"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.