"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, 30 March 2012

Glen Spey Distillery, Rothes

Glen Spey is one of three distilleries in Scotland that have the word Spey in their name.  Speyburn at the north end of town is one of the others and Rothes is just about the most northern distilling location that is close by the River Spey, Auchroisk a mile further north excepted.  Speyside distillery near Kingussie is the third one and it is the most southern distillery location that is relatively close to the river.  This hugely significant forty-five mile stretch of whisky production is therefore topped and tailed with distilleries whose designations celebrate the mighty river that lends its name to the region, but with no others in-between adopting the name.

The recent spate of new distilleries being built in this time of optimism in the industry are nearly all located in the Islands or Lowlands, with one west coast venture almost approved and Roseisle the exception.  Perhaps Speyside is considered too crowded with distilleries already but what are the odds on a Strathspey distillery joining the pantheon before long, somewhere near the middle of the river’s long journey through the region?  Strathspey has been used as a distillery name once before, at the place we now know as Dalwhinnie, but only for its first year of operation before ownership changed.  The name wasn’t really appropriate for its location south of the river anyway.

Musing aside, let’s return to Rothes for our final look at distilling in the town.  Barnard travelled by train from Elgin and back on at least two days, visiting Glen Grant distillery one day then Glen Rothes and possibly Glen Spey and Macallan the next.  Glen Spey sat in the middle of the short walk between the station and Glen Rothes distillery so it may have made sense to include his brief visit there on that day’s trip, although it is not entirely clear.

Rothes Castle (all that's left) with Ben Aigan behind
Barnard records that Glen Spey is overlooked by the ruins of the Castle of Rothes, where once the Leslie family resided as Earls of Rothes.  The castle was built around 1200 A.D. and all that remains today is part of an outer wall perched on the edge of the bluff from where it once commanded the open plain through which the Spey winds its way below.  Rothes as a town wasn’t built until 1766, although there was an earlier small settlement built below the castle.

Glen Spey was the third and most recently built distillery in Rothes at the time of Barnard’s visit, built by James Stuart beside a corn mill that he owned.  Stuart had originally been one of the partners behind the Glen Rothes distillery 7 years earlier when he ran into financial difficulty and pulled out of that project.  He had also been licensee at Macallan distillery since 1868, which he then bought outright in 1886 around the time that Barnard visited the area.

Glen Spey Distillery
The exact date when the distillery started seems a bit uncertain.  It is sometimes reported that the distillery was founded in 1878 and known then as Mill of Rothes, perhaps just as an extension to the mill around the same time that Stuart left the Glen Rothes project.  It is also recorded as being built around 1884/85 and Barnard has it named as Glen Spey the following year.  It was built on open land between the mill and the burn and the name Millhaugh has also been recorded for the distillery, haugh being a Scots word for a meadow or small valley beside a burn.  A map surveyed in 1871 shows just a small corn mill located where the parking area now is in front of the distillery.

Barnard’s report on Glen Spey is one of the shorter ones in his book and eschews his normal fascination with measurements for the most part.  His description offers nothing of particular note aside an idea of the overall size of production, with 6 washbacks at 20,500 litres each and two stills at 10,900 and 5,900 litres respectively.  Annual output was then 273,000 litres and today it is still one of the smaller Diageo distilleries with capacity for 1.4m litres p.a.  The site is wedged between the small hillock where the castle stood on its south side and its own warehouses and the Burn of Rothes on the north side, so little room for expansion.

Glen Spey Warehouses and Burn of Rothes
Stuart sold the distillery to W&A Gilbey Ltd in September 1887, the year after he bought Macallan.  Gilbey’s were more famously London Gin producers but they launched their own blended whisky called Spey-Royal in the 1890s with Glen Spey a main component (Gilbeys later also bought Strathisla and Knockando distilleries).  Gilbey’s Gin is still produced but Spey Royal whisky was discontinued around the late 1990s.

Glen Spey generally kept going through the decades following its founding, surviving the collapse of some warehouses after a heavy snowstorm in 1892 and a major fire in 1920.  In 1962 W&A Gilbey Ltd merged with United Wine Traders who owned Justerini & Brooks, producers of J&B blended whisky which is now the third best selling whisky in the world after Johnnie Walker and Ballantines (MWYB 2011).  Glen Spey is a key whisky in the blend and the name adorns the sign in front of the distillery which is now part of the Diageo group.

The water sources are another uncertainty.  The mashing water is often recorded as being from the Doonie Burn and the cooling water from the Burn of Rothes, however I can't find a Doonie Burn on any map, the Burn of Rothes runs through ‘The Dounie’ which is the small glen upstream where the Fairies Well mentioned in my Glenrothes post is, and Doonie Burn just seems to be a local name for the Burn of Rothes as it passes through the glen.  The lade that supplied the original mills that later became the two distilleries still runs from the burn, along the back of Glenrothes, ending at Glen Spey.

The main distilling buildings that stand today are from a 1969/70 reconstruction at which time the maltings were closed and turned into a racking warehouse to compliment the dunnage warehouses that line the Burn of Rothes.  The semi-lauter tun, stainless steel with a peaked canopy, was an original design named the Glen Spey tun by manufacturers Newmill Engineering, a successful design that was then copied at other distilleries and the last one they ever installed was at the Speyside Distillery mentioned earlier.

Glen Spey still house
The washbacks were gradually changed from wood to stainless steel, four replaced in 1974 and four in 1989 (The Rothesian, 1999).  I don’t know when they increased from the six in Barnard’s time although likely in 1970 as capacity increased that year with the installation of two further stills.  The four stills are all lantern shaped, with constricted necks to provide some reflux, and they have externally placed shell and tube condensers preceded by purifiers on the spirit stills.  Most production from Glen Spey still goes into blends but a 12yo Glen Spey was released in 2001 as part of Diageo’s Flora & Fauna range, and two special releases appeared in 2010 - a 21yo cask strength and a Manager’s Choice single cask bottling.

