Single blends: The forgotten history of Scotland's 'Russian Doll' distilleries

Single blends: The forgotten history of Scotland's 'Russian Doll' distilleries

On a handful of occasions in Scotch whisky history, malt and grain spirits have been produced on the same site

Production | 01 Dec 2022 | By Christopher Coates

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Single malt and single grain are well known by whisky enthusiasts as the two styles of spirit that come together to make blended Scotch whiskies, which may be household names such as Grant’s and Johnnie Walker, or aged rarities like The Last Drop 50 Years Old or House of Hazelwood’s ‘The Next Chapter’ 50 Years Old. Few and far between, however, are whiskies like House of Hazelwood’s ‘A Singular Blend’ 1963 – a 58-year-old blend of malt and grain whiskies that were both distilled, in copper pots and column stills respectively, at the same Highland location.

Most whisky enthusiasts and collectors don’t know the history of such dual-style production sites, which were most often malt distilleries nestled within grain distilleries, as almost all such examples of these ‘Russian dolls’ were short-lived and date from a time before contemporary whisky journalism. As a result, the House of Hazelwood ‘A Singular Blend’ 1963 is one of just a handful of ‘single blends’ ever to be made available to the public, and, at 58 Years Old, is the oldest known example to be bottled for sale.

House of Hazelwood"s "A Singular Blend" 1963.

Malt and grain: produced separately but blended together

While single malt produced in Scotland must always be batch distilled in copper pots from a mash of 100 per cent malted barley, single grain is most often continuously distilled on column stills (such as the famous ‘Coffey’ aka ‘Patent’ still) from a mash that may include many different cereal grains in addition to malted barley, such as wheat, corn and even unmalted barley. In scale, malt and grain distilleries also differ greatly.

The largest malt distilleries in operation today – Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet – have a capacity of around 21 million litres of pure alcohol (mlpa) per year, though most are in the 1 to 7mlpa per annum range. Meanwhile, the continuously fed column stills used at grain distilleries allow these sites, like Girvan, in Ayrshire, and Cameronbridge, in Fife, to produce up to 110mlpa per annum. (Though small-scale distillers of single grain, like Arbikie, Inchdairnie, and Borders, do exist.)

Girvan Distillery in Ayrshire.

Although both single malt and single grain whiskies must always be made entirely at one distillery and, at their most basic levels, require the same resources (water, grain, yeast, energy), their production methods and scales of operation have historically differed so significantly that, for a variety of reasons, these sites have almost always been separate.

Traditional malt distilleries dating from the early to mid-19th century often grew from roots in illicit or farm-based distilling and thus can mostly be found in rural, bucolic locations. This same model can be seen reflected in modern farm and estate-based malt distilleries like Aberargie, Arbikie, Daftmill, and Ballindalloch. Grain distilleries, on the other hand, have almost always been large-scale and industrial in nature, as their goal has generally been to produce the light ‘filler’ spirit to be mixed with more flavourful malts to create high-volume blended Scotch whiskies.

Daftmill Distillery in Fife.

Because of this, grain distilleries have usually been purpose-built in locations with favourable links to a sizeable workforce, transport infrastructure – especially railways, rivers, canals and ports – and, until the early 20th century, a ready supply of coal from Lowland mines to fire their immense steam boilers. Thus, single malt and single grain whiskies were usually sourced from different sites before being brought together by blenders at vatting and bottling facilities to produce finished products. Of course, as is almost always the case in the world of Scotch whisky, there are exceptions that prove the rule.

The history of dual-style distilleries

Founded in 1824 by Lowland distiller John Haig, Cameronbridge in Fife not only had Stein-design (the earliest column still widely adopted by Scotch whisky distillers) and Coffey’s ‘patent’ stills producing ‘column malt’ and grain whisky but also, by 1887, copper pots producing malt and mixed-mash ‘Irish-style’ pot still whisky. It’s unclear when the pots were removed, but it was likely sometime in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Similarly, both Coffey stills and pot stills were used at Port Dundas in Glasgow from at least 1845 until around 1903. Similar dual-style production also took place at Saucel Distillery, in Paisley, from the 1850s to the end of the Victorian era in the very early 1900s. Other 19th-century distilleries likely hosted multi-style production at various points, too.

Cameronbridge Distillery in Fife.

A renaissance in the 20th century

During the 20th century, an increase in demand for blended Scotch whiskies and a desire for logistic efficiency led some whisky companies to return to the dual-style model and build malt distilleries within their grain facilities. Installed simultaneously in 1938, Inverleven was the name given to the malt distillery that sat within the walls of the Dumbarton grain complex. On the same site, an additional pot with a straight neck and internal rectifying plates was installed and christened ‘Lomond’. The entire site is now demolished, but Inverleven’s copper pots are now being put to good use making single malt once more at Waterford in Ireland. Similarly, the straight-necked still now resides at Bruichladdich and is used to produce Botanist gin.

