"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

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Speyside Distillery, Drumguish

I mentioned in my post on Glen Spey distillery that whisky production beside the River Spey is almost topped and tailed by the three distilleries that celebrate the river in their names.  Speyburn and Glen Spey are in Rothes to the north and the furthest south is Speyside distillery at Drumguish on the River Tromie, near to Kingussie.

Speyside was not the first distillery of that name, nor was it quite the furthest south in the region at one time.  The small and perfectly formed Highland town of Kingussie was home to the original Speyside distillery which was built in 1895.  Always eager to search out a related story, even one that began a decade after Barnard passed through the region, I tracked down the location of that old distillery and went to search for evidence before heading for Drumguish.

Site of the first Speyside distillery in Kingussie, converted distillery offices on right
The distillery was a short lived venture, likely due to the effects of the Pattison crash, and it fell silent in 1905 (Udo 2005) just 10 years after it opened and never got going again.  It finally ceased trading in 1911 and most of the once fairly substantial buildings were demolished in the 1920s.  A short row of bungalows that once included an old distillery office is all that remains today.

The site of some of the bonded warehouses was later turned into a curling pond and is now a car park for the Duke of Gordon Hotel.  The hotel was originally the Duke of Gordon Coaching Inn built in 1836 and it was replaced by a hotel of the same name in 1906, around the time that the distillery beside it fell silent.  The hotel was badly damaged by a fire in 1996 and largely rebuilt in 1998, still named after the landowner who founded Kingussie village in 1799.

Speyside distillery in Kingussie and Duke of Gordon hotel
In another of those nice coincidences that have met me along the way, one of the hotel managers saw me looking a bit lost as I tried to get my bearings in the car park and asked if he could help.  And he could.  Inside the hotel, hanging on the wall, was a large old photograph showing the distillery as it was in the early 1900s with the hotel behind and the River Spey flowing by in the hinterland.  The photograph wasn’t dated but it was almost certainly taken some time after the distillery closed as there is no sign of any activity, not even any person, in a location where industry and traditional crafts would make a dynamic and noisy place at the time, the buildings alone now remembered in this frame.

From Kingussie the road to Drumguish takes you round past Ruthven Barracks.  These were built in a commanding position on a mound beside the Spey in the centre of the Highlands shortly after the second Jacobite uprising in 1715.  They were built as part of an attempt by King George I to suppress the rebellious activities of the Jacobites and they would also play a part in the final uprising of 1745 before being torched after the battle of Culloden in 1746.  The ruined shell that was left is an imposing structure still visible today if you bypass Kingussie on the A9 and which I completely forgot to stop at to take a picture.

Speyside Distillery
The new Speyside distillery sits in a pleasant wooded glade beside the River Tromie on the site of the old Tromie Mills that date back to the 1700s.  The name Tromie comes from an old word for Elder trees that must populate the long glen through which the river flows on its way to the Spey, passing by the distillery about a mile before reaching its destination in the flood plain below.  The site is recorded simply as Millton as far back as Roy’s Military Survey of around 1750 and up to maps of the 1830s, and as Tromie Mills from the 1870s (NLS Digital Maps).  An old mill wheel still stands against the mill house wall and the mill lade from the river still flows to supply the distillery.  The mill closed in 1965 and has now been converted into offices, malt storage and the new malt mill; the grist then passing up a conveyor to the mash tun in the new distillery building beside it.

Tromie Mill at Speyside Distillery
The distillery is quite compact, one of the smallest in Scotland and not open to the public, but after stopping by on my way north and asking if I could take a few pictures I met Andrew Shand, Master Distiller, and he very kindly offered to show me around the site and explained some of its history and operation. My limited knowledge of the distillery would have made this report much the worse without his valuable input.

Speyside distillery was founded by George Christie who had long had a dream of owning his own distillery.  He had previously owned the North of Scotland distillery at Cambus from 1957 and originally intended to produce malt whisky there.  Changing economics led to a decision to produce grain whisky on patent stills instead, grain whisky being in short supply and with prices rising at that time, and his main business was then bottling blended whisky.  The Speyside name was already then being used as one of his brands and he also experimented with different types of wood in the early 1960s, including Madeira and rum casks and port pipes.

George still desired to have his own malt whisky distillery though and he commissioned craftsman Alex Fairlie to construct a new building at the Tromie Mill site.  Alex was skilled as a drystane dyker, although the distillery is held together with mortar, and he laid every stone himself.  Originally constructed as an implement shed, it took almost 20 years to build and was completed in 1987.  George then applied to convert the shed into a distillery, and after being fitted out the first distillate ran in December 1990 and his dream was realised.

Speyside distillery mash tun
The water for both processing and cooling is drawn from the River Tromie via the old mill lade.  The mash tun is a semi lauter of the Glen Spey design, the last one made by Newmill Engineering.  It takes a 4.1 tonne mash with 3 waters providing 20,000 litres of worts for one of the 4 stainless steel washbacks.  The washbacks are lettered A-D rather than numbered, a unique quirkiness in Scotland I think, and they all have slightly different capacities at just over 27,000 litres.  Fermentation is 50 hrs during the week and 100 hours over the weekend with a balanced wash charged into the still.

The two stills stand alongside the washbacks - a 13,000 litre wash still taking a 10,000 litre charge for a 5 1/2 hour distillation, and a spirit still taking a 7,500 litre charge for a 6 hour total run.  There are internally placed shell and tube condensers with a slightly descending lyne arm from the wash still and a near horizontal one from the spirit.

Speyside distillery stills
The distillery capacity is just under 500,000 litres p.a. and most of the spirit is matured in bourbon casks with some sherry casks used as well.  There are no warehouses on this small site and the whisky is all bonded in Glasgow where the company have their blending and bottling operations as well.  Aside from bottling whisky under the distillery name as a 12yo they also produce Drumguish single malt and several other blended malts and blended whiskies.

Lagganmore, Speyside's alter ego
Speyside distillery was also the picturesque location named as Lagganmore distillery in the fifth series of the BBC TV production Monarch of the Glen, that wonderfully twee celebration of a number of the motifs that Highland Scotland is both famous and infamous for and which I imagine Barnard might have found quite entertaining.  Another location from this series will be witnessed in my next post.

Speyside distillery crest and motto
The Speyside Distillery motto is “Multo Melius Est”, which George had translated as “Too good for you”, a reflection perhaps of the level of craft and care that he had employed here.  I found an alternative translation of “It is much better”, which also seems apt for a distillery created on the site of an old mill as I can’t think of a better use for milled barley than to be part of the alchemy that creates liquid gold from nature’s splendour.
Barley used in bread or broth is nothing less than the misappropriation of whisky!

My thanks to Andrew for welcoming me at the distillery, showing me around and introducing me to a whisky I didn’t know too well before.  While there I sadly learned that George Christie had passed away in May 2011 having seen his long dreamt of venture working for 20 years.  Enjoy your ‘share’, George, it was a pleasure to stop for a few moments in the idyllic setting where craft and patience made your dream come true.