"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

Monday, 30 April 2012

Benrinnes Distillery, near Aberlour

I am introducing Benrinnes here out of sequence with Barnard’s book (number 79 from Aberlour at number 74) for geographical reasons.  The distillery sits further up the north flank of Ben Rinnes from Aberlour and Glenallachie distilleries and it seems to fit better at this point rather than following Barnard’s order directly.  This is the first time I have posted out of sequence but will do so again in Speyside as this is also the area most changed by newer distilleries built since his journey.

Barnard arrived here after another jaunt by dog-cart from Craigellachie Junction via Aberlour, delighted to gain an elevation that allows the beauties of the Spey valley to be appreciated while at the same time bemoaning the exchange of this view for “the mighty hills, with their apparel of gloom and shade”, although also noting that these changes and contrasts in the Highland scenery are very exciting.  The distillery location he describes as “no more weird or desolate [a] place could be chosen” but he also has it placed at 1,030 feet above sea level, over 330 feet (110m) higher than it actually is.

Benrinnes from the north
A conundrum he offers here is a note to say that “we afterwards traversed this route in the depth of winter with the snow lying deeply on the ground” but I can’t figure out when that later trip was placed in his overall journey prior to the book being published, nor where he was heading on that occasion.  Not for the first time the dates and order in his book are hard to fathom.

I have mentioned before the importance of Ben Rinnes as a watershed and water supply to the surrounding distilleries, and Barnard notes the reason for the siting of the distillery here as being “on account of the water, which rises from springs on the summit of the mountain, and can be seen on a clear day some miles distant, sparkling over the prominent rocks on its downwards course…”.  The picture here shows the feature on Ben Rinnes known as Scurran of Well, where the waters near the summit converge and pour down the cleft in the steep face.

Scurran of Well on Ben Rinnes
That same converging of waters was also responsible for the first Benrinnes Distillery being washed away during the Muckle Spate of 1829, the flood waters here enhanced by the sheer face and narrow gulley into which the waters gathered.  That distillery had been located about one kilometre away at Whitehouse Farm, the Lowing Burn running right past it and dammed in a small reservoir just above it.  The deluge swept down the hill and destroyed the distillery, before carrying on to fill the pool at the Linn of Ruthrie with rocks and then feed the swollen waters of the Spey.

The second Benrinnes distillery was built in 1834/35 and was originally called Lyne of Ruthrie until its name was changed in 1838 (Udo, 2005).  It sits on a slope away from the course of the Rowantree Burn that takes the main water flow from the cliffs above, reducing the risk of a repeat of the experiences of that earlier fateful night.  The Rowantree Burn and the Scurran Burn to the north of it still supply the water used at the distillery.

In my Aberlour Distillery post, where I queried the location of the earlier Aberlour distillery, I mentioned the parish report dated July 1836 in the Second Statistical Account of Scotland.  It mentions one distillery “on a large scale…situated at Aberlour” but makes no mention of Benrinnes Distillery.  Perhaps this part of the account was written just before the distillery reopened in 1835 and the full report wasn’t completed and published until the following year?

The distillery owner when Barnard visited was David Edward who had taken over in 1864.  On his arrival Barnard records an adjournment to the office for “a little of the Benrinnes Malt Extract to remove the dust from our throats after our long drive in the sun”.  Malt Extract, huh? That sounds suspiciously like a wee dram Alfred, don’t try to kid on it was a drink like Bovril! (I’m just popping out for a wee malt extract dear, back in an hour. Hmmm?)

The distillery had been continually enlarged since it was built and at the time of his visit they were rebuilding the malt barns “on a modern scale”.  At the end of his report he notes that the high elevation of the distillery on the mountainside allows malting to take place during the summer as well as winter.  The kiln was also new, “a lofty elevation in the form of a tower”!?, and heated by peat dug locally; the malt is now unpeated.  The floor maltings were closed in 1964 and replaced with Saladin box maltings which operated for the next 20 years until they were closed in 1984 (MWYB 2011).

Benrinnes malt store with old Saladin Maltings behind
The mash tun was 12 feet wide by 5 deep and the stirring rakes were driven by an undershot waterwheel; the current tun is a stainless steel lauter taking an 8.5 tonne mash and producing 50,000 litres of worts (Udo, 2005).  The tun room he describes as “differently arranged from the others in the district, being placed at the top of the building and floored with solid concrete”, and the only pump in the distillery is here used to pump the worts up from the refrigerator, thereafter gravity taking over in the production process.  There were 5 washbacks, each holding 18,176 litres; there are now 8 made from Oregon pine.

Barnard recorded two old pot stills of similar and relatively small size, the wash still at 4,910 litres and the Low-wines at 4,562 litres.  He notes that “the Distiller believes in using only small stills to produce a rich thick whisky”.  I will discuss the current stills a bit further down.  There was a square concrete worm tank, situated close to the chimney behind the still house, and this has been replaced with two cast iron tanks used today, the tall red brick chimney still standing proud and a major landmark on the open slope below the hill.

Benrinnes distillery in the middle of the Daugh of Ruthrie, looking through the pass called Glack Harness to Glen Rinnes and the evocatively named Thunderslap Hill beyond
The number of old warehouses was uncertain, Barnard first noting seven of them but then stating that “two of them were two decker buildings, another of one floor only”.  I make that three Alfred, not seven, but then I’ve not been on the malt extract yet today ;)  He records 1,700 casks in store and old maps at the National Library of Scotland suggest that seven was the right number for the warehouses.  The previous warehouses were beside and opposite the maltings but they were demolished at the end of the 1970s and replaced with three large racking warehouses built just down the slope.  From an annual output of 227,000 litres in 1886 the production capacity now is more than ten times higher at 2.5m litres p.a.

Benrinnes warehouses
David Edward died in May 1893 and the distillery passed to his son Alexander who had recently been one of the founders of Craigellachie Distillery and the hotel a couple of miles away.  He incorporated the distillery as Benrinnes Glenlivet Ltd later the same year and it was next bought by John Dewar & Sons in 1922, part of DCL from 1925.  They oversaw the biggest change since the 1835 relocation by completely rebuilding the production buildings in 1955/56.

