north of the distillery.  The branch line continued in use until 1979 but only to move casks between the distilleries (www.railbrit.co.uk).

Despite a promising start at Longmorn Duff’s fortunes were bound up in his investment at Benriach just as the Pattison Crash was about to hit.  He was declared bankrupt in 1898 and Longmorn was sold to a James Grant the following year.  It survived the crash and seems to have had a fairly quiet history until 1970 when it amalgamated with Glenlivet and Glen Grant Distilleries as The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd, and from there ultimately into Chivas Brothers (MWYB 2011).

Longmorn Distillery main buildings
After some initial extensions and reconstruction in the 1960s the main expansion in production came in the 1970s.  Floor maltings ceased in 1970, the stills were increased from four to six in 1972 and at the same time the spirit stills only were converted from coal fired to steam.  A further two stills were added in 1974 and at this time the still house was split into two separate rooms, with the four wash stills in one room and the four spirit in another, a unique arrangement in Scotland.  The wash stills were finally converted to steam in 1994, one of the last distilleries to do so (MaltMadness.com).

The current mash tun is a stainless steel traditional infusion mash tun and there are 8 large stainless steel washbacks which replaced smaller Oregon pine backs a few years ago.  There are now shell and tube condensers placed outside the still houses where before there were worm tubs, the outflow from which used to power a waterwheel to drive the rummagers in the wash stills.  I have queried the operation of rummagers in a few early posts on the journey and when researching Longmorn I found a fantastic diagram of their operation on the RCAHMS Canmore website.

The only current official bottling by the distillery is a 16yo at 48% that was first released in 2007 to replace a previous 15yo.  I tried it last year for the first time and found it to be a very satisfying dram, a style of whisky I enjoy most if I don’t have anything peaty to hand.  I had previously only tasted one more that I could recall and that was an SMWS bottle that was described as having a taste like a tuck shop, with a bubble gum kind of sweetness alongside biscuit, vanilla and toffee.  Yummy, and almost as tasty as a rhubarb & custard chew, almost.

Longmorn dunnage warehouses
The distillery has a potential annual output of 3.5m litres and most of it goes into Chivas blends, including a significant portion of the excellent Chivas Regal 18, and Longmorn is often considered as one of the finest Top Dressing whiskies for blending.  The make is unpeated and is matured in both American oak bourbon and European sherry casks.  The extensive warehouses on site are a mixture of palletised, racking and the original stone and rubble built dunnage, and a row of warehouses extends the few hundred metres up to Benriach Distillery where the journey takes us next.

Longmorn Distillery is not open to the public and additional information here was kindly supplied by Chivas Brothers.


Monday, 9 January 2012

The River Spey and the Old Railway

Although Elgin is included in the SWA region known as Speyside it actually sits around six miles west of the Spey's final stages, the River Lossie being the main watercourse through the town.  My journey from here heads inland towards the heart of Speyside but before turning south I felt obliged to embark on a short pilgrimage to where this mighty river disgorges into the Moray Firth.  I have often followed Barnard to see the source of distillery water supplies but he didn’t record a visit to this outpouring of waters so I would be without his thoughts to guide me.  At least I could drive to this location so it should be less tortuous than my last pilgrimage - the climb up to Loch Uigeadail!

River Spey looking north from Fochabers Bridge
Barnard mentions the Spey a few times on his journey through the area but never provides an extensive description or eulogy.  He was travelling a decade before the major expansion of distilleries in the region and many of those in this next section of my travels were built towards the very end of the 19th century.  This was before Speyside became a regional classification of whisky (most of the make from this area was described by Barnard as Highland Malt) and the aura of Speyside was yet to be fully infused/enthused into the wider whisky world.

In the mid-1800s adding the suffix ‘Glenlivet’ to your distillery or whisky name was the way of trying to identify with the then prestige brand name of the area.  Many distilleries around here are recorded by Barnard as such, or with the location ‘Glenlivet District’ which was used as far afield as Glen Lossie Distillery near Elgin, 20 miles away from Glenlivet Distillery.  I don’t recall him commenting on this anywhere, it was just accepted as standard ‘doffing of the cap’ practice for this area in the 19th century.

