"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, 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.