Farewell Rothes
And that’s it for the busy town of Rothes.  The distilling history here spans the old to the very new with many innovations along the way, from Glen Grant distillery founded in 1840 to the new biomass plant opening at The Puree next year.  I began the Rothes story by mentioning a book titled Rothes 2001 and ‘Oor Young Days’ that has helped with some of the local history; I will end with some very appropriate lines from another book Rothes Past and Present by John R. Gray (1953), the following the last two verses from Gray’s poem Bonnie Rothes:

I've tried tae tell ye o' the past,
The future, na, I'll nae forecast,
My cherished hopes realised at last,
A book for you on Rothes.

May future scribes, quines or men,
Complete ma diary tae the en'
O, that I had a worthier pen
Tae tell yo o' aul' Rothes.

The full poem can be found in a copy of The Rothesian online; it’s a lovely recollection of many of the places I have mentioned in the last few posts and of the views that I enjoyed on the journey south from Longmorn and through the Glen of Rothes, written by a ‘worthier pen’ than mine.  My thanks to the residents and distillery workers of Bonnie Rothes who made me feel welcome and helped me with information and inspiration.  There are still parts of the country around there to explore so I hope to return someday.  Now though, my journey must move on, upstream, like a salmon darting through the rapids of the fast flowing Spey which turns a corner a few miles south at Craigellachie around which the next stage of the journey is centred.  See you there soon.

Strathspey from Rothes Castle, Craigellachie on the distant right


Friday, 23 March 2012

Rumblings from the Cask - Dram 5. Barnard, Burns and Cutty Sark

Barnard found his time visiting Scotland’s distilleries as a good reason to quote often from the poetry of Robert Burns, particularly those regular mentions of whisky, and at Rothes this association reaches a level not seen since we were in Campbeltown many, many months ago (yeah, I know, I really need to crack on with this).

After quoting unaccredited from Burns poem Scotch Drink in his previous report on Glen Grant, Barnard does the same again for Glen Rothes ending his 1887 report with the preface to that poem:

Gie him strong drink until he wink,
That's sinking in despair;
An' liquor guid to fire his bluid,
That's prest wi' grief and care:
There let him bouse, an' deep carouse,
Wi' bumpers flowing o'er,
Till he forgets his loves or debts,
An' minds his griefs no more.

This is a reworking into Scots of Solomon’s Proverbs 31, v6-7, a practice that Burns adopts occasionally when using biblical verses as prefaces to his own works.  Barnard had previously quoted this verse in his Glengyle distillery report, and he also concludes his 1899 return visit to Glen Rothes with another verse he has used before, this time in his Kinloch distillery report from Campbeltown and which is from Burns’ Third Epistle To J. Lapraik, 1785:

Your friendship, Sir, I winna quat it,
An' if ye mak' objections at it,
Then hand in neive some day we'll knot it,
An' witness take,
An' when wi' usquabae we've wat it
It winna break.

I noted on my Kinloch report that this was the poetic equivalent of ‘you're ma best mate, so ye are’ when you’ve had a few too many of the falling down water, although Barnard doesn’t record having tasted any whisky on either visit to Glen Rothes.

All The Glenrothes releases
The Burns connection continues through the later Highland Distilleries booklet being titled Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut, which is taken from his 1789 song of the same title, one which we have previously noted at Campbeltown Distillery as being a bawdy celebration of a night that Burns spent drinking with his best friends until well past dawn.  I’m not convinced that Barnard fully appreciated the meaning of the poem when the title was selected for what essentially appears to be a corporate marketing brochure, and on that earlier occasion he had credited it incorrectly as a song that Burns sang when visiting his sweetheart Highland Mary in the town!

I don’t think Burns ever visited Rothes.  The only recorded journey of his that ventured this far north took him along the Moray coast, where he had stops at nearby Elgin and Fochabers, before continuing on east to Banff and returning to Edinburgh via the east coast, all in the summer of 1787 (Cairney, 2000).  However, continuing the tenuous connection between his poetry and Rothes, the whisky brand Cutty Sark also owes its name in part to him.

Cutty Sark Visitors' Centre at Glenrothes Distillery
Cutty Sark was a nickname given to one of the witches in Burns magnum opus Tam o’ Shanter.  But not just any witch.  This was Nannie, a strong yet winsome wench who caught Tam’s eye as she danced, and held his gaze “like ane bewitch’d”.  Tam calls her Cutty Sark as she was wearing a sark (a nightshirt or slip) that she had originally had as a young lassie and which therefore was now “in longitude tho’ sorely scanty”, or as Berry Bros. enticingly put it “the abbreviated chemise of a winsome wench”.  Nannie was the only one that caught up with Tam’s horse as he fled the scene and that speed perhaps inspired Cutty Sark being given as a name to the fast tea clipper that ran the line between Britain and China.

Brig o' Doon at Alloway, where Tam's mare Meg met her fate
The ship is now berthed at Greenwich in London, the last remaining tea clipper in the world after having been retired from service in 1922, the year before Berry Bros & Rudd launched their premium blended whisky of the same name.  A line drawing of the clipper still adorns the label of a whisky that was first conceived 89 years ago to this very day.  The aged versions of the whisky are exceptional drams with varying characteristics and a 25yo ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ special was released for Burns Night this year, 222 years after the poem was written, described as a rich, full-bodied and boisterous whisky in keeping with the story, and indeed the lassie known as Cutty Sark herself!

Tam o' Shanter tells of the dangers that can befall drunken behaviour and Burns concluded the poem with a word of warning to us menfolk:

Now, wha this tale o' truth shall read,
Ilk man, and mother's son, take heed:
Whene'er to drink you are inclin'd,
Or cutty-sarks run in your mind,
Think, ye may buy the joys o'er dear;
Remember Tam o' Shanter's mare.

Cheers Rabbie, thanks a lot!  Regardless, I know what whisky I will be sharing with friends in the pub tonight on this anniversary, and I shall try to avoid any auld kirks on the way home.  SlĂ inte!


