"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!