Jolly Toper Tastings

@JTTastings

Distillery Profiles

Here I hope to have a closer look at the Scottish distilleries. Be patient this will take a loooong time to fill up. In no particular order:-

 

                                                                                               GLENDRONACH

We whisky lovers have a lot to thank the 5th Duke of Gordon for, in Elgin a statue to this far sighted defender of the dram stands tall on a column, elevated to the high esteem he was held in by the locals. As an influential early nineteenth century land owner he was instrumental in heralding changes in governmental attitudes towards licensing and taxing within the whisky industry. Thanks to his concern in the welfare of his estates changes were wrung which ultimately made legal distillation more attractive than the illicit alternative. However not everyone wanted change- better to pay no tax or licence fee at all and do as you please rather than accept the gauger’s authority. At first anyone thinking of swapping sides in the war between court and crofter was threatened into submission. Eventually common sense prevailed and all but the staunchest rebel was persuaded to go legitimate. The most famous ‘turncoat’ was the first – George ‘Smith’ (his real name was Gow) of Glenlivet, in 1824. However there quickly followed others, notably James Allardes and his three farmer partners.

As the son of William, the owner of the Boynsmill estate, Allardes, nicknamed ’Cobbie’, was surely aware if not even directly involved with smuggling in the Huntly area- beyond the eastern fringes of Speyside. It is a matter for conjecture what exactly his relationship with the Duke was but stories survive of him enjoying favour with the peer. Pivotal in the Duke delivering the goods on his proposals was having his tenants’ cooperation. Perhaps Allardes was himself a persuasive character and by introducing him to the rewards of civility the Duke may have played a strategic game when making honest men of the many ‘sma still’ workers on his land.

Situated about five miles north east of Huntly in the Forgue valley the current distillery has grown over nearly 200 years from humble beginnings as a converted meal mill. Glendronach takes its name from the river its still house now straddles, the Dronac, meaning ‘bramble’. Adjacent is Glen House which was built in 1771 and for years has been a fine venue for much hospitality. The house possibly once had its own brewery and hence distillation allowed for some of the local barley to be skilled into a seasonal prize.

Allardes’s time with the distillery was not particularly enduring (although his initials are still stencilled on cask ends) and some cite his attraction to society life as being his downfall. Initially he would travel promoting his ‘guid Glendronach’ – one episode has our hero attempt to persuade Edinburgh taverns to stock his wares but finding no luck he had resigned to failure when two ladies of the night in the Canongate area encouraged him to buy them a drink. Having brought samples he felt he no longer had a need for he decided to share his pride and joy. Very soon the girls had spread word of how good the stuff was and their influence over Edinburgh landlords soon had orders for stock arriving at the distillery. Returning north, an unfortunate, and second, but more devastating fire in 1837 was to destroy nearly the whole site and saw James Allardes connection to Glendronach end due to his subsequent bankruptcy in 1842. At this point both he and his brother had to hand over their share of the company. Also at this time most parties of the original consortium chose to leave, their spaces being filled by new investors.

Subsequently one Walter Scott originally from Falkirk took command from the three remaining partners becoming a managing partner from 1852. Coming from duties at Teaninich distillery Scott was known as an agriculturalist, cattle breeder and entrepreneur. His generosity included the gifting of a hall for the use of the local community. Under his guidance the 1850s saw major rebuilding and enlarging at the distillery and many of today’s buildings date from this refit. By 1860 Scott was joined by an Alexander Ross, their partnership lasting until 1878. Around this era it is said that Glendronach was the largest duty paying distillery in the Highlands with more than 50 people living close to the site. From 1881 Scott was the sole proprietor, he passed away in 1886.

From this date the distillery operated under the control of Glendronach Distillery Company being leased to John Sommerville and McCallum a combine of two Edinburgh wine merchants and a Campbeltown distiller based at 45 Quality Street, Leith. This situation continued until 1914 after which the distillery was acquired by the crown in 1916 at which point production ceased.

For the next episode in the Glendronach saga we turn to the Grant’s of Glenfiddich. When William Grant left his managerial position at Mortlach distillery, bought second hand stills from Cardhu and started to build by hand his own distillery he had his family to help with the labour. The youngest of 5 sons Captain Charles Grant (b. 1872) worked as the tunman at Glenfiddich later he was first the manager at Glenfiddich and subsequently the company’s sister distillery Balvenie. He bought the silent Glendronach along with the whole estate at auction from the Crown for £9,000 in February 1920. Three months later it was once again operating. Charles had served in the Gordon Highlanders during WW1 and perhaps it was injuries suffered in the conflict that led to his early death at 54 in August 1926. During his tenure he oversaw many improvements reshaping a great deal of the distillery. He also bottled the make as a single malt but later changed this tact to concentrate on four blends: Glen Dronach Liqueur, Old Vatted Glendronach, Sir Walter and Huntly Royal.

Moving forward to 1960 we see the distillery once again changing hands when it is sold by George Grey Grant to William Teacher Ltd. Once again the 1000 acre farm was in the deal including a herd of highland cattle. The long established family owned company had marketed their eponymous brand ‘Teachers Highland Cream’ since 1884 enjoying successful export trade almost straight away. Until 1976 they were the largest whisky company still in the hands of the founding family. In the mid 19th century they were the biggest single licence holder in Glasgow owning 18 ‘dram shops’ moving into blending and wholesaling around this period. By the 1890s it was necessary for the company to build its own distillery, Ardmore – 16 miles from Glendronach, in order to guarantee fillings for its brands. Helping with the new distillery was James Innes from Glendronach. Perhaps this was the first time the two companies connected or maybe this was just a sign of an existing relationship. Come 1923 the Teachers had become a private limited company having survived the first world war with some enviable stocks due to some strict self rationing. By 1949 the company was public. At its height Teachers was the second best selling brand in the UK commanding 16% of the domestic market with 55% of stock being sold at home the rest exported. At the time of their purchase of Glendronach they also invested in a new, large and modern blending and bottling plant at Craig Park in Glasgow. Also at the point of the takeover it was decided to drop the suffix ‘-Glenlivet’ from the distillery and brand, perhaps a mark of the confidence in the provenance of the distillery. In order to bankroll the distillery purchase there was an issue of 150,000 shares and the last of the dram shops were sold. Around this time a large portion of stock was swapped with DCL for grain via the broker Stanley P. Morrison while the blends previously mentioned were withdrawn.

By 1966 it was time for a restructuring and increase in capacity. A list of improvements runs to: the two original stills were joined by a pair of new pots, a new still house being constructed to a contemporary design straddling the Dronac burn and occupying the site of the old mash house, a new filling store, automatic coal stokers for the firing of the stills, a new mash tun in a new mash house on the site of the reconstructed and extended old still room which Alfred Barnard had identified in 1887 as being the oldest part of the distillery – perhaps this part of the buildings survived the fire of 1837, malt storage space increased, a new mill room, new yeast room, toilets, showers and changing rooms, 3 new wash backs of six thousand gallons brought the total to seven, a new warehouse capable of storing 6,800 butts/puncheons. One piece of equipment which didn’t require improvement was the reliable Porteus will used in the production of grist for the mash tun. The new distillery was opened on the fourteenth of December 1967. Later a pig sty, farm sheds and outhouses were converted for hospitality use. By 1969 confidence was high enough to restart the bottling of Glendronach as a single with some 8yo becoming available on the export market. At its peak Glendronach was the fifth best selling single malt in the world. From the re-opening for the next thirty odd years the management of Glendronach and Ardmore was split between Mr Massie and Ronnie Mennie.