Benrinnes Distillery buildings from 1955/56
One of the biggest changes was in the still configuration.  The 1956 rebuild included a change to three stills and this was then doubled to six in 1966.  The three stills in each group were all quite different sizes working in a kind of but not quite triple distillation process until they changed again to double distillation a few years ago, albeit with the low wines now feeding into two different spirit still sizes.  The wash stills have a fairly large capacity of 22,935 litres charged with 20,000 at a time (Udo, 2005), the two previous intermediate stills are a throwback to the original small stills with a capacity of just 6,364 litres, and what were the second low wines stills have a capacity of 9,292 litres.  They are all steam coil heated with descending lyne arms to the worm tanks outside.

Following the rebuild there is not much left of the distillery that Barnard witnessed, and some of that had already been rebuilt after a still house fire in 1896.  One building that does remain from early days is a rubble walled cask store that stands in stark contrast to the whitewashed concrete/plaster of the main buildings, and there are two distillery cottages from the 1890s standing nearby alongside a suspiciously old looking but nonetheless whitewashed office.

Old cask store at Benrinnes
Benrinnes was one of the John Dewar & Sons distilleries not sold to Bacardi in 1998, as nearby Craigellachie was, and the output mostly goes into Diageo blends as well as the historic Crawford’s 3 Star blend (MWYB 2011) which is now part of the Whyte & Mackay stable.  A 15yo was released in 1991 as part of the Flaura & Fauna range and there have been a couple of other special releases and a number of independent bottles, but this is one of those distilleries you rarely see on the shelf as a single malt whisky and I am struggling to recall when I have ever had any.

Next up is one of the most historically important distilleries in Scotland’s landscape, a distillery which gives rise to one of the longest and most descriptive reports in Barnard’s book.  Time for a large Bovril methinks!

Glenallachie Distillery, near Aberlour

If you continue up the Burn of Aberlour about a mile from Aberlour Distillery you arrive at the small hamlet of Cottartown and beyond it the Daugh of Ruthrie rising south towards Ben Rinnes.  Glenallachie Distillery sits at the bottom of a narrow valley between the two, one of around 10-12 new distilleries that were built across Scotland in the 1960s to meet rising demand and to make best use of modern techniques, design and equipment.

Glenallachie Distillery
Glenallachie opened in 1967 and it is now one of Chivas Brothers workhorse distilleries producing mostly for blends.   It is not open to the public and there are no unnecessary pretentions to history displayed here, the buildings bright but functional.  Large bonded warehouses stretch away to the west of the distillery, hidden in a tree lined valley that is surrounded by fields of grain.  There are 14 warehouses in total, 12 racked and 2 palletised.

The distillery was founded by Scottish & Newcastle Breweries subsidiary Mackinlay, McPherson & Co, who already owned Jura distillery, and they ran it until they were sold to Invergordon Distillers in 1985.  Whereas Jura continued to operate throughout the following years, Glenallachie was closed in 1987 for two years until it was sold to Pernod Ricard subsidiary Campbell Distillers, already the owners of Aberlour Distillery just down the road.  They increased the number of stills from 2 to 4 and restarted production in 1989, the distillery being branded as the Home of Clan Campbell whisky.

The Home of Clan Campbell whisky
Glenallachie’s location takes advantage of the pure spring water that rises on Ben Rinnes, the Henheads and Blackstank burns being their sources, both rising far up on the northeast face of the mountain before they flow into the Burn of Aberlour.  The malt is unpeated and most production is matured in bourbon casks with some Oloroso butts also filled.

Internally the distillery has a stainless steel semi-lauter tun, 6 washbacks that are stainless steel lined colclad and the two pairs of stills.  Unusually (uniquely?) the condensers are placed horizontally rather than the normal vertical alignment.  They have capacity to produce 3m litres p.a. which places it mid-table by volume in Scotland.

A 16yo CS release by Chivas Brothers in 2005 was the first official bottling released recently and an 18yo from 2008 is also currently available from them, both produced from spirit distilled in that first year of reopening and matured exclusively in first-fill Oloroso butts.  A 12yo was previously available in the 1980s and there are very occasional independent releases.

Distillery data courtesy of Chivas Brothers and ownership details from the Malt Whisky Yearbook.

Friday, 27 April 2012

Aberlour [Glenlivet] Distillery

Following on from the landscape and mystical woods of my previous post on Aberlour we now come to a distillery which offers further enchantment and a fascinating, and occasionally obscure, story to tell.  The original Aberlour Distillery we have heard about before – first licensed in 1826 it was later licensed to the Grants and Walkers for a few years up to 1840 before the former built Glen Grant distillery in Rothes.  However, the location of that earlier Aberlour distillery is a bit of a mystery to explore.  The current distillery was built in 1879/80 and there is no apparent record of distilling in the town during the 40 years between the two.

The Aberlour parish report dated 1836 in the Second Statistical Account of Scotland (SSAS) states that “there is one whisky distillery, on a large scale within the parish, situated at Aberlour”.  Now, this was likely to be the early distillery mentioned above, but by saying “at Aberlour” exactly where did the author mean?  Some sources have the grounds of Aberlour House as the location, with the distillery being built by the local Laird, although I’m not aware of an original source for this claim and the house wasn’t built until around 1838.  There is no evidence of the distillery buildings either today or on any maps I can find as it appeared to have only operated for a short while before detailed map surveys were available.

However, could the SSAS author have meant the Aberlour Burn when he stated “at Aberlour”, i.e. at the actual Aber (mouth of) Lour (loud or chattering burn), particularly as the village in-between the Burn and the House is recorded as Charlestown in the report.  A map from 1869 shows the Mill of Ruthrie (corn and saw mills) beside the burn on the site of the current distillery, but could the mill have been a conversion from the original distillery buildings?  Curiously, Barnard states that the distillery was rebuilt in 1880, and I wonder if he was indicating the same thing.  The SSAS describes the buildings as “on a large scale” and it therefore seems strange that the location is no longer clearly known, but if anyone knows of an original source document or map for it then I would be glad to hear about it.