An English translation from the Latin of John Blaeu’s 1654 Atlas of Scotland records the following description of the River Spey that encapsulates some of its majesty:

“The Spey, huge, most clear, most rapid, largest of all after the Tay, emerges from a small loch of the same name, in the ridges which lie between Badenoch and Lochaber. For the most part it is carried in a rushing course to the north-east, girded by high mountains on all sides and crowned with woods, increased by many rivers and innumerable burns from the precipices of the mountains, until it approaches within six miles of the sea, then turning directly to the north, cutting through plains and cultivated land, and causing much damage to the neighbouring fields, it reaches its mouth.”

I turned off the main road at Fochabers Bridge, the closest traffic crossing to the mouth of the river, and drove the five miles along its east side to the small village of Spey Bay.  You don’t see too much of the river when driving along as the road turns away from its banks to avoid the wide flood plain that is often inundated.  The River Spey is the fastest flowing river in Scotland and increases in speed as it approaches the sea, and the power of the river on its last stretch to freedom has been gently channelled in some places and left to wander in others.

Where the River Spey meets the sea
This short detour from the distillery trail was well rewarded.  At the mouth of the river the open water of the Moray Firth stretches to the horizon, its colour changing from a dark, rich indigo near the estuary, the peat in the water adding to the hue, to a softer sea green as your gaze drifts northwards away from the shore.  The Scottish Dolphin Centre is sited here, those fabulous marine mammals being regular visitors to the Moray Firth, and there is a Wildlife Centre that celebrates the rich diversity of fauna and flora that thrives here.  Perhaps the last whispers of the water of life produced along its way carry down to nourish the environment and entice the returning salmon upstream to spawn.

The power of the Spey is evident and a display board provided by the Scottish Wildlife Trust shows how the meandering river mouth changes the shape of the shoreline as the spate floods force their own route from year to year.  The bay is lined with boulders to protect the coast, surrounded by banks of smooth pebbles that have tumbled and worn their way down from the central Scottish massifs over the millennia since the glaciers retreated.  The shingle also extends upstream to form ‘rakes’ in the tidal basin, carried here in the power of the floods and deposited as if the river was trying to build a dyke to contain itself, only to be burst open at a different point the following year.

Spey Bay looking towards the Bin of Cullen
To the east is the hill called the Bin of Cullen, a landmark to mariners who have navigated their way along this coast for centuries, from the distant fishing port of Fraserburgh inward to the Highland capital of Inverness.

Although Barnard didn’t record visiting Spey Bay he did once arrive in its vicinity.  His visit to Inchgower Distillery began with a train journey to ‘Fochabers Station’ and then onward by horse drawn carriage.  He describes the route taken from the station but there are a few anomalies in his report that led me to research some of the railway network, and in so doing opened up a whole world of new features to consider.  Where the Standing Stones of our ancestors were a common theme through the North East of Scotland, as we arrive in Speyside the railway will become a connecting theme between a number of different locations.  Ironic that!

An extensive rail network once opened up more of the region to distillers as grain, coal and casks became easier to transport in larger volumes to and from further destinations.  The major expansion in the railway took place in the 1850s and 60s, particularly with the opening of the Strathspey Railway in 1863 connecting Dufftown to Boat of Garten (and from there the main Highland line) and which, as its name suggests, followed the course of the Spey for much of its route.  Railway halts and sidings were built for direct access to a number of new distilleries.  This industry that surged through the landscape only lasted for a century until lines were closed and the rail track lifted in the late 1960s.  However, evidence of the network still remains in close proximity to some of the most famous distilleries of the land and I will explore just a little of it as the journey progresses.

Barnard’s journey was at a time when many separate railway companies still ran their own sections of the network.  The Fochabers Station mentioned above was on the Great North of Scotland Railway Co. Moray Coast Line, at a point less than a mile from Spey Mouth and around 3 miles from the village of Fochabers.  He didn’t loiter here though as his carriage was waiting, and as he travelled inland from the station he records that “the valley of the Spey lay mapped out at our feet, and the river, now a roaring stream, winding through the wooded hills and rocky cuttings, rolled in furious haste to reach the sea.”

