Distillery Focus

A forgotten gem (Deanston)

Deanston is the least-known of Perthshire's six remaining distilleries. Ian Buxton visited it
By Ian Buxton
Once, Perthshire was a major distilling centre. One researcher has listed more than 140 distilleries that were active in Scotland’s ‘Big Country,’ some working well into the 20th century. Today there are just six. You’d be hard pushed to name them all though.Aberfeldy, Edradour and Glenturret might come easily to mind, then Blair Athol and the recently reopened Tullibardine, but the sixth is trickier. It’s Deanston, in fact, not a name that is front of mind for even the keenest enthusiast so some background seems in order. The distillery is actually located on the banks of the River Teith, just outside Doune, itself about five miles to the west of Dunblane. That places it in the south west corner of Perthshire, close to the Trossachs.Nearby is Doune Castle, best-known today for being the location for much of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Deanston’s buildings have been there since 1785, but the distillery itself is relatively modern, dating only from 1965/66 when it was created inside the original structures. These are worthy of comment in their own right, having originally been a cotton mill designed by Richard Arkwright, the inventor of the spinning frame that caused such distress among Lancashire cotton-workers in the 1760s.There were additions in 1836 including the still house itself and the extraordinary vaulted weaving shed which is now a maturation warehouse. This seems like an under-appreciated marvel: if you walked into this space in Reims, the room packed with maturing Champagne, it would take your breath away. Why are we Scots so reticent about beating our own drum? There should be tours here, candlelit dinners and erudite architectural lectures led by grey-haired, slightly eccentric academics. Or poets: perhaps only a poetcould do justice to this echoing cathedral of drams, its soaring vaulted roof once topped with a garden. Doune is not Xanadu, and the Teith hardly a sacred river – but perhaps it should be. Deanston’s stately pleasure dome is clearly a miracle of rare device that we should celebrate, not hide away. As we shall see however, in Deanston’s measureless caverns (well, the turbine hall anyway) there is a mighty fountain forced to the service of man. (Readers entirely lost by this paragraph are referred to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan or A Vision in a Dream, where all will become clear.) The conversion to distillation was carried out in 1965/66 and included taking out four internal floors to accommodate the stills and other machinery. The empty floors above now echo to the sound of ghostly looms, the machinery long gone.All this was done by the firm of Brodie Hepburn, Glasgow blenders and distillers, which variously owned Tullibardine (just up the road) and Glen Deveron in MacDuff. In the expansionist-minded 1960s, with whisky on a roll, it bought the mill buildings for warehousing and then, as you do, determined to put another distillery in there. Thus was Deanston born.It’s certainly blessed with an excellent water supply. The Teith tumbles past the door and, when analysed, was found to begood. It also powers the distillery.Canny folk, mill owners. In an environmentally sound and supremely economical move, it installed two impressive turbines, one of which has been working faithfully since the mid-20s. In fact, the ‘mighty fountain’ of water diverted from the Teith, some 20 million litres per hour, is so efficient that it has power overto sell to the electrity ‘grid’.In the 1920s we could still build superb water turbines right here in Scotland; strong, well-engineered masterpieces that run faultlessly 80 years on. Today we ignore the lessons of our own heritage and must hire a Spaniard to build our Parliament. Brodie Hepburn was eventually bought out by Invergordon which operated thedistillery from 1972 for about a decade. In 1982 it was mothballed and lay silent until it was purchased by Burn Stewart in 1990.Ian MacMillan, Burn Stewart’s distilleries manager and master blender and a traditional whisky man through and through, remembers that very well.