Robin Brilleman takes a tour of the Scottish Highlands and visits the distilleries that have, over the course of time, ceadsed production but whose malts have left a lasting imprint on whisky history.
Usually I visit working distilleries on my trips to Scotland, so it’s a little strange and a tad eerie to be on the lookout for distilleries that have, for whatever reason, stopped producing. The buildings are often still standing, albeit deserted, but more often than not the distillery has, sadly, been demolished or is in use for purposes other than distilling malt whisky.The journey begins in the northern Highlands, just north of the village of Brora, where a kiln and a yellow chimney mark the buildings of the eponymous distillery. Built in 1819 by the Marquis of Stafford, later to be the first Duke of Sunderland, the distillery was originally named Clynelish. This is now the name of the more modern distillery on the other side of the road which opened in 1969 and is still in production. The Duke of Sunderland built the original distillery to provide his tenant farmers with guaranteed demand for their barley, so that in turn his rental income was also guaranteed. The draff (the remains after the mash) was used as food for his tenants’ cattle, while the coal to heat the stills came from a nearby coalmine.In spite of the fact that the new Clynelish distillery was triple the size, the old Clynelish stayed in production. What did change, however, was the malt. From 1970 onwards the distillery’s product became more peaty, resembling an Islay malt. It was rumoured that this was done so that Clynelish’s output could replace that of Caol Ila Distillery while the latter was being demolished and rebuilt. However, while in the area, I bumped into an employee of the ‘current’ Clynelish, who also worked in the ‘former’ one, and he could not confirm this piece of whisky industry gossip. Although the old Clynelish was closed when Caol Ila came back into production in 1974, which would seem to substantiate the rumour, it was renamed Brora and reopened in 1975 – continuing to produce heavily peated malt. Brora was then closed again in 1983 but the buildings are still used as warehouses and as a filling store for Clynelish.From Brora I travel south, along the North Sea coast, to Invergordon which harbours a grain distillery with the same name. A malt whisky distillery with the name Ben Wyvis, named after the 1,046 metre high mountain to the west, operated inside this grain distillery’s premises between 1965 and 1977. Continuing south, I arrive in the largest city in the Highlands – Inverness. Located north of the Great Glen, the deep volcanic canyon that is well known for the monster alleged to live in one of its lochs, Inverness used to be home to three distilleries until 1983. Two of them, Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor (both meaning Great Glen), were located side by side along the Caledonian Canal which not only provided water for production but was also used to ship their whisky to other areas including Glasgow. Glen Albyn was the first to open, doing so on the 9th of January 1840. Glen Mhor started producing in December 1894 – set up by the ex-manager of Glen Albyn, who had left because of a disagreement with the shareholders on how to run the distillery. When the shares of both these companies came into the hands of Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) in 1972 they did not receive much investment for a significant period of time. Then, when DCL was thoroughly restructured in 1983, both distilleries were closed, dismantled and demolished to make way for a shopping centre.On the other side of Inverness, towards the east, one can still see the buildings and the chimney of a distillery that was closed by DCL two years later. The Millburn Distillery was created in 1876 after a flourmill was remodelled. The water for the malting came from the Millburn brook while the production water was ordinary tap water. In 1922 the distillery caught fire but the damage was relatively limited with the stillhouse being saved by the swift reaction of the Cameron Highlanders, a regiment that was permanently stationed in barracks just south of the distillery. Closure in 1985 was followed by the distillery’s dismantling in 1988. A restaurant has now been established on the site.Further east is Speyside, the area with the highest concentration of distilleries in the Highlands. Just south of the town of Forres is the Dallas Dhu Distillery, opened in 1899 and still completely intact. The last barrel of Dallas Dhu single malt was filled on 16th March 1983 after which the site was given to Scotland’s Historic Buildings in 1986 by Scottish Malt Distillers to be turned into a museum. Partly because little had changed between opening and closure, the museum is a photostat of a working distillery from the first half of the 20th century – though whisky will never be made here again.Yet another distillery that is not producing spirit any more and whose buildings are reasonably complete is Coleburn. This distillery is hidden in a valley between an old railway track and the road from Elgin to Rothes and was built in 1897. The location was not chosen at random for it is built directly over an old well. The well supplied the water for production of the whisky while the water for running the watermill and cooling the condensers was extracted from the adjoining Glen Burn. Yet the most important factor was the railway line, which was used to ship in barrels and barley as well as to ship out the finished product. Due to Coleburn’s proximity to the railway line people assumed that the distillery would never close, yet the track closed in 1966 and the distillery in 1983. Sadly, it’s only a matter of time before the buildings are demolished.The journey continues to Dufftown, the capital of this whisky area. The town contains no fewer than nine distilleries, three of which are closed. The first of these is Parkmore, which stopped production in 1931. There is no more malt available from this distillery but the buildings are still completely intact and are used for warehousing. The second was opened in 1974 under the name Pittyvaich and was mothballed in 1993. The third, whose malt is still available but doesn’t produce spirit any longer, is Convalmore. Built during the whisky boom at the end of the 19th century, the name stems from the Great Conval Hill located at the side of the Small Conval Hill and from which the production water ran down. In 1909 and 1910 the distillery was extended with a number of column stills for the production of grain alcohol as the basis of blended whisky. It is not certain how long the column stills were in use but we know that the number of pot stills was doubled from two to four in 1964. The Convalmore Distillery was closed 21 years after this expansion and in 1990 the buildings were sold to William Grant and Sons, the family company that also owns The Balvenie and Glenfiddich distilleries. The buildings are still used as warehouses for these two distilleries.I leave Dufftown and Speyside behind me and head north-east to the Highlands, to an area north of Aberdeen. Five of the eight