Glenrothes Distillery [Glenlivet District], Rothes

For nearly 40 Years Glen Grant was the only distillery in Rothes until Glen Rothes distillery was built in 1878.  The town was by then joined to the railway both north and south after the connection was made to the Strathspey Junction at Craigellachie in 1863.  Rothes had become a prime location for distilling, with abundant water from the streams flowing off the mountains and ample grain supplies from the surrounding districts.  Glen Rothes was the second distillery in town (its first spirit ran in December 1879) and three more would follow before the end of the century.

Like his visit to Glen Grant, Barnard again came down from Elgin by train and he then walked the 500 hundred yards up the Burn of Rothes to the distillery.  The burn begins far to the west in the Mannoch Hills, on the south side of the watershed that is also the source of water for Glenlossie and Mannochmore distilleries to the north, and then continues through Rothes, receiving the outflow from both the Back Burn and Broad Burn before feeding the Spey at the aptly named Junction Pool.

Glen Rothes distillery was built on the site of a saw mill that had operated beside the burn for some time.  A ford had previously been the only access over the burn to the mill, replaced by a bridge that is shown in the etching of the distillery in Barnard, so it appears to have been built along with the distillery to allow easier access for supplies to and from the station in town and to ensure regular access following a number of floods and spates during the 1800s.  The bridge is still the access point to this handsome distillery today.

Barnard’s description of the water supplies seems a bit strange, possibly recorded the wrong way round?  He mentions that the Burn of Rothes provides the water for manufacturing whisky as well as motive power, and the water for the huge worm tub and other processes is provided by a pipe from a spring two miles away.  He describes the burn water as “soft, and of that brown tinge so common in Highland streams, but also clear and bright” but I would have thought the spring water would be used for mashing rather than this, and the worm tub would be better fed from the mill lade off the burn that continued in use from the saw mill days.

Peaty coloured Burn of Rothes flood defences
Today the burn provides the cooling water and the soft mashing water is piped from the Ardcanny and Brauchhill springs in the Mannoch Hills.  Brauchhill spring rises from the locally renowned Fairie’s Well further up the glen through which the Burn of Rothes flows just west of the distillery.  The well carries a fairy tale with an unfortunate sad ending, the well also being known as Lady’s Well after the 14th century murder of a fair maiden and her lover beside where the spring waters rose (Fairies may be from ‘fair maid’ rather than fairy).

On a glorious clear day I took a walk up the glen to look for the well.  It wasn’t marked on maps until the 1970s and its exact location is still obscure in the woods around the burn.  Signposted trails take you up into the verdant hills to a viewing platform above ‘The Linn’, a Scots word meaning waterfall/pools, and then round to the golf course and back into town.  The well is recorded on way posts along the trail but it is situated in a cleft in the hill and now covered with fallen trees and overgrowth.  The woods here, with sunlight streaming through the trees, did have something of an enchanted feel about them though, and the whole round trip was a lovely way to spend a couple of hours.

Enchanted Glen of Rothes near Fairie's Well
From up in the hills you can also see large stacks of casks on the slopes above the other side of the burn.  This seems to be the place where old casks from the Glenrothes warehouses go to rest, and which, like the Great Wall of China, can be seen from space (okay, Google maps satellite view!).  I had first noticed these lozenge shaped structures on the map when researching the town but the resolution wasn’t high enough to make out individual casks, their true nature not apparent until seen from across the burn.

Glenrothes casks
The distillery was initially planned by James Stuart who owned Macallan Distillery a few miles down the road, but he ran into financial difficulties and left it to be built by his partners William Grant (not the same one that founded Glenfiddich in 1886) and others who were bankers and solicitors from Elgin rather than distillers.  Barnard was met by the resident partner Robert Dick; I was in the pleasant company of Eric Jefferson, a native of Rothes and Visitor Host at the distillery.  Glenrothes is not open to the general public so I was delighted that Eric was showing me around for this project.

Barnard’s tour began at the two granaries which were three stories high with malting floors on the bottom level and an adjacent peat fired kiln.  The etching in Barnard shows them with the kiln on the west side of the complex but the maltings for the distillery have changed significantly over the decades since.  A new malting and kiln were built on the east side of the access bridge in the 1890s, the site for it shown in the etching as perhaps stables or peat sheds at the time of Barnard’s first visit (we will see below that he returned here some years later).

Glenrothes kiln and old malting, now still house, over bridge on east side
The original maltings were demolished sometime in the past and malt is now brought in to the malt bins that sit there.  The newer kiln structure is still there, albeit no longer used as a kiln, but the malting beside it was last used in the 1960s and then redeveloped into a new still house in 1979.  In the interim, malt had also been brought in from the huge Saladin maltings that were installed at Tamdhu distillery around 1950 and expanded in 1966 to supply Glen Rothes and others.  Tamdhu was also founded by William Grant, 20 years after Glen Rothes, and they both ran in tandem for a while until Tamdhu was mothballed in 2009.

The malt is now unpeated and passes through a Porteus mill dating from 1964 to provide a 5.4 tonne mash for each cycle.  The tun that Barnard observed was relatively small at just 15 1/2 feet wide by 4 feet deep, with revolving stirring gear driven by a water wheel.  The current tun is a full lauter with hydraulic stirring gear and 4 waters are passed through each mash.  An old cast iron tun with a copper dome stills sits in a room here, similar in size to the one Barnard noted but now silent as the stainless steel behemoth next door does all the work.

Barnard recorded 6 washbacks holding 29,000 litres each but filled to no more than around 24,000 litres.  He notes them as being different to other backs he has seen as they were filled from the bottom and “as soon as the worts begin to flow therein, yeast is put in from the top, and by this means a proper fermentation is maintained”, before the wash flowed into another of those Jackback vessels that I have queried before.  There are now 20 washbacks, 8 stainless steel and 12 of Oregon pine, each one taking 25,500 litres of wort from each mash for a fermentation varying between 60-100 hours.