“There was a great deal to do to bring the distillery back to life,” he recalls, “but we’ve been at pains to keep to traditional methods.”Today that’s still very much the philosophy. Malt, 100 per cent Optic, is unpeated and, refreshingly, only Scottish barley is used. Of course, there’s a Porteus mill – anything else would seem incongruous.Deanston still employs 11 men in the distillery where an open-topped mash tun by Robert Melvin of Alloa (another long-lost Scottish engineering firm) feeds eight washbacks and two pairs of stills. These were manufactured by McMillans and run to shell and tube condensers. All this plant dates from the original opening: large and bulbous, the stills are also surprisingly tall and, unusually, the lye arm points slightly upwards, encouraging reflux. They look to have a few years life in them yet. The result is a new spirit smelling of hay, grass and some leather with hints of liquorice. The new make is slightly waxy and quite sweet.A giant brass station clock keeps watch over the spacious and airy still house, striking in its clean, clear layout. The clock once linked to a series of clocks all round the mill – today it’s a solitary survivor that adds grandeur and a sense of heritage to the making of whisky. Somehow, time seems to pass with greater solemnity measured on its face, than on the glowing numerals of a quartz-powered digital display. Thereafter, the filling store is manual, though there is the capacity to pump direct to a road tanker for customers’ own fillings.Around 45,000 casks are stored on the premises, with stocks of Deanston going back to 1971. These older vintages will be progressively released – as an example, I found some of the 35 year old, 1967 bottling available in specialists at £265 a bottle. Most of the production, though, goes to blending. Deanston is well-regarded and popular amongst the blenders, going into a number of famous brands. Burn Stewart, now owned by the C LWorld Brands group, also produces its own Scottish Leader blend which is exported round the world. As a single malt it’s harder to find. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the effort.Deanston is currently bottled as a 12 year old, and has earned a clutch of medals from various international competitions so its fame may grow. The 17 year old version was recently withdrawn as stocks were exhausted.“I wasn’t satisfied with the quality of the last few casks,” explained Ian MacMillan.“Instead, I’ve replaced it with two wee stunners.” These are a 14 year old Pedro Ximenex finish and a 30 year old Oloroso finish, both non-chill filtered and bottled at cask strength and natural colour. These should be available this Autumn, initially in the United States only but other markets may be considered if stocks permit.Spirit selected for eventual sale as single malt remains at Deanston. Ex-bourbon casks are mainly used, with some amontillado sherry also finding a place. Then they go to the 1785 grade A listed weaving shed which now provides almost optimum dunnage style warehouse conditions. It’s mainly popular in the USA, where it still outsells its stable mate Bunnahabhain. If Burn Stewart pushed it, Deanston could do very well in Britain but corporate priorities seem to lie elsewhere.Sadly, there isn’t even a visitor centre and there are no plans for one. To be fair, the site is slightly rambling and Deanston is off the beaten track. There are tourist hot spots nearby, such as Stirling Castle, Bannockburn and the Wallace Monument, but Deanston is content to be a local hero, largely unsung and known only to a small group of connoisseurs.It might be one to serve blind to the whisky snob in your life. Its medium body and clean flavour develop in the mouth to give fruity notes and a sweet maltiness. The aftertaste has hints of honey, not unlike its Perthshire cousin Aberfeldy. It’s unlikely though that your victim will recognise and be able to name the distillery, so there’s fun to be had here. And, by buying a bottle, you’ll send a small but subtle note of encouragement to a small company that finds itself in the company of giants.This alone is worth doing. Companies such as Burn Stewart, and distilleries such as Deanston, may have a low profile and their products may be relatively obscure but they make their whisky with every bit as much passion and commitment as the big boys and their products are interesting and deserve your support. They add excitement and variety to the whisky scene and, as Deanston is only 40 years old, it has plenty of time to catch up with its better known competitors.We’re all the better for a few independent minded distillers who stick to some of the old ways, quietly making great whisky in sleepy backwaters – and then sending it to enthusiasts round the world. The great poet Samuel Coleridge once wrote, “for he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.” Sadly he wasn’t writing about whisky. But had he been, I like to fancy he would have been thinking about Deanston. Deanston Distillery, near Doune,
FK16 6AG
Tel: +44 (0)1786 8414 22
No public visitor facilities
www.burnstewartdistillers.com/deans tondistillery.htm