"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

Friday, 1 June 2012

Cragganmore Distillery, Ballindalloch

After Dailuaine Distillery Barnard’s reports follow a rather round about route, first recording a trip up the Spey valley to Cragganmore Distillery one morning, then seemingly back to Dailuaine for a quick stop and then northwest to Cardow in the afternoon.  Criss-crossing the countryside between these places would have entailed some arduous travelling no matter which direction he took but he faced it with no criticism or sign of weariness.

It would seem that he began that day on an early train from Keith to Carron via Craigellachie, recording that they left Carron soon after breakfast, but then took a carriage drive for over two hours from Carron to Cragganmore despite the railway line continuing up stream from there and with Ballindalloch station very near to Cragganmore.  Perhaps the Strathspey Railway didn’t run too often then, or his off-peak saver didn’t allow him to travel when the sun was up.  Actually, Barnard wasn’t one for using saver cattle class tickets as we shall see in a later report.

Whatever the reason for the change of transport he seemed to enjoy the varied scenery and the sun breaking through as they passed by the Ballindalloch estate.  From here the road diverged to turn back on itself as it descended into the River Avon valley, with the main route at that time continuing on to Glenlivet but now turning through a long sweeping bend with a steep ‘oh my god, brake!’ angled descent (it’s a ‘can we make it in third gear all the w…no, no we can’t’ type of ascent when arriving from the west).  River Avon is one of those tautological names that often occur in the landscape, ‘Avon’ being the anglicised version of the Gaelic ‘Abhainn’ which translates to English as 'river' to begin with.

'Palatial entrance' to Ballindalloch Castle
Barnard records passing the “palatial entrance to the castle of Ballindalloch, and immediately afterwards crossed the bridge over the river Aven (sic), a fine stream, which takes rank as the third in Scotland for salmon fishing”.  This old bridge, built in 1800 from stone with a large single arch and a smaller storm channel, stills leaps across the Avon beside the gatehouse, the main road now crossing by a modern concrete lump of traffic management just upstream.  A few people were on the old bridge as I stopped by, the occasional fleeting glimpse of a leaping salmon drawing their attention away from that later disfigurement that blots the landscape.  Who does a thing like that, and have they been released on parole yet?! Hrmpf; I will spare you a picture.

Original Bridge of Avon, built 1800
I have to tell you about the intriguing motto inscribed on the crest above the gatehouse – “Touch not the cat bot a glove”.  This is a motto of Clan Macpherson who have long been associated with Ballindalloch Castle, Sir George Macpherson-Grant being the then resident and landowner from whom the Cragganmore distillery land was leased.  The motto means don’t touch the cat unless its claws are ‘gloved’ i.e. sheathed - a warning to all who do business with the clan not to cross them, and wise words whenever one engages with a member of the feline species (I’m sure my scar will fade eventually, and I’m sure that cat is still sitting in the sunbeam it refused to be moved from).

Anyway, I drove across the carbuncle (…) and followed Barnard down the steep hill towards the distillery where “the beauty of the Spey valley is enhanced by the contrast it offers to the wild and rugged scenery around it”.  I think the new bridge designers may have used that as their get out clause – make it ugly so it will enhance the beauty of the Spey!  As if it needs it.  I’ll stop now.

Ballindalloch Station and the Speyside Way
Barnard then passed by the Ballindalloch railway station at the foot of the hill, perhaps now kicking himself for not waiting for the local service*.  The railway crosses the Spey nearby and the lattice girder bridge built in 1863 still sits on its stone supports, now carrying the Speyside Way.  The section of the original Strathspey Railway from here to the Bridge of Carron is the only stretch that followed the north bank of the Spey, the sections south to Abernethy (Nethy Bridge) and north of Carron to Craigellachie all meandering along close to the south bank.  Although Cragganmore was built close to the railway, the first distillery in Speyside to do so, there was no siding running in to the distillery grounds so casks would be carted the short distance downhill to the goods yard beside the station.