Aberlour Distillery c1896
The second Aberlour distillery was founded by James Fleming who had lease of the land at the Mill of Ruthrie.  Fleming was already a distiller at Dailuaine since 1865 and he was also a grain merchant and an agent for the North of Scotland Bank.  The Aberlour distillery was planned and designed by him and Barnard describes it as “a perfect model Distillery…consisting of a triangular block of stone buildings of neat appearance”.  It was built on an L shape plan with the kiln at the apex and warehouses filling in the courtyard behind.  The picture above hanging in the distillery dates to 1896 and shows the original layout, with a kiln roof built before Doig’s pagoda structure became common.

Barnard was escorted round by Mr Gauld, the Brewer; I was met at the office by the entrance gate by Jonathan Osbaldiston who was most hospitable and generous with his time for my questions.  There was a large international group for the tour, always a welcome sight at our distilleries, and we spent a happy and relaxed two hours seeing round the distillery and tasting a fine selection of their produce.

Aberlour Distillery Fleming Rooms
The tour passed by the Fleming Rooms which are in what was originally the Brewer’s cottage, now the oldest building left on site and which can be visited on the more detailed Founder’s Tour.  Next door was a display room where Jonathan’s relaxed and entertaining commentary introduced us to the character of James Fleming and some of the history of the distillery.  Fleming was a philanthropist as well as a businessman, the embodiment of his family motto “Let the deed show”, and some of his legacy is described in my previous post.  Two key elements of whisky production are also on display – the various stages in the life of a barley kernel and a location near to a pure water source.

The barley is sourced from around Scotland and is now unpeated, although peat had originally been the heat source in the kiln.  Barnard’s description of the maltings, kiln and mill are all perfunctory and offer nothing unusual.  The floor maltings were closed in 1962 and the building converted into a warehouse, the kiln demolished thereafter.  The current mill is a Porteus that was installed 50 years ago when the maltings were closed.  An earlier mill had been the source of a spark that started a devastating fire in January 1898 that destroyed most of the main distillery buildings aside from the maltings and kiln.  The business was insured though and the distillery was rebuilt and operational again by the end of that year, Charles Doig the architect for the then enlarged and modernised premises.

St Drostan's Well Stone
The original water source was a well on the site which was dedicated to St Drostan who was a missionary here in the 6th/7th century after arriving from Ireland with St Columba.  A dedication stone from the site of the well is now part of the display, the inscription reading the Anglicised form of St Dunstan.  Two springs higher up Ben Rinnes now provide the soft water for distilling, the site of the well now hidden under warehouses that were added in the early 20th century.  The Burn of Aberlour that runs swiftly past the distillery once provided all the motive power and the old mill lade still supplies the cooling water.

The original mash tun was relatively small at 12 feet wide by 4 deep but here Barnard offers something a little different - the worts from the tun were cooled in a pipe 200 feet long that ran through the concrete worm tank, rather than using a Morton refrigerator or open tank cooling that were more common then.  A new stainless steel semi-lauter tun was fitted in 1972 to replace a previous cast iron tun.  The 12 tonne mash receives three waters and produces 56,000 litres of wort for each washback.  The original washbacks were also relatively small with five of them at 18,200 litres each.  The six stainless steel vessels now here replaced wooden backs in 1972 and they ferment for just 48 hours to produce a very sweet wash at around 8.5%.

Aberlour Stills
Barnard records a wash still with a 7,270 litre capacity and a spirit still at 5,450 litres.  The still house was reconstructed in 1973 when the stills were increased from one pair to two.  The wash stills now each take a 15,000 litre charge for a three hour run that produces low-wines of around 23%.  The spirit stills are charged with 12,000 litres from which a 2 1/2 hour middle cut provides 5,000 litres of spirit which is casked at 63.5%.  The lyne arms are slightly descending to the shell and tube condensers in an adjacent building.  The still heating was changed from direct fire to steam coil in the 1980s.

I mentioned the old concrete worm tank earlier and Barnard was quite fascinated by its “novel cooling plan”.  It was 50 feet long by 6 wide and just 3 deep and he describes a water flow that “rushes along the one side and back the other, over the worms, proving the simplest and most effectual condensing method we have met with”.  This water flow also powered two water wheels but neither the tank nor the wheels have survived.

Aberlour Warehouses
There were two warehouses in 1886, built from stone and with corrugated iron roofs.  One of them, with three spans and domed roofs, can be seen on the left foreground of the old picture higher up the page, the other two storey building is on the right behind the distillery.  Barnard noted that 2,000 casks were stored in the warehouses, now there are around 25,000 in dunnage and racking warehouses around the site and many more stored at Chivas’ main bond at Mulben near Keith.  Most Aberlour is matured in bourbon casks but they also use Oloroso casks and then marry whisky from the two cask types in different ratios for each bottle in their range, except for the A’bunadh which is exclusively Oloroso sherry butt matured.

At the end of his report Barnard notes that “near the entrance there is a small office for the Distiller and another for the Excise” but I think he is here referring to the entrance to the yard that he has just finished describing rather than the entrance gate by the main road.  The building beside the entrance is dated 1897 and was built as the Distillery Manager’s home, later converted to offices and the small distillery shop where a warm welcome to this enchanted corner of Speyside awaits you.

Aberlour Distillery office and shop
Fleming had sold the distillery that he designed to Robert Thorne & Sons in 1892 and it then changed hands a couple of more times, generally staying in production most years and gradually expanding.  It was bought by Pernod Ricard in 1975, the first Scotch whisky distillery bought by a French company and part of their whisky division Chivas Brothers today.  Barnard noted an annual production of around 364,000 litres, sold principally in England and Scotland - the capacity is now just over ten times that and they produced 3.5m litres in 2010 (MWYB 2011).  Most of their production is now bottled as single malt Scotch in a range of age statements and it has recently been the best selling single malt brand in France.