Dumbarton Distillery.

In Montrose, Angus, copper pots were installed alongside columns at Lochside Distillery, which was built in 1957 on the site of a brewery that had been in continuous operation since the 1780s. Blending at birth was known to go on at this Highland distillery from the early 1960s and rare examples of ‘single blends’ from Lochside exist.

Kinclaith was built in 1957 within the Strathclyde grain distillery (founded 1927) complex, on the banks of the River Clyde. During its existence, Kinclaith was the only active malt whisky distillery in the city of Glasgow and, following its closure in 1975, malt production didn’t return until the founding of Glasgow Distillery in 2014.

Killyloch and, later, Glen Flagler were the malts made in pots on the site of the Garnheath (aka Moffat, aka Inver House) grain distillery in Airdrie from its founding in 1964. Now closed, the site lives on as the headquarters of Inver House Distillers. The Ben Wyvis Distillery produced malt at the Invergordon grain site (founded 1959) from 1965 to the mid-70s, with its stills later bought by J&A Mitchell and installed at Glengyle Distillery in Campbeltown.

In 1966, William Grant & Sons built the Ladyburn malt whisky distillery on the site of its Girvan grain distillery, which began producing grain spirit on Christmas Day 1963. (See: House of Hazelwood’s ‘The First Drop’.). By 1975, however, it was decided that Girvan needed to expand and Ladyburn was dismantled to make room, ending malt production at the Ayrshire site for 32 years. However, history has a way of repeating itself. Lowland malt spirit returned to Girvan on 24 September 2007 with the first distillation run at the new Ailsa Bay distillery, Ladyburn’s spiritual successor.

Casks maturing at Ailsa Bay Distillery, which shares a site with Girvan.

On rarer occasions, grain production was begun at malt distilleries. For instance, in 1955 a Coffey still for grain spirit production was installed at the Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William, though it was later removed. Evidence of this dual-style production survives in the form of a 40-year-old ‘single blended at birth’ bottling released in the early 2000s. A more recent example was bottled in 2014 by German retailer Jack Wiebers Whisky World.

Similarly, columns for the production of grain whisky were installed at Loch Lomond in 1993, joining the two pairs of straight-necked stills already in situ. A short-lived range of Loch Lomond single blends were released in the early 2000s, including both No Age Statement and Organic 12 Years Old expressions, but it fell foul of incoming category regulations and was discontinued. However, Loch Lomond single blends do still exist: Loch Lomond Signature and Loch Lomond Reserve. Neither carry age statements, but both are made entirely from grain and malt whiskies distilled at the Loch Lomond Distillery.

The end of the single blend

Though Scotland has seen these few malt and grain distilleries running in tandem during the past century, the vast majority of the spirits produced fed the insatiable global demand for blended Scotch. To create the closely guarded recipes of these blends, the malt and grain spirits produced at these dual-style sites would usually also be blended with distillates from at least a few – and often as many as 20 or more – other malt and grain distilleries.

Because of this, most of the ‘Russian doll’ malts were never officially bottled as single malt, and when they were it was sporadic or under obscure labels. Rarer still are historic instances of the so-called ‘single blend’ – whiskies created solely from the malt and grain spirits of a single site. (Though the aforementioned Loch Lomond expressions are also now joined by the likes of Borders Malt & Rye and as yet unreleased single blends from Inchdairnie. Further afield, Fuji Gotemba, in Japan, is also looking to resurrect the style.) Of the small number of single blends that have been labelled as such in Scotch whisky history, only a scant few are known to have been matured to any significant age, and this is perhaps why the style has passed by many connoisseurs and collectors without notice.

One of the Loch Lomond Single Blend expressions.

Because the category lacked recognition by both the industry and whisky drinkers, 'single blended' was not among the styles of whisky codified by the Scotch Whisky Regulations introduced in 2009. With those rules strictly enforced by the Scotch Whisky Association, the single blend was put beyond the reach of future whisky makers entirely – at least on paper.

However, all is not lost. Those who wish to try the oldest known example of this rare style may seek out House of Hazelwood’s ‘A Singular Blend’ 1963, a ‘single blend’ (bottled as blended Scotch whisky) produced entirely at one Highland distillery and released as part of the bottler’s Charles Gordon Collection. Prospective buyers will have to move fast to secure this piece of whisky history, though, as just 74 bottles were made available in Autumn 2022 and only a few remain.

The House of Hazelwood "A Singular Blend" 1963 58 Years Old.


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