One thing that confuses me about this is why he would have gone to that station?  The sequence of reports in the book appears to suggest that he travelled from Keith that morning, but if so, why stop at Fochabers?  If he went all the way round via Elgin then the branch line from there continued on past Fochabers to Port Gordon and Buckie which were both much closer to the distillery.  If he took the Buckie and Portessie Branch Line that went directly north from Keith then he could disembark at any one of Drybridge, Rathven or Buckie stations all of which were even closer.

Perhaps he just wanted to see Gordon Castle and the area around Fochabers, but there is another possibility we can consider.  I wonder if he actually made this trip direct from Elgin when he stayed there before moving on to Keith, and the report then appears out of sequence to keep a more logical geographical order in the book.  Even if this is true the question still remains - why stop at Fochabers, if indeed that was where he did stop?  There are two further possibilities to consider under this theory:

First, there is a newspaper report dated 21 May 1886 that I have yet to research but which apparently records flood damage to the Spey Viaduct at Garmouth, just a month after it opened.  The viaduct carried the railway over the river near its mouth and can just be seen on the right of the photo below (click to enlarge).  Its central span is 368 feet long and the approaches on either side each have three spans totalling over 300 feet, all necessary to cross the meandering and unpredictable channels of the river.  Throughout 1886/87 local newspapers record regular flood damage, changing river patterns and strengthening of embankments to ensure the ongoing survival of the viaduct.  This may have meant that Barnard had to stop at Garmouth on the west side.

Final stretch of the River Spey before its mouth, railway viaduct far right
Second, his journey from Elgin could possibly have been before the Spey Viaduct opened to passenger trains on 1 May 1886 which would mean a terminus at Garmouth was inevitable.  Some clues in his earlier descriptions suggest that this stage of his journey was in summer rather than spring but we have found before that his descriptions can be a little bit misdirecting.  Either of these possibilities mean that he would have to stop at Garmouth on the west side of the river, but perhaps misreported the station name as Fochabers which was at the opposite end of the viaduct.

Either possibility would also make sense with regard to his description of his immediate carriage journey inland from the station, towards Gordon Castle and Fochabers village.  He describes that they soon reached some thick plantations and crossed a rippling burn through the trees, features which better match map detail from that time of the west side of the Spey, the Garmouth side.  Even more convincingly he then records “crossing the new bridge over the Spey…we reached the beautiful and picturesque village of Fochabers”.  To do so he must have come from the west side of the bridge which would tie in with travelling the road down from Garmouth.

But then he goes and spoils my whole reasoning by stating that, while travelling up the Spey, “behind us rose Benaigen and the rugged and massive hills of Benrinnes”, which were, of course, not behind but in front of him!  This means that anything he recorded here could just be scene setting with no thought for accuracy of route.  Ah well, it was an interesting theory I had for a while, but as Barnard himself states at this point “we were now in the midst of scenes which no pen could justly describe or pencil delineate, but which have left traces on our memories never to be forgotten.”  Except, perhaps, after a few whiskies?

To complicate my research further a separate Fochabers Branch line was opened in October 1893 and the station at the end of this, situated at the west end of the Fochabers Bridge on the opposite bank of the Spey from Fochabers village, was also named Fochabers when it opened.  This station was renamed as Fochabers Town a year later but the first Fochabers Station, the one that Barnard states he arrived at, continued to be called Fochabers until 1918 when it was renamed Spey Bay (I am desperately resisting the urge to just say ‘Foch it’ here and forget all about it!).

Remains of original 1806 Fochabers Bridge on left with main span from 1852
The first Fochabers Bridge was opened in 1806 and was a four arch masonry bridge possibly designed by Thomas Telford.  However, in an event that we will encounter a few more times on our journey along the Spey - the wonderfully named ‘Muckle Spate’ of August 1829 - the eastern half of the bridge was washed away.  The wide cast iron span in the photo here was fitted in 1852 and this was the main crossing until a new bridge was opened alongside in 1971 to cope with the increase in traffic on this busy road connecting Inverness and Aberdeen.

The coastal railway line was closed and dismantled in 1968 but the Spey Viaduct remains and is now part of the 50 mile Moray Coast Trail that connects Forres and Cullen.  I will return to Inchgower Distillery at a later date, as Barnard did, as now the journey heads south of Elgin to three of those distilleries built in the last decade of the 19th century.