Nothing else for it then but to try some of the expressions and so we repaired to Warehouse No.1 where a cosy tasting room has been created, with a feel like being in an old grocer shop with their own barrel of whisky sitting in a rack by the counter, only here with a view into the maturing casks in the warehouse beyond the glass.

Aberlour tasting room in Warehouse No.1
The upturned barrel tables were pre-laid with six glasses for each of us to sample.  The variety of sweet flavours that revealed themselves through the drams was quite impressive.  The sweetness began in the dash of 70% new make we started with and which was not unpleasant at all, carried through and enhanced by the cask influence in the other whiskies.  The next two drams were both 16yo single cask CS whiskies from the casks racked in the tasting room.  The first was from a bourbon cask, an expression of Aberlour not normally available by bottle, and it was intriguing to try the whisky in this different style - massive VANILLA on the nose (I can still sense the aroma just thinking about it) followed by light banana and pear to taste.  The second was a first fill sherry cask which was understandably warm and spicy to taste with a long finish.

The 10yo we sampled was not the usual UK retail bottle but a version normally only available in France that has been further matured in sherry casks for 6 months after the initial marrying; I think I still prefer the UK version though.  My favourite of the day was the evenly balanced 16yo, 50:50 between the cask types and with a nice long drying finish that I quite like in a whisky.

The final whisky was the A’bunadh which is Gaelic for ‘of the origin’.  This whisky was intended to recreate the style of Aberlour as it was around James Fleming’s time, except without the peaty notes that would have been present then.  The idea came from the discovery of an old bottle that had been bricked up in one of the buildings and which was wrapped in a newspaper dated 1898, the year of the rebuild after the fire.  The A’bunadh is batched exclusive from sherry cask whiskies which is representative of those earlier times as bourbon casks were not introduced into Scotch whisky production until the 1920s, and the predominantly younger whiskies married in each batch would reflect the age of whiskies commonly drunk at the time.

Jonathan had earlier described the pagan Celtic history that was relevant to the location; the mysticism and enchantment of the chattering water and woods providing a place where our ancestors would worship and invoke the spirits of nature.  The oak tree that is the emblem on Aberlour labels and the pure water that flows here were key elements of their culture and Jonathan playfully suggested that our adoration of the water of life matured in oak casks made pagans of us all as we joyfully celebrated those elements that are brought together to create it.  The Burn of Aberlour could even be heard chattering away outside the warehouse during silent moments of contemplation of the whisky before us, the spirits of nature murmuring their appreciation of the craft that is employed on the banks of the burn.

Burn of Aberlour chattering outside Warehouse No.1
There is the opportunity to fill your own bottle from the bourbon and sherry casks that sit silently, patiently watching over you partake of their nectar during the tasting.  There is something quite special about bottling and labelling a whisky direct from the cask by hand and having your name and bottle number entered in a ledger, it adds another level of anticipation and appreciation to the resulting dram that will follow.  The visitor experience at Aberlour is one of the most welcoming and informative I have encountered, and the relaxed way in which each process was explained and the informal and rustic setting for the whisky tasting all added to the feel of enchantment in this sheltered vale.

Aberlour Distillery
After the tasting, Jonathan spent some time filling in answers to the questions that I had saved as we went round and he pointed out a couple of things around the site that I could try to relate to Barnard’s report.  The march of progress means that there is very little of the original distillery remaining, even from the rebuild after the fire in 1898, but you don’t need floor maltings, pagodas and peat smoke rising from a kiln to invoke the spirit of whisky when the warmth and passion of its creators and curators can take you to its very heart by ‘letting the deed show’.  The second Aberlour distillery still flourishes and I am very grateful to Jonathan and to Chivas Brothers for their kind hospitality and their help with my research.

I’m beginning to feel a real attachment to Speyside that I hadn’t known before, similar to that which I normally feel for Islay.  What further enchantment awaits me on this journey?


Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Charlestown of Aberlour

It seems a long time ago that Barnard settled into the Gordon Arms in Elgin as a base for his distillery visits around that town and down to Rothes, his time in that hostelry enjoyable and impressing him greatly.  He then decided to move base by taking a night train to Keith to stay at another Gordon Arms, this time for two weeks as he travelled in the ‘Glenlivet’/Speyside district, and he again comments very favourably:

“excellent quarters…one of those rare old fashioned hostelries which are fast passing away.  Mr Barclay, the jolly landlord, made us exceedingly comfortable during our fortnight’s sojourn at his house.”

I located the Gordon Arms Hotel on old maps of Keith and I was pleased to find that it still runs as a hostelry today, now called the Grampian Hotel since the 1980s to avoid confusion with two or three other Gordon Arms in the region (although no longer the one in Elgin), and when I stayed there on my later trip to Keith I found it as comfortable and welcoming as Barnard had, more on which another time.

Grampian Hotel, Keith - formerly site of the Gordon Arms
The next day Barnard made his first trip to Craigellachie Junction, en route to Aberlour Distillery.  He describes the train journey through the valley between Keith and Dufftown “alongside the River Isla, into a picturesque country of woods and stream…such pictures of rocky ridges, wooded plantations, miniature waterfalls, river and mountain, that it all seemed like magic”.  An enchanted start to this next section of his adventures then, enchantment a theme that we will encounter a few times in this report and the next.

Barnard’s party were coached to Aberlour from Craigellachie by the proprietor of the hiring company himself, Charlie Stuart, and he notes here the Telford Bridge that I mentioned in my post on Craigellachie.  On reaching the “charming village” of Aberlour he offers his first impressions of Benrinnes (sic) as a “grand mountain 2,765 feet above the level of the sea, and from its summit ten counties, from Caithness to Perth, are visible”.  I will have to take his word for that as I wasn’t for venturing up that far, me old jalopy only taking me to around 1,100 feet on the mountain pass through to Glen Rinnes.

