"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

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.