A giant culled

Gavin D Smithlooks at the recent loss of Dumbarton,a once vast grain distillery
By Gavin D. Smith
Just as Scotland's complement of malt distilleries has shrunk during the past two decades, so has its range of grain facilities. The historic plants of Carsebridge and Cambus in central Scotland closed in 1983 and 1993 respectively, while the huge Caledonian grain distillery in Edinburgh fell silent in 1988. However, the closure of Dumbarton grain distillery in 2002 represents the most recent loss to the overall Scottish distilling scene. Dumbarton distillery was one of a number of large-scale, whiskyrelated businesses situated in the ancient town of the same name, 15 miles north-west of Glasgow. It was located beside the River Leven, with dramatic views across the Clyde Estuary. The distillery owed its existence to the popularity of the Ballantine's brand of blended Scotch whisky in North America during the interwar years, and to what was considered an unacceptable attitude on the part of the Distillers Company Ltd.

In 1935,when Prohibition ended in the United States the Canadianbased Hiram Walker Gooderham & Worts organisation acquired the venerable Scottish company of George Ballantine & Son. The following year, Hiram Walker purchased Glenburgie and Miltonduff malt distilleries on Speyside, as the malt whisky from both distilleries was at the core of the Ballantine's blend.But this was all small beer compared to what was to come. The story goes that Hiram Walker's Harry Hatch only decided to build his own grain distillery after Sir Henry Ross, chairman of the Distillers Company Ltd, kept Hatch waiting for an unnecessarily long time before an appointment to discuss selling him grain spirit. Hiram Walker's Dumbarton distillery was duly constructed in 1937/38 on the site of Macmillan's Shipyard, which dated back to 1848, but had closed during the economic 'slump' in 1933. Officially opened in September 1938, Dumbarton was vast in scale, being the biggest distillery ever built in Scotland. Architecturally, it mirrored Hiram Walker's eponymous distillery at Walkerville in Ontario. It was licensed to George Ballantine & Sons Ltd, and cost £533,863 to construct.

The scale of the new distillery can be judged by the fact that two million bricks, 10,000 cubic yards of reinforced concrete and 3,000 tons of steel were used in its construction. A small malt whisky distillery named Inverleven was created within the complex, along with blending and bottling facilities, plus a large stock of warehousing. Dumbarton barely got into production, however, when the Second World War brought it to a halt. But the post-war whisky boom years saw Dumbarton working at full capacity, providing one of the key components for the Ballantine's blend. The Hiram Walker organisation was taken over by Allied Breweries in 1987, and in December of that year Allied Distillers Ltd was formed to run Allied Breweries'UK spirits operation.

Dumbarton grain spirit remained crucial to Allied's blended whisky operations, and the distillery complex was also home to Allied's administrative offices, though the Inverleven malt facility was shut down in 1991. Allied subsequently decided to close the entire Dumbarton plant in 2002, choosing to concentrate grain production at its Strathclyde distillery in Glasgow. According to Douglas Reid, former Grain and Gin Distilling Manager for Allied, Dumbarton had reached the stage where very heavy infrastructure investment was required to maintain its viability, and in particular, its distinctive red bricks had become porous due to age. "It made sense to concentrate our resources for grain spirit on one site", he says.

Accordingly, Allied spent in excess of £7m on Strathclyde, increasing potential capacity by some 25 per cent to enable the plant to produce up to 39 million litres of spirit per annum for its new owners, Chivas Bros, who acquired Strathclyde and the Ballantine's brand along with many other ex-Allied assets when that company was sold off in 2005. Most of Dumbarton distillery was demolished after its closure to make way for a mixed residential and commercial development, though the site's developers are keen to retain the key 'Mill and Stills' building of the old distillery for conversion into 61 apartments over 14 floors.

Like the North British grain distillery in Edinburgh, Dumbarton distilled principally with maize, rather than the more commonly used wheat, and produced a full-bodied and distinctive grain whisky. Bottlings are very rare, but have appeared in the past courtesy of Signatory and Cadenhead.