Distillery Focus

A right royal return (Carneronbridge)

Tom Bruce-Gardyne finds that Carneronbridge Distillery is ready to return to the public eye after years in the background of the Scottish whisky industry- all thanks to a member of the Royal family
By Tom Bruce-Gardyne
Fife, as the world is about to discover, is a small county on Scotland’s east coast just north of Edinburgh. News of its existence is being beamed around the planet as I write by the massed ranks of tabloid hacks, TV reporters and paparazzi already in position. The reason of course is William, Britain’s student prince who has just arrived to begin his four-year course at the country’s oldest university. Soon St Andrews will be swelled by a further influx – of American mammas, here to check up on their daughters’ prospects of graduating their way into Prince William’s heart. Completing the picture, and competing for scarce hotel beds and restaurant tables, will be the seasonal migration of golfers.It will all be very different from the last time the county was invaded in the second half of the 19th century at the time of the great Victorian railway boom. The desire to connect up the east coast line and lay a track directly from Edinburgh to Dundee had become irresistible despite the difficulties involved. Up until then all trains were forced to make a wide loop inland because the estuaries, or firths, of Scotland’s two largest rivers lay in between. So to help build the great bridges needed, thousands of Irish navvies began assembling in camps throughout Fife. In 1872 they began work on the first attempt to span the firth of Tay.The navvies brought with them a craving for Irish whiskey that had to be satisfied. Luckily there was a distillery nearby, just east of Glenrothes, that was only too happy to oblige. This was something Alfred Barnard discovered on his great distillery tour of 1887. “The whisky made here is said to have no rival in the world,” he wrote (his book has been recently reissued – see Whisky Magazine Issue 18). “There are several kinds manufactured: first patent ‘Grain Whisky’, second ‘Pot Still Irish’, third ‘Silent Malt’ and fourth ‘Flavoured Malt’.” At the time of his visit construction of the Forth Rail bridge was in full swing. Every detail of this monumental feat of engineering was recorded from the 8 million rivets used, to the 8,000 workmen’s caps blown into the water and later recovered. Strong drink and high winds proved a lethal cocktail, as one of the designers of the bridge, Benjamin Baker, duly noted. “The Hawes Inn flourishes too well for being in the middle of our works, its attractions prove irresistible for a large proportion of our 3,000 workmen. The accident ward adjoins the pretty garden with hawthorns and many dead and injured men have been carried there, who would have escaped had it not been for the whisky of the Hawes Inn.” And that whisky, with its triple distilled taste of Jameson’s, undoubtedly came from Cameronbridge. Who can say how many of the 57 men who were killed building the bridge went to their graves with a bellyful of ‘Pot Still Irish’? This later evolved into a single grain whisky called Cameron Brig, which is also available as a 12-year-old and still has a strong following around the bars and hotels of Fife and Dundee.Today, Cameronbridge is hardly the world’s best-known whisky distillery, any more than Fife is as synonymous with Scotch as Speyside. But in Barnard’s day this “famed distillery” on the banks of the River Leven was hugely important and the distillery merited a whole four pages in his book compared with just one paragraph on Macallan. It was important because it was the power base of one of the trade’s founding dynasties – the Haigs – and because it housed the mother of all continuous stills. It was a cornerstone of the original Distillers Company and remains a vital part of what is now UDV, providing the grain whisky for such world-famous blends as Johnnie Walker Red and Black, J&B and Bell’s. Edradour this is not. While Scotland’s smallest and most couthy distillery can only manage a gentle trickle of some 90,000 litres a year, Cameronbridge pumps out that amount in a morning. None of it is malt whisky however, since the last pot still was dismantled in the 1920s, and not all of it is grain whisky either. About 33% of the current annual production of 65 million litres disappears primarily into gin and vodka. Since Gordon’s and Smirnoff moved their production to Cameronbridge over the last 20 years, 80% of the UK’s white spirits are now produced in Scotland. Which is some small consolation I suppose, when Smirnoff Ice has become the country’s national drink – well, at least in Glasgow. And when you find out Malibu, Pimms, sloe gin and Archer’s Peach Schnapps are also made here, Cameronbridge must be single-handedly stocking tens of thousands of bars and drinks cabinets around Britain. The first thing that strikes you is the massive industrial scale of the place, scattered over a 70 acre site, a five-fold increase on what Barnard saw in the 1880s. If you have any illusions that this is still a cottage industry, something hinted at by a number of malt whisky distilleries including Glenfiddich, these soon disappear at Cameronbridge. Each week 40 to 50 million litres of water, 3,500 tonnes of wheat and 15 tonnes of yeast are boiled up, vaporised and turned into alcohol and animal feeds. Much of the wheat comes from local farms – a welcome side-effect of Britain joining the EU. Before then the grain was mostly maize that was shipped into Leith from South Africa and the States.Somehow to be talking telephone numbers is rather refreshing. It certainly makes a change from the angel’s share and slumbering barrels, or hearing yet another tale about the distillery cat. Yet like all distilleries one constant remains – the need for a plentiful and reliable source of water.This must have been uppermost in the mind of John Haig when he first came here in 1822 to survey the site. One can imagine him, fresh out of university, the fifth in an unbroken line of whisky makers, looking up the River Leven from the old Cameron Brig and deciding this was where his future lay. Pride of place was given to the world’s first continuous still, which his cousin Robert Stein patented a few years later. The Stein still turned the wash into a fine mist and sprayed it through a series of hair-cloth diaphragms. It worked, but not as well as the Coffey still which replaced the diaphragms with copper plates and was invented by Dublin’s former Inspector of Excise, Aeneas Coffey, in 1830. Despite family ties Cameronbridge soon switched.If John Haig was somehow to return to his distillery, he would doubtless feel daunted by the way it has grown. Despite a bank of weird-looking computer screens and the strange smell of botanicals emanating from the gin plant, he would certainly recognise the three Coffey stills. The basic process has changed very little, and remains obsessed with speed, of turning grain into spirit and cattle cake in just three and a half days. Today a steady convoy of lorries arrive at the weighbridge carrying wheat. This is quickly checked and then sucked up through overhead pipes to a temporary grain store. It is then cooked in giant pressure cookers to release the starch, ground up and mixed in a hot mash with water and 10% malted barley. The barley is vital to free enzymes in the mash and convert starch into soluble sugars. “These are brought together at about 62.4ºC,” says Billy Mitchell, General Manager. Don’t be fooled by the word ‘about’: there’s nothing hit or miss about making grain whisky.After 45 hours mixed up with yeast in the mashtun, a wash of about 7.5% abv is produced. “What kills off the yeast?” I ask. “Well,” replies Billy, “there’s temperature, the strength of the alcohol and, to use a technical term, the fact they’re buggered.” The wash then has to decide whether to go through a multi-column still and re-emerge as vodka to be tipped down some clubber’s throat in a week’s time or take the slow route to grain whisky. Distillation in a Coffey still is just as fast. What takes the time, of course, are the years lying around in a barrel. For the drinks industry bean counters, making whisky must sound like a sin, it’s so indulgent.In UDV’s laboratories, Dr Jim Beveridge is currently re-examining the role played by grain whisky and how it reacts with the malts in a blend. Whether this leads to a greater proportion of malted barley being used in grain spirit , we’ll have to wait and see. Some say upping the level of barley will improve the flavour, though Billy Mitchell is unconvinced. But things could change dramatically if you-know-who was snapped with Fife’s favourite whisky. So far Mitchell’s bosses are more interested in Malibu but that could all change if the student Prince took a shine to Cameron Brig.