"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, 23 July 2012

Balmenach Distillery, Cromdale

Another slight geographical detour from the Barnard trail here - after Glenfarclas his next record was Benrinnes which I covered after Aberlour, and then he reported on Glenlivet before Balmenach.  I’m going to continue the journey upstream beside the Spey first before reversing back and following a route on the other side of the Hills of Cromdale and across the Glenlivet valley.

After the relatively closely packed groups of distilleries in the lower reaches of the Spey those upstream are further spread out.  Ballindalloch Estate to Cromdale is nine miles up the A95, an enjoyable stretch of road to drive if you can keep your eyes ahead and not be too distracted by the glorious scenery which is certainly enjoyable for your passengers.

Spey valley north towards Blacksboat
You may sometimes find yourself behind one of the ubiquitous blue coloured ‘MacPherson of Aberlour’ grain transporters or spirit tankers which lumber up and down this road, supplying distilleries with malt from the huge industrial maltings along the Moray coast and taking away their whisky to central bonds and bottling plants.  Not to be grumbled at if you are held up for a few miles as they provide a vital service to us drouthy drammers, and given the number of distilleries around here they will almost certainly be turning off the road before long.

Barnard didn’t have to consider such obstacles on his journey to Balmenach though.  No Siree, he made that trip in relative style and comfort.  He travelled to Cromdale by train from Carron Station and he offers us another little hint of his travel experiences here.  He begins his report with the words “although the Carron Station had been open for more than 20 years we were the only persons who had ever booked to Cromdale first class, the number of our tickets, which were faded with age, commencing at ought.”

Carron Station clock, faded with age
Wonderful – a journey of one hour, about the same distance as his trip over from Keith to the Spey valley distilleries each day, and this Victorian gentleman from London is seemingly the inaugural first class passenger on this section; no mixing it with the country class for Mr Barnard here.  I will soon be reflecting on a steam train journey that I took in the Highlands as part of this project and I must confess to having taken a first class booth on that voyage too, purely in the interests of providing a comparative experience to Barnard’s, I trust you will believe!

Cromdale Station closed in 1965 and the Strathspey line was silent from the end of 1968.  The station lay desolate for many years but has more recently been renovated back to its original glory and is now a private home.  An old railway carriage has also been restored and sits on the platform beside the house, all surrounded with railway memorabilia in one of the most picturesque stations preserved on the Speyside Way.

Cromdale Station restored
Barnard didn’t provide much commentary on his journey to Cromdale and on arriving at the station he then walked the path up beside the Burn of Cromdale to the distillery a mile away.  He notes that the distillery was about to have a tramway laid to connect it to Cromdale Station and which would also follow the Burn of Cromdale for much of its way, but for some reason it wasn’t actually built until 1897, over a decade later.  It passed under the bridge on the main road through an archway that is now closed up, and the embankment it ran along can still be seen on approach to the distillery and beside the Strathspey Railway course.  The dedicated pug steam engine that once ran this line is now sitting mothballed in one of the Strathspey Railway maintenance sheds at Aviemore but there is a photo on the railbrit website that shows the pug on the old line.

Balmenach tramway where it joined the Strathspey Railway at Cromdale 
On his approach to the distillery Barnard points out the Hills of Cromdale ahead of him.  These hills form a range of mid-height peaks (mainly ‘Grahams’ [hills between 2,000 and 2,500 feet] and associated tops) between Craggan More and the road connecting Grantown-on-Spey and Tomintoul and they separate Strathspey from Strath Avon where the Tomintoul distillery is located beside the River Avon.

The Haughs of Cromdale just above Balmenach were the location of the Battle of Cromdale, notable as being the last engagement fought as part of the first Jacobite uprising which had begun the previous year.  In the early hours of 1 May 1690 King William’s Red-coat forces from Inverness crossed the Spey at the Boat of Cromdale to Cromdale Kirk and then onward to Lethendry Castle where the Jacobites were stationed.  The castle was attacked with grenades and the disorganised Jacobites, caught by surprise and raised from their beds, were cut down or driven into the hills leaving their belongings behind.  Lethendry lies as a ruin a few hundred metres east of where the distillery was later founded.

The Boat of Cromdale crossing point on the Spey
On his arrival at the distillery Barnard asked the son of the owner to take his party to see evidence of past smugglers activity which was apparently rife in this area at one time.  He includes another tale of smuggler derring-do and the attempts of the authorities to catch them, describing how Revenue Officers demolished a double arched cavern near to where the distillery was later built and wherein an illicit still had been worked many years before.  The success of the Officers on that occasion led to little smuggling in the district thereafter, and after being established as a small farm distillery around 1800, Balmenach became one of the first licensed distilleries in Scotland in 1824.  It was founded by James McGregor and his son John was the proprietor when Barnard visited.

He then provided a more detailed description of the distillery workings than some of his other reports of late.  I was met by Assistant Manager Simon Buley who very kindly gave me a tour round to see the new, the old and the very old parts of the distillery to see what was comparable to Barnard’s report.  Balmenach isn’t normally open to the public and the layout perhaps isn’t the easiest for a tour to follow anyway, and Barnard’s tour also indicated a rather rambling set of buildings then.

Barnard noted that various additions had been made to the establishment in response to increasing demand but comparing maps surveyed in 1869 and 1904 with his report it would appear that there was a very large rebuild during the 1870s to early 80s.  The arrangement of the buildings became slightly more ordered from the straggling farm distillery that had existed before and it had expanded into an unusual T shape with warehouses sitting separate beside the burn.

Third Balmenach malting with outline of the once adjoining bothy
There were three maltings, none connected directly to the other, with one central, one beside the burn and another smaller quaint old malting that apparently sat beside the old smugglers haunt.  That bothy was once also home to ‘Granny McGregor’ but it has now gone although the outline of it can still be seen on the maltings wall.  The single kiln was at the apex of the first and third maltings which together formed one side and the upright of the T shape layout, the rest of the distillery being compact and forming the other side.  The kiln was only heated with peat dug from the Burnside Moss a short distance away but today’s malt is unpeated.

