Distillery Focus

A royal threesome

It's one of the easier whisky trivia questions. Which three Scottish distilleries are allowed to append the word 'royal' to their titles, asks Gavin Smith.
By Gavin D. Smith
The answer is Royal Brackla, Royal Lochnagar and Glenury Royal, and, sadly, there are no liquid prizes for being correct. All three distilleries date from the first two decades of the 19th century but they have experienced decidedly mixed fortunes since those halcyon days.Brackla is located some six miles south of Nairn and the Moray Firth and was the first of the trio to be granted a Royal Warrant. Today the standard expression is a very elusive dram. The malt is available only in UDV’s ‘Flora & Fauna’ and ‘Rare Malts’ ranges, and in occasional bottlings from independents such as Signatory and Murray McDavid. The distillery’s latest owners (Bacardi) have not launched a proprietary bottling and as there is no designated visitor centre the whisky’s regal heritage remains largely untapped.Those trivia buffs who got the opening question right may not know, however, that Royal Brackla was one of the malts used by Andrew Usher in creating the very first blended whiskies around 1860. Brackla was built in 1812 on the site of a malt brewhouse by Captain William Fraser of Brackla House. Due to the fierce local competition from illicit distillers, based around the Cawdor Burn, he worked hard to establish his new whisky in the Lowlands and in England. He is said to have complained that although he was surrounded by whisky drinkers he could not even sell one hundred gallons a year close to home!Fraser’s policy clearly paid dividends as by 1835 the Brackla make was deemed sufficiently prestigious for him to be granted a Royal Warrant by King William IV. Queen Victoria renewed the Warrant during the 1850s.The Morning Chronicle newspaper of 20th January 1835 carried the following advertisement: “Brackla or The King’s Own Whisky - His Majesty having been pleased to distinguish ‘this by his Royal Command to supply his establishment’ has placed this whisky first on the list of British Spirits, and when known should be in truth termed ‘The Divine Spirit’ - only to be had of the Importers, Graham & Co., New Road, facing the Mary-la-bone Workhouse.” The distillery traded under the Fraser name until 1898 when it was taken over by John Mitchell and James Leict of Aberdeen who rebuilt the plant - subsequently selling it to the blending concern of John Bissett & Co in 1926. They were absorbed into the Distillers Company Ltd in 1943 and subsequently into United Distillers.In 1965 DCL rebuilt Brackla, adding new maltings, and in 1970 they doubled the number of stills from two to four. Unfortunately, none of this prevented Brackla from becoming a victim of DCL’s major cutbacks during the 1980s. It was one of ten distilleries that fell silent in March 1985 following the closure of eleven plants two years previously.Brackla was one of the fortunate few distilleries on DCL’s hit list to reopen with production resuming in 1991. In 1998 Brackla was one of four distilleries sold to Bacardi, along with the Dewar’s brand name. Today around 2.6 million litres of alcohol are produced annually. Most of them, presumably, finding their way into Dewar’s White Label.Despite its comparatively tiny annual output, single malt from Royal Lochnagar is much easier to find than Brackla. It is bottled by owners UDV as a 12-year-old (see Highlands Tasting page 79) and as an unaged ‘Selected Reserve’ which is very heavily sherried and very highly priced at around the £175 mark. The malt also features in the company’s ‘Rare Malts’ range.Royal Lochnagar distillery is magnificently situated below the brooding bulk of Lochnagar, a 3,800 feet high mountain, just a mile from the royal family’s Deeside home of Balmoral. The distillery plays host to some 20,000 ‘paying guests’ per year. Despite being the smallest productive plant in the UDV portfolio,turning out just 430,000 litres of spirit per annum from its pair of stills, it has a high public profile and now boasts a greater strategic importance to its owners than ever before.According to UDV’s Peter Smith: “Around £2 million has been spent on Lochnagar lately, upgrading the visitor centre and also making the distillery the showcase for our malts portfolio. Previously there was no one place where we could really focus on all our malts but now the shop has a collection of old and limited edition bottlings from all our distilleries. “We’ve also created exclusive facilities for people on our Malt Advocates Courses. These are designed principally for whisky sales and marketing staff from all over the world, and all our company’s operatives in every role in the malt whisky division will go through the course during the next couple of years.”Smith says that the lucky participants are immersed in whisky’s culture at Lochnagar for four or five days. The distillery now boasts