The still house was described as ‘a lofty building with concreted floor, daily deluged with water’ suggesting that the owners took great pride in the cleanliness of the distillery.  There were two old pot stills, wash at 13,630 litres and spirit at 11,360 and Barnard provides a short but nonetheless convoluted description of the distillation process that he has oft repeated by now in any case.  The spirit was condensed in a large cement worm tub, 33 feet square by 12 deep, built on the slope outside the still house and fed by the mill lade that had been kept from the saw mill days.

Additional stills were gradually added over the course of a century, all copying the design of the original pair - 2 in 1896 (along with 6 more washbacks that year doubling capacity), a further 2 in 1963 in the old still house, 2 more in 1979 after the move to the new still house and a final 2 in 1989 making a total of 10 that are in place today.  Barnard had described the old still house as lofty; the new still house has been described as a cathedral by some of those who work there.

Glenrothes wash stills
The 5 wash stills are on the north side of the still house, each taking a 12,750 litre charge (half a washback) and raising the abv to 25% over a slow 6 hour distillation.  These are the first wash stills that I recall seeing three sight windows on, a level of precision that Barnard would have approved off.  The spirit stills along the south side each take a 15,000 litre charge for a long distillation of up to 16 hours, the middle cut from 74% > 66% producing no more than 3,000 litres of new make.  Unusually, Glenrothes cask their spirit intended for single malt at 69.8%, rather than water it down to 63.5% as is common elsewhere.

Glenrothes spirit stills
All the stills are steam kettle heated having first changed from direct fire in the old still house in 1963.  There is lots of copper contact for the vapours from reflux bowls, tall tapering heads and long lyne arms with a descent of around 20 degrees on each still.  Worm tubs were last used in 1963 and the current shell and tube condensers are placed towards the centre of the still house with two separate spirit safes, one on each side.  All the stills have a capacity around 10,000 litres higher than the charge and together with their tall design this is overall a large, bright and airy space that supports the notion of being like a cathedral.

Barnard recorded a practice of leaving the filled casks over the weekend before weighing and removing them to the warehouse on a Monday ‘which is an advantage to the customer’.  Hmmm, not by much evaporation over two days I would have thought?  Production then was 363,500 litres p.a. but with capacity for 600,000 litres.  The current ten stills can produce 5.6m litres p.a. when in full 7 day production and most of the whisky goes into blending, Glenrothes long being considered as a ‘top dressing’ whisky by blenders.

The main warehouses were and still are on the north bank of the burn, built even then from concrete in contrast to the stone used in the construction of the distillery itself.  There were five warehouses in 1886, shown in the etching as single story dunnage with domed roofs, with capacity for 3,000 casks, 1.1m litres in store at that time.  Today there are 42,000 casks stored across 7 dunnage warehouses, with earthen floors covered in cinders once raked from the furnaces in the old coal fired still house, plus 4 tall racking warehouses.  Sherry and bourbon casks are both used here and as in Barnard’s time there is a cooperage on site, one of the few distilleries still to have this function.

Glenrothes Cooperage
Barnard notes that the name ‘Glen Rothes Glenlivet’ was entitled to be used when bottled as single malt, ‘Blended Glenlivet’ when blended with other makes in the district.  This was some years after Glenlivet distillery had applied to protect the name in 1880, after which other distilleries had to hyphenate the name onto their own if they wished to use it.  This did happen to Glen Rothes soon after but today their whiskies are known simply as The Glenrothes.  The distillery itself is also known to local folk as ‘The Heilan’ (Highland).

The year after Barnard’s first visit William Grant & Co merged with the Islay Distillery Company, owners of Bunnahabhain, to form the Highland Distilleries Company.  This company was bought in 1999 by the 1887 Company Ltd, 70% owned by Edrington and 30% by William Grant & Sons (MWYB 2011).  However, since 2010 The Glenrothes whisky brand (although not the distillery itself) has been owned by Berry Bros & Rudd (BBR) who bottle the single malt whisky as both Vintage releases and very occasional single cask bottlings, rather than as aged statement releases.  BBR consider the maturity of the whisky rather than its age as important and the Vintage concept is one they are well familiar with from over three centuries of experience in the wine trade.

BBR also founded the famous Cutty Sark blended whisky in 1923.  Glenrothes whisky is a main component of Cutty Sark and in a reverse of brand ownership it was transferred to Edrington when the Glenrothes brand went the other way in 2010.  The Cutty Sark Visitors’ Centre was added to the distillery in 1991, built inside the remaining kiln building and designed as an exact mock-up of the ornate interior of the BBR shop at 3 St James’s Street in London, their headquarters established there in 1698.  In recent years the old Brewers office was converted into the elegant ‘Inner Sanctum’ distillery tasting room and the place where new Ambassadors are sworn in.

Glenrothes Inner Sanctum
At this point of the tour I was to consider spirits of a different kind as Eric tells me a ghost story.  When the fourth pair of stills were added to the new still house in 1979 the ghost of Biawa, Major Grant’s faithful servant, was said to have twice appeared to the workers.  After consulting with a professor who was an expert in such matters, and amidst talk of ley-lines being disturbed by the works, the professor visited the graveyard opposite the distillery and engaged in discussion with an unseen entity by one of the graves.  He returned to announce that the matter was resolved and the workers would be troubled no further.  The grave he visited was that of Biawa and to this day the distillery offers their respects to him with a ‘Toast to the Ghost’ when taking a dram.

Biawa's headstone above Glenrothes distillery
Looking around the graveyard you can see the effects of the Angels share appropriately settling on the headstones, as well as the warehouse walls and trees that this black ‘whisky dust’ © normally congregates around.  You almost expect to see the ghosts of Excise officers hovering around, trying to calculate how much tax the estates of those buried here are due to pay for unauthorised imbibing of spirits!  Sadly, my need to drive that day meant that my encounter with spirits had to end there and I would like to express my gratitude to Eric for arranging the tour for me at short notice and for entertaining me for an hour at one of the hidden gems of Speyside.