Ballindalloch Bridge
From there the approach to the distillery crossed over the Burn of Allt-na-creigh by “rather a dangerous bridge” apparently, which I was disappointed to find had been replaced by a wider road with the burn channelled underneath so I couldn’t see what the old fellow was concerned about.  The burn begins on the hill named Craggan More (meaning big rocky place) that rises over 1600 feet to the south of the distillery and is referred to by Barnard as the Craggan Burn that supplied the distillery and powered two water wheels.  It still feeds the dam above the distillery to provide cooling water (and now recorded as the Allt na Criche) but the process water is now drawn from six springs at various points on the hill.

Craggan More from the A95 above the distillery
And so we arrive at one of the distilleries that I had been most eager to visit on this journey.  Cragganmore 12yo was one of the first two malt whiskies I remember really appreciating, along with the Oban 14yo.  It was Diageo’s Speyside representative within the original six Classic Malts and was a catalyst for my love of good whisky, a first brick in the foundations of this adventure taking place some 15 years later and a whisky I still happily return to when not wishing to go peaty too early of a shift.

Cragganmore distillery was founded in 1869 by John Smith, who already had experience as a distiller at first Macallan and then Glenlivet, then south to Clydesdale Distillery at Wishaw, before returning north and leasing nearby Glenfarclas in 1865 and Ballintomb by Carron in 1867, the latter seeming to cease operation soon after and not recorded on a map surveyed in 1869.

Cragganmore was built from greenstone rock hewn from the side of Craggan More and Barnard describes it as “a series of outlying old-fashioned buildings, none of them enclosed” although he later mentions that the main buildings form a quadrangle.  The main buildings today still have an old-fashioned feel to them and they still stand around a quadrangle entered through an ornate iron gate.

Cragganmore Distillery
A number of sources claim that Cragganmore was designed by architect Charles Cree Doig of whom we have heard a lot recently.  A problem here is that said Chaz D was born in 1855 and so would only be 13/14 years old when the distillery was built!  His important work with distilleries was not to begin until the 1880s and unless he was sketching the design for Cragganmore while daydreaming during his school maths lessons (a distraction I can fully endorse) then he would not have been involved in its beginnings.  Even an old distillery brochure refers to it being “designed by the experienced Elgin architect Charles Doig” from the outset.  There could be one of two confusions here - he is recorded as being involved in the refurbishment of the distillery in 1901 and this involvement may have been misinterpreted as being from 1869, or it may have been that the first buildings were designed by the Elgin based firm of architects that he later joined, that firm being renamed as C.C. Doig & Sons in the early 1900s after Charles became a partner and took over the business.  Answers on a postcard…

John Smith’s eldest son William was the manager when Barnard visited and escorted him around the premises.  Cragganmore is now one of Diageo’s distilleries that is open for tours so I very happily joined a lively international group to be shown around by Irene, although unhappily without the dramming they enjoyed afterwards due to my need to drive onward to my next stop; but had the railway still been running here...

Cragganmore malt store in old malting, looking south inside the quad
So, to the granaries, which were situated on the slope of the hill, or not, as they no longer are.  Barnard’s description offers nothing unusual here anyway so nothing really to compare.  The peat though, that’s a different matter.  He records that the malt was dried using peats cut from a moss three miles away.  The peats were dried on the moss for a year and then stored at the distillery for three years before being used, the longest drying time I can recall from his book.  The current whisky has only a very slight smokiness and that comes from around 2% of the barley used being heavily peated and then added to the main bulk of unpeated barley in the mash, rather than all the barley being dried to a low range peatiness.  The malt store is still housed in one old granary building along the south side of the quad.

The Mash House and Still House were originally both in the same building on the south side of the quadrangle but today they are separate and on the east side.  The mash tun was a smallish 16 feet wide by 4 1/2 deep and despite having two waterwheels on site the stirring rakes were here driven by steam.  The tun room held six washbacks at 11,360 litres each and Barnard notes that they were “switched with props in the ancient style” which conjures up images of slaves been driven round in circles, wearing a channel into the floor from their bare blistered feet and spurred on by the promise of some hooch to help them forget.  And they say there are no jobs for students any more!  The current tun is a stainless steel full-lauter which takes a 6.3 tonne mash and there are still six washbacks but now taking 33,000 litres of wort each for a minimum of 60 hours fermentation.