It is interesting to note that as with the new sister distillery at Ardmore Glendronach’s stills remained coal fired until April 2005 when E.U. regulations prevented continuation of this traditional practice. After a six month shut down to convert to steam heating the distillery returned to work in September. Throughout the industry the dirty, dangerous and difficult to control direct firing of stills by coal had gradually been replaced with the cleaner, safer and more easily controlled internal heating method via a boiler producing steam or in a very few examples a live gas flame: although harder for the shift worker to cook his bacon and eggs on a shovel! However it would appear the more traditional method seemed to be considered too much a part of the fabric of the Allied products that they were ultimately the last distilleries in Scotland to use this method. Maybe the action of the rummager within the wash still preventing the burning of solids on the hot copper from the live flame meant the continually brushed and exposed metal added a certain benefit to the spirit. Another perhaps surprising practice maintained at Forgue was the continuation of hand malting. Latterly 15% of the required barley, equating to about 10 tons a week, was prepared on the floors via the kiln with its curious oblong pagoda, once again was there a belief that the contribution from the more labour intensive alternative left its mark on the finished result? Another production detail keeping a link to past practices is the use of Oregon pine in construction of the 9 wash backs. Many distillers feel the easy cleaning and longevity of stainless steel is more helpful than any potential benefit from wooden fermenters. But for some the tried and tested method of using mother nature’s materials with the many qualities of wood such as its insulating properties to lend a relatively consistent temperature throughout the year is just too tempting. Likewise the absence of an up to date Lauter mash tun and the retention of the relatively small rake and plough tun with its copper canopy fits in well with the other old school processes. Turning to the stills one aspect which didn’t survive the occasional upgrades were the worm tubs. When exactly these were replaced with the more modern shell and tube variety is not clear but it is perhaps surprising that what can be such a full bodied dram as Glendronach doesn’t owe a proportion of its weight to the stage at which spirit vapour is converted back to liquid. When vapour is more rapidly returned to liquid and hence does not enjoy prolonged exposure to cleansing copper it can be expected the resulting spirit will have a more robust nature, such is the case with quickly condensing worms, the opposite being true of the shell and tube method. Another feature of the equipment is the presence of a boil ball on all four stills. This chamber at the base of the still necks acts as promoter of reflux – where heavier and less volatile alcohols find progress up the still neck delayed by a slight drop in temperature within the ball. Perhaps the fuller body of Glendronach spirit may be thanks to the relatively steep angle of the lyne arm on the wash stills. At 45 degrees any vapour drifting to the top of the still will have little chance to recycle downwards back into the still body to be redistilled, an action which would encourage a lighter spirit, rather the spirit vapour would easily tip over the balancing point at the top of the still neck and find its way down the condenser keeping more of its heavier elements. The spirit stills have a more modest 20 degree incline and are typically filled with a 6KL charge. Combine this with a relatively slow distillation then altogether the spirit can be considered as one of the more thoughtfully produced in Scotland today. Yet another time served influence apparent at Glendronach is the preference for maturation in ex-sherry cask over ex-Bourbon wood. At one time most all Scottish whisky would have been matured in a cask which originally contained European wine fortified or not. Strong trade with, particularly France, but also Spain and Portugal would have seen many importers of Claret, Sherry and Port. Scottish ports took delivery from quality vinyards and houses where the respect for the maturation qualities of fine European oak ultimately benefited the whisky producer as Scottish oak might be good for ship building but fell short of suitable for nurturing the national drink. Typically a whisky left in a European oak ex-sherry cask will become full bodied and rich often with notes of raisins, nuts and cocoa. However with a downturn in sherry consumption, the requirement for sherry to be shipped in bottles from Spain and the option of high volumes of much more affordable ex-Bourbon American white oak casks les than 10% of Scotch whisky is now matured in old sherry casks. It appears if the cost and effort of acquiring such casks is what is necessary to make the best Glendronach then happily company accountants have for the most part been persuaded by the whisky makers. Having said that a relatively recent period saw the policy shift to nearly exclusively ex-Bourbon filling. This led to the current owner’s policy of sourcing enough sherry casks to re-rack approximately half the 9,000 casks acquired at the point of purchase of the distillery into fresh oloroso casks. The program is set to cost seven figures and take 3 years to complete while an ongoing policy of filling new spirit into sherry casks will further add to the budget required to fill as many as possible of the potentially 45,000 cask the three dunnage and three racked warehouses on site can accommodate into sherry wood.

Returning to the ascendancy of ownership of Glendronach, 1976 saw a significant development. Seeking better financial stability Teachers approached Allied Breweries and a take-over was agreed. This was also the year that saw an early example of a distillery visitor centre opening, a feature which has remained at Glendronach even during periods of closure. During this time Glendronach was second only in sales to Laphroaig within the Allied portfolio of malts which also included Scapa, Tormore and Miltonduff. The subsequent sale, on 26th July 2005, of the then current incarnation of Allied, Allied-Domecq, saw Beam/Fortune Brands acquire Teachers and Ardmore while Pernod/Chivas took over Glendronach. Chivas Regal and Ballantines were now sister brands alongside the second biggest collection of malt distilleries after Diageo.

Coming up to date the current chapter in the history of Glendronach is being written by Billy Walker and his team. Ex-operations director for Burn Stewart. Billy had known his now partners, Geoff Bell and Wayne Kieswetter, since the 1980s when the South Africans were buying whisky from Burn Stewart for their blending operations in South Africa. The pair were also heavily involved in shipping, trucking and electricity supply as well as being agents for Diageo and Chivas. Although initially concerned with securing significant volume supplies when Benriach was acquired from Pernod in 2004 interest was peaked in the quality and diversity of stock purchased alongside the distillery. Encouraged by the success of the re-launched Benriach the company went on to purchase another Chivas distillery, Glen Dronach, in July 2008, at the time Chivas‘s smallest plant. Having been carefully mothballed the equipment needed minimum work before being put back into use. By April 2004 the company was ready to release its first expression from their new acquisition – a 12yo. A target of 150,000 bottle sales in the remainder of the year proved more than realistic as ultimately twice this number was achieved. By July 2010 an extension to the range saw four ‘finishes’ join the 12yo, 15yo “Revival” and 18yo “Allardice“ (all Pedro Ximinez or Oloroso matured), these were, Sauternes, virgin oak, both at 14yo as well as Moscatel and Tawny Port. Although Benriach had been a bottled product before Walker et al took over it was far from as established as Glendronach so the new owners were able to take advantage of a well grounded and fine reputation. Also a deal to supply blending stock to Pernod also meant the future demand levels were reassuring.

Currently managing production is Alan McConnochie, former positions held by Allan include White Horse and Long John bottling plants, roles at Laphroaig, Ben Nevis, Bunnahabhain and Tobermory. He joins a distinguished list of distillers dating way back to the 1820s and John Bulloch Jnr the son of the founder of Duntocher distillery who later moved to Glen Ury distillery to be in charge of distilling. Another former manager of Glendronach was John Duff, later to establish Glen Lossie in 1876.

Rummager : a copper mesh rotated within the still to remove any material from the internal pot surface which may be burned due to the high temperatures experienced by the copper due to direct firing by live flame.

Worms : a coiled copper pipe with diminishing diameter through which passes spirit vapour from the lyne arm leading from the top of the still neck. The pipe is immersed in cold running water within a tub to encourage a drop in temperature of the gasses in order to condense swiftly.

Reflux : the condensing and subsequent return to vapour of spirit within the still. Actively promoting reflux will create a lighter spirit, the heavier compounds being gradually broken down into lighter components. Avoiding reflux produces a more robust spirit.

The Tall Tale of Ben Nevis Distillery

Ben Nevis distillery is not lacking in the colourful history category. With a foundation date of 1825 the story starts just after sweeping changes to the stifling regulations and taxes governing whisky production led to a boom in distilling. ‘Long’ John MacDonald (b. 1796- he was 6 foot 4: not at birth you understand), from Wester Ross farming stock, with a partner was just twenty-seven years old when some Lochaber lairds chose him to head up their distilling project. Siting the distillery at the strategically located garrison town of Fort William at the foot of Ben Nevis using water from Scotland’s highest spring Buchan’s well (altitude over 1200 metres), it wasn’t long before his brand ’Dew of Ben Nevis’ became well respected. Its highest profile visitor was no less than Queen Victoria in 1848, she was gifted a cask for the future king George’s 21st birthday celebrations. Originally a single the brand later switched to a blend late in the nineteenth century.

