"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.