"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

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Imperial Distillery, Carron

A drive of just over a mile from Dailuaine Distillery, crossing the Spey by way of the elegant Bridge of Carron, brings you to the Imperial Distillery which was opened by the Dailuaine-Talisker Distillery Co in 1898, 12 years after Barnard’s first visit to the area.  The bridge was built as part of the Strathspey Railway and carried a single line across the Spey.  The railway track has now gone but that side of the bridge is still sectioned off as part of the Speyside Way, traffic passing by on a single lane alongside.

Bridge of Carron, rail line once ran on left side
The distillery was built beside Carron Station which had opened in 1863.  The station house is still there, its rusted clock no longer marking the arrival and departure of trains that last ran here in 1968 before the track was removed.  Barnard did pay a visit to this station on his way to Balmenach Distillery but I will save his insightful comments for that later report.

Carron Station and overgrown platform
The convenience of the station for the distillery was enhanced with sidings running right alongside the warehouses and the maltings and a later tramway connection to Dailuaine.  A pulley system on the side of the warehouses allowed casks to be raised and lowered directly from/into the wagons.

Imperial Warehouses, pulley on left above the rail track
Imperial Distillery opened in 1898, Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year, its name a reflection of her long reign over the British Empire.  While Speyburn had toiled to ensure that their first distillate ran by the end of that jubilee year in celebration, Thomas Mackenzie named an entire distillery in her honour.  The original kiln apparently had an enormous gilt crown on its roof (Udo, 2005) but it was removed in the 1950/60s and I haven’t found any pictures of it.

The distillery was designed by Charles Doig and was built from Aberdeen red brick, Mackenzie already having a connection to that city through the North of Scotland Distillery taken over in 1896, the brick colour a darker hue of the pink patchwork that marked the British Empire across the global map.  Some of the original structure was lost during reconstruction in the 1960s and replaced with steel and concrete buildings, and the current monolithic and decaying buildings have whitewashed plaster cladding over some of the remaining brickwork, although some of it can still be seen.

Imperial Distillery, built from Aberdeen red brick
Warehouses and offices in the grounds were built from stone rather than brick and a large block of warehouses beside the railway have since been demolished.  The plan for the distillery also included a row of workers houses known as Imperial Cottages, built to the northwest of the distillery and still occupied today.  The four large octagonal filter beds of the effluent plant still stand, roofless, in the distillery grounds.

Imperial Distillery offices beside railway station
Water was piped from the Ballintomb Burn which runs from the Mannoch Hills to the north, drawing rainfall from the same slopes that feed the Burn of Rothes.  The Mannoch Hills may only be half the height of their illustrious neighbour Ben Rinnes on the south side of the Spey but they have proven to be just as vital to whisky production in the wider area.

Dailuaine Distillery had been a success for Mackenzie, along with James Fleming who had died in 1895, and the business had expanded in the 1890s to include North of Scotland and Talisker Distilleries.  However, Imperial opened just in time to meet the grim reaper who rode a horse named Pattison through the industry in an almighty crashing of casks and dreams, and so it closed within a year and remained silent until reawakening in 1918.

Dailuaine-Talisker was taken over by DCL in 1925 and they closed Imperial the following year along with many others, although it continued to provide malt for Dailuaine.  It remained silent again until reopening in 1956 and then in the mid 1960s the distillery was reconstructed, the maltings and kiln demolished and Saladin maltings installed.  Imperial’s production was mostly used for blending and it then remained in production for nearly 30 years until 1985.  It opened again in 1989 after being sold to Allied Distillers who ran it for a decade until 1998 and then formally closed it in 2000.

Imperial Distillery after reconstruction
Prior to closing it had a copper domed stainless steel mash tun with rotating paddles and Udo (2005) records 6 larch washbacks at 56,500 litres each.  The number of stills had doubled from two to four in 1965 and the wash stills had a 36,000 litre capacity with an 18,800 litre charge, the spirit stills with a 31,820 litre capacity and a 21,000 litre charge, all condensing in tall slender shell and tube condensers.  Production volume had reached 1.6m litres p.a. and almost all of it went into blends, including Teachers and Ballantines, right up until it closed, although there are a few single malts to be found from independent bottlers.