The railway information here is mainly sourced from www.railbrit.co.uk and the newspaper articles are recorded at http://libindx.moray.gov.uk.  Additional information from RCAHMS and maps held by the National Library.


Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Roseisle Distillery, near Elgin

Right, where were we?  Ah yes, Elgin and its surrounds, which were home to just three distilleries when Barnard visited in 1886.  A further five were operational in the area by 1900 followed by a gap of over seventy years before Mannochmore joined them in 1971.  Our next stop is at Roseisle to the northwest of Elgin where we find the most recent but one distillery opened in Scotland.

The name Roseisle is given to a number of features and settlements in this area, and Rose is a prefix to a few more.  The name appears on maps from antiquity but one 20th century addition is Roseisle Forest which is a large plantation inland from Burghead Bay.  Here there are woodland walks, miles of sand and the remains of many war time defences along the shore.  Burghead sits at the top of a spit of land jutting into the Moray Firth, land on which there once stood one of the largest Pictish forts in Scotland.  Diageo’s Burghead Maltings was built in the town in 1966.

Roseisle Maltings
Diageo’s Roseisle Maltings and Distillery sit just a couple of miles away from Burghead and about a mile inland from the beach.  The maltings was built in 1980 and construction of the distillery started in October 2007 on ground beside it.  The first spirit ran in 2009 and it has a capacity of 10m litres p.a., the largest capacity of any Scotch malt whisky distillery ever built at the one time.  There are 14 stainless steel washbacks and 14 stills which produce ‘Speyside style’ whisky, but there is a variable here.  Most of the stills have copper shell and tube condensers but some can switch between either copper or stainless steel condensers, the latter producing a heavier spirit more akin to that produced when using worm tubs.

The press release on the official opening of the distillery commented on its environmental sustainability, noting that the majority of the by-products will be recycled on site in a bioenergy facility that helps the distillery to generate most of its own energy.  This must also cut down on the amount of road traffic that would otherwise be required to supply services to the facility and I also heard rumour that Diageo had looked at the possibility of reopening the railway line that once connected Burghead to the main line near Elgin and which runs right past the west side of the plant.  There used to be a siding into the Maltings when it was built but the whole line is currently disused and overgrown.

Roseisle Distillery
You can see from the photos that the plant looks like no other distillery in Scotland.  This is over a century away from the ‘classic’ Charles Doig style layout with accompanying pagoda roof (then functional, now mostly aesthetic).  Roseisle is industrial scale shed distilling and it doesn’t need to have any mock Victorian styling draped around it.  It is off the tourist trail, only a few corporate visitors and dignitaries will likely see inside (unfortunately I’m not corporate enough) and the whole ethos appears forward looking.  This is very much 21st century distilling and a world away from the distilleries that Barnard witnessed but, as we shall see later, the reason for building it was not that far removed from similar considerations in his time.

There were two distilleries in Scotland with comparative production volumes when Barnard toured - Port Dundas with 11.6m litres annual production and Caledonian producing around 9.1m litres – but both were mainly producing grain whisky from Coffey Patent Stills.  There were no comparable malt whisky only distilleries, the largest few being around 1m litres p.a.  I wonder if any of them ran continuous production on a shift pattern to achieve that, contrasting with the computer controlled batches running 24/7 at many distilleries today.  Roseisle production can be run by just 2 operators at any time with around 25 jobs created in total.

One question all this raises - does Roseisle represent the future of distilling, or only a part of the future?  On my many distillery visits I have sensed a huge amount of optimism that extends through the industry at the moment, with many distilleries, including a number of others owned by Diageo, expanding or gearing up for 24/7 production.  In addition, at the very opposite end of the scale, is the re-establishment of small ‘farm’ style distilleries not dissimilar in output to those that dotted the landscape of Scotland in the 19th century; Abhainn Dearg and Daftmill the most recent welcome additions to the pantheon with Annandale and others to follow.

The opening of farm distilleries may have been unthinkable in the 1980s/90s, and the new wave of optimism and broad investment, together with recent reports from the SWA and others regarding the projected growth in export markets, suggest that underproduction rather than over may now be a bigger issue in the years ahead.  Hopefully there will be an accompanying demand for variety to continue support for a broad range of distillery styles and sizes; the increasing popularity of whisky festivals around the world and the healthy chat on the forums indicate that there should be.