Barnard says very little about the two old pot stills, with the wash still holding 9,100 litres and spirit still 5,700 litres.  The stills were doubled up to four in 1964 and they are of a similar size to the originals, the wash charge now being 8,725 litres and the spirit charge at 6,600 litres.  The spirit stills are an unusual design with flat tops and the lyne arms coming off at a right angle rather than a swan neck, a peculiar arrangement I have only seen before on Pulteney Distillery’s wash still.  The wash stills have constricted necks and there are reflux balls on the spirit stills with the spirit condensed in two outside cast iron worm tanks, each pairing of wash and spirit still sharing a tank.

Cragganmore warehouses
There were eight warehouses around the yard, including a new two story warehouse, and holding the equivalent of nearly 1.1m litres from production of 410,000 litres p.a. at the time of Barnard’s visit.  Today there are three dunnage warehouses to the north side, a mixture of old and new at two and three stories high, but not able to store all of the current annual production capacity of up to 2m litres (MWYB 2011).

Barnard notes the proprietor’s house on a rise above the distillery from where he has a “bird’s eye view of the whole work”, and he and his son William owned some of the surrounding farms.  He sadly records the passing of John Smith soon after his visit and his son Gordon then inherited the business, in connection with his uncle George initially as Gordon was only 14 at the time.  The role of the eldest son William who was manager and showed Barnard around becomes uncertain at this time, as is the actual relationship of Gordon to John.  John is recorded as his father but also in some places George is his father, and he is also not recorded as one of John’s sons who are listed as William, Robert, George and John [libindx].  Postcard, answer, etc…

From the outset, the whisky produced at Cragganmore had all been purchased by James Watson & Co, a whisky merchant based in Dundee, and the distillery remained in the Smith family until 1923 when a new company was formed with Mackie & Co (later White Horse Distillers) as joint owner along with Sir George Macpherson-Grant of Ballindalloch (the grandson of the peer who had initially leased out the distillery land) and so Cragganmore became a constituent part of the White Horse Blend and from there ultimately into DCL/Diageo.

Further to my appreciation of the 12yo as a foundation in my dramming experiences, the Distillers Edition that has been double matured in port pipes has long been one of my favourite whiskies.  In fact, since introducing it to a number of people a few years back, I have yet to find anyone who has not enjoyed it with suitable appreciative noises.  A few different releases have appeared and I think my all time favourite of this favourite is the 1993 (bottled 2007).  Sadly there was none of this earlier release left at the distillery as a few other people seem to have had the same idea.  I have recorded my enjoyment of port finished whisky a few times on this blog and this is one of my top two favourites of this style of whisky.  You can keep your wersh wine finishes; the red fruit jam notes and drying aftertaste often found from port finishes works for me and Cragganmore will always be a fondly remembered distillery.

* I wonder if there is another reason for Barnard not taking the train from Carron down to Ballindalloch, and back up before visiting Cardow.  His journey here may have been soon after flooding on the Spey had damaged the Garmouth viaduct near Spey Mouth for a while and led to a confusing description of Barnard’s journey to Inchgower – perhaps there was concern over the safety of other bridges further upstream as well and they were closed for a while.  I’m going to have to add a bit of flood and railway management research to my growing list of outstanding tasks for another time!

A number of anomalies appear from my research here.  John Smith is variably recorded as being lessee at either Ballintomb or Ballindalloch Distillery at the same time as Glenfarclas, but I can’t find a record of Ballindalloch as ever being a name for a distillery, and Cragganmore is located in that district so this may just be a misreport of the Ballintomb name that was licensed in the mid 1800s.  The uncertainty around CCD’s involvement as architect and who Gordon Smith actually was are noted above.

Also recorded sometimes is the distillery being the first to have its own railway siding but this doesn’t appear on any maps I have seen.  It was the first to be built beside a railway in Speyside so maybe the siding has been a misreport of this somewhere as well, unless it was just a private section in the goods yard on the other side of the station.  Any further historical evidence on any of these points gratefully received to put me in my place, but what is not an anomaly is that cat claws are lethal and you really should let sleeping cats lie (ouch)!