"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

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Speyburn Distillery, Rothes

My first stop in Rothes is at Speyburn Distillery on the north side of town.  It sits at the opposite end of the Glen of Rothes from Coleburn Distillery and it too enjoys a picturesque setting, sometimes claimed to be one of the most photographed distilleries in Scotland with its iconic pagoda and warehouses nestling in a valley surrounded by trees.

Speyburn Distillery in the Glen of Rothes, Gibbet Brae rising above
The local affectionate name for the distillery is The Gibbet, taken from Gibbet Brae which is the steep wooded rise above the distillery that was the Rothes equivalent of Elgin’s Gallow Hill, a place just outside town where criminals would be punished in distinctly unpleasant medieval ways.  It is a name now lost on some modern maps but is recorded on the old ones, and what is now the distillery office was named as Gibbet Cottage prior to the distillery being built.

The distillery is not open to the general public but I was delighted to be offered a tour with the Distillery Manager Bobby Anderson.  There are unique elements to this distillery that make it an important part of Scotland’s distilling heritage and it was a privilege to see them.  Bobby was enthusiastic about explaining the history and traditions here and it was a pleasure to spend an hour in his company.

The distillery was founded in 1897 by John Hopkins and Co. who had also owned Tobermory Distillery since 1890 and up until both were sold to DCL in 1916.  They were very keen to distil their first whisky in 1897 to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year and they only just made it.  In a heavy snowstorm on 15 December that year, in a Still House which had not yet had doors or windows fitted, the first spirit ran from the stills to fill just one cask through the night.

Speyburn in a narrow Glen - photo of a photo hanging in the distillery office
Doig was again the architect here but the layout is more compact than many of his other designs due to the physical constraints of the location - the burn and railway marking the south boundary and Gibbet Brae rising steeply on the north side.  It is said that the distillery was built from stones dredged out of the River Spey, some of which can still be seen in the structures today particularly the kiln, but other buildings have since been replaced with concrete structures.

Pneumatic malt germination drum
My tour began at the old maltings where a significant and historic difference can still be seen.  Speyburn was, in 1897, the first malt distillery in Scotland to install a pneumatic drum malting system.  The drums were originally steam powered until changed to electric in the 1940s and they have been kept mothballed here since they were last used in 1967 after the industrial scale maltings were opened at Burghead about 20 miles away.  The malting system and the building are now listed for protection by Historic Scotland as the last remaining example.

Speyburn's six malting drums
The drum maltings helped the distillery to function in its tight space as floor maltings would have required too large a footprint here so they built upwards instead.  The top floor was a barley loft with the barley being raised by conveyors.  The middle level contained 3 steeps to soak the barley before it was dropped directly into the six drums in the lower level.  Each drum would germinate a 5 tonne batch over 6-7 days by blowing humid air through the mesh in the drums as they slowly revolved.  Another benefit of this was the ability to malt consistently all year round as the temperature could be carefully controlled.

Speyburn malting and kiln
The tall kiln also had a way of making the most of a tight space in a way I haven’t seen anywhere else.  There are two drying floors in the structure, built one above the other to make efficient use of the rising heat.  The newly germinated barley would be filled onto the top level first and as this would dry slower than the bottom level it was then dropped down for a final hot drying stage after the previous batch was removed to the mill house, the next batch then filling the top level again.

Speyburn semi-lauter tun
The malted barley is now brought in from Burghead and is still stored in the original wooden malt hoppers before passing through one of the larger Boby mills I have seen.  The semi-lauter tun is stainless steel with a copper dome and it replaced a previous cast iron mash tun in 2008.  Each mash is 5.75 tonnes and takes three waters and they are currently working 7 days a week.  The mashing water is piped down from the Granty Burn about a mile away before that burn joins another to form the Broad Burn that passes by the distillery and provides the cooling water.