The distillery was almost demolished in 2005 for housing, its location above the banks of the Spey both picturesque and sufficiently high above the river to avoid any flooding risks in the event that Muckle Spate II ever rumbles down the valley.  The mothballed distillery is currently under the care of Chivas Bros, its future uncertain and its regal beginnings now just a memory in this second diamond jubilee year.  Prince Charles likes a wee dram; perhaps he will be toasting the Queen with a glass of Imperial this weekend.


Friday, 18 May 2012

Dailuaine Distillery, Carron

To visit Dailuaine distillery, where Barnard spent a long day which he recorded in some detail, he again travelled by train from Keith to the “Spey-side Junction”, here using the old name for the junction at Craigellachie, and once more took a carriage from Charlie Stuart’s hiring station to carry him onward the five miles or so to Dailuaine.

The distillery was built a short distance from the Strathspey Railway but a link was not added until much later.  Barnard noted that arrangements for a “tramway” to connect the distillery to a railway siding were being made at that time but this wasn’t reported in local papers until 1894 and it was not completed until the early 1900s when the distillery was eventually connected to the main line not far from the Bridge of Carron.  All goods up until then would have been brought in by horse and cart, either down the steep road beside the Burn of Derrybeg or from Carron Station which opened in 1863 about one mile away across the Spey, a handsome cast iron bridge being built across the river to carry the line.

Bridge of Carron across River Spey
The last ‘puggy’ train to run the line for the distillery was named Dailuaine No.1, and after it was retired in 1970 it was restored and now sits on display outside Aberfeldy Distillery.  Its train shed is still near the entrance to Dailuaine distillery and currently used as a store.

Train shed at Dailuaine distillery
Dailuaine Halt, a passenger request stop a few hundred metres from the distillery, was not built until 1934 and it was used until 1965, not long before the whole Strathspey Railway closed.  It has since been rebuilt from railway sleepers into a pleasant picnic stop on the Speyside Way country trail.

Barnard didn’t seem to mind the carriage ride though and his delight at his surroundings is clear from his writing, the beautiful reaches of the Spey and tree lined mountain slopes particularly inspiring him.  Just before turning off the main road the view below him is summed up “words can convey but a feeble idea of the enchanting loveliness of Strathspey as it is now opened before us enclosed in its frame of hanging woods”.  He wanted to linger for hours here but the horse turned and descended the road down the narrow valley carved by the Burn of Derrybeg which was “brawling and gurgling all the way down the hill” towards the Spey.

Strathspey near Dailuaine
Still delirious from the enchanted view he continues to describe the scene as he approaches the distillery:

“Never was there such a soft, bright landscape of luxuriant green, of clustering foliage, and verdant banks of wild flowers, ferns and grasses.  The whole scene is dainty enough for a fairy’s palace…”

Some of the scenic descriptions provided by our historic travel guide can still be witnessed today and a wander through the verdant acclivities on this stretch of the Spey offers much to hold the gaze and inspire the poet within; Benrinnes, when viewed from these sylvan braes, emerges from its misty shroud as the Caledonian Parnassus.

Ben Rinnes from north side of the Spey above Carron
Barnard continues the ‘dainty palace’ theme by mentioning that this was the location for an overnight camp for “the ancient Queen” who was visiting her husband after the Battle of Mortlach where King Malcolm II was reported to have defeated a Danish army in 1010 A.D.  It’s not clear where he got the story from (it’s not in Anderson’s Guide that he often consulted) and there are a number of historical uncertainties about the whole episode, however there was a ‘Queens Green’ marked beside Dailuaine on earlier maps up until 1869, after which it was lost under the uppermost of the distillery warehouses at one time, those warehouses themselves since demolished.

Queen's Green site at Dailuaine, overgrown after warehouses demolished
The distillery name reflects its location, ‘Dail’ being a field or meadow and ‘uaine’ is Gaelic for green and Barnard used the earlier hyphenated form of Dail-Uaine in his report.  Green is certainly the dominant hue of this district.

