"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.