Despite suffering a sequestration two years before the death of Long John in 1856, which saw a shut down common at the time which was for rural distilleries, the distillery soon blossomed thanks to his son Donald Peter’s enthusiastic rebuilding of 1863-65 at a time of general economic recovery and subsequent demand for stocks from blenders. Like his father Peter was youthful, twenty years old, when he took charge.  Peter’s biggest contribution was the construction in 1878 of a new bigger distillery ‘Nevis’ (also referred to as ‘Lochaber’ and ‘Glen Nevis‘- the latter shouldn’t be confused with a Campbeltown distillery of the same name). Located close to the mouth of the river Ness the distilleries were very close to one another allowing the sharing of certain facilities like a pier for the company‘s own steamers which was constructed in 1887 during a further extension to the works. At this time the famed cataloguer extraordinaire Alfred Barnard reported ten thousand casks stored on site were all owned by customers, further evidence of the confidence brokers blenders and bottlers had in the distilleries’ quality. Thanks also to Barnard’s visit we can see a sketch of the Nevis still room which shows purifiers were employed on the wash still arms while he states one of the wash stills to have a considerable 16 000 litre capacity. Ten years after his father’s death  Peter had increased the company’s output from 200 gallons a week to an impressive 3000 gallons. By 1889 the distilleries’ output was nearly twice that of their nearest rival at around quarter of a million proof gallons and boasted the largest maltings in the industry at the time. Around 200 people worked at Nevis giving  some insight into the significance of the operation. A further boost to the wellbeing of the area came in 1894 when the West Highland Railway reached the town providing  many benefits such as a cheap route for coal deliveries via the distillery‘s own siding. Peter passed away in 1891 handing the company on to the third generation of the family. In 1908 the two distilleries were integrated with the maltings at Nevis trading as Lochaber Maltings while the storage facilities was under the title Lochaber Warehouses.

In 1921 the brand ‘Long John’ and the distillery parted company when the London wine and spirit company W. H. Chaplin acquired the name. From this point Ben Nevis traded under the name ‘D. P. MacDonald‘. Come 1936 Chaplin were taken over by the long established (1805) English gin distillers and wine and spirit merchants Seager Evans (SE). In 1927 SE built Strathclyde grain distillery in Glasgow, which was briefly home to the Kinclaith malt facility. They also bought Glenugie distillery in Peterhead (later parts from this distillery were to be recycled when used at Ben Nevis after Glenugie shut) as well as commissioning Tormore distillery in Speyside. In 1956 the American firm Schenley Industries acquired SE before passing the business on to Rapid America in 1969. The English brewer Whitbread purchased the subsidiary Long John International (as Rapid America was then known) in 1975.

Returning to the first half of the twentieth century we see the MacDonald family ownership of Ben Nevis come to an end in 1941. Enter a most intriguing individual- Joseph Hobbs. Hobbs went to Canada in 1904 and served in the navy during World War I. During his time in Canada he acted as an agent for Peter Dawson the Scottish distillers, he also ran Scotch into the US during prohibition, was involved in both the shipping and distilling businesses before moving to Scotland in the 1930s. Through the Glasgow based subsidiary of Associated Distillers of America, Train & MacIntyre, Hobbs oversaw the acquisition of Glenury-Royal, Bruichladdich, Glen Kinchie (?) and North Esk (A.K.A. ‘Glen Esk’ and ‘Hillside‘, later converted to grain production under the name ‘Montrose’ and back again as well as being the home to a large maltings) in 1936-38. Also under the banner of Associated Scottish Distillers he purchased Strathdee (in Aberdeen), Fettercairn, Glen Lochy (including the Lochaber warehouses and maltings) as well as Ben Romach. Most of these stills were to pass on to DCL in 1954. An indication of Hobb’s business mind is given when shortly after the outbreak of World War II he bought a fire extinguisher company, not to mention acquiring the Norwegian patent for sub-sea welding equipment. By 1952 he had been elected chairman of an alternative ‘independent’ version of the Scotch Whisky Association representing 34 member companies rallying against what some felt was monopolistic influences within the industry. Selling his stake in Associated Scottish Distillers in 1955 allowed Hobbs to buy Ben Nevis distillery (from this point operated as ‘Ben Nevis Distillery (Fort William) Ltd.’) and Glen Lochy castle with 50 000 acres which his son eventually turned into a high class hotel. Legend has it that the very day he originally procured the distillery he sold the old Nevis warehousing, included in the deal, for the same sum – £20K while moving the Nevis gates to Ben Nevis (they are now not big enough to meet when closed). At this stage he also set up the Great Glen cattle ranch. His whisky innovations include installing a patent still (the first post-war example) an addition repeated at his other distillery Lochside (opened 1957 in Montrose which he converted from a brewery). Also he introduced concrete  mash tuns, ‘blending at birth’ (where malt and grain new spirit is mixed at the cask filling stage) and maturation in beer barrels. On a more local Edinburgh note  a floating restaurant in Leith once belonged to Hobbs and took him across the Atlantic. Joseph Hobbs died in 1963.

The company stayed in the Hobbs family until his son sold out in 1981, three years after production ceased, to Long John  International the spirits division of Whitbread plc, hence reuniting the distillery with the Long John brand which Whitbread possessed. The Coffey still was removed at this time, the new owners not immediately concerned with restarting distilling but most interested in the maturation facilities. After brief operations starting 18.04.1984 under current manager Colin Ross following a £2M refit when the curious concrete wash backs were replaced by more traditional wooden examples and a new mash tun replaced the old cast iron example production stopped in 1986. Ross spent a period at Laphroaig before returning in 1989 and is expected to retire in the near future. Ownership changed once again when it became the second Scottish distillery to be owned by a Japanese company, Nikka, currently owned by Asahi brewers, in 1989. The Japanese intervention came ten years after the passing of Nikka’s founder Masataka Taketsuru who was hugely influential in the Japanese whisky industry and who had studied distilling in Campbeltown not so far from Ben Nevis. Presumably the thought of his legacy leading to the ownership of such a prestigious Scottish distillery and the brand being the 7th best selling malt in Japan (in 2010) would have seemed quite fantastic to the young scholar.

Production has been constant since 1990. It appears an ancient 63 year old expression of 90 bottles was released in spring of that year but details are vague, a more accessible 10yo at a generous 46% has been available since 1996.

From a more technical view point the distillery now uses water from Allt a’ Mhuillinn (Mill Burn) and uses peated barley from Ord maltings, the Lauter mash tun feeds 8 large (42,000 litre) wash backs which in turn fill 2 wash stills with a 21,000 litre charge followed by two spirit stills fills of 12,500 litres. All stills are indirectly heated and their design dates from the 1865 refit and were installed in 1955. The substantial size of the stills, their wide and short necks followed by sloping lyne arms all contribute to a robust spirit suited to maturation in sherry and red wine casks. Although the use of shell and tube condensers presumably contribute a lightening effect of the spirit character, the worm tubs, removed in 1978, would surely created an even weightier style. A substantial spirit receiver of 50.000 litres is capable of filling around 200 hogsheads from it 50,000 litre capacity all of which are stored on site within the seven warehouses which are a mixture of old and new. Full capacity is in the region of 2 million litres but production is typically about half this. The distillery is popular with visitors, more than 30,000 take the tour annually.

 

LOCHSIDE DISTILLERY
1957 – 1992
R.I.P.

Whisky can be a bit like time travel or at least a door into the past. When we take a sip what we taste has usually spent around ten years in a cask. How the spirit tastes on the day it entered the wood is normally far removed from what we experience coming out upon maturation. The time in the barrel moulds the bold spirit into a rounded and elegant creature – like the caterpillar and the butterfly via the chrysalis. The craft of the producer, nature’s blessings from the fields and forests working with water and the magic of yeast create one of life’s true pleasures – The Dram: a simple recipe but a wonderful creation. As we open the bottle our senses are treated through aromatic delicacies and tantalizing tastes. When the whisky comes from a still which is long cold or even completely vanished this experience can be particularly special if a tad frustrating in its poignancy.

So it is with Lochside. Travelling up the east coast of Scotland can be a sad trip for whisky lovers. History records hundreds of operations stretching back centuries, some producers have disappeared from memory as they would have operated covertly, away from taxation and before branding. Other lost distilleries can still be visited – Glen Esk, like Lochside, a Montrose resident is still mostly structurally intact despite last producing thirty years ago. Others, like North Port down the coast in Brechin, are practically obliterated – again like Lochside. Further north Glenury-Royal and Glenugie are also ghosts, however the spirit of these past prizes live on in bottles, pictures and stories. Some more elusive examples of past producers, like the Aberdonian Strathdee, are beyond first hand living memory and the chance to taste these distant drops of distiller’s delight must surely be gone.