Hills of Cromdale, view towards Burnside Moss
A second kiln was added beside the first one sometime after Barnard’s visit but the biggest change to the malting process came in 1964 when Saladin box maltings were built in the space of the original main malting.  These were used until the mid 1980s but the equipment has all now been removed and the building fell into disuse after heavy snow collapsed the roof in 1990.  The kiln buildings were variously demolished and had their interior fittings removed in the 1960s and the pagoda roofs have gone; you wouldn’t know there had been kilns here at all.  The second granary beside the burn has also gone and the third one is now used for storage with one end of it converted in the 1960s to hold the barley steeping tanks for the Saladin maltings.

Saladin malting
The water source was described by Barnard as “brought from the Watersheds of Cromdale, two of the principle ones having been annexed for the distillery reservoirs; besides these, there are the Cromdale and Smuggler’s Burns”.  He really did like his smuggler stories around these parts.  The Burn of Cromdale runs past the distillery and onward to the Spey, the Smuggler’s Burn seemingly just a local name for another now unrecorded burn.  The mashing water is today brought from further upstream where one source for the Burn of Cromdale is known as the Allt na Chuirn (Burn of Cairns) as there are a number of cairns in the hills here, both on the summit and as way markers.  Cooling water is drawn from the burn reservoir near to the distillery.

Barnard viewed the ‘brewing house’ as the most primitive of places and the mash tun there was certainly that.  It was a small timber vessel at just 14 feet wide by 4 deep, one of the smallest in his book and another of the few still worked by paddles to stir the mash.  The current tun is a semi-lauter made of cast iron and was installed in 1963.  It takes an 8.25 tonne mash producing 38,000 litres of worts to fill one washback.  The two tun rooms were considered by Barnard to be gloomy structures, one with 7 washbacks and one with 3, all at just 10,500 litres.  The current tun room is a brighter affair and it houses 6 Douglas fir washbacks which run a 52 hour fermentation.

Balmenach washbacks
From the elevated floor of the tun room Barnard proceeded to a gallery overlooking the stills in a still house of the most antiquated type.  Nevertheless the stills were described by him as the most picturesque old Pot Stills that are as prized by the owner for contributing to the quality of his whisky as the water from the hills was.  There was a wash still at 13,600 litres and a spirit still at 9,100 litres.  Barnard here states that “the rummagers of both being driven by a small water-wheel, supplied from the overflow of the Worm Tub outside”.  I had previously seen rummagers recorded in use only on wash stills to stop the solids that end up in the pot ale from burning on the base of direct fired stills, but here it seems to have been both stills.

Balmenach Wash Stills
The stills were increased to 4 at some lost time, possibly during an 1897 renovation, and then increased to 6 in 1962.  The stills stand in a single row along the wall of the still house, 3 wash stills with a capacity of 16,200 litres at one end and 3 spirit stills holding 9,100 litres at the other, all with reflux bowls and descending lyne arms.  The spirit here is still condensed in a long narrow outside worm tank which is a steel construction fitted in 1923 rather than timber as before.

Barnard notes that one of the warehouses he saw was “said to be the largest in the north of Scotland” at 340 feet long by 60 feet wide, then containing 3,000 casks holding the equivalent of 1.1m litres but capable of storing double that.  This is surprising given the relatively small output of the distillery but some of the stock dated back to 1876 so perhaps the proprietor was stockpiling and favouring older whisky.  He also records it as “built of iron, on stone foundations” and I have only heard this once before, at Glen Ord distillery, and they gave me quizzical looks when I enquired about it there as well.  I can understand there being iron supports inside but not with walls of iron surely?  There’s more to this though, as Barnard continues:

“In the roof of this same building, by an ingenious contrivance, there is a smaller warehouse, 54 feet by 36 feet, standing on piers, reached from a doorway on the high ground outside.  This building was the first iron warehouse licensed by the Excise Authorities, and the proprietor had to overcome great obstacles, and make many alterations before he succeeded in obtaining the license.”

This use of iron for warehouses is intriguing and doesn’t seem to have lasted the test of time.  Perhaps the climate in the Highlands led to excessive rusting that would put the security of the structure at risk beyond that which the Excise were prepared to accept.  Or maybe over time the breathability of the structure was considered insufficient to allow for proper aeration of the casks.  I’m just randomly guessing here and there does seem to be an intriguing story to follow up.

Balmenach Distillery - an 'iron' warehouse once stood in the foreground
That unique old warehouse is the main foreground object in an etching in Barnard which shows two irregular sized bays that stepped down in three sections beside the burn.  It has now gone, with the larger part of it demolished in the 1960s and the smaller bay demolished later (post 70s); a stone wall marking the western extent of it is all that remains today.  Further extensive dunnage warehouses were added in the late 1890s on both sides of the tramline as it approached the distillery.  The warehouses on the distillery side are still used today with one section converted to offices, the ones beyond the tramway had a further dunnage warehouse built beside them in the 1960s but then the original warehouse block was later demolished.

1890s warehouse with tramway embankment circling round
Balmenach translates to ‘middle farm’ and the farm that the McGregor’s ran beside the distillery would have been the middle one between the village of Cromdale and Burnside farm further uphill.  The farm closed in 1978 and a dark grains and bio fuel plant was built on the land but it too has now gone, closed as early as 1983 and demolished in 1999.  The original farmhouse that was home to the McGregor family still stands empty beside the distillery.  The draff and pot ale were both once supplied as feed to the farm with another ingenious contrivance to pump the pot ale up into a wooden tank from where it could run right into the cattle-yard.

The McGregor family ran the distillery until it was sold to a consortium of blenders in 1922 and from there into DCL in 1925 and on into United Distillers.  They operated and further expanded the distillery until it was closed in 1993 and it then lay silent until Inver House bought it in 1997 and recommenced production in March the following year.

In the 1880s that small paddle stirred mash tun, 10 small washbacks and just two small stills were producing 410,000 litres of spirit a year, aided by the ability to malt all year round in the cool and slightly elevated location.  Balmenach now has capacity for 2.3m litres (MWYB 2011) and is the largest distillery in the Inver House group, producing whisky mainly for blends such as Hankey Bannister and MacArthur’s.  The distillery has no pretensions or visitor centre and it keeps its character as a place of industry, its history traceable back to the 18th century illicit distilling in the hills of this district.