Back to Barnard’s report and his driver is pointing out an old-fashioned mansion on the hill above the distillery which must be Dailuaine House, the residence of the distillery proprietor Thomas Mackenzie, son of William Mackenzie who founded the distillery around 1851.  James Fleming had leased the distillery after William Mackenzie died in 1865 and he remained here until he opened Aberlour distillery in 1879.  In the same year he maintained his interest at Dailuaine by going into partnership with Thomas as Mackenzie & Co.

Barnard records that a Mrs Grant of Carron had dwelt at the house for a while during which time she penned ‘Roy’s Wife of Aldivalloch’, an old Scots song about a dubious love triangle.  However, I wonder if she may actually have stayed at the older Mains of Carron farm as she lived c1747-1815 and Dailuaine House was built beside the farm sometime in the 1870/80s.

He also mentions that this area was the stronghold of James an Tuim (James of the hills), a “freebooter” that he also mentioned in his Aberlour report.  This leads him into a short local legend about a haunted smugglers bothy that appears on those dark and wild nights that are central to every good ghost story, wherein “the Still-fires are seen weirdly sparkling like eyes of diamonds, and the ghosts of the departed smugglers busy at their ancient avocations”.  The story goes that this vision had appeared to a shepherd one night, although perhaps inspired by the taking of a stiff glass of the Dailuaine!  The haunted location is noted as “a rocky cavern in a ravine through which rushes one of the Dail-Uaine Burns” and true enough ‘James am Tuim’s Cave’ is marked beside the Burn of Carron close to the distillery on an 1869 map if you wish to venture out past midnight in a storm to test the theory; just remember to take a wee flask of something spiritual with you to aid your, um, vision.

Burn of Carron near James an Tuim's cave
The next building noted by Barnard was the pretty villa of the Chief Excise Officer.  This is shown in one of the etchings in the book but it doesn’t appear on an 1869 map suggesting it was built after then.  Barnard describes it as a “charming little bijou place, with its garden sloping down to the waters edge”; so charming and bijou that it appears to have been demolished within 20 years of being built to make way for additional warehouses that were built on the site during the 1890s!

Barnard is once more moved to the sublime by the scene as he entered the distillery courtyard:

“Outside all is quiet and the stillness of death reigns; inside it is all life, bustle, and activity…In this retired spot, far removed from noisy cities and prying eyes, surrounded by all that is beautiful and lovely in nature, is carried on the mystery of John Barleycorn, - his death, burial and resurrection.  No wonder with these surroundings that the pure spirit emerging from such an Eden should be appreciated by mortals all the world over.”

Barnard’s party received a “hearty welcome from the proprietor in the good old Highland style”, just as said Mr Mackenzie was departing for London, leaving them in the hands of the distillery Manager to show them around.  Hearty Highland welcomes await you at many distillery visitor centres but they do not always go together with secluded industrial processing plants and Dailuaine is one of those factory distilleries not open to the public.

The distillery was built beside the Burn of Carron at the very base of the massive northern projections of Ben Rinnes.  A mill lead from the burn fed into a dam in the grounds and originally powered the water wheel and provided cooling water; the current dam for cooling water was built a little way further upstream to make room for the dark grains plant built behind the distillery in 1960 to process draff and pot ale from a number of distilleries in the area.

The Burn of Balliemullich is the source of the process water and it feeds into the Burn of Carron in the grounds, both beginning their journey to the Spey on the slopes of Ben Rinnes.  The Burn of Derrybeg mentioned before now joins the Burn of Carron underneath the concrete quadrangle in front of the distillery before the enlarged burn flows under the narrow road bridge and on into the Spey a short distance away.

Burn of Carron as it leaves the distillery grounds
Barnard records that the distillery was founded “early in the present century” but the recognised date of establishment is 1851.  Or was it 1852?  Perhaps even 1854 depending on which source you believe the most!  Anyway, mid century rather than early century, although with all the freebooting apparently going on around here there may well have been an earlier bothy style distilling operation here, making the most of the abundant clear water and the secluded location.