Barnard’s journey II
The story doesn’t quite stop there though as Barnard returned to ‘Glen Rothes-Glenlivet Distillery’ at a later date.  Included in the 2008 edition of Barnard for the first time are reprints of a few other smaller publications that he produced for private sectors of the industry.  Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut was a booklet summary of the then four distilleries in the Highland Distilleries Company stable – Bunnahabhain, Glen Rothes, Tamdhu and Glenglassaugh.

Again there are no dates recorded in these reports (thanks Alfred!) although there may be a date of publication in the only surviving copy of the original booklet held by Edrington.  However, there are clues in the reports to suggest it was written in the spring of 1899, some 13 years or so after Barnard first visited Rothes.  Much had changed in those years and little would anyone perhaps know at that time of the full scale of the crash to follow Pattison’s bankruptcy at the end of 1898.

He begins by narrating a journey to Rothes via Aberdeen, Huntly and Keith, although where this journey originally began is not noted, and on arrival in Rothes he again expresses admiration for the surrounding countryside, the setting of the town and the River Spey.  The main changes to the distillery since his last visit can then be seen by comparison with his earlier report (he doesn’t mention it himself) although he is now slightly less concerned with reporting measurements and sizes of vessels.

Burn of Rothes at distillery
Some parts of the later report are copied or reworked from the first one, and as this is a document that he was commissioned to produce for Highland Distilleries the tone is understandably even more ebullient and favourable than the more factual reports he produced for his own publication.  As there are four distilleries recorded in the overall publication he sometimes refers to practices being the same as at the other establishments to save him some detail.

He records that the rapid growth in the wider whisky trade in recent years has led to many distilleries being renovated and owners obliged to erect new buildings and add “new and costly plant of the most approved pattern”.  The first development of note at Glen Rothes was the building of the granary and kiln on the east side of the bridge, required to supply the increased capacity.

Glenrothes Still House, once a malting built in the 1890s
Of note is Barnard’s observation that “attached to the mill is one of Doig’s [presumably Charles Chree Doig at this time] patent appliances for preventing explosions, which is of ingenious construction” and I wonder if this is an early example of a dresser or stone extractor.  The mash tun he records as being of “considerable dimensions” so certainly enlarged from the original one and with a malt hopper above that holds 1,500 bushels compared to the 1,000 before.  There are also now two Morton’s refrigerators in place of the one before and the washbacks have been doubled to twelve and are now of a slightly higher capacity of 31,800 litres.

Barnard is ecstatic about the developments in a still house that is now “lofty, light, airy and commodious” and it seems to have been redeveloped from the earlier one to make room for two new stills.  Doig was the architect for the redevelopment which Barnard notes as being similar to that which he had designed for the Tamdhu distillery that had recently opened and also owned by Highland Distilleries.  The warehouses have increased from 5 to 6, the new one with two stories, and now contained 14,000 casks compared to the 3,000 before, and the annual capacity is now 1.363m litres, up from 600,000 in 1886.

So overall we get the feel for a distillery that has doubled in size in less than two decades after it was founded, riding the boom in the trade that had just peaked and which was about to come crashing down.  Glenrothes managed to keep going through the dark decades that followed but it would be more than 60 years before any further significant development took place.  Thankfully it survived and flourished and produces a fine whisky to this day.  Notes of vanilla, ripe citrus fruit and butterscotch are key to the house style, with rich spicy notes in the more sherried releases, different personalities that all depend on which Vintage you select.  As Glenrothes Brand Ambassador Ronnie Cox suggests - just let the whisky surprise you someday.

I shall leave you with one evocative phrase that Barnard employed in his description of the milling process that only bruises the malt into pieces rather than grinding it to powder “which is indispensible to the setting at liberty of its extractive matter” – a phrase I shall steal from him and use with regard to the uncorking of a bottle the next time I share a Glenrothes dram with friends.  Your health, and blessings to the ghost.


Friday, 16 March 2012

Caperdonich Distillery [Glen Grant No.2], Rothes

Following on from the Glen Grant story there is another part of their history to consider here.  In 1897 Major Grant built Glen Grant No.2 Distillery on the opposite side of the main road through Rothes.  It was built beside the railway line that ran along the east side of town, with a siding right alongside to connect it directly to the station goods yard at its south end.  It was intended to provide additional capacity at a time when whisky sales were booming, however, it opened just in time for the Pattison crash to burst that bubble in 1898 and so closed in 1902 after just a few years of operation.

The distillery started with two stills that were replicas of those at Glen Grant, although whether they were replicas of the large or small stills there I don’t know but it would likely be the larger ones if they were building a new distillery for extra capacity.  Excise regulations insisted that as it was effectively an extension of Glen Grant the new make had to be received and weighed into casks at Glen Grant’s main complex, and so a ‘whisky pipe’ was installed across the road to pump the spirit up to their filling store.

The operational life of Glen Grant No.2 almost mirrored Ben Riach distillery just 5 miles to the north which also opened in 1898 but very soon closed; and like Ben Riach it was also given new life when it was reopened in 1965, albeit with a new name.  The changing fortunes of the industry had once more produced rising demand and Glen Grant again decided to increase capacity.  At that time their main complex had no space to redevelop, with their large maltings still in operation on the site that would become the new still house at a later date.  They decided to reopen their mothballed No.2 distillery but changes in Excise regulations by that time required that it be licensed and named as a separate distillery and so Caperdonich was chosen.

Caperdonich is an anglicised version of the pronunciation of the Gaelic words for the water source of both distilleries.  The Tobar Domhnaich is the well in the grounds behind Glen Grant that provides the pure unpeated water that is essential to the Glen Grant style.  Tobar Domhnaich is the spelling recorded on maps from Barnard’s time and Dhomhnaich has also been used as a local spelling.  Perhaps because of this variation the name has been interpreted as Sabbath well, deep or water-tight well, secret well and also referred to locally as St Lawrence’s well; Sabbath Well generally seems to be the most common local interpretation.