The bare wind swept north slope of Ben Rinnes
Ben Rinnes is one of the most important whisky mountains in the whole of Scotland, shepherded on three sides by distilleries with six in total directly relying on its burns and springs for water supplies, many more benefiting from the watershed that this high point in the district creates.  We will hear more on its fluvial properties as we circle around it on our way through Speyside; a variety of whiskies would be appropriate refreshment if you were to take in the view from the summit.

Barnard continues with mention of James of the Hill, a “noted freebooter”, in a tale of dubious origin and then notes the water rising from a spring near the summit that feeds into the Burn of Aberlour.  Aber (mouth of) lour (loud or chattering burn) gives its name to the village below and to the distillery that sits by its lower banks.  Half a mile above the distillery the burn falls over a cascade that Barnard identifies as the Lynn [Linn] of Ruthrie, “a fall of 30 feet, broken by a projecting rock, and received into a gloomy pool below”, a delightful setting that our early nature worshipping ancestors would have celebrated as mystical.

Linn of Ruthrie on the Burn of Aberlour
The word Linn we have encountered before as being a Scots word for waterfall/pool and Barnard also here describes rocks covered with trees “which reverberate the sound of the water”, a sound that reflects the name 'chattering burn'.  The Second Statistical Account of Scotland (SSAS), where Barnard may have taken his wording from, records that the burn “falls into a circular pool or basin below, formerly of immense depth, but now greatly filled up by the boulders and debris brought from the hills in the flood of 1829”, this flood being the Muckle Spate that wrecked havoc along the Spey valley and its tributaries in August of that year.  The burn was in some rush when I visited, the waterfall a thundering cascade that drowned out any chattering.

Aberlour and the Haugh of Elchies from near Fairy Knowe
A path through the woods begins beside the distillery entrance and follows the burn upstream to the Linn, then round below a conspicuous mound known as Fairy Knowe for a great view across the village to the slopes on the other side of the Spey.  The Knowe is another of those places once considered enchanted, a possible old burial cairn or small stone circle on its summit.  My walk up from the Linn was a little surreal, not from fairy activity but courtesy of a couple of local lads who were practicing their tracking skills on me, almost staying out of sight but not quite out of sound once the roar of the falls was left behind.

From the top of the path a steep walk downhill into the village brings you to the Fleming Cottage Hospital.  James Fleming was the founder of Aberlour distillery in 1879 and he lived in the town until his passing in 1895.  He was a great businessman and philanthropist and fully embodied the Fleming family motto “Let the deed show”.  This philosophy is evident in the legacy that he left in Aberlour and reflected in various locations around the town, including the Hospital which he left £9,000 in his will towards.  He had earlier designed and financed a public hall and also left £500 towards the Victoria Suspension bridge to replace the ferry across the turbulent Spey, after hearing that someone had fallen from the ferry and drowned.  The bridge opened in 1902 and was also known as the Penny Brig as a penny was the fee to cross it at one time.

Victoria Bridge (Penny Brig) over the Spey at Aberlour
The old church of St Drostan once stood in the kirkyard across the road from the distillery at the south end of town, now ruinous after first falling into disrepair and then further damaged in the Muckle Spate that also destroyed the old Manse.  The ruined walls of the south transept are all that remains of the church which gave its name to the community of Skirdustan that long preceded the current town.  An ancient packhorse bridge crosses the Burn of Aberlour beside the cemetery, once the main route into the community but now in disrepair and hidden in trees.

Aberlour was extended up the slopes on its east side in the late 20th century but wandering through the main street you can see evidence of the simple town plan that was developed by a local Laird, Charles Grant of Wester Elchies, in 1812 and after whom the town received its official name of Charlestown of Aberlour.  A new church in the town square was also built as part of this development and it only has clock faces on three sides of the steeple, the blank northwest side appropriately facing the timeless flow of the River Spey.

Aberlour church and old station, now the Speyside Way Visitor Centre 
Between the church and the Spey was the old railway station, now the Speyside Way Visitor Centre with a putting green where the rail lines once ran past.  Nearby, the Mash Tun is a well known hostelry frequented by whisky drinkers, and beyond it the Speyside Way continues on its route upstream and passes by the Penny Brig.

Continuing up the main street we finally reach Aberlour House which stands in landscaped grounds at the very north end of the town.  Built in 1838 it was later converted into the junior Prep school for Gordonstoun independent high school which is north of Elgin.  The two schools shared the same motto "plus est en vous", a contraction of "plus est en vous que vous pensez" which means "there is more in you than you think", which sounds apt as a motto to adopt after whisky festivals as well!

Since 2004 Aberlour House has been the headquarters for Walker’s Shortbread, a fine piece of sustenance to have along with a dram of something robust such as the whisky from Aberlour distillery.  The history of the distillery and Barnard’s and my own visits there are described in my next report.


Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Craigellachie Distillery, Craigellachie

I mentioned in my Macallan report that when Barnard passed by Craigellachie in 1886 there was very little to see in the village and no distillery at that time.  However, he did return here a few years later to visit the Craigellachie distillery that opened in 1891, that visit included in a longer report he was writing on the distilling activities of Mackie & Co. which is a useful starting point for my own visit.

That later report was titled “How to Blend Scotch Whisky” the final chapter of which discusses Mackie & Co.’s bonded warehouses in Glasgow.  He may have begun his journey the day after being there as he records setting out for the “Braes of Glenlivet” after breakfasting in Glasgow.  His Braes of Glenlivet seems to be a generalisation for the area of the Highlands that he is on route to, at a time when having the Glenlivet name as an addendum to your distillery was commonplace in this area.  In his comments on blending he uses Glenlivet as a division of whisky alongside other regional identifiers, in the same way that we use Speyside today.

His report offers some interesting asides about his travel experiences in the decade after his main tour.  From previously having mixed views on rail travel, much preferring the open air available from steamships and the box seat of horse drawn coaches, here he relishes in the rush of the train, commenting “who would exchange this luxurious travelling for the coaching days of olden times”.  He seems to have gone up in the world a bit since his book was published in 1887, has our Alfred; I wonder if he still remembered to take his hip flask for the journey?