The distillery had been rebuilt and modernised in the few years prior to his visit and this is apparent when comparing the etchings in Barnard with the layout on the 1869 map.  There are actually two etchings in the book, one seemingly recorded from the east and one from the north, but they also seem to be from different times as they show slightly different arrangements of the buildings, or perhaps just drafted by different artists whose individual eyes were drawn to different features of the whole.

There were two granaries/maltings, one newly built and the other already known as the “Old Malting”.  The barley was lifted to the granaries by a continuous screw, the first mention of this apparatus I can recall in the book.  Barnard also at this point records a patent screening machine in use and he is here surprised to learn of the foreign objects such as small stones and bits of metal that can appear “even in home-grown barley” which “without the use of this machine…would spoil the flavour of Whisky”.  Or cause an explosion in the mill first!

It is fitting that Barnard describes the kiln building in more detail here than in any other report to date, as this kiln was soon to become part of whisky legend.  There were two furnaces, both heated with peat only, and the reek rose up through perforated iron plates in the drying floor 25 feet above.  The roof began a further 8 feet above the drying floor and then rose “with the steepest pitch in Scotland, to a height of 30 feet” giving the kiln a “tower-like appearance”.  He continues “It is considered that height is of great advantage where peats are used solely, as it gives the malt a delicate aroma, without having to use coke to prevent the flavour being too pronounced”.

Fitting that it should be described in such detail as this was the first kiln to which Charles Cree Doig attached his now iconic pagoda roof top for more efficiently drawing out peat smoke through the barley.  Barnard was not to know that though - Doig designed his pagoda in 1889 and installed it here three years after Barnard’s visit.

An interesting discussion on the origins of the design can be found at Celtic Malts and they include a copy of some of Doig’s original sketches.  The design of the roof top in the etchings in Barnard is similar to the first sketch in Doig’s evolution of design, marked with a cross through it as the characteristics we now recognise so well are teased out in different stages.  I was recently asked if the design was a deliberate attempt to mirror an oriental style but it seems from these drawings, and its original purpose, that it was more likely to just be functional, the term pagoda applied retrospectively.

Sadly, the original Doig pagoda was lost forever in a large fire that destroyed part of the distillery in 1917.  The distillery was rebuilt after the fire and re-opened in 1920, by this time with two kilns in place.  The floor maltings were replaced with Saladin boxes in 1960 and they were run until 1983 when the supply switched to the industrial malting at Burghead (Udo, 2005).  The two kilns were also demolished after the maltings closed.

Barnard’s tour continued with a view of the peat sheds where there were two thousand yards of peat that had been dried for two years before use; the malt used today is unpeated.  Back inside at the malt store he introduces another piece of machinery along with a new term “cummins”, also known as malt culms, which are the green shoots, or acrospires, that emerge from the barley as it is turned on the malting floor and which then become charred in the kiln.  The machinery here was designed to remove them and any other extraneous matter before the malt passed through the mill and I think this must be the very same screening machine that he mentioned earlier.  Equivalent modern machinery removes all extraneous material from the malt after delivery from industrial maltings.

The mash tun was a fairly regular 17 feet wide by 6 deep but the Steels mashing machine he notes is made from solid brass, unlike any other he had seen.  There were eight washbacks with a capacity of 22,720 litres each and all with water powered switchers.  The current mash tun is a full lauter from 1993 and there are 8 larch washbacks of 55,000 litres each (Udo, 2005).

There were three fairly small stills in operation, wash still at 6,800 litres and two spirit stills at 3,180, the proprietor preferring small stills “being convinced from long experience that they make better whisky”.  Each still had its own timber worm tub and the water running out from them drove various pumps and the rummagers.  In 1895 the Banffshire Advertiser recorded that they were installing “the largest wash still in north of Scotland” which seems like a departure from the previous approach.  At some time, possible during the rebuild after the fire, the stills were increased to 4 and then increased to 6 in 1960.  They all take a 32,000 litre charge and the distillery now uses shell and tube condensers (Udo, 2005).

Barnard next mentions a “ball, or running room at one corner of the Still House”.  I think these terms have fallen out of use since as I have been met with blank looks when enquiring about them at various distilleries.  They do seem to refer to the location of the pipe interchanges and the various receivers though, and Barnard mentions that here is the brass spirit safe which was a remarkable 10 feet long and was designed by the resident partner.