In 1967 the distillery was expanded with a second pair of stills installed, this time steam heated in the decade before the stills at Glen Grant first were.  Along with new washbacks they almost doubled capacity and large control consoles allowed the plant to be automated and run with minimal staff.  The distillery was taken over by Seagrams along with Glen Grant in 1978 and continued in operation until 2002 when it was mothballed again, once more like Ben Riach which was by then also owned by Pernod Ricard.

Caperdonich Distillery once stood here
This time, unlike Ben Riach, there was to be no revival.  The distillery was sold to Forsyths Coppersmiths in 2010 and demolished in November that year.  The company has a heritage as coppersmiths dating back to the 1800s, with the Forsyth family taking over the business in 1933.  They have been in operation right beside Caperdonich since the mid 1970s, on a site where the railway goods yard had been until the late 1960s, and have gradually been expanding and diversifying the business ever since (Rothes 2001).  The distillery site is now an extended yard for them and some of the internal distillery fittings were sitting there when I visited the town, the old copper domed mash tun and the washbacks sitting in a corner, forlorn.

Caperdonich mash tun and washbacks
Caperdonich single malt seems to have had a variable reputation so what may be a loss to some could pass unnoticed by others; even the final demolition of the distillery failed to receive a mention in the local newsletter.  There are a few independent bottles available but most production went for blending and the only official release was a Chivas Cask Strength Edition, a 16yo bottled in 2005 in a 500ml bottle.  It never seems to have quite matched the style of Glen Grant whisky that was intended from using the same water, barley and still design; that uniqueness that applies at every distillery here producing a whisky that Barnard would perhaps not have described as a ‘self malt’ and which is now a ghost in Rothes' past.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Glen Grant [Glenlivet] Distillery, Rothes

It has been a long time since I have written about a distillery that Barnard had also visited so it is with welcome glee that my journey arrives at Glen Grant Distillery, the oldest one in Rothes.  Barnard’s report does not disappoint here either, with lots of detail, some intriguing descriptions and additional tales to explore meaning that this has become one of the longer posts on the blog.  Welcome back Alfred, good to have you at my side and as my guide again!

To visit the Rothes distilleries Barnard travelled down the railway line from his base in Elgin, passing right alongside the sites that would become Longmorn, Glen Elgin, Coleburn and Speyburn distilleries in the decade that followed.  He arrived in Rothes station which was near the centre of town but there is nothing left now and the whole line between Elgin and the Strathspey Junction at Craigellachie was dismantled in the late 1960s.  The station site is now Rothes Industrial Estate and the old railway goods yard is where the famous Forsyths Copperworks now produce stills for distilleries all across Scotland.

Barnard describes the same verdant and tranquil scenery through the Glen of Rothes that I have noted in my recent posts and he records that “for beauty of position nothing that we have seen can excel the situation of Rothes”.  He comments on the surrounding mountains “clothed in their robes of greenery” and records that “lofty Benrinnes and Benaigen look down on it from beyond the river”.  I think that Ben Rinnes is perhaps a bit too far away and out of sight for that description but Ben Aigan (or Aigen) is the dominant hill across the Spey from the town, still robed in green but also a well known landmark for its unclothed summit.

Ben Aigan rising above the Rothes valley
Barnard states that before the railway connections arrived the town of Garmouth near the mouth of the River Spey was the main port for goods being imported into northern Speyside, and that the position of Rothes, 10-12 miles inland from the port and with Strathspey opening below it, made the town ideal as a distribution point for those goods after they had been carted down the road.

The first building he notes as his train steams out of the Glen and into the town was Glengrant House, the residence of Major James Grant, son of one of the founders and sole proprietor of the distillery from 1872.  Grant is a name that we will hear many times through the Speyside distilleries as the region has been home to Clan Grant for many centuries.  Their ancestral home is Castle Grant which stands just north of Grantown-on-Spey around 25 miles upstream from Rothes; the castle is now a private residence after being renovated over the last two decades.  Glengrant House at the distillery sadly fell into ruin and was demolished in the early 1990s, the site now converted into a visitor’s car park for the distillery.

Barnard describes the Major as an “energetic and excellent man of business” and “a well-known sportsman and disciple of Isaac Walton”.  I think he was here referring to Izaac Walton who wrote The Compleat Angler (sic) in 1653 and which still seems to be celebrated as one of the finest books on fishing.  The subtitle to the book is “The Contemplative Man’s Recreation” and The Major would have had plenty of opportunity to practice the techniques described by Walton on the River Spey that he could see from his home, perhaps while enjoying that other recreation that inspires contemplation, the taking of a dram.

Barnard didn’t record having met the Major but he is portrayed by an actor in a video that is shown near the beginning of the current distillery tour.  The character presented is confident, a little eccentric and quite outspoken, and in contrast to other distillery videos that are more soft focus, this one is more about the Major’s exploits than the distillery or whisky.  His fishing and hunting pursuits are narrated, including expeditions to Africa and India, and there is much talk of people dying and animals being dispatched.

The video also introduces us to another local character named Biawa Makalaga.  Biawa had been found as a young boy at the side of the road during one of the Major’s hunting expeditions in Africa in the 1890s.  He appeared to be orphaned and was named by the Major as Biawa, meaning ‘by the wayside’ and Makalaga from a name for his people.  He was brought back to Rothes in 1898, educated in the local school and became the Major’s faithful manservant until the Major died in 1931.  He remained in Rothes until he died in early 1972 after a short illness and he is buried there.  A well known and well respected part of the town’s history, we will encounter Biawa again at another place in Rothes in a future post.

Glen Grant Distillery was founded in 1840 to take advantage of Rothes position on the trade route at that time.  John and James Grant had been in partnership in the 1830s with John and James Walker of Elgin at a now lost distillery at Aberlour a few miles south of Rothes (no connection to the current Aberlour Distillery).  The lease there expired in 1840 and while the Walkers moved on to take over Linkwood distillery by Elgin for the next few decades the Grants built their own distillery beside what Barnard recorded as the Glen Grant Burn.