Barnard’s party were treated to a taste of some 1873 whisky, 12-13 years old by that time, and he considered it to be “prime, and far superior in our opinion to old Brandy”, the first time I can recall him comparing whisky to any other spirit and he quite rightly comes out on the side of the Scotch (good man, Alfred!).

He also noted that some of their whisky “was supplied, by desire, to the proprietor of the Gairloch Hotel, Lochmaree, in 1878, for the special use of Her Majesty the Queen, and her suite”.  I can’t find any record of Queen Victoria having visited Gairloch in 1878, however for 6 days in September 1877 she did stay at the Loch Maree Hotel at Talladale on the southern shore of Loch Maree, around 10 miles from Gairloch.  Her journal entry for that week records a brief trip into Gairloch where she mentions the hotel but they didn’t seem to loiter too long as it was a very small settlement at that time.

Balmenach to Gairloch would be a fair old trek right across to the west coast of Scotland but the whisky could have been transported most of the way by rail, although not any more.  Connections could be made from Cromdale station down to Grantown-on Spey then up to Forres on the line which had opened in 1863, from there through Inverness to Achnasheen Station (unofficially twinned with The Middle of Nowhere) where Queen Victoria had also disembarked to continue the last 20 miles by horse-drawn carriage.

North shore settlements of Gairloch village
I passed by both Loch Maree and the Gairloch Hotel on my way up the west coast from Skye to Orkney, not knowing then that they would feature in a story from far away Speyside.  Ah well, I guess I’ll just have to go back sometime and enjoy that spectacular scenery once more, and enquire if they have an old bottle of Balmenach in the bar today.  The trials I have to endure!

I say an old bottle of Balmenach as there was no stock included in the sale to Inver House in 1997 and they haven’t yet released their own official single malt, although their first year distillate is now hitting 14 years old.  There are some independent bottles available and a 12yo was released in the Flora & Fauna range in 1992, the year before the distillery was mothballed by United Distillers.  In 2002, in keeping with their Royal connection from 125 years earlier, Balmenach released a 25yo whisky, limited to 800 still-shaped decanters, to celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee.

My thanks to Simon for an interesting tour and access to some more of our distilling history.  Simon also goes by the title of Gin Master and Balmenach is home to Caorunn Gin which is distilled there, handcrafted in small batches and infused with six traditional and five Celtic botanicals (Caorunn is Gaelic for Rowan Berry which is a key botanical in the mix).  There has been a recent renaissance in gin production with a number of distilleries now producing small batches of gin with some cracking flavour profiles.  The long dry finish of Caorunn is something I like in my Scotch too, and if Barnard preferred Balmenach to Brandy then I wonder what he would have made of their gin - the ideal aperitif when travelling first class through the Highlands perhaps?  I must make that steam train journey again to find out...


Thursday, 19 July 2012

Tormore Distillery, Advie

Continuing south down the A95 through Speyside and once more crossing the ‘Avon Avon’ the road then rises up the side of the Spey valley above where Cragganmore distillery nestles.  A little further along and we come to one of the most non-distillery looking distilleries in Scotland, at least from the outside.

Tormore Distillery
When Charles Doig was designing Glen Elgin distillery in 1898 he is reported to have predicted that there would not be another new distillery built in Speyside for 50 years.  His prediction was made not long before the Pattison crash at the end of the year, and it came true.  Tormore distillery was the next one to be built 60 years later in 1958 (although Glen Keith, founded in 1957, might also be considered the first 20th century distillery in the current Speyside region).

Tormore has a bold architectural design that is far removed from the less aesthetic industrial designs of Doig’s time.  Doig had reused and adapted an E shape design for a number of his distilleries but Tormore is architecturally unique as a distillery, a bold and picturesque design by Sir Albert Richardson.  I have heard some still houses being described as ‘cathedral like’ and that would certainly be an apt description for the huge, lofty internal space of this distillery with its tall arched windows flooding light in at either end.  Even the on-site generator house is in a matching building with an ornate cupola and clock above it.

Tormore Distillery and generator house, Craggan More rising behind
Tormore was built from scratch on a flat open field on the side of Craggan More hill.  The walls are white harled with granite dressing stones and the painters were freshening up the whitewash when I stopped by.  The main distillery building has a copper roof with verdigris set in, as if trying to camouflage this robust monolith within its setting beside Tormore wood and the surrounding farmland.  A number of new distilleries were built across Scotland in the 1960s and 70s but none of them quite matched the architectural statement made by Tormore.

The name Tormore translates as Big Hill, although Craggan More only rises to 476m so I’m not sure it is really fitting of the description within this mountainous area, and Ben Rinnes is not visible from here.  The river running through the grounds is recorded as the Allt an Torra Mhòir (Burn of the Big Hill) and it flows from springs on the slopes of Craggan More, so the water would be the obvious and very apt influence for the distillery name.  They actually record their water source as the Achvochkie Burn which is the name the Allt an Torra Mhòir becomes after it passes under the road and carries on down to meet the Spey.

The distillery was completed in 1960 and its founding company was Schenley International (MWYB 2011), a name not often heard around the whisky world today but once the owners of the Long John whisky brand, itself a name that once boldly adorned the front of the distillery.  Today it is owned by Pernod Ricard through their whisky subsidiary Chivas Brothers.  Tormore is not open to the public but Chivas tell me that the distillery has 8 stainless steel washbacks, a stainless steel full lauter tun, 4 wash and 4 spirit stills and an annual capacity of 3.7m litres of spirit.  Their malted barley is unpeated and the whisky is matured mainly in bourbon casks in a mixture of racked, dunnage and palletised warehouses in the grounds behind the distillery.

There were originally just 4 stills but this was doubled in 1972 (MWYB 2011) and all the stills have purifiers attached for a lighter spirit.  The still necks are bolted onto the bases by way of a collar rather than a continuous curved design and they have relatively short horizontal lyne arms to shell & tube condensers inside the still house.  Almost all of Tormore’s production has been used in blended whisky and there is only one OB currently produced, a 12yo that first appeared in 2004 which I am certain I have never tried.

