"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

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.