There are six washbacks all made from Douglas fir and each one takes 25,000 litres of wort for a relatively short 48 hour fermentation.  The wash still is steam pan heated and has a capacity of 17,297 litres, the contents of one washback being split into two charges of 12,500 litres each.  The steam coil heated spirit still has a capacity of 13,160 litres and takes an 11,000 litre charge for a fairly long distillation time totalling 6-7 hours.  The lyne arms on the stills are almost horizontal to catch a lighter spirit at this stage which is then condensed in two tall worm tubs that are now made of steel and which each contain over 100m of coiled pipe.

Speyburn spirit (left) and wash stills
Speyburn is one of the few distilleries that cask spirit at a higher abv, in this case 69%, and they mostly use ex-bourbon casks.  There are 5,000 casks maturing on site in two dunnage style warehouses that both have two levels, again making the best use of a small space, but the bulk of the production is matured in a central bond.  The distillery has capacity to produce 1.8m litres p.a. and most of it goes into blending, including the Inver House flagship blend Hanky Banister, but those dunnage casks are held over for single malt bottlings.

Double level dunnage warehouses
Inver House bought the distillery from DCL in 1991 and first launched the Speyburn 10yo Single Malt in 1992 (MWYB, 2011).  The tranquil setting of the distillery is celebrated on the bottle labels alongside the distillery emblem of a salmon, the Spey being one of the most important salmon rivers in Scotland, and the most recent release is a whisky named Bradan Orach which is Gaelic for Golden Salmon.  I forgot to ask Bobby if he enjoys fishing himself, but I do need to thank him for this memorable visit and the chance to see another unique part of our whisky heritage.

The Puree
Another important place on the north side of Rothes, near the turning for the road leading to Speyburn, is a dark grains animal feed manufactory owned by the Combination of Rothes Distillers Ltd (CoRD).  This site was first used as early as 1904 to purify pot ale into a fertilizer called Maltassa and this gave rise to a fond local name for the plant – The Puree.  A more recent abbreviation has been The Combi.  I love the treacly, roast malt aromas that you get around these places.

The pot ale from the Rothes distilleries was and still is piped underground direct to the plant; before 1904 it was discharged into the burns feeding the Spey and I’m not sure if the salmon would enjoy that or not (Bradan Leann for Beer Salmon?).  By the 1960s there was also excess draff being produced in the town and a new plant was built on the site in 1970 to produce dark grains animal feed from a combination of evaporated pot ale and draff.  A second plant was built later in the 70s to expand production to include supplies from other distilleries in Speyside.  The buildings are just gnarly industrial sheds so you can have a picture of some cute cows instead:

Inquisitive cattle above Speyburn - but are they 'happy cattle' fed on pot ale?
In 2008 CoRD announced plans to build a biomass heat and power plant on the site.  This will use draff as fuel to provide both heat for the community and electricity for the national grid, as well as to evaporate pot ale into pot ale syrup for animal feed.  Construction began in April last year and the new plant is expected to be on-line in May 2013 when the old 1970s plant will be decommissioned.  I don't think that Biomee will catch on as a nickname so I am sure that The Puree will long be a name used around town.

Information on The Puree is from the local newspaper The Rothesian.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Rumblings from the Cask - Dram 4. Speyside at last!

Yay! - finally the trail has reached the distilleries on the banks of the River Spey.  That’s yer actual Spey I’m talking about now.  Proper Speyside!  None of yer outlying River Lossieside not really Speyside distilleries.  (And if you think I’m in trouble now then wait until we get to the distilleries in, *cough*, Islaside Keith).

The regional identifiers for whisky are often thought of as encompassing certain characteristics or a general style of whisky produced within each region/locality1 but has this maybe become a little bit anachronistic given the range of whisky styles now available?  The current, and far more prosaic SWA regulations define the ‘protected region’ of Speyside by identifying it with some of the political ward boundaries established by the Moray and Highland (Electoral Arrangement) Orders 2006 (Zzzz…).  Personally I prefer an alternative definition as being those distilleries that are located on or overlooking the banks of the Spey or one of its tributaries (that should just about avoid me being run out of Dufftown the next time I visit :/).