Tormore Distillery Gardens
Tormore has never had its own malting floors and there are no fake pagodas on show either, not in keeping with the bold modernist design I guess, but there is some ornate topiary, landscaped gardens and a pool with fountains beside the main road.  All very picturesque and this stretch of the A95 probably doesn’t need speed cameras as many travellers slow a little to view the distillery as they pass by on their way to Chivas’ more historic and visitor friendly distilleries at Glenlivet or Aberlour.

Richardson Road, named after the architect, is set back from the A95 and includes a row of whitewashed distillery cottages and a community recreation hall that was added just after the distillery was built.  The cottages were built for distillery workers but are now privately owned; the original Manager’s House stands separate on the other side of the distillery.

A time capsule shaped like a pot still and containing barley, water, oak staves and a large bottle of Long John whisky was buried in the distillery grounds, to be opened in 2060 a century after the distillery opened.  Many times on this journey I have seen scant remains of where distilleries used to be but Tormore should certainly still be standing in 2060 as it is a category B listed building.  It is also one of four Chivas distilleries set to be expanded after they announced new investment in production capacity in May this year, so hopefully it will still be in production then as well.  If all else fails then a detailed ‘working’ model of the distillery is on display in The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Glenfarclas Distillery, Ballindalloch

Advance notice – this is perhaps the longest post I have written for this blog and it is a bit wordy.  If you do wish to read on then I might suggest pouring yourself just a wee dram to carry you through (you know you wanted one anyway - enjoy).

Having now seen all of the distilleries on the northwest side of the Spey my journey crossed back over to continue down the southeast side.  A few miles upstream from Aberlour and heading towards the estate of Ballindalloch brought me to where the Glenfarclas Distillery nestles on a lower slope of Ben Rinnes.  Glenfarclas was another distillery that Barnard visited on two occasions a decade apart; his first report was very brief but his second was part of a much longer ‘sketch’ as he called it.

On his first visit as part of his main tour he appears to have travelled by carriage from Craigellachie station (he was likely still residing in Keith at that time) before skirting round the foothills of Ben Rinnes.  Almost half of his short one page report is taken up with scene setting but his description of the scenery almost seems contradictory:

“Beautiful the prospect certainly was not; for without the soft magic of green hills, woodlands, and the river meandering in the verdant meadow, no scene can deserve the qualification; nevertheless, if unlovely, all was strange, gigantic and sublime.”

I’m not quite sure what he was getting at there as Strathspey offers all those qualities and therefore could be accorded the description of beautiful, as he has often done in other reports.  Those last few words though - strange, gigantic and sublime – could apply specifically to Ben Rinnes and it seems as if it was the mountain that held his view that day, rather than the valley.  The summit was mist covered and he records being fascinated by the weird sight as “the mist stole in and out the crags and buttresses…and, when it lifted, the higher peaks were just visible, like tiny black islands, against which the misty billows rose and fell.”

Ben Rinnes with cloud lifting over summit islands
The road south after Aberlour also rises a little way up the north-west flank of Ben Rinnes and away from the Spey for a number of miles until after it passes through Ballindalloch.  At this elevation Barnard could see the distillery from miles off, standing exposed on the slopes and its tall chimney apparently the difference between it being identified as a distillery and not being mistaken for a scattered farm-holding.

His brief and unremarkable report records that Glenfarclas was established in 1836, its water was drawn from several springs on Benrinnes (sic), there were small barley and malt barns, a peat heated kiln, mash tun, 6 washbacks and two pot stills with no volumes recorded for any of them.  There were also seven warehouses by that time holding 2,000 casks with an output of just 227,000 litres p.a., around the lower quarter mark in Scotland at that time.

And that was it for his first visit, but when he returned a decade or so later he provided more detail on the arrangements, although not by much.  His account of this second visit was included in a pamphlet titled Royal Gordon Whisky, included in the 2008 edition of Barnard, which began with a report on the operations of the producer of this historic blend – the infamous Pattison, Elder & Co of Leith.  Therein he also mentions Old Blended Glenfarclas-Glenlivet as another one of Pattison’s popular blends and they were also joint owners of Glenfarclas from 1896 until they became bankrupt in December 1898, which dates Barnard’s second visit to the distillery to sometime in those years.  I will return to the Pattison story in detail when the journey reaches Edinburgh, for now though it’s another wander along the Spey.

Once again less than half of his report is about the distillery itself, with the majority covering more of the scenery around Ben Rinnes and half of that part was a transcription of another traveller’s journey to see a smugglers bothy on the mountain.  Barnard described an 8 mile journey from Craigellachie railway junction on a cold spring morning, skirting Ben Rinnes via a “somewhat desolate mountain road” (now the A95 trunk road) just as he had that time a decade earlier.  He is more pleased with the scenery this time than last though, and suggests that the hills “stamped the scene with a character almost amounting to grandeur” which is rather restrained for him.  He was welcomed at the distillery by Mr Grant and enjoyed some hospitality with him before the manager showed him over the place.

Ben Rinnes grandeur from the new Craigellachie junction
At this point Barnard quoted three verses from an unaccredited song, stating “The burden of a famous song of the district at the beginning of the century was “Guid Glenlivet Whisky O!”.  The three verses were actually from a song called Highland Whisky which was set to Niel Gow’s air Farewell to Whisky composed in 1799.  A number of different songs have been put to this music, all with broadly similar themes in praise of the finest drink on earth.  An early version I found that includes those same three verses is dated 1827, although it only includes the word Glenlivat (sic) at one verse and not any of the ones that Barnard quoted.  There is an 1888 song called simply ‘Glenlivet’ to the same tune and with that quoted burden, written by James Scott Skinner and dedicated to Glenlivet’s ‘Major Smith of Minmore’.  Barnard may have seen both versions, tweaking the words of one to suit whatever point he was making about Glenfarclas then being part of the widely famed Glenlivet district.

