Scotch whisky is known as the water of life. Deep in the heart of Speyside, finding the purest, clear Scottish spring water has always been a key part of making whisky at Aberlour Distillery. When James Fleming built the distillery in 1879, he chose a location beside the Lour Burn for two reasons. Firstly, the Linn Falls, further up the burn, provided a plentiful supply of water for the distillery's needs. Secondly, the watercourse provided a source of renewable energy to turn the waterwheel that powered much of the distillery equipment. These days, the course of the Lour Burn still flows through the pretty distillery before it gushes into the River Spey. The waterwheel at the distillery may now have been retired, but you can still spy the mill lade through the window during the distillery tour as you move from the mill room to the tun room. It gurgles with a diverted stream from the Lour that the distillery uses for cooling purposes. The production water for making whisky here is drawn further upstream from the Birkenbush springs above the Linn Falls. Large volumes of water are needed for a distillery this size - for example, they add 48,000 litres to the grist as the first water when mashing in. Each charge of the wash still takes 12,000L of wash, and they run the wash stills twice to generate the charge for the spirit still. It may not be the number one topic to discuss over a warming dram of Aberlour A'bunadh, but all Scotch whisky distilleries produce copper-containing effluent and wastewater that requires processing. A number of treatments and solutions are employed to deal with any potential effluent pollutants. Ultimately, as many Speyside distilleries discharge back into the river and its tributaries, they take their environmental responsibilities incredibly seriously.
Touring Aberlour Distillery with Graeme Cruickshank, the distillery manager, he summarises what happens in their on-site effluent works, "We pass it through some high-rate filters, and the bacteria within the filters consume all the nasties in the effluent that we're trying to treat from the distillery." Adjacent to the effluent works, he reveals the Whinstone Towers, the final step in the purification process. Now rather scarce in the industry, Aberlour has three of these cylindrical, timber-clad buildings dating from the 1960s that hold their own particular charm for the whisky enthusiast. The walls are secured in place with metal hoops similar to those you might see hugging a wooden washback. Low sloping conical roofs protected by black weather proof felt are crowned with slatted, boxy pagodas. Creeping populations of pale green mosses brighten the drab wooden slats of the exterior walls, interrupted only by the occasional verdant soft flourish from the fronds of ferns that have taken root amongst the crevices between the hard rocks.
Peeking around the doorway from the gantry, I am mesmerised by the endless rotation of the central pivot irrigation system sweeping over the craggy surface of the whinstone rocks stacked around six metres deep. "These Whinstone Towers polish up the final effluent," explains Graeme, as the water trickles through the rock. "You can see that clear water runs out the bottom," he says, indicating a channel cut around the base of the towers flowing with sparklingly, crystal-clear water. "That allows us to discharge back into the Lour Burn within our strict consent set by SEPA [the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency]. The effluent is monitored every day, so there is no risk of polluting the environment." This is elemental stuff: rock, timber, iron, and water. They may not be the most glamorous part of a distillery, but after giving nearly six decades of faithful service, Aberlour's Whinstone Towers are an undeniably essential piece of distillery kit.