A pioneer of the spirit

A pioneer of the spirit

Stewart Mcbain praises the contribution of Charles Cree Doig an unsung hero of the Scotch whisky industry

History | 16 Dec 2000 | Issue 13 | By Stewart Mcbain

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The Scotch whisky distilling industry has a romantic history stretching back 1,000 years. Throughout that time many people have contributed much technical ingenuity, as well as serendipity, leading to the industry’s continued growth.

Many of these people are now nameless, their identities and contributions lost in the draff of whisky history. However there are those who will never be forgotten: the technical pioneers who were outstanding in their contribution to the industry. One such man is Charles Cree Doig – architect and distillery engineer.Making whisky is simple (though making a good dram is very difficult) and as a result it is practised the world over. However, Scotch whisky, as you know, can only be made in Scotland by law. Take 6lbs of barley and convert that to 4lbs of malted barley: mash, ferment and distill it in a two gallon pot still and in time you will have two bottles of whisky.However, Government Spirit Acts taxed distillers on the amount of whisky they were capable of producing. As soon as a new spirit Act came out either an enterprising engineer or coppersmith found a way around it in order to minimise the payment of duty. For
example, in 1788 a Leith coppersmith manufactured a still with a legal capacity of 40 gallons that could have a diameter of one foot and seven inches or four feet. The difference between the differing diameters? One still could produce five times the amount of spirit that the other could in the same time. Again, in 1816, a Mr Levin manufactured stills with a legal capacity of 450 gallons but with a diameter of 4 feet or 14 feet – which would you use? One still could produce 36 times the amount of spirit in the same time as the other thus effectively reducing the tax per still to a ridiculously competitive level – tax only being levied on the amount of whisky presumed to be made from a still of 450 gallons with no other dimensions stipulated!The size, shape, length of head, method of heating, method of cooling, etcetera, all effected the flavours and the quality of the whiskies produced. Thus the more conventional spherical shaped stills appeared – based on quality considerations. Suddenly everything started to get quite technical. Scaling up from one ton of malted barley to, for example, 16 tons per mash called for
meticulous process design and this is exactly where Charles Cree Doig excelled.Doig was born in Linrathen, Angus, on the 24th August 1855 to a farmer, James Doig, and his wife Ammelia Stewart. Charles won prizes for arithmetic and his all-round educational excellence at school, where he remained until the age of 15. He soon secured a seven year apprenticeship with an architect, John Calver, in Meigle near Dundee. In 1881, aged 25, he married Margaret Isabella Dick with whom he had three sons – William, Charles Jnr. and Alexander.As was the custom in those days, Charles’ apprenticeship was practical – experience to prove essential in later life. He practised in Arbroath and in 1882 moved to Elgin where he joined the charmingly named surveying firm of Harbourne Marius Strachan MacKay. In 1890 he set up his own business – the boom in distillery expansion was about to take off and Charles Cree Doig was a man with the right credentials in the correct place at the best possible time.His work was not exclusively confined to maltings and distilleries. Over 1,200 buildings in Elgin and surrounds were designed by him. These included farms, town houses, country houses, shops, banks, harbours, village halls, schools, churches, hotels amongst others.In May 1889 Charles was asked to improve the efficiency of the existing chimneys of the malt kilns at Dailuaine Distillery which, like others, were of a bee-hive louvred construction and not very efficient at drawing off the peated smoke fumes.All of his original drawings of the buildings and distilleries (5000 of them), are in Elgin Library and his Dailuaine distillery drawings show his first design as a simple pyramid on a square chimney. In May of 1889, he was working on alterations at Dailuaine Distillery. Unhappy with his original concept (a chimney with slatted sides and solid pyramid like roof) he drew two curves within the slopes of his design, then drew two curved lines outside of the two straight slopes: the Pagoda roof design was born and every distillery wanted one. At the end of the 20th century 58 still stood on the sky-line.Not all remaining Pagoda roofs are the work of Doig, some are merely poor imitations. They miss the beauty of his insight: the pagoda shape is decorative rather than efficient, efficiency was achieved by lifting the flat roof on the chimney on to four corner posts thereby allowing the wind to blow from any direction thus clearing the peat smoke. This method is also used in kippering or smoking kilns to this day.Unfortunately, the original pagodas at Dailuaine distillery were burned down in a fire in 1917. However, there are two excellent examples on the twin roof of the malt kiln at Strathisla Distillery (main picture opposite page), Kieth, Banffshire, known locally as being the second Doig ventilators built in Speyside.His first distillery construction projects in Speyside started in 1882 with Glenburgie, Miltonduff, Macallan and Dailuaine distilleries. He became the first professional distillery engineer in Speyside, if not Scotland.He designed purpose built buildings: mash houses, stillrooms, kilns, warehouses and much more. Doig designed and
implemented constructions that streamlined the Scotch whisky industry. He even assisted in the design and sizing of the plants on an integrated basis and gave technical advice on the process control of the distilleries. He was no doubt assisted by his contemporary, noted chemist J.A Nettleton whom he met by chance in Belfast in 1896.Doig designed 26 distilleries from scratch, working at distilleries ranging from the Orkney Islands to Islay and Montrose to Ireland. He also attended to existing distilleries in Speyside such as The Glenlivet, Cragganmore and Strathisla, as well as being involved in breweries and maltings throughout the United Kingdom. It’s on record that his company had been involved with 69 distilleries but probably assisted with at least 100, as not all of his drawings survived the onset of time. He was the acknowledged expert, constantly refining his plans so he could enhance the production and quality of the whiskies – particularly in Speyside.It’s here he introduced a form of automation, a first for the region. Doig’s design for the distillery at Longmorn included a railway siding that allowed trains to bring in materials for the construction of the building straight to the heart of the works. When construction finished it allowed grain to be delivered to the distillery and for bottles to be loaded and sent out in the opposite direction.Charles Doig passed away an unsung hero on September 28th 1918 aged 63 years old, a relatively young age for a man who arguably had many more years of ground-breaking ideas and designs left to give the Scotch whisky industry. Without a shadow of a doubt Doig contributed heavily to the success of Speyside whiskies during his life leaving behind a lifetime of architectural ingenuity that helped transform many distilleries into Scotland’s, even the world’s, greatest. Engravings courtesy of Bruce Devin, www.pagodas-of-scotland.co.uk
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