Craigellachie Hotel
He lodged at the Craigellachie Hotel for this visit, probably very soon after it opened in 1893.  His report is not dated (again!) but in the section on blending it includes reference to the mineral analysis of water supplied to Glasgow from Loch Katrine reservoir and takes its data from an 1892/93 report.  He also concludes his visit with the comment “a new hotel has been built in this picturesque valley” which I think also refers to the fact that on the site of the Craigellachie Hotel was previously the Fife Arms Inn which had provided accommodation for the railway junction.  The Fife Arms was demolished in 1892 to make way for the new hotel.

The distillery was founded by Peter Mackie and Alexander Edward, both of whom we have encountered before.  Peter was the ‘Restless Peter’ of Lagavulin fame and, more recently on this journey, White Horse whisky which is a blend that included Craigellachie malt.  Alexander Edward was a local Laird who would later be involved in the founding of Benromach and Dallas Dhu distilleries on his Sanquhar Estate in Forres around 1898 (he bought the estate in 1896) and other distilleries we will come to later.

Quaich Bar at Craigellachie Hotel
It was also Edward who bought the Fife Arms Hotel in 1892 and rebuilt it as the Craigellachie Hotel; no wonder then that Barnard was staying there and was met on arrival with “a substantial repast already provided for us”.  The road that rises past the hotel and on past the distillery was named Edward Avenue sometime before 1902.  In a further twist, the previous owner of the Fife Arms was apparently also proprietor of the White Horse Inn in Dufftown, although no direct connection to the whisky which was registered as a trade mark in 1890.

Craigellachie and Speyside Cooperage below Blue Hill
Barnard notes that the distillery sits on a spur of the Blue Hill that rises steeply to the south of the village.  He was met by the general manager Mr Bain whom he takes imperial delight in describing as standing “over 6 feet in his stockings, and is as fine a specimen of a Highlander as we have seen in our travels”.  Mr Bain guided Barnard round the premises and similar to his second report on Glenrothes distillery he stops short of including all his usual detailed measurements in this report.

I was met by the current manager Rob Fullarton who had kindly agreed to let me see inside a distillery that is not open to the public.  Rob was engaged with some distillery works when I arrived so I was shown round the facility by Donald Graham whom I had met briefly before when I was at Royal Brackla distillery which is also owned by John Dewar & Sons.

Craigellachie Distillery from Edward Avenue
The distillery now is very different from that which Barnard witnessed as it was reconstructed in the mid 1960s.  The original was one of the earlier distilleries that Charles Chree Doig designed and was a more compact arrangement of his later classic E shape with little or no space between the different arms of the complex.   The later more open designs, such as at Benromach, Dallas Dhu, Coleburn etc. would have been safer from the spread of fire.

The “imposing three story maltings” were converted into a warehouse in 1968 and subsequently converted into malt storage.  The kiln, now disused, is the only building remaining from the original Doig design.  Barnard describes it as being rather a handsome object with a “ventilating cupola” and “fitted with all the latest known improvements”.  The distillery was built just a year or so after Doig first came up with his now infamous pagoda roof design for Dailuaine distillery and may therefore have been one of the first to benefit from it; the etching in Barnard’s report clearly shows a Doig style pagoda.

I should state here that the etching is rather stylised and done in a way that enhances the rural and more romantic aspects of distilling and the highlands.  It suggests that the distillery sits isolated from other buildings and has the River Spey flowing by not far from the end of the warehouses, which was a bit of an exaggeration on both counts.  However, the overall layout of the buildings does align with that shown on a map from 1902 so it’s a useful record from long before the current 1960s redevelopment.  The etching is also included in the picture framed sign in the Distillery office and shown above.

Confluence of the River Fiddich and River Spey
A spring on the Blue Hill provides the process water as it did when it was founded, the cooling water now being drawn from the River Fiddich that passes close by, not far from where it discharges into the Spey, two famous whisky rivers connected near to where the ferry used to cross at Boat of Fiddich and where a railway viaduct once connected the Morayshire and Strathspey railways.

Hydraulics and drainage underneath Craigellachie Lauter Tun
The mash tun is perhaps the first part of the distillery where I can provide a direct connection to Barnard’s report.  The original cast-iron tun was 15 feet wide by 5 deep and was fitted with “all the latest improvements in mashing apparatus”.  The current tun was installed in 2001 and it was the first Steinecker made brewery lautertun installed in a distillery and adapted for whisky production.  You may have seen the rakes in a tun turning through the mash but a full lauter tun also has vertical movement of the rake assembly.  Here I was able to see the hydraulics underneath the tun that are required to drive the rakes up and down through 10 tonnes of malted barley to help extract as much sugary liquid goodness as possible.

Craigellachie Washbacks
There is not much to report on the washbacks - Barnard didn’t mention how many or what size they were originally, but he does note that the tun room is a “fine place”!  There are currently 8 larch washbacks of 60,000 litres capacity which are filled with 47,000 litres of wort for a fifty hour fermentation.  Barnard rather lets us down with his description of the stills as well - I mentioned earlier that his report avoided some of his usual fascination with measurements but all he says is that the still house is a pattern of neatness and order “wherein are the pot stills erected by Willison”.  Not helpful, Alfred!  There would appear to have been two stills originally and a further two were added during reconstruction in 1964-5 and all converted to steam heating in 1972.

Craigellachie Stills
The current stills are amongst the largest in Scotland.  There are two wash stills and two spirit stills and they all have a monster 56,370 litre capacity.  However, the charge level is only 23,500 litres for the wash stills (half a washback) and 21,500 litres for the spirit stills, meaning that there is a relatively high copper contact during distillation before the vapours pass through fairly long and slightly ascending lyne arms.  There are outside worm tanks for condensing and with the distillery not in production on the day I visited I was able to see the arrangement of the gradually reducing pipes inside, all adding to a slightly heavier character in the final spirit than you would get with modern condensers and contrasting with the lighter vapours arriving off the stills.  There is both a light fragrance and a warm depth to the whisky as a result of these interactions.