Let us consider the brief but bright tale of Macnab Distiller’s Lochside. As it happens our story turns out to have quite an international element. We’ll start with the son of a farmer from Newbury, Hampshire who moved as a child to Canada in 1904 with his family who got into ranching in the Calgary area. In his twenties he flew as a Lieutenant for the Canadian navy during World War One. During prohibition in the USA alcohol was smuggled either by sea or across the land border. Fortunes were made with more or less thought for those involved in the illegal traffic. From images of swashbuckling characters to the harsh reality of ruthless gangsters the subversive activity of enjoying a glass of hooch will remain one of the twentieth century’s more fascinating chapters of social history. Our man, Joseph William Hobbs (1881 – 1963), contributed to the saga by steaming over Lake Ontario in the good ship Littlehorn to deliver his midnight cargo. One bold adventure has him sneak 130,000 cases of Teachers from Antwerp to San Francisco via the Panama canal. Another vessel put to covert exporting use was ironically an old Canadian navy armed yacht which was renamed rather aptly “Moonlight Maiden”. His ships operated under the legitimate Vancouver based company Hobbs Bros. Ltd., although their main business was presumably disguised as shipping freight of a less suspect nature  However the money went as quickly and easier than it came and after the economic slump of the early 1920s our hero returns to Britain with less than £1000 to start again having lost his fortune gained through his property and ship building interests. For example he was involved in the commissioning of the 22 storey Marine building in Vancouver which was not a financial success, costing $2.3M it was sold to the Guinness family for $900K with Hobbs losing most of his investment.

OCEAN MIST

Clearly Hobbs had a practical interest in shipping but his personal involvement often spilled over to a passion for the vessels themselves. Having had several ships in his private fleet over time perhaps his pride and joy was ’Ocean Mist’ 280 gross tonnage, 125 foot long capable of just over 10 knots. This chapter of Hobbs’s story is no less engaging and colourful than most others.

During World War One there was a scheme to build 167 “Strath” steam trawlers to replace the many trawlers that were lost in action after being converted into minesweepers, some of they‘re fishing equipment being simply adapted for the Admiralty‘s needs. Still in existence Ocean Mist is the last remaining example of her type. Originally she was named after one of Lord Nelson’s crew at the Battle of Trafalgar: Samuel Green, each one of the trawlers similarly took it’s name from a crew member whom either served on HMS Victory or HMS Royal Sovereign during the battle. Completed in April 1919 by the Greenock shipbuilders George Brown the ship never saw service and was sold as a private yacht to a member of the Irish brewing family Guinness. Renamed ‘Ocean Rover’ her fishing equipment was removed and her holds converted to accommodate rally cars which were transported to the south of France and Italy for one of the family’s many sporting pursuits. Five years later under a new owner, the Duke of Leeds, she sailed with the new name ‘Aries‘, a further six years saw another new owner now with the earlier title Ocean Rover reinstated. After a further four years she found yet another new home and owner this time ona the Isle of White before passing on once again four years later in 1938 to a berth on the Firth of Clyde. Soon after on the outbreak of the Second World along with most of the British fishing fleet she was commandeered by the Admiralty. Duties for these vessels were typically mine sweeping or coastal patrol. However as she had earlier been converted in order to accommodate passengers more comfortably and as her fishing equipment had been removed she was initially deemed more suitable for use as a floating office before being variously employed as a torpedo recovery vessel and an anti-mine calibrating vessel. Come August 1945 not being as suitable for conversion back to fishing service as most of her peers were she was retired and laid up. By 1949 she had been re-fitted as a yacht but due to post war rationing of coal it took until 1954 and the pockets of a millionaire before she sailed again, this time as ‘Ocean Mist‘. At this point, for reasons of economy and cleanliness her boilers were converted from coal to oil firing. Around this period while sailing in the North Sea onboard ‘Torlundy’, a cheaply bought then converted ex-navy landing craft, Joseph Hobbs was easily passed by a trawler- his craft being flat bottomed and unable to weather well. He announced his next boat would be a steam trawler. Purchased by Hobbs in 1960 Ocean Mist was once again refitted, this time at Montrose. The Torlundy‘s next (and last?) service was on the Great Lakes, Canada, Hobbs having sold on the vessel. Once ready and after a change of colour from black to white Ocean Mist sailed round to Fort William where Hobbs had business interests. There is tale of Hobbs and John Cobb, who died on Loch Ness trying to break the water speed record, planning to use the boat whilst searching for hidden treasure in Jamaica. Between 1965 and 1982 her home was the Caledonian Canal where she was berthed in a mothballed state. For a short spell she was under the ownership of the whisky company Long John to whom Joseph Hobbs’s son sold the Ben Nevis company in 1981. Under Long John life as an alternative hospitality venue was short lived. In 1982 two businessmen saw an opportunity for a family holiday home in the attractive if fatigued yacht. However due to the expense of the restoration work it was decided to put the ship to work to pay its way. The partners were skilled in both resurrecting tired properties as well as seeing the job through to nurturing these sites as business locations. Joining forces with two other entrepreneurs under the business title The Leith Steamship Company the Ocean Mist set sail on her final (or will there be more?) voyage to Leith after six years work and £½ million. There she operated intermittently as a floating restaurant from August 1988 to the present as part of a wider scheme to redevelop the waterfront and warehousing area of Leith with conservational sympathy focusing on Leith basin. The business has traded under the name Cruz since  February 2007 after a brief closure in 2000. At this point her canary yellow paint work was not always popular with locals…

Joseph William Hobbs

Foreseeing the end of prohibition several entrepreneurs prepared themselves for the inevitable demand for legal alcoholic refreshments. During prohibition production of alcohol in the States was limited to medical distillate so after the repeal of the Volstead act the initial supply of mature whisky had mostly to be sourced from traditional but foreign channels: Scotland and Ireland. A taste for ‘Scotch’ had developed in those that could afford the good stuff and American businesses like National Distillers (ND) looked for assistance from those well connected traders accustomed to business practice in ‘the old country’. After the end of prohibition in December 1931 ND had gradually acquired approximately half of the remaining pre-prohibition stocks of maturing whiskey in the US- around nine million US gallons. ND also gained control of several American brands and distilleries when it acquired American Medicinal Spirits Company of Louisville (AMS) in 1936. AMS brands included ‘Old Taylor‘, which they had owned since 1911, ‘Old Crow’ acquired in 1931, and ‘Old Grandad‘. Curiously the original Old Grandad distillery was at Hobbs, Bullit County, Kentucky! ND had for many years been the US distributors for Gilbey’s gin and in 1947 took over W. & A. Gilbey the US distributor of Gilbey Scotch. At this stage some Scotch whisky stocks were transferred to W. & A. Gilbey. Much more recently American Brands took over ND in 1987. Returning to the pre-war growth of ND: they employed Hobbs, who had experience dealing with the end customer in the US, via the Glasgow firm of merchants and blenders Train and Macintyre (T&M). T&M had been acquired a few years previously by ND and it was through them along with the help of Hobbs that several Scottish distilleries were acquired. T&M were established in 1898 when the partnership of Thomas Train & Co., established 1845, merged with John McIntyre & Co.. The new business received shares in North British grain distillery in Edinburgh, Ardgowan distillery in Greenock and in Bulloch Lade. ‘Old Angus’ was their flagship brand. In November 1919 the company became a shareholder in the newly formed West Highland Distilleries Ltd, owners of no less than six Campbeltown distilleries and had the rights to sell Glenburgie in most of the UK.

The ND subsidiary Associated Scottish Distillers (ASD) operated as a managing body for the distilleries that were being steadily collected and as the founder of ASD Hobbs was a major shareholder. With financial assistance Hobbs initially bought old but cheap distilling equipment and associated Scottish whisky interests until his first involvement in a serious acquisition: Glenury-Royal distillery in Stonehaven. Built in 1824 by Sir John Gillon of “Linlithgowshire” the distillery enjoyed rude health until a period of closure between the mid 1920s and 30s. With a London based partner, Hatim Attari, Hobbs negotiated the sale of the distillery from Lord Stonehaven and transferred ownership to the newly formed Glenury Distillery Company on 26th July 1936 for £7,500. After resuming production the following year the company sold the distillery to ASD in 1938 for an impressive £18,500. Glenury was to become the headquarters for the ASD distilling operations, an on site laboratory was also established and Hobbs himself took up residence.

Meanwhile in 1936 ASD started to bid for the nearby mothballed Fettercairn distillery which had been built in 1824. It would take two years before this deal was signed.

Another acquisition by Hobbs this time in partnership with Alexander W. Tolmie, and again Hatim Attari, came in 1937: Bruichladdich on Islay. The partners had bought the distillery which was built in 1881 from long time owners the Harvey family for £23,000 before quickly passing it on to ASD.