The burn originally seems to have provided both mashing water and all the power required “until the distillery was so enlarged that steam had to be added”.  Barnard called it the Glen Grant Burn but both current and older maps back to the mid 1800s have it recorded as the Back Burn running through Glen Grant, which is more of a ravine than a Glen as we would commonly know it.  The burn begins high up on Brylach Hill on the north side of Rothes, named at this point as the Black Burn likely from the colour of the water where it drains from the Moss of Rothes.  Brylach rises over 1000 feet and is also the watershed for the Glen Burn on its north side.

Cooling water reservoir behind the distillery
Barnard later states that mashing water is brought some miles from a mountain spring and the burn provides power supplemented by steam engines.  Today the mashing water is drawn from the Caperdonich Well in the grounds behind the distillery and cooling water is provided from a reservoir behind the distillery that is fed from a sluice on the burn; they can also pump water up from the Spey if the burn runs dry.  I will return to a discussion on the well in the next post on Caperdonich Distillery.

There were three substantial granary buildings when Barnard visited, two of them with three floors, and a single large kiln contiguous to them and fired by both peat and coke in two open chauffeurs.  However, like nearby Speyburn Distillery, Glen Grant installed pneumatic drum maltings in 1898 to save space and also supply the Glen Grant No2 Distillery (later known as Caperdonich) that opened across the road that year.  Glen Grant’s drums may have been electric powered to begin with while Speyburn’s were initially steam powered and converted to electricity in the 1940s.  The malting buildings are all gone now and when they were last used in 1971 there was only a little peat used in the kilns.  The barley is now brought in from industrial maltings near Buckie on the Moray coast is now completely unpeated.

Glen Grant mash tun
Barnard observed a good sized mash tun at 18 x 5 feet with “the usual rotary stirring gear”.  The current stainless steel semi-lauter tun was installed in 1975 to replace a previous cast iron tun that dated from 1913.  The tun now takes a hefty 12.2 tonne mash on a six hour cycle that includes 4 waters, the last two being held over to be used as the first water of the next cycle.

In 1886 there were eight washbacks at 31,800 litres each, now there are ten huge backs made from Oregon pine and each with a capacity of 91,176 litres.  The fill level is around two thirds but they still use switchers to control the froth on the relatively short but very active two day fermentation.  The switchers that Barnard observed were driven by a small steam engine and I don’t recall him mentioning a separate engine for this at any other distillery.

Glen Grant's enormous washbacks
At this point he states “now commences the interesting part of the process” and I have to concur as he first mentions a vessel I have been confused about for some time.  He records that the wash is run off into “the Jackback, a timber vessel let into the floor of the mash house” and from whence it is pumped into the Wash Charger.  Barnard mentions a Jackback in a few distilleries but this is the first time he has described the actual vessel.  It is also recorded as far back as the 1823 Excise Act as one of the securely sealed vessels in the fermenting to distilling process but I have yet to find one in use today.  When I have remembered about it I have asked at the distilleries I have visited but no-one else has recognised the term either.  Is it just a historical vessel, similar to the underback but later in the process, but one that went out of either fashion or need at some point?  If anyone can provide some clear information on this then please add a comment to the post, thanks.

Glen Grant stills in modern still house
That is not the only interesting part of the process at this point as the stills at Glen Grant were, and still are, worthy of note.  Barnard observed two wash stills, one half the size of the other at 22,720 and 11,360 litres respectively, and the Spirit Stills were also quite different sizes at 11,360 and 7,270 litres.  The time line for the distillery records 2 more stills being added in 1973 and a further 4 in 1977, which made 10 in total (as often still recorded) but there are only 8 today.  The still house was redeveloped in the late 1980s and it seems that the original four stills were lost then and replaced with two of the same pattern as the 1970s additions.  The wash stills are now 22,730 litres capacity and the spirit stills are 11,547, so basically the same as the larger of each in Barnard’s time.

The stills were originally coal fired, like all others of Barnard’s time, and the 1970s developments included a change to gas firing.  However, after the distillery was taken over by Seagram’s in 1978 they reverted to coal firing due to developments in efficiency, using what were described as "Triumph" [the manufacturer] chain-grate stokers and with flues which used waste heat to heat the water used for mashing and other processes.  The later redevelopment of the still house finally saw all the stills converted to steam pan heating.

Now disused coal-fired furnace and flue around base of stills
The shape of the stills is also unique.  The wash stills have a very straight vertical reflux bowl at the lower section of the neck that cuts in to a tall slender upper section leading to a steeply angled lyne arm.  The spirit stills have a very slender reflux bowl at the base of the neck with a more tapered upper section.  All the stills are fitted with purifiers, an innovation installed in 1872 and which Barnard described as “a copper vessel with a water basin at the top, which effectually prevents anything but the purest steam from passing”.  In a further unique twist some of the wash stills have shortened S shaped lyne arms to fit them into the space available before the purifier.

Glen Grant stills with purifiers, No. 1 pair
Barnard here records that the wash stills have “above the stills, on an elevated gallery, two upright condensers” which actually sounds like the purifier arrangement, and he then goes on to say that “the spirit goes through the condensing worms, which coil through a concrete tank, 24 feet long and 8 feet deep” before passing through the safe into the LWF receiver.  The water for this worm tank and another larger one was brought by an aqueduct from the side of the hill above the distillery, where the cooling water reservoir now is.  The worm tanks were last used in 1983 and there are now eight shell and tube condensers placed externally.

He comments on the still house being substantial and built with iron girders and an iron roof.  A later photograph available on the RCAHMS Canmore website shows the outside of the old still house with a large iron worm tank and what appear to be two of the purifiers outside the building.  One of the older spirit stills now stands in the courtyard and it can be contrasted to the shape of the current stills.  This old still is affectionately known as Wee Geordie, named after an employee from the 1920s and also remembered in the same name being given to the 4th hole on the Rothes Golf Club course.  They describe the hole as “a true test of skill and accuracy with a little luck thrown in at times” which might oft describe the process of making whisky as well.