Craigellachie condensing worm
Barnard makes no mention of warehouses on site and perhaps the earlier stock was removed to central bonds for use in Mackie’s White Horse blend.  A local newspaper did carry an advert in January 1893 for tenders to build a duty free warehouse so it may have been added sometime soon after his visit.  Extensive warehouses are shown on a map in 1902 but these were demolished in 1981 and the land is now a grassy slope in front of the distillery.

In the years after Barnard’s visit further developments on site included the construction of a reservoir and filter beds in 1902 after periods of closure due to problems with the water.  The Speyside Cooperage was originally established on the south side of the distillery in 1947 and operated there until it moved to larger premises not far up the road in 1992.  The site of the old cooperage is now almost inevitably a modern housing development which includes a street called Coopers Court.  There was also a Craigellachie Brewery which opened beside the distillery in 1897 although I can’t trace how long it operated for and the buildings were demolished a long time ago.

The distillery was fully taken over by Mackie & Co in 1916.  That company changed name to White Horse Distillers in 1924 and were then taken over by DCL in 1927, thereafter through the various guises of that company before being sold to Bacardi in 1998 along with the John Dewar & Sons business and sister distilleries.  They have been operating 7 days a week in recent years and producing up to 4m litres p.a., most of it contributing to Dewar’s blends.

Craigellachie Still House
Now, something very odd - the distillery was built in 1890-91 but a number of sources state that it did not start operation until 1898.  Barnard’s visit appears to be around 1893/4 and he doesn’t indicate that the distillery is either new or not in operation.  In fact he does record a heap of 2,000 quarters of barley waiting to be steeped, and of the whisky he notes “the chief characteristic of the Craigellachie brand is the pineapple flavour it develops with age” which indicates that production had being going on for a while.  He continues, intriguingly, “it matures also very rapidly, eighteen months’ whisky having the appearance of three to four year years old.  It will be in its prime in about five years”.

The 14yo OB released in 2004 is the only Craigellachie I have tried, courtesy of a kind gift from the distillery.  The bottle passed round at a tasting was generally met with curious and appreciative feedback from those present who were all mostly new to the dram as well.  That robust feel created by the worm tanks adding depth to a spirit that balances malty and fruity notes quite nicely with a slight smokiness.  I only just managed to save a little from the eager palates at that gathering to sip as I was writing this, and yes that pineapple is still there on the fragrant nose, so there’s a Barnard whisky tasting note for you.

Craigellachie Distillery
My thanks to Rob and Donald for their hospitality and for a whisky that has gone done well with the folks in Edinburgh.  Craigellachie is a quiet, unassuming distillery that is off the tourist trail yet my visit here has added some very interesting historic detail to the journey and has also ticked off another rarely found distillery on my list of those whose whiskies I have tried – not many to go now.


Saturday, 14 April 2012

Craigellachie landscape and the Speyside Cooperage

Barnard passed through and stopped at Craigellachie a number of times on his travels.  The railway junction here was a place he disembarked after travelling from accommodation in Keith on a number of occasions as it was convenient for hiring horse drawn carriages for visiting distilleries that were off the track or did not have nearby stations.  He notes in his Aberlour report “Craigellachie is a good hiring station, and it is well for travellers to know this, otherwise they may have to retrace their steps for many a long mile before they can procure a horse and vehicle”.  We get a picture of a busy transport hub here, following the earlier days of it being a crossing of ways for cattle drovers.

Craigellachie village above the River Spey
The name Craigellachie comes from the steep cliff that faces the village from the opposite side of the Spey, the Craig Ellachie, possibly translating to either ‘rocky/craggy hill’ or ‘rock of a stony place to cross a river’.  This name is enshrined in the history of Clan Grant whose motto is Stand Fast and war-cry is “Craigelachie” (sic), sometimes recorded together as one phrase.  Another hill called Craigellachie can be found rising steeply on the west side of Aviemore at the southern end of their territory and a few miles south of Castle Grant, their original ancestral home, the Grant lands once stretching “between the two Craigelachies”.  Further discussion on the origins of the name and its association can be found on Clan Grant’s history pages.

Telford's Craigellachie Bridge and the Craig Ellachie cliff
The cliff formed a border of the old trunk road north of the Craigellachie Bridge before the current A941 was built on a straighter path.  Of the old road Barnard says “the road of access to the bridge is most picturesque, being cut out of the face of the solid rock, amid scattered firs of the impending mountain”.  The bridge was designed by Thomas Telford and is certainly one of the most picturesque crossings of the Spey, standing in graceful contrast to the stark rocky cliff above it and the straight lines of the modern bridge that the main road now crosses.

Craigellachie Bridge approach road from north, cut into the cliff face
Telford’s bridge was completed in 1814 and it opened up the road network to connect the parish of Aberlour, of which Craigellachie formed the northern corner, to the market town of Elgin and the port at Garmouth.  The Second Statistical Account of Scotland notes in 1836 that the bridge is “frequently visited by strangers as an object of curiosity” - a statistic I was happy to add to.  The bridge was used as a vehicle crossing up until 1972 and the new crossing was opened in 1970.

Old and new Craigellachie Bridges over the River Spey
The Craigellachie Bridge was one of the few on the river to survive the muckle spate of August 1829, the largest flood ever recorded on the River Spey.  The river rose almost 20 feet (6m) above its normal level in some places and wrecked havoc along its banks, washing away homes and bridges and scouring the top soil from fields.  The bridge survived this onslaught as its high single arch of cast iron with a span of 150 feet allowed the turbulent waters to pass safely below, unlike masonry bridges where several arches supported by pillars standing in the water were washed away, such as at Fochabers.  Regardless, the flood still damaged the masonry supports on the eastern bank almost to the loss of the bridge, but somehow it survived.  Stand Fast, Craigellachie indeed.

Confluence of the River Fiddich and River Spey
To the northeast of the bridge lies the section of river known as the Boathole of Fiddich where the River Fiddich meets the Spey, two famous whisky rivers merging near to where a ferry was stationed before the bridge was built, and where the railway viaduct once connected the Morayshire and Strathspey railways at Craigellachie Junction.  There are wider shallow sections on the Spey here beside the shingle banks of the Heathery Isle, once used for safer crossing of cattle, although the water still flows pretty fast through here.  This crossing point perhaps adds weight to the second meaning of Craigellachie noted above.

