The small illegal stills of Speyside have been romanticised time and time again. But what was distilling really like way back when? Jim Cryle of Chivas Brothers decided to find out, and Dave Broom joined him
The thin trail of smoke was the giveaway. No matter how well the bothy was hidden, there was always the smoke. He’d heard of some who had built chimneys to draw it some distance from the bothy, others led it through peat stacks, or, like him, filtered it with the smoke from the farm itself.Smith was safe enough here. Not as safe as the lads in the Braes, but who could get near them – the Bochel at one end, the Ladder Hills at the other. You could distil with impunity in the Braes, make no mistake. Right enough it wasn’t so bad here. He looked down the valley.“A crossroads of illegality,” as someone had called it.You could meet with the Braes men and head north up Glen Rinnes; or jink over to Avonside to the Cromdales to meet the drove roads leading to Perth and all points south; or head across the Gallow Hill to Strathdon, Deeside and Aberdeen.He was high enough to see the gaugers coming, he had time to make his whisky. It was a good place right enough and he was making decent money for his poor quality bere. The ponies would come, the cogies would be filled and that would be the last he’d see of it.The Sassenachs seemed to like it fine, though it could be a struggle to make. Distilling bere was like distilling porridge.“Smooth as milk,” someone had said in Edinburgh. “Bloody strange milk,” he thought.But then who knows what they were used to drinking down there.A thin trail of smoke is rising from the back of Glenlivet distillery. It leads to Jim Cryle, master distiller, who is hunkered down beside a tiny still fitted with a worm which coils around the inside of a sawn-off hoggie. The smoke is coming from a coal and wood fire whose flames are licking the base of the still.“I’m so proud and privileged to be doing this,” says Jim hopping from one foot to another, part nerves part sheer excitement.“I mean, nothing like this has been seen here for 180 years.” I know some guys in the Braes who would disagree... but you get his point. This is a chance to get some inkling of what George Smith must have done before he gave up his moonshining ways and went legal in 1824.In that sma’ still 25 litres of low wines and feints from Glenlivet’s stills is coming to the boil. Customs & Excise had put its foot down to Jim doing a double distillation in such a tiny still which, though irritating for the purists, probably came as some relief to his bosses at Chivas.“What do you think the old stuff would have been like?” Jim gives me an old-fashioned look.“Rough!” he replies throwing some more kindling on the fire. “Think of it. You’d have had a thick mash which would have stuck to the sides of the still.“We had rummagers when we were direct fired... these guys didn’t. They had control, but it was limited compared to what we have today. Mind you, it would have been better than the legal stuff!” He spat the whisky onto the floor.“I asked for a dram. How dare you feed me such inferior slops as this. From where does it hail? Mr Haig’s distillery you say? Well a pox upon Mr Haig. His filth is only fit for sending to England to turn into stinking gin. A brandy instead you say? I know your tricks... passing off whisky coloured with saffron and charging twice the price. Give me the real stuff!” Such was the case. At the same time as Smith and his Speyside compatriots were struggling to keep up with demand for their moonshine, the legal stills in the Lowlands, such as those at Kirkliston “(had been) brought to such a degree of perfection that a 43 gallon still could be discharged at the rate of once in two minutes and three-quarters .. 22 times an hour.” The mildly empreumatic nature of the illicit stuff was a trifle compared to that. The Lowland distillers had little option but to take this course of action.Taxed on the capacity of their stills they had to find the best way to make as much whisky as possible in order to turn some sort of profit.The irony was that they were doing so just as Scotland was beginning to properly respect its national spirit.Brandy and rum no longer ruled the bourgeois punch-bowl. A new patriotism meant that whisky, preferably the distillate made by those noble Highlanders lauded by Walter Scott, had become fashionable.The drink of the poor, the peasant, the shepherd was now the drink of poets and the political elite. Demand was rising.“She’s singing!” We listen to the neck of the still. A highpitched bubbling, a frisson of steam is just discernable.“Not long now... feel that,” he pats the neck.It’s slightly warm. “Now the worm.” Cool.“Give it five.” He’s adding more kindling.“The coal gives the base heat, but you need flame on the still, the control is given by the wood.” It strikes me that he knows more about this illicit distillation than maybe he should.Five minutes later and the neck is too hot to touch, steam is rising from the worm, then a drip from the end of the pipe, then another, and finally a slow, small, twisting stream.Fifteen minutes into the foreshot run and it’s running clear. A taste.“We have it and I tell you.. it’s beautiful!” We nose and taste for the next 45 minutes seeing how it changes, almost by the second: strawberry and pepper into banana, then melon, suddenly a switch to cut grass, then dry grass, malt and a blink later it’s gone sour and greasy. That’s how tight the line is between the middle cut and feints.The most interesting thing is the weight of the spirit, richer more oily than the current Glenlivet new make. Everyone seems happy, bar Jim who doesn’t want that malty note, so he sets up for another run.This time it is fruity all the way — though with the same sudden switch to feints. The two runs have given him roughly 10 litres.Lessons? The Speyside moonshiners would have been faced with a host of problems: the danger of the mash sticking or frothing over; knowing when to make the cut and, most importantly, trying to achieve some sort of consistency.If Jim couldn’t achieve that when using low wines and feints then what chance would Smith have had?On the plus side Speyside’s remoteness would have bought distillers time and time is the vital element; time to perfect the art but also, simply time to make a half-decent whisky.“It’s about control,” says Jim. “It’s about trying to keep things slow and steady.” You can see why Smith was so willing to take out a licence.Larger stills didn’t just mean more whisky, they meant having greater control... they meant better quality.Neither was this a recreation of what Smith would have made, the spirit wasn’t a replica but a homage in the same way as Bruichladdich took a ‘recipe’ (oats, sma’ still, quadruple distillation) and reworked it (barley, large stills, quadruple distillation).The homage wasn’t just to Smith, but to a Speyside of recent memory, a Speyside that’s in danger of being lost, something brought up by Professor Geoff Palmer.“You know,” he said, glass in hand, “tasting this you can see what we have done. We‘ve taken away the character!” He’s right. Today there is less variety in Speyside than there was in the 1960s. The depth and complexity of ‘old’ Speyside is virtually gone.There are exceptions, but you wonder if the price that’s been paid for greater efficiency is homogenisation.
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