"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