Regardless of how we define the region, after the long trail up the west coast and round the north of Scotland my travels have now brought me to the beating heart of whisky country where many distilleries have chosen to congregate.  It is oft reported that around half of the current working distilleries in Scotland, accounting for half of our total malt whisky production (and rising) are located in and around Speyside.  Thankfully that also means there are many whiskies to be had along the way to sustain me on this next section of the journey.

Classic field of barley photo, every whisky blog should have one
I have this surreal notion of the ‘spirits’, the very souls of the distilleries being like ancient noble entities, not dissimilar to the giants and gods of Celtic folklore, wandering the land in search of the elements that sustain them and on reaching the splendour of Speyside where pure water and grain are in abundance they stopped for a while, gazed across the vista and murmured ‘this will do just fine’.  Others followed and found their own corner to rest, their roots then running so deep that they become locked into the fabric of the land, and from there into the fabric of our minds.  The Spey is the artery running through the land, the burns and rivers that feed it are the lifeblood of the spirits, and the hills and glens provide the clean nourishing air.

Hehe – and I had the temerity to consider the old whisky spirit of Hector McDram as being well past his sell-by date.  Oops!  Anyway, dreaming aside (or was it dramming that conjured the above notion?) these stations in the land are there for us to witness all along the winding lower course of the Spey and in the hills and glens above, with a trail weaving between them for us to follow if we seek to offer homage at each place of rest.

The first centre that we reach around which these distilleries have gathered is Rothes - a small town with a population of around 1200 people (1400 when Barnard visited) and a busy wee place with the main road north to Elgin passing right through it.  There are five distilleries to consider here (four working and one ghost) and I enjoyed great hospitality at three of them.  The staff at the visitor centre in the town were also very welcoming and helpful and they found for me a book titled Rothes 2001 and ‘Oor Young Days’ that helped with some of the local information included in my reports.

Across Rothes golf course to the River Spey loop north of the town
The distilleries in Rothes sit on three separate burns that converge on each other just a couple of hundred metres before pouring out into the Spey as it passes by the east side of town.  The river has been driving northwards just before here but now turns almost back on itself in a wide loop before passing through the broad plain between the steep wooded slopes of Ben Aigan and Findlay’s Seat.  From there it settles on a north-northeast direction and rushes onward through the last few miles to Fochabers and its final act at Spey Bay.

From Rothes my own journey will travel in the opposite direction, cutting a long thin wedge southwest to the very centre of the Highlands, following the Spey upstream as far inland as Kingussie and visiting famous distilleries on both sides of its banks and in the glens beyond.  The whisky trail then turns sharply back in a roughly northeast direction that passes to the east of Ben Rinnes, loitering at Dufftown and Keith for a while (if they’ll still let me!) before once more reaching the shores of the Moray Firth.

Strathspey looking north; the end of the current Strathspey Railway in foreground
Meandering along close to the river is The Speyside Way, a 65 mile long countryside trail between the inland town of Aviemore and the coastal town of Buckie that passes through some of the most glorious pastoral land anywhere on the planet.  Most of my travelling is done by car - or by bus where there is promise of a dram or three - but occasionally I have walked along the trail for a while to explore the fertile countryside, climb onto a bluff for a different perspective of the landscape, visit some famous bridges…and be eaten alive by midges.

I am convinced that our particularly ferocious Highland midge, Culicoides impunctatus (or minutus bastardious) carries with it a flask of nasty moonlight hooch to wash off the Avon ‘Skin so soft’ cream that was applied as midge protection (don’t laugh, the army swear by it!).  They then use a sharp sgian dubh to pierce your veins and feast on the juices within.  I must have too much blood in my whisky-stream as I seem to be particularly prone to the little blighters - must remember to top up with a dram before venturing into the Highlands in future.  Or maybe they are after the taste of good malt whisky and it’s easier to bite through my soft white flesh to find it than it is to bang their head off a solid oak cask.  Hmmm, dilemma!