distilleries found in the region have closed in the past decade, although two of them, Glendronach and Glen Garioch, recently came back into production. One of the permanently closed distilleries is Glenglassaugh, situated close to the coast between Cullen and Portsoy. This distillery was built in 1873/1875 between two watermills and a windmill. The watermills stand by the River Glassaugh and powered the distillery’s equipment. The windmill was a ruin even then but it is still a feature of the landscape and overshadows the warehouses. Glenglassaugh was bought in 1895 by Highland Distillers, its current owner, who completely renovated it in 1959 but decided to stop production in 1986. The warehouses are still used for maturing the Glenglassaugh malt (now only a very rare bottled single malt) along with 20 others.Travelling further to the east I arrive in Banff, where the remains of the distillery named after the town can still be found. The Banff distillery was built in 1824, had three pot-stills and, up until 1924, the process of triple distillation was practised here. The buildings were demolished three years after the distillery’s closure in 1983, except for three warehouses. An employee who had worked in the distillery for 34 years (the last of those years as a stillman) told me that these three warehouses were actually the last ones to be built. The original ones were bombed during World War II by a German plane, which created a large fire that was punctuated by explosions when barrel after barrel of whisky exploded. Gallons and gallons of whisky poured away, most of it disappearing into the sea through the Burn of Boyndie. “As a child I saw cows that drank from the burn and couldn’t stand on their feet anymore because they were too drunk. The ducks and geese in the burn couldn’t swim anymore and just floated away out to sea”, the old stillman told me with a smile.The journey now takes me to what was, in its time, the most easterly situated distillery of Scotland – Glenugie. Located just south of Peterhead, the only thing that remains to say that a distillery did actually exist is a street named Glenugie View in a nearby development area. The Glenugie distillery was established in 1833/1834 and the whisky quickly became popular, especially in New Zealand. It won such high acclaim there that when New Zealand started to produce whisky in 1868, personnel from Glenugie were recruited so that the New Zealanders could be assured of creating a good quality malt. The legal production of whisky came to an end in New Zealand in 1875, the same year Glenugie was undergoing a large expansion to bring production capacity up to 90,000 gallon, a high level for those days. Unfortunately for the then-owner it did not become the success he planned it to be and he had to sell the distillery. After a number of additional take overs and after 150 years of production Glenugie was closed in 1983 by its last owner – Long John (Whitbread).Further on along the east coast, south of Aberdeen, distillery closures were accelerating faster than anywhere else: of the six former distilleries south of the city there is now only one left, Old Fettercairn. The most northern distillery in this area lies just above Stonehaven. It’s here you can find, but probably not for much longer, the buildings of the Glenury Royal Distillery between the railway line to Aberdeen and the Cowie Water. The Cowie Water is a small river that used to power a watermill that operated the moving parts in the distillery (its water was also used for production) up until the distillery’s closure in 1985. The oldest known documents referring to the distillery stem from 5th January 1833, when an amount of £2,783 sterling (an enormous amount for those days) was paid in tax by Barclay McDonald & Company, the owners of Glenury. Robert Barclay, one of its founders, was a passionate walker and in 1799 he walked from London to Birmingham (via Cambridge) in two days and was also the first person to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 hours.A little further south, just above Montrose, the remains of a distillery that has carried a number of different names, and served a number of different purposes, can be found. Highland Esk was built in 1898 but was soon renamed North Esk in 1905 after the nearby river that provided it with water. During World War I the distillery’s strategic location on the east coast meant that the buildings were used by the British Army. After the war, North Esk was used as a malt-house until 1938 when a patent still was brought in and it was turned into a grain distillery. The name was changed again during this year, this time to Montrose, before the distillery was used by the army during World War II. From 1959 to 1964 it was working as a grain distillery again, after which it was turned back into a malt distillery – this time with the name Hillside. In 1968 a drum maltings was built at the side of the distillery and was then expanded in 1980, when the name was changed for the last time and the business became Glenesk Distillery and Maltings. The distillery was closed in December 1985 before being dismantled and demolished in 1996.The buildings of another multi-faceted distillery are located just between Glenesk and Montrose. Lochside, previously a brewery, was converted to a grain and malt distillery in 1957 with four pot stills and one patent still. A bottling line was also installed to bottle the distillery’s own blended whisky and other whiskies, but the distillery was closed in April 1992 and dismantled in 1997. Travelling westwards from Lochside I arrive in Brechin where, until recently, there were two active distilleries. The last one, Glencadam, stopped producing in 2000. The other one, closed in 1983, was North Port which stood in the centre of Brechin and had to make way for a supermarket in 1994. Before closure this distillery’s malt was sold in Italy under the name Glen Dew.To see the last distillery on this journey I have to make the arduous trek from Brechin (on the east coast) to Fort William (on the west coast). Fort William is well known for being located close to the highest mountain in the UK, Ben Nevis, and for the Ben Nevis Distillery. Less well known is the Glenlochy Distillery, where you can still see its maltings and the strikingly tall kiln with pagoda roof. The distillery was built at the starting point of the West Highland Railway (now a famous footpath) on the banks of the River Nevis, although it was named after another river slightly further north. Glenlochy started production on 4th April 1901 but was, like all other distilleries in Scotland, closed during World War I by order of the government. It came back into production in 1924 only to be closed again from 1926 to 1937. It was permanently closed in 1983 and dismantled three years later. There is a certain sadness as I reach the end of my journey. The consolation is that these lost distilleries will be remembered by malt connoisseurs for as long as they are prepared to make pilgrimages to these sites and sample the remaining rare supplies of malts from a lost era of whisky production.
(All pictures courtesy of Robin Brilleman)
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