a warehouse which contains casks of whisky from a wide range of UDV plants. As part of the course, samples are drawn from casks of different malts at various ages for purposes of comparison.A legal distillery was first built on the Lochnagar site in 1826, by noted local smuggler John Robertson, but the present establishment dates from 1845 and was created by John Begg - a man who brought the distillery to the attention of the Royal family.In 1848 Queen Victoria acquired the Balmoral estate and Begg was not slow to invite the royal family to visit his distillery. According to Begg’s diary, on the afternoon of 12th September 1848: “I observed Her Majesty and the Prince Consort approaching. I ran and opened the door, when the Prince said, ‘We have come to see through your works Mr Begg.’”Begg duly conducted the royal party around his distillery after which he “called for a bottle and glasses (which had been previously in readiness) and, presenting one glass to Her Majesty, she tasted it. So, also, did his Royal Highness the Prince. I then presented a glass to the Princess Royal and to the Prince of Wales and Prince Alfred, all of whom tasted the spirit.”We must assume that the royal party was impressed with Mr Begg’s product, for soon after the queen’s visit Begg received an order for whisky for the royal household and rapidly changed the name of his distillery from New Lochnagar to Royal Lochnagar.Victoria reputedly used her Lochnagar to lace glasses of claret, which would surely have distressed John Begg. One can safely assume that at least some of the copious quantities of whisky consumed by the queen’s faithful attendant, John Brown, also came from the local distillery. It was not unknown for Brown to be ‘drink taken’ in the presence of Her Majesty and on one notable occasion he actually fell over. Unperturbed, the Queen had observed that she too had felt a small earth tremor.Much of the make of Lochnagar was sold to John Begg’s friend William Sanderson who used it as a component of his Vat 69 blend. In 1916 John Begg & Co was incorporated into DCL. Today Royal Lochnagar is a component of several UDV brands, including the prestigious Johnnie Walker Gold Label and Blue Label.Display panels in the exhibition area explore aspects of Lochnagar’s royal heritage, though, as Peter Smith points out, “we deliberately don’t trade on the royal link too much.” However, the connection between the distillery and royalty still continues at Lochnagar, for in June 1995, Prince Charles made a formal visit to the distillery on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of its founding.In contrast with the thriving concerns of Brackla and Lochnagar, the third of the royal triumvirate of distilleries is a sorry sight today. Glenury is located on the northern outskirts of Stonehaven, 15 miles south of Aberdeen. While the physical shell of the distillery remains, all plant has long since been removed and the whole structure is due to be demolished in the near future to make way for a housing development.It is a sad end for one of the last of the east coast distilleries, with Glenesk and Lochside at Montrose both now out of production and Brechin’s North Port lies beneath a Safeway supermarket. Further north, Banff has been demolished while Peterhead’s Glenugie is the base for an engineering company. Glenury was founded in 1825 by the local Member of Parliament, Captain Robert Barclay: estate owner and Britain’s leading long-distance walker. In 1808 he became the first man to walk 1,000 miles in 1,000 consecutive hours and when not walking long distances, or overseeing his distilling and farming interests, Barclay was usually to be found gambling large sums of money - often on the outcome of prize-fights.It is claimed that he acquired the royal suffix for his distillery because of the influence of a ‘friend’ at William IV’s court. The ‘friend’ was referred to only as ‘Mrs Windsor’!Barclay died in 1847 and the distillery was sold. It passed through the hands of various owners including those of millionaire Canadian-born shipbuilder, property magnate and cattle rancher, Joseph Hobbs, whose company, Associated Scottish Distillers purchased it in 1936.Glenury entered the old Distillers Company fold in 1953 and was enlarged in the mid-1960s. Though, as with Royal Brackla, that was not enough to save it two decades later. The last spirit flowed from the Glenury stills in 1985 and, unlike Brackla, there was to be no reprieve.It has been argued that many of the distilleries which fell silent around that time simply made bad whisky. An effective counter arguement is the that a 23-year-old ‘Rare Malts’ Glenury won top awards in the International Wine and Spirit Competition of 1996.
Glenury Royal is a rare malt indeed so if you manage to locate a bottle or two, buy two. Drink one and keep the other for posterity - for as well as being a decent dram this is also a piece of distilling history.