Aberlour railway station, now the Speyside Way Visitor Centre
The Speyside Way follows the course of the old Strathspey Railway for some of its route, particularly the central sections between Nethy Bridge and Craigellachie.  There are still a number of old railway station buildings beside the trail, some of which would have been very familiar to Barnard, often in close proximity to the distilleries that were brought here in the clouds of steam of our industrial heritage.  The availability of easier transport opened up the Speyside rivers and glens to large scale whisky production.  The previous seclusion of these places had supported the extensive smuggling of whisky in the Highlands, all but ended in the decades following the licensing regulations introduced in the 1820s.

I will save further talk of these laws and illicit dealings for when we reach the well known story of Glenlivet; one should ken when to bide one’s tongue on these delicate matters!  Railways, rogues and beasties aside it is time to move on to the Rothes distilleries - stories of whisky, fairies, gardens and ghosts (oh yes!), perhaps with a dram of Glenrothes, Speyburn, Glen Grant, Caperdonich or Glen Spey if you have any to hand.

1 The SWA regulations identify a total of five either protected localities (Campbeltown and Islay) or protected regions (Highland, Lowland and Speyside).  Campbeltown and Speyside are defined by electoral boundaries, Islay as the island of that name, and the famous old ‘Highland Boundary Line’ was all but redrawn (although not, sensibly, by name, preferring the more mundane “line dividing the Highland region from the Lowland region”) along a prescribed route starting in the North Channel between Scotland and Ireland and then roughly from Greenock to the North Sea beyond the Firth of Tay.


Thursday, 9 February 2012

Coleburn Distillery, Glen of Rothes

I don’t plan to visit too many of the distilleries that opened after Barnard’s journey and which are no longer open today but I have included Coleburn as it ties in with some of the other distillery stories.  It is also set in the most verdant and peaceful location and although it is now closed as a distillery we will see later that new life is soon to be breathed into the old stone walls.

Most distilleries in Scotland are, if not conspicuous in the landscape, at least relatively easy to stumble upon, whether from following the tourist trail signs with eager anticipation, espying the elegantly pleasing design of a pagoda roof over the tree tops (or more often now a slender black topped chimney), or following an enticing aroma up a glen (more likely the aroma of draff being carted away, or the lovely roast malt notes of dark grains being produced, rather than the sweet aroma of maturing whisky that drifts away too quickly on the breeze).

Coleburn Distillery in hidden valley
The now silent Coleburn Distillery is an exception as it must be one of the most hidden distillery sites in Scotland, sitting beside the Glen Burn in a small dell at the very north end of the narrow Glen of Rothes and hidden from the road by dense woodland.  Some of my visits around the Elgin area were from a base in Craigellachie so I became very familiar with the A941 from there up to Elgin, yet it took three passes through the Glen before I found the correct turn off for the distillery, so well hidden it was.  Given its location though, I am sure that if it had survived the 1980s downturn it would now be on the tourist trail and well signposted.

My perseverance was rewarded by one of the most tranquil settings of any distillery I have encountered on my travels.  Even with the noise and bustle of industry it must have been a pleasure to work in this location in its heyday and I can understand why the present owners are planning to redevelop the buildings.

Coleburn Distillery grounds
The distillery name follows from other earlier buildings nearby.  A map from around 1860 records a burn running down the hill from the northeast and into the Glen Burn beside what would later become the distillery site.  The burn looks man-made to drain water from the slopes above but it is not specifically named on any map, although I am sure the local people would have referred to it as the Cole Burn.  There was a small dammed reservoir on the burn beside which were buildings marked Coleburns (sic) and which are now a farm, also an earlier Coleburns Woollen Mill sited a little further north down the Glen Burn.

A number of websites and books report that the name Coleburn originally came from the charcoal production that took place here, but most of these reports seem to be copies of each other or from an unknown source and I haven’t yet found any information about the charcoal from a historical source; there could be an interesting story about this and any local information would be welcome.