Glen Grant Distillery courtyard with Wee Geordie
Barnard was impressed by the two engines that provided electric light via a dynamo for the whole premises “for the first time in any manufacturing place in the North of Scotland” and including Major Grant’s house.  I wonder if this arrangement may also have provided electricity to power the malting drums when they were installed.

The current buildings and layout of the distillery are very different having been rebuilt a couple of times.  An etching in Barnard is from an elevated view from around where the car park is now, possibly from an upper level of Glengrant House to get the elevation to show all the buildings and scenes of activity.  This view is no longer possible due to the house having been demolished and the car park being surrounded by trees (which are in abundance everywhere around Rothes).  The picture below is as near to that perspective as I could get.

Glen Grant Distillery
The still house is now where the malt barns were, the kiln has gone and the offices have been converted to include a replica of Major Grant’s study from the old mansion, the room where the tour now begins with the video.  One detail from the etching in Barnard that has been carried over is a distillery clock in the office building at the centre of the courtyard, although not the original.  The old courtyard buildings are in the Scottish Baronial style but the etching doesn’t show the castellation which appears to be a later addition to reflect the style of old Glengrant house (Scotland's Lost Country Houses).  The old coach house was converted into a modern visitor centre in 2008.

There were thirteen stone built warehouses holding nearly 2.3m litres of whisky which Barnard noted was nearly all to the order of customers already.  Now there are 11,500 casks on site in 7 warehouses, all dunnage but built over 3 floors, with further warehouses in town.  The casks on site are all bourbon with sherry casks matured offsite.

Glen Grant warehouses, dunnage over three floors
Glen Grant had one of the larger production volumes from pot still only distilleries in Scotland in Barnard’s time, producing c700,000 litres p.a. in each of the two years previous to Barnard’s visit but with a capacity to produce just over 1m litres p.a. after Major Grant had overseen the doubling of capacity in 1872.  The 20th century developments mean that they now have capacity for 5.9m litres p.a. (MWYB 2011) placing it firmly in the top ten in Scotland, although production in recent years has been a little bit lower.

In the decades following the Major’s passing this family owned distillery began to change hands.  In 1953 the owners of Glen Grant and Glenlivet distilleries merged to form The Glenlivet and Glen Grant Distillers Ltd.   In 1970 this company merged with Longmorn Distillers and a blender called Hill Thomson & Co to form The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd which oversaw the main redevelopments and expansion in the 1970s.  Glenlivet Distillers were bought by Seagram early in 1978 and from there followed a path into Pernod Ricard.  Glen Grant was sold from the group to current owners Campari in 2006.

Throughout all these changes Glen Grant has become the only remaining distillery that is still named after its founders, most others being named after their town, the river that they sit beside, a local hill or feature or from the Gaelic for the landscape around them.  The overall style of spirit has also been maintained - the sharp narrowing of the reflux bowl on the wash stills, the tall slender neck and the purifiers on all the stills all contributing to a light, fresh character in the spirit.  This makes Glen Grant one of those very approachable whiskies - one you can share as an introductory whisky for a novice without scaring them away.

The standard UK release is a 10yo but in Italy, where Glen Grant has long been a market leader, they prefer it young and fresh with the main releases there around 5-8yo, the fresh Glen Grant style perfectly suited to quaffing in warmer climes.  There are other expressions that build on the light fragrant spirit, with Oloroso sherry notes in the 1992 cellar reserve, more complexity to the fruit flavours from just American oak in the 16yo, and the marriage of vintage casks in the 170th anniversary bottle included a little of the older slightly peated whisky, the soft fruity notes here emboldened with a spicy, gingery flavour that I found quite to my taste.

Glen Grant gardens, orchard and the Back Burn
We can’t leave without mention of the glorious gardens that extend behind the distillery and into the picturesque ravine above.  As I had arrived for the last tour of the day I was allowed to return the following day to see the gardens, an ideal place to enjoy some ‘contemplative dramming’.  The gardens had become overgrown and abandoned in the mid 1900s but a three year project to restore them concluded in 1996.  They have recreated an idyllic setting that includes small apple and cherry orchards in a reflection of those maintained by the Major long ago, set in the middle of a verdant meadow and surrounded by a huge variety of trees, shrubs and flowers.

Glen Grant ravine, Back Burn and tasting nook
The grounds also include a newly built ‘Dram Pavilion’ and further up the ravine the whisky safe where the Major kept a bottle and some tasting glasses to entertain visitors, the burn cascading down a waterfall beside it providing fresh, although slightly peaty water for the dram.  There is a pathway that climbs up the ravine to a viewpoint on the burn, bridges built from logs crisscrossing the ravine at various points of interest, and the gardens are overlooked by a model owl perched on a tree.

Glen Grant car park and monkey puzzle tree (middle left)
Of final note, and particularly evocative for the people of Rothes, the landscaping of the new car park where Glengrant House had once been included the planting of two new monkey puzzle trees to replace those that had been lost and which were affectionately remembered.  My time in this delightful setting will also long be affectionately remembered and my thanks go to Shirley and Jane at the visitor centre for their help with my questions.


Barnard signs off his report with a further two random verses from Burns poem Scotch Drink, unaccredited though and under the heading of just “WHISKY”, the second last line of which is:

“When wanting thee [scotch], what tuneless cranks
Are my poor verses!”

A sentiment I can fully concur with (see most of the above!).  However, perhaps for his more sensitive readers, or more likely a decision by his editor, only the first letter of the final word was printed in the following closing line, where Burns expresses how much more lyrical he becomes after a dram or two:

“Thou comes – they rattle i’ their ranks,
At ither’s arses!”

I wonder what the well travelled and sociable Major would have made of it all - I get the feeling he would have laughed at such nonsense!


Information here includes research from the books Rothes 2001 and ‘Oor Young Days’ and Glen Grant: A Distillation of 150 years (an anniversary publication from 1989, Aberdeen University Press) and from the distillery tour.