Barnard then once again hints that he may not be too sure which way to point a compass as he suggests that Ben Rinnes sits on the south-western side of Glenlivet when it’s actually north to north-eastern.  I’m beginning to notice that for a well travelled man Barnard did rather seem to be lacking the map reading gene.  He does correctly record Glenfarclas as being the highest of the distilleries on the mountain at that time.  Benrinnes distillery is slightly lower but the highest today is Allt-a-Bhainne (built 1975) which sits almost exactly in a straight line across the summit point of the mountain from Glenfarclas.

He records Glenfarclas as being on the banks of the burns of White Rashes and Lyne Reach.  The Burn of Whiterashes is fed by a number of springs high up on the west side of Ben Rinnes and it flows down to a dam that once powered the distillery waterwheels.  The other burn would be the Burn of Lyneriach which begins in the same place but then flows west into the River Avon rather than down past the distillery.  The distillery name he records as first having been Rechlerich (the name of the farm on which the distillery was built) changing to Glenfarclas around 1830 which would reflect the official licensing of the distillery in 1836.  Curiously, it is not recorded in the Aberlour Parish statistical account of Scotland dated July 1836, perhaps as it was only first licensed that year, or perhaps because it sat on the boundary with Inveraven parish and each parish thought it belonged to the other?

The distillery buildings he described as substantial and which “with but one or two exceptions, remain the same as when anciently constructed, with no new-fangled alterations, wings, or projections”.  We shall see as we go on that some of these non-fangled original buildings still remain, but also that progress has now surrounded them with new wings and projections.  He continues “the antique vessels, stills, and worm are old-fashioned…and it is with great reluctance that they [the proprietors] allow a new pipe to be put in, or any alteration made, as they fear to alter the flavour or change the characteristics of their anciently-famed Glenlivet whisky”.  On this point we shall later see that old habits die hard and this philosophy has been maintained even through the refurbishments and expansions of the 20th century.

Barnard first toured the premises and then later climbed Ben Rinnes to take in the view, although his account of these two activities appears in the reverse order in the report.  On the climb he stopped at Cairn Guish which is the top of the curiously named Deaf Herd’s Hillock at around half way to the summit, and he noted the various distant hills and landmarks visible from there.

Deaf Herd's Hillock rising above Glenfarclas warehouses
He then continued to the summit before returning via the “Spring of Sauchie” about 500 yards above the distillery and which provided the mashing water.  He also recorded that the Sauchie Burn was nearby but the name Sauchie doesn’t appear on any 19th century map or reports I have seen.  This did lead him into the next full page and a half narration of an old traveller’s visit to a smugglers bothy, wherein it is noted as the Spring of Lauchie (also unknown).  I will save you the details as it’s a fairly generic and lengthy smugglers tale and I have no idea where Barnard sourced it from.  Sauchie translates as willow, so if anyone knows of a little copse of willow trees on the west side of Ben Rinnes with a spring nearby then you may well stumble upon the remains of the smugglers activity, just look for the shadows of three enchanted water sprites on a clear moonlit night…

Barnard does go on to confirm that Sauchie was then the source of the mashing water at Glenfarclas and it was “the most noted and valued spring in the immediate district, which is most carefully looked after by the distiller, by whom it is highly prized”.  The name may now be lost but it might still be a spring that feeds the Green Burn that supplies all the water today, and which is also so highly prized that George Grant IV petitioned the House of Lords to grant exclusive use of the water to the distillery.  After passing by the distillery the burn flows on into the Burn of Carron that supplies the cooling water to Dailuaine Distillery.  A mill lead supplies a small dam in the grounds of Glenfarclas beside where there was once an outdoor curling rink used by the distillery employees.

Only a few things stand out from Barnard’s second report of the distillery.  The first is a new vessel he described here for the first time – the couch.  This vessel once formed an intermediate stage between steeping the barley and laying it on the malting floor.  Storing the steeped barley in the couch for a day was an old Excise requirement under the malt tax rules, with measurements of the grain in the steep, the couch and on the floor all being taken by the Gauger.  The malt tax was repealed in 1880 but the couch at Glenfarclas still sat beside the steep and this is the only time I think Barnard mentions it, given as it was out of use a few years before his main journey.

The kiln was then heated only with peats and Barnard describes the scene on the nearby peat moss where turfs were being cut.  He then uses another of those evocative phrases that I shall steal from him – “incense of slumbering ages” – to describe the peat burning in the kiln that “saluted our senses with an aroma that haunted us long after we had taken our departure from Glenfarclas”.  The peat cone currently smouldering in front of me doesn’t quite muster up the same emotive thoughts, and the Glenfarclas in my glass is now only peated to around 2-3ppm so I may need to head back to Islay soon for another fix of incense!

As per his first report he again doesn’t provide dimensions for the various vessels.  The mash tun took 120 bushels (around 1.8 tonnes) and there were still 6 washbacks as per the decade before and here described as of considerable capacity.  There were the two old pot stills, the wash still having the “antiquated revolving chains to prevent the wash from burning”.  The seven warehouses that held 2,000 casks at his previous visit had very recently had an eighth added that alone could store 1,500 casks.

Aside from brief general descriptions of the various industries around the distillery yard that was it for his second report.  My own visit was in the far more informative company of Sales & Marketing Executive Kate Wright who very kindly gave me an extended tour during their silent season, so I was able to spend time trying to separate the old sections of the distillery from the new and compare it all to Barnard’s rather succinct notes.

Let’s start by filling in the few gaps in the ownership history not yet covered.  The distillery was licensed by Robert Hay in 1836 on the site of a previous unlicensed farm distillery dating back to at least the 1790s, probably earlier.  When Hay died in 1865 the tenancy of the distillery and the farm of Rechlerich were taken over by John Grant as the first generation of the Grant family to be involved here.  John promptly leased the distillery to John Smith of Glenlivet Distillery while his son George worked the farm.  Smith was to build his own distillery, Cragganmore, on the other side of Ballindalloch in 1869 and so John and his son took over the operation of Glenfarclas in 1870, the name J. & G. Grant still the company name today.