In this same year another west coast distillery, Glenlochy at Fort William founded in 1898, was purchased by T&M from the Lancashire car hirer T. L. Rankin.

By 1938 a further east coast distillery was purchased: North Esk (originally named Highland Esk), a former flax spinning mill converted to distilling in 1897. Immediately on takeover the production was converted from malt to grain and the name changed to Montrose. Since 1919 only the malting floors had been in operation. Distilling stopped again when DCL took over in 1954 although malting continued. It was not until 1959 that grain distilling recommenced. Subsequently, in November 1965 with ownership transferred to DCL subsidiary Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD) production was converted back to malt and the name changed to Hillside, the size of the grain operation was considered not large enough to be economic. Another name change, now ‘Glenesk’, came in 1980, the distillery permanently shutting in December of 1985 after a final minor name change to ‘Glen Esk‘ came on 31st May 1985 with the licence to distil being cancelled in 1992. Parts of the distillery are still visible and it has been the property of Paul’s Maltings since 1996 who run a substantial maltings on site.

Returning to 1938 the Forres distillery Benromach joined the group in July. The Morayshire still was built in 1898 but had been silent since 1931.

In the same year T&M including all distilleries (as well as their Strathdee bonding facility) were joined together under the direct ownership of ASD. Strathdee in Great Western Road, Aberdeen was built in 1821 and although spirit production was no longer a feature had been the property of T&M since 1924/25.

Around this pre-war period Hobbs shrewdly purchased a Leicester based manufacturer of fire extinguishers as well as a Norwegian patent for sub-sea welding equipment. Continuing his now independent career he bought Ben Nevis Distilleries in 1941 for £20,000 from the MacDonald family. The sale included Lochaber maltings and warehousing. and on the same day of purchasing the complex Hobbs sold just the Nevis bond for the same amount he paid for the whole package (including Ben Nevis distillery which he retained) to Train & MacIntyre. T&M were keen to augment Glenlochy’s limited malting capacity and storage facilities. Hobbs was able to fund the purchase of Ben Nevis as he had sold his interest in ASD to ND in 1940 for £38,000 making it a fully owned subsidiary of T&M. Another local investment of Hobbs’s came in 1945 with the purchase of a substantial (6000 acres 58 mile perimeter) estate. Come 1952 Hobbs’s influence within the industry was signified by his appointment as the chairman of a 34 strong member alternative to The Scotch whisky Association – the dominant trade representative body. Taking his lead from his father and grandfather Hobbs turned his hand to farming and stock dealing. One of the buildings involved can still be seen on the Fort William to Spean Bridge road clearly marked in large white letters ‘The Great Glen Cattle Ranch’. Although the majority of the estate was sold in 1961 300 acres were retained along with a grand house which was converted into a luxury hotel by his son Joe Junior and his wife Grete in 1969. Inverlochy Castle Hotel is now in different hands but is recognised as of the highest standard – being voted best hotel in Europe in 2006 by an influential travel magazine. If considering a stay don’t confuse the hotel with the actual castle which is a ruin. A ‘Grand Reserve’ single blend from Ben Nevis was the resident whisky at the hotel, there was also a 21yo expression of the unusual single blend scheme, again the sole product of Ben Nevis.

To draw a line under the role played by National Distillers in our story we see after ASD had returned a disappointing performance in the years following World War Two ND withdrew from Scotland selling ASD, including T&N, to Distiller’s Company Limited (DCL) in 1953 along with all but two of their six stills. Of the two sold separately Bruichladdich distillery and stock were purchased by Ross & Coulter in 1951/52 for £205,000, a sum which appears to be close to the value of whisky stocks alone. Fettercairn was sold to an Aberdonian businessman.

The West Lothian Connection

When Hobbs purchased the rights to the brand name “Sandy Macnab’s” (probably soon after WWII) he intended to resurrect the distillery associated with the brand. Situated in Bathgate, West Lothian, Glen Mavis distillery’s start date appears to be at least 1783 as there is a record of the distillery being ‘to let’ at this point. By 1795 the business was run by one David Simpson whose son Sir James Young Simpson (b. 7.6.1811) was to discover the anaesthetic qualities of chloroform. David had six children, he married the distillery’s neighbouring farmer’s daughter, Mary Jervay in 1792. He was himself the junior of his siblings and as a distiller prospered with his brother Thomas at Glenmavis, (‘mavis‘ is a local word for a song thrush). Thomas moved on to nearby Kirkliston distillery. A brief partnership, Wark & Simpson, took the distillery over from 1825-26 while James & William Reid took control 1829-33. By 1836 expansion of production at the distillery required additional maltings to be constructed in Bathgate’s Cochrane street, the local landowner not wishing to permit any expansion at the original site, these premises are now demolished. This progress would have been under John MacNab whose management is often recorded as starting in 1831 while also frequently quoted as 1834 but would have been during the ownership of the distillery by one Thomas Balfour. However upon the death of Mr Balfour in 1844 the distillery was recorded as owned by Macnab Brothers & Co. An interesting development was the acquisition of a continuous still in 1855. It is known malted barley was employed while using this still and that a surprisingly modest fraction of potential output was realised. The equipment was thought to produce 2000 gallons of spirit in a 22 hour day yet records from 1880 show only 80,000 gallons being made in the whole year. Brian Townsend, the author of ‘Scotch Missed’ has a believable theory that the equipment may well have been offloaded cheaply by possibly either the Haig or Stein dynasties of distillers or a similar grain producer. Not long after the perfection of earlier cruder versions of the efficient continuous still in the 1830s there was an over enthusiastic rush to produce the new grain whisky. Consequently the market was flooded with cheap stock and many companies were bankrupted. Quite possibly one such company may have sought to find funds by selling off the redundant machinery.

Thanks to Alfred Barnard, the great Victorian brewery and distillery cataloguer, we have a clear picture of the distillery in 1887: to take advantage of gravity the buildings were on a slope with power supplied via a waterwheel while process water came from two reservoirs. Barnard used the word ‘rustic’ to describe the operation, noting unlike nearly all distilleries of the day worts were cooled by fan rather than the ubiquitous Morton’s refrigerator. 16 staff were employed and enough draff produced to feed the distillery’s 65 cattle. Room for 2000 casks was found between the two warehousing sites. Production ended in 1900 with 1910, coincidentally the year of John MacNab’s grandson’s (also John like his father) death, filed as the date of closure, the intervening 10 years presumably spent maintaining and selling stock. For the next forty years the distillery buildings stood unused. The brand associated with the company was ‘MacNab’s Celebrated Glenmavis Dew‘, a local bar still has a mirror branded with the mark. Today Inverhouse retain the rights to the brand having used Glen Mavis as a standard blend. The final years of the buildings saw them being used for munitions storage during the second world war, as the home to Glenmavis Amateur Boxing Club (one of its members, Willie ’Buff’ Maclean operated a pub called ‘The Glenmavis Bar’ when he emigrated to Vancouver) then latterly as a car showroom and garage before being demolished to make way for a handsome residential development. All that is now left is Glen Mavis house – the manager’s home. It should be noted that another family, McNab, is unrelated to John MacNab. The McNab brothers were active in grain distillery associations and were owners at Tambowie, Lasswade, Cowie and Glenochil distilleries.

Despite Hobbs’s plans for production in Bathgate no more spirit was to be made at Glenmavis, the local council taking issue with plans for effluent discharge directly into the river forth not fitting into anti-pollution measures and even a scheme to use dormant mine shafts as a deposit for discharge being thought inappropriate. It is at this point, the mid 1950s, Hobbs took any useful plant from Bathgate to Montrose. It appears initially the plan was to relocate to Arbroath where a bond had been used by Macnabs as a bottling facility however when Deuchars Lochside brewery in Montrose came on the market a better solution was found.

Lochside

So to the focus of our interest – Lochside distillery, Montrose. Taking it’s name from a filled in ‘Mary’s Loch’ adjacent to it’s situation the distillery sat to the north of the town on the main road. Having long been the site of a brewery any initial concern of water quality for whisky production could pretty much be disregarded, there being a reliable hard water source from an artesian well. Conversions from breweries to distilleries are not unknown in Scotland, for example Glen Moray, Glenmorangie and Tullibardine all started life this way. Brewing had taken place at the site since 1781 although the original owner’s name has been lost over the passage of time.

