"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, 23 March 2012

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.