In late 1895 the Grants were looking to expand the distillery to take advantage of the whisky boom that was then feverishly sweeping the nation.  The ownership of the distillery was transferred to Glenfarclas-Glenlivet Distillery Company Ltd which they set up as joint owners with Pattison, Elder & Co.  Barnard came for his second visit around this time and the distillery was then expanded with a new larger malting being built.  However, in December 1898 the Pattisons were declared bankrupt and the ripples of this event were felt across the industry.

The Grants eventually managed to trade their way out of the ensuing financial difficulty and the family have remained in control ever since, which makes Glenfarclas the second oldest family owned distillery in Scotland (after Springbank which was founded in 1828).  Their current Brand Ambassador, George Grant, is now the sixth generation of the family to be involved with the distillery.

Glenfarclas Visitor Centre with the pagoda from their old kiln
Kate met me in the elegant visitor’s centre that was opened here in 1973.  Glenfarclas was one of the first distilleries in Scotland to open to public visitors and this was a welcoming and warm place to start my tour on what turned out to be a dreich old day with the summit of Ben Rinnes barely visible through the cloud, just as it had been that misty day when Barnard first visited.  Glenfarclas translates to ‘valley of the green grass’ and the abundant water here no doubt contributes hugely to the origins of that name.

We crossed the way to the front courtyard of the distillery and immediately the contrasts with Barnard’s time were apparent.  The original 18th century granary still stands at an angle to the other buildings, now reused as No.4 Duty Free Warehouse, and to the left of it is the tun room with the date 1975 registered on the end wall.  This building had previously been the new maltings built in the late 1890s but they stopped malting here in 1972 and it was refurbished into the tun room thereafter.

Glenfarclas Tun Room and old kiln building behind
You can still see from the layout of the buildings, beginning with where the old granary was, how the slope was used to ease the flow of material through the distillery with the aid of gravity.  At the bottom of the slope the old kiln was turned into the mill room in the 1970s but the huge pagoda that once adorned the kiln roof has been preserved and placed on top of the entrance to the visitor centre.  The malt is now procured commercially and 330 tonnes can be stored in the malt bins onsite.

The mill is a Swiss made Bühler mill installed in the 1970s and the modern de-stoner that works alongside it is also by Bühler.  An old wooden-cased dresser stands here as well and it is the first screening through which the malt passes and provides a further connection between the old and new.  A semi-lauter tun was installed in 1973 and at 10m in diameter it is one of the largest I have seen - they only run one mash a day as it takes 12 hours to complete with three waters passing through 16.5 tonnes of grist.

Glenfarclas Tun Room
Each mash produces 83,000 litres of wort that is split between two of the 12 stainless steel washbacks.  Glenfarclas had used wooden washbacks until the 1960s and the decision to change to stainless steel was a gradual one.  To ensure that the spirit produced would not be affected they initially changed only two of the backs to stainless steel and then monitored and compared the quality of the wash and spirit until satisfied that the change did not affect the end product.  Barnard had noted this reluctance to change 70 years earlier and that philosophy held true here in the 1960s.

Glenfarclas wash still rummager
The still house is now home to 6 stills working as three pairs, the number increased from 2 to 4 in 1960 and to 6 in 1975.  All the stills are gas fired having changed from coal fired in 1973, one of the few remaining distilleries not converted to steam heating so the wash stills have the rummager apparatus inside, a mechanism oft mentioned on this blog.  As it was silent season when I visited I was able to look inside one of the stills and see how this peculiar apparatus works in more detail than anywhere else I had been.  In contrast to the change to stainless steel washbacks the distillery also once experimented with steam coil heating in just one still, but the lab couldn’t recognise the spirit as Glenfarclas and so the still was converted back to gas fired and thus the character of their “anciently-famed” whisky was maintained.

Glenfarclas stills
These are relatively big stills that stand 6m tall - the wash stills are amongst the largest in Speyside and are charged with 21,000 litres from a single washback.  The middle cut from the spirit still is just 3,500-4,000 litres from a total distillation run taking 10 hours, so a narrow band of spirit to take into the cask to help ensure the finesse of the whisky.  There are reflux bowls on all the stills and downward angled lyne arms to the outside condensers.  They normally produce 24/7 and have a 3m litre annual capacity.

Kate then took me to Warehouse No.1, that very same structure that Barnard had visited on his first visit and which appears to date to a century before that.  The whisky from those eras is long gone and the oldest cask left on site is now from 1953 after the last of their 1952 whisky went into the 175th anniversary bottle released last year.

Glenfarclas Warehouse No.1 with historic wooden supports and beams
In 2007 Glenfarclas first released a remarkable series of whiskies under the title ‘Family Casks’ which reflected 43 consecutive years of whisky distillation from 1952 to 1994.  Further releases have followed in each year since 2007 and a stack of some of these casks was on display in warehouse No.1, with a 1953 cask sitting proud on the top level.  Of further interest to the whisky geek in me, and easily noticed in this sequence of casks, is the change from marking the cask fill contents in 1/4 gallons to marking it in litres, but not until 1980 even though the UK went decimal in 1971 (told you it was geeky).

Glenfarclas Family Casks
There are now 30 dunnage warehouses on site, holding around 52,000 casks which is a thirteen fold increase from Barnard’s second visit.  90% of their production is matured in sherry casks, 10% in bourbon and their standard bottles mainly contain whisky from first and second fill sherry casks.  Casks are brought direct from Spain where a family owned Bodega control everything from cask construction through sherry production and then export of the casks to the distillery.  When bourbon casks are used they are never first fill, the flavour profile of Glenfarclas whiskies predominantly offering those warm, rich, dark fruit sherry notes.  No whiskies with ‘finishes’ are produced at the distillery, one of the few not to go down that road for their single malt releases.

At the front of a booklet that I was given at the distillery there is a copy of a watercolour picture of the distillery which dates to 1791.  It shows a well established operation which must have been in place for some years prior to then.  An etching in Barnard’s second report shows the distillery from a similar viewpoint on the west side from around where the current visitor centre entrance is.  Some of the buildings in the watercolour also appear in the etching and are still there today, including the first two bays of the warehouse and the original granary building.