A title deed for the brewery from March 1830 appears to be the first written occasion of the use of the named location ’Lochside’ with ’Lochside of Newmanswalls’ given as the place of brewing on the deed. Come 1842 one William Ross, brewer at Lochside of Newmanswalls with several partners is recorded as purchasing the land in question while Messrs Lyall, Aberdeen & Co. erected a brewhouse and malt mill. It appears that a granary employed by the distillery was originally a malting floor used by the brewery until malting was carried out on a different site to allow expansion and an increase in production. By 1871 a new contract listed several partners with William Ross the only name common to the previous arrangement. Another re-arrangement of 1874 preceded the 1875 land contract held by William Ross & Co.. Eventually Ross was bought out by James Deuchar of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and wells were bored, starting in 1888, to improve water supplies. The final, and most productive, well was drilled in 1948 and remained in use until the distillery closed in 1992. The 300 feet deep well provided 3000 gallons of water and hour. At the same time as drilling started a rebuild by the famous distillery architect Charles Doig of Elgin was underway and completed by 1889. Doig decided to employ a gravity fed system which resulted in the appearance of a rather unique German Brauhaus tower which added a curious continental sight to the small east coast town. By filling a tank at the top of the tower hardly any pumps were required to transfer liquid to the latter stages of production as they simply flowed from one step to the next lower down the building. It has been estimated that annual beer production would have been over 0.6M litres. Twice a week beer, including the famous Newcastle Brown Ale, was shipped from Montrose to Tyneside, latterly by the company’s own two ships, making Lochside the only other place the famous ale was brewed.

Come 1956 James Deuchar was bought by Newcastle Breweries Ltd. who soon closed the brewery. The new owners had found Lochside surplus to requirements, there being an excess of capacity within the company, production was transferred to their Edinburgh Duddingston facility. Enter Mr Hobbs, wishing to augment stocks, broaden his company’s repertoire of flavours and add to his portfolio of investments he purchased the site in 1957. Previously he had bought the nearby Arbroath Bond with the intention of conversion to a distillery but like Bathgate the proposed use of the local water course for effluent disposal was ruled unsuitable. The plan at Montrose was to make grain whisky in the 67 feet high coffey still which had either been moved from Glen Mavis or possibly using a newly commissioned still that was even potentially originally to be installed in Bathgate before permission to distil there was refused. At this time (1958) Hobbs was joined by Charles Sharpe, originally working on the refitting of the Ocean Mist then employed as the distillery maintenance engineer Mr Sharpe was to remain at Lochside until, in his role as manager (since 1977), he was the person to last lock the distillery door on its eventual closure in 1996. Trading under the name Macnab Distilleries Ltd. Hobbs retained the brand name he acquired when interested in Glenmavis. After plans for enhanced grain capacity in the late 50s/ early 1960s were realised with the commissioning of new large and efficient plants like Invergordon and Girvan Hobbs realised that the market for grain was getting crowded and decided in 1961 to add four medium sized and ‘onion’ shaped pot stills for malt production, these may have been converted from the original brewery’s ‘coppers‘. Like at his other facility, Ben Nevis where grain and malt were also produced, the practice of ’blending at birth’ was followed. Here the new spirit from both pot and column stills were mixed and filled into cask in the belief that the final unique ‘single blend’ would have the advantage of having the ultimate ‘marriage’ period to harmonise their characters. This practice continued until Hobbs’s passing in 1964. Thanks to the 1987 visit of Philip Morrice while treading in the footsteps of Alfred Barnard to research a centenary edition of the latter’s landmark publication ‘Distilleries of The United Kingdom and Ireland’ we have a clear idea of the technical layout of Lochside. Amongst other recorded quantities and dimensions we find there were ample storage for 150 tonnes of barley on site. There were eighteen six tonne mashes a week in an open cast iron mash tun. Instead of the standard underback there was an intermediate worts receiver employing a filter bed. Hobbs’s distilleries were known for their idiosyncrasies so perhaps we should be surprised there were not more unorthodox fittings. There followed, at least on Philips’s visit, a forty hour fermentation period in nine 35,000 litre stainless steel washbacks. There were two wash stills heated internally by pans and two spirit stills heated by kettle and coils. The whole show was powered by an heavy oil boiler. The bonded warehouses were able to store 60.000 casks. With the inclusion of the administration, blending and bottling operations at the distillery there was a total of 35 staff. Previous to bottling on site the local bottler Bow Butt’s Bonding Co. held the commission. This was the period when the phrase ‘Liqueur Whisky’ appeared on labels -the practise discontinuing once bottling was done in-house. A ’Macray’ 5yo blend erroneously accorded to Macnab Distilleries was actually a product from Bow Butt’s perhaps after they were taken over in 1973 by George Morton Limited. Peak annual production capacity for the malt side of Lochside was 2.5 MLPA (Million Litres Pure Alcohol). Rather unusually, but well in step with the philosophy of doing as much as possible independently, Macnab’s blend was bottled on site from 1975 then Lochside single malt 10yo from 1987. Presumably process water was used as the bottling dilutant helping to keep a certain complimentary aspect to the finished product. It is believed the malt was available at 8, 10 (until 1991) and 12 years old while the blend was bottled as a standard, 5yo and 8yo. A relatively generous 35% malt content was featured in the blend while between 15 and 20 malts were combined in the mix.

On Hobbs’s passing in 1964 his son Joe attempted to sell the distillery but it was nearly ten years before a buyer could be found with production suspended in 1971. Eventually in the first continental involvement of Scotch whisky interests the Spanish company Distillerias Y Crianzas (DYC or “Deek”) took over in 1972/73. At this point the pot stills came back to life after a period of mothballing although grain production permanently ceased. There was a spell of around a decade where production was at maximum output. By the mid 80s this enthusiasm was curtailed with only around 60% of capacity being realised. Eventually the end came in May 1992 when after a series of takeovers the ultimate owner (Allied) deemed the facility excess to requirement at a time when consumption was suppressed and stocks were sufficient for the foreseeable future. Having a relatively modest production capability and not having had any significant investment in modern equipment, a short pedigree (only 35 years), not being within the popular Speyside region and being on a prime development site the distillery was not attractive as an ongoing proposition whilst the land it stood on was of interest to property developers. Mature stocks were depleted by 1996 followed by dismantling in 1997. The bonding facilities were demolished in 1999 and after a fire in late January 2005 the remaining buildings were cleared not enjoying any listing status despite efforts of concerned parties.

The Spanish Link

DYC are based at the foot of a mountain range in Segovia, Spain operating the Molino del Arco (‘mill by the arc‘) distillery and have been marketing their brand since 1963. It was commissioned in February 1959 to offer a locally produced whisky more favourably priced than the heavily taxed imported alternatives. The distillery is self sufficient having its own Saladin box maltings, both malt and grain is produced (there were originally six pot stills, which were made in Madrid, while another was subsequently added) and there is warehousing for 200,000 casks. At one point their blend was in the top 25 selling whiskies worldwide being popular both on the home market and in Latin America. Corn and sometimes rye were used in production of their grain and output is in the region of twenty million litres of pure alcohol a year. Recently DYC was bought by Spanish sherry makers Pedro Domecq. From an historical UK perspective Allied Breweries acquired Teachers in 1976 then Ballantines owners Hiram-Walker in 1987, the resulting spirits division was named Allied Distillers. Three years later Whitbred’s whisky interests were also acquired. When Pedro Domecq was bought by Allied Distillers in 1993 (or was it Allied-Lyons in 1994?) the resulting company was called Allied-Domecq and was the world’s third largest drinks company. The firm were broken up between Beam Global and Pernod Ricard in 2005. DYC lies within Beam now and is a stable mate of Laphroaig and Ardmore. Scotch whisky is still shipped to Spain for mixing and bottling as in the days of Lochside when bulk tankers would transport from Montrose to Spain for adding to the local product.

We are sitting tonight in the fire glow,
Just you and I alone,
And the flickering light falls softly
On a beauty that’s all your own,
It gleams where your round smooth shoulder
From a graceful neck sweeps down;
And I would not exchange your beauty
For the best-dressed belle in town.

I have drawn the curtains closer,
And from my easy chair
I stretch my hand towards you,
Just to feel that you are there
And your breath is laden with perfume,
As my thoughts around you twine,
And I feel my pulses beating as your spirit is mingled with mine.

And the woes of the world have vanished
When I’ve pressed my lips to yours:
And to feel your life-blood flowing
To me is the best of cures,
You have given me inspiration
For many a soulful rhyme-
You’re the finest old Scotch whisky
I’ve had for a long, long time.

