Like his visit to Glen Grant, Barnard again came down from
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|
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|
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 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|
|Glenrothes spirit stills|
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.
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
|Glenrothes Inner Sanctum|
|Biawa's headstone above Glenrothes distillery|
Barnard’s journey IIThe 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
|Burn of Rothes at distillery|
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|
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.