Glenfarclas granary of very old, now No.4 DFW
Warehouse No.1 now has the four bays recorded in the Barnard etching and it is still called No.1 Duty Free Warehouse; the granary is now No.4 DFW.  The kiln can be seen beside the old malt barn in both of the old pictures, with the distillery buildings perpendicular to it.  The current tun room (where the second malting was before) is where the course of the mill lead previously fed the waterwheels that powered the distillery.  The buildings you can see today provide a third view of the distillery, each view around a century apart and showing buildings that can be traced through more than 220 years of distilling history - there are very few distilleries in Scotland where that can be true.

Glenfarclas tun room where malting once took place on the site of an earlier mill lead
Before leaving, Barnard enjoyed a glass of ten year old which was “most acceptable...and a good preparation for our long journey”.  Before I left, Kate brought me full circle back to the visitor centre where we repaired to the bar for a wee dram of something special.  The tasting room is known as the Ship’s Room as the wooden panels on the walls are from the first class smoking room of the old ocean liner Empress of Australia, the panels bought at auction and loving restored here.  It’s a delightful place to savour a delightful whisky and that’s what I was about to enjoy.

Glenfarclas Ship's Room
After a brief nose of the new make (apples and melons, oily but also fresh) we then considered the 10yo, as Barnard had done, but with a twist.  Kate produced samples of the unmarried sherry cask whisky side by side with the same age sampled from a plain cask.  The latter produced woody notes but not the vanilla burst I was anticipating, and it seemed much younger than it was and against the rich honey sweetness and spices of the sherry cask.  Married together at around 2/3 sherry casks to 1/3 plain these two styles make the standard 10yo release a very approachable sherried whisky with a spicy tingle and a light smokiness.

Kate wasn’t done though.  She had remembered me pointing out my ‘birth’ cask in that display in the warehouse and the generous hospitality I had already experienced was now extended to include a taste of Glenfarclas from that year.  Wow!  This was sensational whisky, the oldest I have ever tasted, and despite its many years of gifting to the angels the cask had still held onto an abv approaching 60%.  This was a real treat that I will always remember and I am very grateful to the distillery and to Kate for the enjoyable time that I spent there.

Glenfarclas Distillery
Barnard had earlier summarised the landscape around Glenfarclas as providing “a touch of beauty and a feeling of homeliness to the lonely distillery”.  If it is a lonely place then that is solely due to the isolated location that actually contributes much to the quality of the whisky through the pure water and cool clean air that are in abundance; the beauty and homeliness is also reflected in the warmth of the whisky and in the welcome that a visitor will find there.

Barnard chucked in another couple of verses of Highland Whisky to conclude his report but I will leave you at the end of mine with a paraphrase of the same apology that he provided before he signed off:

“If I have indulged too freely in the reminiscences of my trip to Glenfarclas, it must not be ascribed to the potency of its whisky, but to the delight of being away, if ever such a little while, from cities and the busy haunts of men.”

Come away from your busy haunts men and women of the world, to a place where spirit has flowed since the industrial age was born and where you might just find a whisky from the year that you were.


Monday, 2 July 2012

Knockando Distillery, Knockando

Less than a kilometre downstream from Tamdhu and on the other side of the old railway station is the Knockando Distillery.  It was being built when Barnard visited Tamdhu in 1899 but he didn’t mention it.  It was founded by John Thomson who was previously a clerk at Miltonduff distillery near Elgin, then a whisky merchant with a shop on Elgin High Street in the 1890s, not far from where Gordon & MacPhail also started business in 1895.

When I visited Cragganmore distillery I found in their shop a booklet dated 1998 called Knockando, Man’s Art – Nature’s Mystery which records the history of the distillery and some of the details below are taken from there.  Knockando along with Glen Elgin are the two distilleries listed under Diageo’s Classic Malts that are not open to the public so a brief visit was nonetheless required to secure another stamp in my distillery passport.  First though I would like to consider some of the landscape features around here before we continue upstream on the journey through Speyside.

The name Knockando translates from Gaelic as ‘[little] black hill’, nearby Tamdhu also means ‘black hill’ and Cardhu just up the road is ‘black rock’.  But where or what is this black hill or rock which is so celebrated in these famous whisky names?  I haven’t been able to find a definitive answer and even the old Knockando Parish Statistical Accounts going back over 200 years only describe the same translation of the name from its Gaelic roots without identifying its location.

Tom Dow is the small hillock rising on the west side of Tamdhu distillery but it’s fairly low and unremarkable to be a defining landscape feature, and why the description of black?  It is well forested around the top and green fields surround that, so hard to see if it refers to a rock colouring there.

The River Spey looking east from the Craig of Tomdow
A more significant feature does appear between Tamdhu and Knockando distilleries.  The Craig of Tomdow is not so obvious through the trees below the railway bank at Tamdhu station, although the steps down to a fishing landing betray its steepness in contrast to the flat shore on the opposite bank.  The Craig (rock/cliff) was known as one of the most dangerous place on the Spey due to the rapids between the banks and the mid-stream islands and some of the tightest bends on the river.  Rafts of timber were once floated downstream from the inland forests for processing and export at Garmouth and for shipbuilding at Kingston-upon-Spey at Spey Mouth.

The following description comes from one parish report:

“On the Spey, a little above the mouth of the Knockando Burn, is the famous rock of Tomdow, which is very dangerous for floats of timber passing down the river, and where in heavy floods the rush and roar of water is terrific, it being said locally that 'Spey turns up the white o' her een after she gets a drink in Badenoch’.”

Badenoch translates from Gaelic as drowned or marshy land and it is a region in the centre of the Highlands through which the Spey begins its long but speedy route to the sea and is fed by numerous streams along the way.