Dailuaine Warehouses
There were seven warehouses built from solid granite, some of which Barnard notes as being newly-built with one of them three stories high.  Some of them were separated from the distillery by the Burn of Carron and these must be the handsome range of crow-stepped warehouses that still line the road down from the Bridge of Derrybeg, once reached by bridges across the burn that is now culverted under the concrete quad where delivery tankers come and go.  They then had capacity for 6,000 casks from an annual output of 727,000 litres; today the capacity is 3.3m litres p.a. but the warehouses are no longer used (MWYB 2011).

Barnard summarises the various crafts and industries employed around the site and he notes the extensive fire precautions that include the ability to douse the highest building, such is the water pressure here far below the origins of those streams on the overlooking mountain.

Dailuaine-Talisker cask at Talisker Distillery
The Mackenzie & Co partnership became Dailuaine-Glenlivet Distillery Ltd in 1891 and they took over the North of Scotland Distillery in Aberdeen in 1896 and then built Imperial distillery near to Dailuaine in 1897/98.  In the same year they merged with Talisker distillery to form the Dailuaine-Talisker Distillery Co Ltd after a public offer for shares, a company name that still exists today within the Diageo Group after they became part of DCL in 1925.

Sitting on a rise above the distillery on its east side is Dailuaine Terrace, a row of distillery worker cottages built in the 1890s and originally called Deldonald Cottages after an existing homestead nearby.  Evidence of the ‘Danish Dyke’ defences still exists further up the slope in the woodland beside the cottages, supposedly the camp for the Danish army before they marched over the hills to Mortlach to get their asses whupped at the battle I mentioned earlier.  Today’s visitors from Denmark, and I know quite a few who are passionate about whisky, are far more warmly welcomed, the golden loot they seek now of the liquid kind that we are happy to share.

Dailuaine Terrace built as distillery cottages
Before his departure, Barnard climbed an eminence “from which can be seen, almost in a circle, no less than seven other distilleries:- The Glenlivet, Glenfarclas, Cragganmore, Cardow, Benrinnes, Aberlour and Macallan”.  He doesn’t name the eminence and I’m not sure from the landscape where he could take in all that view in a circle.  Perhaps it was the Hill of Phones or the Drum of Carron, reachable by the distillery road just to its the west, although that view today may be obscured by fir plantations and I’m not sure how Glenlivet and Cragganmore in particular could be seen from there, unless Barnard was witnessing them by way of their tall chimney stacks that have since been demolished.

Barnard rounded of his visit to Dailuaine by “quaffing a drop of the nectar, for which the distillery is famous” and then returned to Craigellachie to catch his train back to Keith.  Most of the production today goes into blending and the first official bottle was a 16yo in the Flora & Fauna range in 1991.  A couple more special releases have appeared since then, but like the Benrinnes whisky produced further up the hill, this is a malt that doesn’t appear on the shelf too often.

Most of the scenery described by Barnard may still be found, the timeless scouring of the land by the elements and the river within it not yet reducing it all to rubble to be carried to Spey Mouth and deposited as another tidal race for the torrent to play with.  Lost forever though is Doig’s original pagoda, its elegant lines once functional, now iconic, remembered and celebrated in sweeping rooftops at other places.  The design now lives on as just a symbol of historic practice in many distilleries, still functional currently at only five distilleries in Scotland - Laphroaig, Bowmore (kind of), Kilchoman, Highland Park and Balvenie.

Barnard finishes his report with a verse from a poem that he has used before in his Nevis distillery report, from Hugh MacDonald’s The Land of the Bright Blooming Heather, c1860.  The poetry that he sometimes quotes to sign off his reports had started to get repetitive by this point and I think he realises that and uses a little bit less in future and with no further repetitions.  I shall not venture to offer you anything with a poetic metre but will instead charge on with introducing the nearby Imperial Distillery which was founded by Thomas Mackenzie in 1897 and opened as part of the Dailuaine-Talisker group the following year.