                                                                                                 TOMATIN DISTILLERY

Some older distilleries’ origins are difficult to be precise about, their documented story usually beginning with the issuing of a licence even though their history may have begun years before turning legal. Tomatin’s start-up, being established in the hey day of the liquid gold rush, seems to be more definite. In 1897 the Tomatin Spey District Company Limited was founded by some Invernessian businessmen. Perhaps its chosen location was a combination of factors: next to a rail line and road, not far from a market- it lies just over 10 miles south of Inverness and on the Allt na Frith (meaning ‘free‘) burn on its way to join the river Findhorn. The burn rises in the Monadhliath mountains from Carn Dubh and Beinn Bhreac then flows into the river Findhorn, where extra cooling water can be pumped from if necessary. It has been suggested that a very early still set up to supply drovers who met in the area was the inspiration for the foundation of the distillery. Credence for this comes in the name: ‘Tomatin’ translates to “Hill of the (Juniper) Bushes”, as juniper wood gives off no smoke while burning it has long been a favourite of illicit distillers who must keep their practice secret. Being at just over 1000 feet above sea level few Scottish distilleries are higher, is this high enough for atmospheric pressure to have an effect on the distillation process and even the character of the make?

Little is recorded of the individuals involved at the beginning but it is easy to believe the parties were local merchants connected to the trade who took a step up from either supplying the industry with services or material or being concerned at the other end of the process with the wholesale or retail of the finished article. At this time demand for ‘Scotch’ seemed to be unquenchable with more distilleries (eleven) being built in this year than any other while total production had been increasing significantly for some time. However circumstances were soon to conspire against the trade and the inevitable bust followed the boom. By 1906 the company had to fold. Three years later Tomatin Distillers Company Limited had been established to revive the fortunes of the still and set about rebuilding the distillery. From this point fate was kinder for quite some time with production only breaking during World War 1 and between 1941 and 1945- two major periods of disruption which effected nearly all production of whisky in Scotland.

However come 1956 the modern tale of Tomatin starts to take shape. After World War 2 another golden era for Scotch whisky began. Depleted stocks from a forced downturn and eventual freeze on production during war time had to be addressed in order that such a valuable export could contribute to getting a nation back on sound economic footing. During the decades following the lifting of wartime rationing on cereal supply for distillation new distilleries were built, mechanisation was broadly introduced, established distilleries were enlarged and most facilities operated at full production capability. What is peculiar about Tomatin is just how far these improvements and increases went.

In 1956 the original two stills, which were capable of producing 120, 000 proof gallons, were joined by another pair. Only 2 years later another two stills were added. Around this period an experiment into directly firing the stills with a flame from oil proved unsuccessful due to the heating being too harsh on the copper due to the sulphur content of the oil leading to metal  becoming brittle, eventually a more reliable method of internal steam heating via an oil burning boiler was employed.. Once full capacity was realised it was again time to increase potential output and 1961 saw the total still count reaching 5 pairs with another single still joining them in 1964. These measures meant a ten fold increase in capacity in the twenty years following 1945. By 1970 Tomatin had become attractive to other whisky companies and an offer by the mighty Distillers Company Limited of 13 shillings per share (shares were at the time valued at 9 shillings) was confidently rejected. A few years later the tally increased once more, this time to 14. By 1973 all malting on site was discontinued, presumably to utilise the space occupied by the floors as there was soon to be the biggest extension yet. Before on site malting stopped even 60 tonnes of barley a week was insufficient to satisfy demand- the remaining requirement had to be out-sourced. 1974 saw the most significant boost to capacity with the total number of stills reaching 23 (12 wash and 11 spirit) requiring seven spirit safes and with the capacity to produce 5 million proof gallons. In the twenty years up to this point around £5m had been spent on the distillery, it has been said that this was more per employee than an oil refinery! However maximum potential output was never achieved with the record being set in 1974 at 3.149 million proof gallons. The stills were similar in design: both wash and spirit having reflux bowls, a capacity of 16,820L and lyne arms at almost right angles.

With such scale comes some impressive figures. As the largest malt distillery in Scotland at the time and second only to Japan’s Hakushu distillery as the biggest in the world Tomatin required quite a deal of equipment. For example having two (stainless steel) mash tuns is not uncommon in the grain distilling industry but is most unusual for malt production, Likewise the need for a second (Porteus) mill in order to adequately supply enough grist for the large scale of the set up again indicates output here was unusually high. A total of 24 washbacks were required, more modern stainless steel examples joining older cast iron examples, all at 41KL capacity. An expensive dark grains plant, recycling draff and pot ale into animal feed, was established in the year of the great expansion- as much as an incredible 300 tonnes of feedstuff was produced weekly. The whole facility took up a generous 136 acres.

In the days of heightened production fermentation time was about 48 hours however a slower, 56 hours, regime is currently in place following a 6 hour mash. There are presently 16 mashes a week through 6 pairs of stills eventually producing 45KL of spirit (2ML a year) the operation being worked five days out of seven. Spirit vapour is brought back to liquid via shell and tube condensers positioned outside of the still room in the open air.

Also among many of the ‘firsts’ at Tomatin was the inaugural use, in 1960, of the Lautering system of mashing. Common in brewing this method more efficiently produces and collects sugars from the mash tun. The word comes from the German for ‘filtering’, this method leads to clearer worts as opposed to the more traditional Scottish cloudy worts. Each mash requires 8 tonnes of grist. Another application of more sophisticated methods and again a first for a malt distillery was the installation of an automatic cask filling machine – understandable when around 80,000 casks were required annually. For all this wood 16 warehouses were required and total spirit storage was nearly 55 ML (over 200,000 casks), two facilities being of the traditional dunnage style the others being racked. At the moment all spirit remains maturing on site having been reduced to a standard 63.5%abv as a filling strength. Bottling is carried out in Dumbarton although blending is overseen at the distillery. During the 1970s improvements designers took advantage of the opportunity to organise the distillery’s layout so as to allow as much as possible of the production process to be observed from a single location. Other developments included the energy efficient pre-heating of wash entering the still by heat being exchanged with exiting hot pot ale. The attitude towards efficiency and economy has stuck with Tomatin, very recently a biomass steam boiler, the first of its type in the Scottish whisky industry, has been installed. This has helped reduce carbon emissions by a massive 80% and is a big step towards renewable energy sources.

Perhaps the most original experiment at Tomatin was the eel farm. It is known that eels are encouraged to grow when the water they live in is warmer, so as a distillery has an abundance of such a resource, for example from the condensers, a novel recycling system was developed. However despite an impressive tripling in the growth rate of the fish the farm was closed in 1984.

Despite a significant downsizing in production at the distillery, the 23 stills were reduced to the original 12 in the old still house in 1998 and the dark grains plant closed, it is interesting to note how valuable Tomatin remains to the area. In days of old distilleries were often responsible for a whole community – the direct need for labour as well as the necessary supplies and services resulted in essential industry and commerce for often rural parts. At Tomatin 30 of the original 47 houses built for staff are still occupied by some 80% of the 55 employees. Among the workforce there are two coopers, a surprisingly rare skill to be seen still practised at a distillery, automation, off site warehousing and labour costs conspiring against this particular trade from being commonly witnessed during a tour of a distillery.

Over time certain overseas markets began to take an interest in Scottish whisky, particularly conspicuous was Japan. By the late 1970s over 5M gallons were being shipped there, a significant portion of this quantity was Tomatin. Exporting was done on behalf of the company via its subsidiary Tomatin Distillers Exports Ltd who concerned themselves with exporting bulk blend, vatted malts and a line in substitute blends: where an existing style was required at a competitive price. The well known company Suntory was responsible for a large portion of these imports. During this period Tomatin was considered amongst the most important producers in the market place and one of the few distillers to offer their make as a single – initially at 5yo then also at 10yo. Another of the businesses involved in importing Tomatin into Japan, since the 1960s, was the Kyoto based Takara Shuzo a shochu distiller and a large and diverse alcoholic beverage producer which eventually (1992) also had interests in the American brand ‘Ancient Age‘ (currently Buffalo Trace). So when in 1984 the Tomatin went into voluntary liquidation with shares suspended (they were the first Scottish whisky company publicly quoted on the stock exchange) Takara Shuzou, saki and Shochu makers who closed their own Japanese whisky distillery Shirakawa ten years ago, joined with the respected Tokyo based trading company Okura, established in 1873, to form Tomatin Distillery Company Limited. This step marked the first time a Scottish distillery fell under Japanese ownership. After voluntary liquidation and before the Japanese take over the distillery continued to produce spirit under the watchful eye of the receiver in order that existing orders for fillings could be honoured. Along with the rest of the Scotch whisky industry the 1980s were difficult times for Tomatin- having no serious brand of their own the company almost entirely relied on orders from blenders to survive, so when retail sales shrunk their customers traded on stock reserves and placed few orders for new fillings effectively bankrupting the business. Not long before the difficulties of the mid-80s things must have been promising as a re-issue of shares resulted in a 20% stake of the company being taken by the Dutch beer giant Heineken, obviously fortunes can change and big companies are not necessarily immune. The distillery has been under the umbrella of the Marubeni group since 2000, Okura & Co. having sold their 20% share in the company to Takara Shuzo in 1998 after becoming bankrupt. Since 2006 distribution has been the responsibility of the Kokubu firm who are currently (2013) celebrating their 300th anniversary..