Roseisle Distillery (left) and Maltings (right)
At the 2010 official opening of Roseisle, Diageo Chief Executive Paul Walsh noted that “Economic growth and consumer demographics present a great opportunity for the Scotch whisky industry and for Diageo’s outstanding brands, especially in the developing markets”, Roseisle being built as part of a response to that.  When handing over the Chairmanship of the SWA at the end of last year he announced that “the value of exports over the first nine months had totalled almost £3billion – an increase of 23% on the same period of 2010.”  The generation and growth of new overseas markets is therefore clearly fundamental to the ongoing success of the industry.

Intriguingly, the same considerations were discussed in Barnard’s time, albeit with very different markets in mind.  At the beginning of his book he includes an anonymously authored article discussing the origins of whisky and the methods of distillation and it ends with an interesting discourse on the future opportunities for whisky at that time.  I have included a section of it here as it offers an interesting comparison with the position of the industry today:

“… there remains for us only the somewhat risky, yet not unnecessary, duty of attempting to forecast the future of this extensive branch of our native industries. … At the present moment the Whisky Trade stands in possession, broadly speaking, of the key of the situation.”

The article then notes that Brandy is discredited after the outbreak of the phylloxera blight, “Rum, for some occult reason, nobody that is anybody drinks, except for the medicinal treatment of a cold”, and Gin drinkers were an old and dwindling population.  From this the article concludes that:

“The opportunity of Whisky is, therefore, overwhelming.  What will it do with it?  England is the market in which both Irish and Scotch Distillers are contending for the pre-eminence…so that the Saxon taste is the pivot upon which, in these days, hangs the prosperity of the Distilling Trade of either nation.  To this we have to add the by no means unimportant weight of our Colonial taste, and the fact that wherever on the face of the civilised world Englishmen do congregate, a “good tap” of Whisky is found to be irresistible to the British…Thus it may be said that even in its greatest markets, at home or abroad, Whisky is still in its youth, while in certain still scarcely-penetrated regions it is yet in its infancy.”

England, then, was considered a developing market for the growth of whisky, together with the inchoate markets in colonial lands (but still driven by demand from the British).  Today, Scotch has arguably found its place as the king o’ drinks1 in the English speaking world, and also in some parts of continental Europe and Asia, the youthful blends and industry of yesteryear both having developed, although fitfully, into maturity.  Its new greatest markets are the fast growing economies in Asia, and South and Central America, particularly the BRIC block where Scotch whisky consumption is still in its youth, and other newer regions where yet in its infancy.

Compared to the drivers of opportunity noted in Barnard’s time, Rum now seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance and there are some stunningly good gins currently being produced in or alongside whisky distilleries, and finding new drinkers who appreciate the craft that was not always apparent in the blinding spirit of the 18th century.  Regardless, the "opportunity of Whisky" once more seems overwhelming, and the response is the huge investment in the industry in recent years to meet an anticipated shortfall as developing economies with huge populations generate new demand through increased affluence.

Of course we can also bring this full circle and recall that the bad ol’ days of the 1980s are not that far from memory, and I’m not talking about New Romantics and an overuse of hairspray here (*shudder*).  Overcapacity then was a major factor contributing to the closure of around 20 distilleries in that decade that are now mostly demolished or redeveloped into something less useful.  That little ditty “Oh Campbeltown Loch, I wish you were whisky” may have been an imbiber’s dream but it could also be a metaphor for an economic nightmare, much like the EU butter mountain and milk lakes which became regular sound bites in the mid 80s.

Your wish list for this New Year needs to include a request for those dark days not to be repeated.  Thankfully those new markets have budded and begun to blossom since then and I, for one, remain optimistic and will happily continue to do my bit to keep good whisky in demand while welcoming the current expansion in the industry to supply that anticipated future.  In fact, it’s time for a top-up to carry me through to the next story.  Happy New Year!

ps. If you have space in your garden you might consider planting some oak trees come spring, we are going to need them!

1 Robert Louis Stevenson, The Scotsman's Return From Abroad, 1887.