New Craigellachie Bridge over River Spey rapids at the Heathery Isle
The Strathspey railway and junction transformed the economy of the highlands and led to the growth of Craigellachie as a village to support the transport links.  When the viaduct across the Spey was completed in 1863 it connected the Strathspey railway to the Morayshire railway and Inverness beyond for just over a century.  Both of these lines were closed in 1968 and the tracks of this once great network were removed soon after, including the demolition of the viaduct.  Very little seems to have been recorded about the viaduct and it was gone by the time a 1971-73 map was published; the only photograph I could find was on Wikipedia and dates to 1890.

Overgrown remains of the Craigellachie railway viaduct (north side)
There is still evidence of the junction at Craigellachie - one of the old platforms is still obvious but overgrown, others are now long grassy mounds that trace the layout of the junction, and there is a circle of flagstones marking where a train turntable once operated.  But that is about it - the once great industry that transformed this little corner of the highlands disbanded and removed, a victim of the Beeching cuts in the 1960s that restructured our national railway network and closed many rural lines.

Platform from old Strathspey Railway at Craigellachie Junction
The Speyside Way country trail now passes along here with a branch off the main route that you can follow all the way to Dufftown after crossing over another viaduct, this time over the River Fiddich.  The Popine corn and saw mills were once powered by the Fiddich on the other side of the viaduct, the overgrown mill lade all that remains of the industry that once thrived along this stretch of the river.  A farmer’s auction mart was later added beside the railway junction, a throw back to the days of cattle droving through this valley.

Nearby is the historic Fiddichside Inn at the Bridge of Fiddich, one of the smallest bars in the country but with one of the nicest settings for its terrace beer garden.  The Inn was working as a public house back to the time of the building of the railways and it still retains an old world charm inside.  The meeting of ways that is Craigellachie offers accommodation for travellers in a number of B&Bs, and whisky drinkers may well be familiar with the many shelves full of bottles at both the Highlander Inn and the Craigellachie Hotel, more on which in my next post when I will report on the distillery in town.

Speyside Cooperage
Craigellachie’s whisky connection lies not just with its own distillery as it is also home to the Speyside Cooperage, the largest independent cask repairing business in the country.  This facility not only provides a cask building and repair centre that supplies many distilleries, it is also a five star tourist attraction where you can see the coopers at work and appreciate some of the craft that goes into allowing our greatest product to mature in its oaky cocoon.

The importance of good oak casks and the variations that cask type, age, treatment, previous contents and even location in the warehouse can have has been the subject of many distillery communications, forum debates and comments from whisky ambassadors and writers in recent years.  From the earliest days when casks were used simply to transport liquor, often in very small quarter-casks or smaller to help evade the pesky authorities, the influence of the cask in whisky production has gradually become more and more important and better understood and appreciated.

Some distillers now own their own forests in Spain and America and supervise the process from the very beginning at the planting of saplings.  Others own their own bodegas and sherry seasoning operations to ensure the casks arrive in Scotland exactly to the specification they need for their spirit.  At Highland Park, Glenmorangie and Macallan I had previously seen the importance of wood selection and cask construction in some detail and discovered the differences between American and European oak; at the Speyside Cooperage all of these factors are celebrated, together with the traditional craft of coopering.

At one time almost every distillery had its own cooperage on-site and many were recorded by Barnard, although not in too much detail. One of his earliest descriptions was at Dundashill in Glasgow where the cooperage had “the usual facilities for steaming and seasoning new casks, and where the immense stock of casks, over 12,000, are overhauled and repaired as they are returned”.  At Loch Katrine distillery he records casks piled in “a perfect pyramid” and at Clydesdale there were “upwards of 100 Sherry Butts just imported from Spain”.  His favourite description though, oft repeated, was just to say that a distillery had a “capital cooperage and cask shed”.

Speyside Cooperage and cask yard below Blue Hill
Coopering in Barnard’s time was therefore a far more widespread industry that also supported the extensive breweries that patterned our cities in the Victorian era.  Now there are only a few distilleries left who cooper on site and thus central cooperages such as Speyside supply the casks needed for most of the industry.  The Speyside Cooperage was established in 1947 when it was located right beside the Craigellachie Distillery in the village.  It moved to its present site just above the town in 1992 and this family-run business now builds or repairs well over 100,000 casks per year.

The visitor tour begins with time to browse the display boards, cask sections and coopering tools that take you through the long history of coopering as well as discussing the characteristics of different types of oak and different cask sizes.  This is followed by a film that celebrates the life of an oak tree and the craft of the cooper, the journey from ‘Acorn to Cask’ that is the philosophy behind the visitor experience here.  All very informative (and multi-lingual) and you will have a new appreciation of the humble Quercus acorn after you leave here.

The main reason to come here though is to see the coopers at work and the viewing platform above the main cask processing area gives a great view of all the activity below.  The coopers here are trained on a four year apprenticeship and for many it becomes a career for life.  They are paid on a piece-meal rate for each cask made or repaired and there are 16 coopers employed in total.  This is obviously very physical work and many of the tools have changed little since Barnard’s time and long before, a good eye and steady hand required to fit the staves into a watertight cask that may then lie untouched in a warehouse for several decades.

The processes include repairing casks where some of the staves have become cracked or weakened, rebuilding hogsheads from staves imported from abroad and converting American barrels into different sized casks for storing whisky.  Some of the tasks are automated to assist the coopers and speed the process but the traditional craft and skill remains as it always has.

In the yard behind the cooperage stand the ‘perfect pyramids’ that are the most efficient way of storing casks that are waiting for some tlc, either at the hands of a cooper or ready to convert the spirit from the still into whisky.  The final results of the quality of each cask are not revealed for many years, and best appreciated from a single cask whisky, the individuality of each one testament to the personal touch of the cooper who selected the staves and built it.