Joining the party, in 1996 when it was acquired from the long term custodian – Wm. Sanderson a subsidiary of United Distillers at the time, was the long established brand ‘Antiquary’ created around 1880. Originally produced by the Edinburgh tea, wine and spirit merchant John & William Hardie, a company set up by their father James in 1861 with offices at 4 Picardy Place. The firm were one time licence holders of Benromach distillery and held 50 shares at the creation on the North British grain distillery in Edinburgh. Come 1917 Hardie sold the Antiquary brand to J. & G. Stewart which in turn was eventually subsumed within the massive DCL concern. Ultimately the founder and the brand were reunited when, as a subsidiary of William Sanderson, J. & W. Hardie were also taken over by the inevitable DCL. The name comes from the title of a novel by Sir Walter Scott.

Other connections to the company include, historically, Alexander Dunn & Co. (Whisky Blenders) Ltd. responsible for the bespoke labelled brand Slaintheva 12yo. Also St. Andrews Ltd producers of golf themed bottlings such as a golf ball shaped bottle and a bottle in a leather miniature golf bag and trolley which were popular in Japan. Another blend brand ‘Talisman’ also originally belonged to an Edinburgh merchant: Lambert Brothers, has been owned by Tomatin for some time. As well as the Antiquary range – non-age statement, 12yo and 21yo (introduced in 2001) an important blend for the Tomatin portfolio is Big T. Finally there is another three blends owned by the group – Ancient Clan, Grand Alastair and Legendary Scot although sales of these are focused overseas. Finally rumour has it that ‘Prince of Wales’ Welsh whisky was actually sourced from Tomatin, the spirit was combined with herbs to replicate a style which would have been the norm before the benefits of oak maturation was appreciated.

As regards the character of this light to medium bodied Highlander it is interesting to note several earlier comments on the character of Tomatin mention peaty notes, something not too apparent currently, perhaps the in-house malting style led to a smokier dram but once the dried barley was out sourced a change of character was either desired or was deemed more convenient. Although over time there has been a general shift away from the smokier style apparent in many other malts too. Currently a lightly peated specification is supplied mainly by Simpsons in Berwick although three other more local suppliers are frequently used. For a number of years a week’s production is dedicated to a  much more significant peating, levels have varied from 12 to 15ppm and future batches will be higher at 30 to 35ppm.

The current distillery manager is the very experienced Graham Eunson. He follows two dedicated Tomatin men in this position. Douglas Campbell MBE started work at the distillery in 1961 joining both his parents on the payroll, he is still employed as a blender and ambassador. Before him served John MacDonald who also went in his father’s footsteps at the distillery, his long career starting in 1948.

All distilleries are unique. In Tomatin we find a well established operation not without its dark days but a survivor who has embraced progress whilst not losing the human touch, keeping a community alive, enjoying well deserved praises for its current offerings and preparing for a future not in bulk shipments but rather catering more for the discerning appreciators of a fine dram.

Notes:

1 litre of pure alcohol  (LPA) = 2.595 proof gallons

LPA has been the required measurement for alcohol since 1980.

Proof is  57.16% alcohol by volume (ABV)

4.546 litres = 1 Imperial (UK) gallon

                                                                                                  TOMINTOUL DISTILLERY

Tomintoul distillery’s story start’s in a time of post war optimism for the Scotch whisky industry. After the lifting of first government then self imposed restrictions on sales the healthy increase in demand for the drink led to upturn in production. These measures included an all hands on deck approach to ensuring full capacity of stills was realised, when round the clock distilling wasn’t sufficient to meet projected demand expansion was often the solution then finally new distilleries started to appear. Tomintoul was the first time a Speyside distillery was built in the 20th century with Scottish money and the third new Highland distillery since the war. An amalgamation between two whisky brokers, W. & S. Strong & Co. and Hay & Mcleod, under the banner Tomintoul Distillery Ltd., began a year long search for a water source of reliably sufficient quality and quantity. By November 1964 the search was over and building started with the first production coming in July 1965. The setting of the distillery was not chosen for the sake of convenience being remote in the hills of Glenlivet near the river Avon a few miles from the village it shares it’s name with. The architecture is functional but despite being approved by The Royal Fine Art Commission and designed by the National Fuel Efficiency Service it is hard to imagine permission being granted these days for any building of this magnitude in the area regardless of it’s socio-economic value being as it is in the Cairngorm national park. Pylons and wind farms might be another matter. Despite there only being three distilleries situated in the glen of the Livet whilst Tomintoul is within the Glenlivet parish 17 stills lay claim to the designation- presumably hoping by association a bit of the magic of the area might rub off. Few distilleries share such a lofty position, 880 feet (268 meters) above sea level, and the area is well known for snow and low temperatures with 2010 being particularly challenging.

Regarding ownership there has been a strong pattern of changing hands: the first sale, to Scottish and Universal Investment Trust or ‘S.U.I.T.S.’ (owned by the House of Fraser family), coming in 1973. Later that year Whyte and MacKay was also purchased by the organisation. Four years later there is a doubling of capacity thanks to the number of stills increasing from two to four. This followed a doubling in the size of the mash tun in 1972/73- it is of the semi-lauter variety. 1978 sees S.U.I.T.S. being taken over by investment conglomerate Lonhro, a company with interests as diverse as mining, textiles, hotels printing and newspapers. A decade later (February 1989) Lonhro sells on it’s whisky wing, known as Whyte and MacKay (W&M) since 1975, to Brent Walker. The following year American Brands Inc. buys W&M then a change of name in 1996 has the distillers known as JBB – Jim Beam Brands- (Greater Europe) Plc.. Current ownership under merchants, bottlers and blenders Angus Dundee dates from the first of August 2000. The company is headed by Terry Hillman an ex-executive of Burn Stewart who re-started his whisky interest via brokering. The Company added the Brechin distillery Glencadam to it’s portfolio in 2003. In the same year a blending centre was installed on site in at Tomintoul with vats ranging in size from 10,000 to 100,000 litres.

The distillery is unusual in that its wide and tall steam kettle heated wash and spirit stills are very nearly the same size as one another, the wash is ~22KL with a 15K charge and the spirit 19.6KL with a 11.2KL fill. Also perhaps as there are no formal visitor facilities there has never been a need for the cosmetic of lacquering the copper. Reflux bowls are employed while the still’s lyne arms ascend. These two features combined with use of shell and tube condensers usually indicate the desire to create a lighter spirit. The large mash tun is stainless steel as are the 6 wash backs. Due to its remote location in a sometimes weather effected area barley storage facilities need to be more substantial than the norm. Maturing is in a combination of four six-high racked and some palletised warehouses with a considerable storage capacity for 116,000 casks on site. Maximum production is 3.3 MLPA coming from 15 mashes a week, taking all its brands into consideration the company is responsible for around 5% of Scottish whisky exports although only 2-3% of Tomintoul’s production is sold as a single malt. Bottlings of the single malt first appeared in 1975 on the distillery’s 10th anniversary however the range available has only just started to blossom. Recent additions include an heavily peated variant named Old Ballantruan (after one of the springs) introduced in 2000 and produced for two weeks in the distilling calendar. In charge of the twenty staff is current distilleries director Robert Fleming, coming from a family line of whisky makers he has been overseeing the site since 1990.

‘Tomintoul’ means little hill of the barn.

www.tomintouldistillery.com