The River Spey rapids looking west from the Craig of Tomdow
So, a description of white water through the rapids rather than black from anything else, other than the misery of a raft crashing into the Craig or breaking apart in the current.  Or perhaps the Craig appeared black coloured to those river workers of old if the current thick woods weren’t there?  It actually looks more menacing on maps from the 1860s and early 1900s than it does today, and not a patch on the steep cliff of Craig Ellachie downstream and I wonder if it was later quarried out for building material for the railway or roads in the district.  A map from 1869, a few years after the railway was built, records a ‘Cattle Creep’ pass under the railway which emerged at the east end of the Craig, presumably for cattle to reach the Spey for watering.  After the station was added beside it in 1899 it was recorded on maps as ‘Subway’ but it has since been filled in.

However, I think that there may be another historical origin for the name black hill - peat!  The hills rising on this side of the Spey are covered with extensive areas of peat moss.  Monahoudie Moss is a huge flattish area above the rise out of Carron and Knockdow Wood covers part of it.  Blair Hur (Bog-Hur) we heard about as the source of the peat used at Tamdhu distillery.  North of the village of Upper Knockando we come to the Cross of Knockando where the Hill of Blackroads and the hill called Carn na Cailliche have relatively gentle slopes with moss and marshland all over their flat summits.  Here the many burns and rivulets are named Black Roads which I imagine came from their colour.  The burning of the extensive heather that covers the slopes of these hills may also be reflected in the black name.

Ironically, Knockando distillery burned mostly coal and coke in their kiln, readily brought in on the railway that ran past its door, with some peat being added.  Any categorical record of what the black hill/rock name actually refers to would be gladly received.

Tamdhu station, previously called Knockando and Dalbeallie before that
The building of Knockando distillery commenced in 1898 to a design by Charles Doig and it started production in May 1899.  The road down to the railway and the new station were already under construction so that may have influenced the decision to locate the distillery there.  The station sat between Tamdhu and Knockando distilleries but didn’t originally share a name with either, though it would later go on to be named as both.  It was opened in June 1899 as Dalbeallie station, also the name of a farm on the east side of Knockando distillery, but was renamed as Knockando in 1905.  There is a record of complaints from local people about the name Dalbeallie being applied as they had raised money to have the road to the station built and thought that Knockando was a more appropriate name.  In 1977 the old station was renamed as Tamdhu by the distillery when they converted the former ticket office and waiting room into their visitor centre.

Knockando distillery was originally quite a compact affair with no maltings, four washbacks, two stills, and one long warehouse.  A concrete reservoir was built on Cardnach farm to collect water from the Cardnach spring for use in the distillery, another important factor in the sitting of it there, and it is still used today.  A few cottages were built for workmen so this was a venture with long term views, establishing a foothold in a boom time in the industry and at a prime location.

However, despite the early hopes for the distillery, it opened just in time for the Pattison crash to take its toll and it closed and was up for sale within 12 months of first production.  It lay silent until December 1903 when London wine and spirit merchants W&A Gilbey bought it and recommenced production in October the following year.  W&A Gilbey already owned Glen Spey distillery at Rothes, which they had bought from James Stuart (also of Macallan) in 1887, and Strathmill distillery in Keith from 1895.  Their main whisky was a blend called Spey Royal that included Knockando in the mix but it is no longer produced and today the name Gilbey’s continues to be better known for gin.

Knockando maltings and kiln and the Speyside Way
They expanded the distillery in 1904, again with Doig’s involvement, the washbacks being increased from 4 to 6 to boost production although they stuck with just the two original stills at that time.  A malting and kiln were added for the first time, placed in line with the distillery buildings to make use of the railway track running parallel to them rather than following Doig’s more common E shaped design.  I wonder if they got their malt from Tamdhu for that short first part-year of production.

The maltings closed in 1968, around the same time as the railway line closed to freight, and malt was thereafter procured from the industrial maltings at Burghead.   The malting was converted into a warehouse and the kiln building has been retained and is an appealing landmark on the Speyside Way as its pink hued walls and the pagoda emerge from the tall pine trees that surround the distillery.

Gilbey's Cottages and Knockando kiln pagoda
They also built additional homes for the workmen in 1904, the small row of cottages beside the distillery gates today still known as Gilbey’s Cottages.  A railway request halt was added at the end of the cottages in 1959 and there is a great photo on the railbrit website showing a carriage sitting on the siding that ran up beside the maltings.  The path of the Speyside Way on the old mainline route passes round the distillery just below this level.  The siding also ran along the end of the original warehouse and the platform with an old hoist for lifting casks into the wagons can still be seen.  The railway closed to passengers in 1965 and the last freight train ran the line on 4 November 1968 (railbrit.co.uk).

Knockando railway siding and platform beside original warehouse
In 1905 a new dunnage warehouse was added to store the increased production, at one time expanded up to 8 bays but now reduced to 6 with a car park now occupying the space of 2 old bays at the west end.  Gilbeys, with an extensive network of wine and spirit trading, had access to many different casks and had been using Madiera and Marsala butts and Port pipes for maturing whisky long before the recent trends in these more ‘exotic’ cocoons for the spirit.

With the exception of the nationwide halt in production during war years Knockando carried on quietly producing whisky with no significant new development until 1962 when Gilbeys merged with United Wine Traders to form International Distillers and Vintners (IDV).  Justerini & Brooks were one of companies in this group and Knockando whisky then became part of the J&B blends and from there a path into current owners Diageo.

Knockando Stillhouse recording 1898 construction date
They currently have a semi-lauter tun and 8 Douglas fir washbacks (MWYB 2011).  The stills were increased from 2 to 4 in 1969 and the two Wash stills take 14,450 litres and the two Spirit stills 8,400 litres, so at the smaller end of the scale in Scotland.  The Wash stills have constricted necks and a kind of squat fat lantern style to them, the spirit stills have boiling balls and all the stills have slightly descending lyne arms to outside placed condensers.

In the early 1970s the distillery was renovated and the first bottles of Knockando as a single malt were released.  By the early 1990s it was one of the top ten selling single malts in the world even though over 90% of production goes into blends (still including J&B Rare).  The annual capacity is now 1.3m litres (MWYB 2011) and the main single malt release is a 12yo.  There are also 18 and 21yo bottles available in some markets and recent 25yo limited releases that have been matured only in first fill sherry casks as opposed to the normal bourbon casks.  Knockando was originally released in the UK just as a vintage but it now carries an age statement as well.