The Glen Burn flows out the north side of the valley and on towards Elgin, supplying the cooling water for Glen Elgin Distillery before becoming the Longmorn Burn that then feeds into the Burn of Linkwood; thus one of the most important water courses for distilling in Scotland with no less than five distilleries dependant on it at one time.  The industries on and around the burn meant that it was only suitable for use as cooling water and even then may have been unreliable for the downstream distilleries during periods of drought.  All the distilleries in this area rely on spring water either piped in or from bore-holes to supply their process water.

Coleburn Distillery opened in 1897, three years after Longmorn and just preceding Ben Riach and Glen Elgin.  It was another one designed by Charles Chree Doig who was very busy in the Elgin and Moray coast area in the last few years of the 19th century.  His E shape distillery design was oft repeated to keep up with demand, tweaked here and there to suit local requirements and Coleburn was no different.

Coleburn Malt Barn and Kilns
However, one major difference is the presence of two kilns positioned on either side of the wide malting floors, although I haven’t yet established if they were both there in the original design.  The smaller of the two structures is actually described in the Buildings at Risk register as a ‘barley drying mill’ rather than a kiln, and a map from 1906 suggests it may have been converted from two previous smaller structures.  The structures also have different shapes to the pagoda top, the kiln with a more common pointed spire and the drying mill with a shallow domed canopy.

Unlike Glen Elgin Distillery a mile or so further north, Coleburn sat on a level with the railway that passed a few yards from it and a siding was added that ran right along its main wall in a similar fashion to Dallas Dhu.  Supplies in and out could therefore be easily transported either inland by railway to the south, or north and east to the sea ports on the Moray coast and Aberdeen.

There is not too much to report about the distilling life of Coleburn and facts and figures are hard to come by.  It was founded by John Robertson & Co who were blenders in Dundee and the first change in ownership saw the Clynelish Distillery owners take over in 1916.  From there was a path into DCL as part of various subsidiaries, the last one being J&G Stewart Ltd who owned it when it closed in 1985 and they returned the licence in 1992 (Udo, 2005).

The works were gradually expanded and improved in the mid decades of the 20th century, with the usual change from coal to steam heated stills and additional distillery cottages built to house workers and which are still occupied beside the main road.  There was also a piggery on site at one time with the pigs perhaps raised on the draff.  There were two stills and most of the production was used for blending although a few independent bottles can still be found.

After the distillery closed the Category B Listed buildings were left derelict for 10 years until in 1995 initial planning permission was sought for conversion of the site into a housing development.  This application was withdrawn in 1997 but consent to remove all the internal fittings was granted in 2001.  Since then the current owners, Mark and Dale Winchester, have developed plans for a full conversion of the buildings into a hotel, spa and conference facility.

The architectural drawings show the malt barn, kiln and drying mill would all be converted into bedrooms, a restaurant where the still house used to be, and an integral wedding/conference space created in the upper level.  The old bonded warehouse is to be converted into a large conference venue suitable also for weddings and music events and the piggery converted into a spa and gym leisure facility.

Coleburn Warehouses
I think these plans must be unique in Scotland at the moment, with no other old distillery being converted to new use internally while still maintaining the fabric and iconic style of the buildings.  Others have been partly converted in the past, Glenlochy in Fort William and Millburn in Inverness are two that spring to mind, but never to the same extent as planned for Coleburn and the others have been integrated into larger housing developments.

In the meantime the Coleburn Malt Barn is being run as an events venue and last year saw their inaugural family event day as part of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival.  By all accounts this was a fun day out that included cask buggy racing, archery, local crafts and foodstuff and a whisky auction.  An event day is again being organised as part of this year’s Festival on 6 May so you could drop into this pleasant valley to see the past as it becomes part of the future.

With thanks to Gwenda Michielsen at Coleburn Events for the current information.