Distillery Focus

An Imperial Solution

The state-of-the-art Dalmunach Distillery
By Gavin D. Smith
Back in the 1890s the Scotch whisky business was booming. New distilleries were springing up all over the country, nowhere more so than Speyside.

In the summer of 1898 one such distillery began production in the hamlet of Carron, three and a half miles from Aberlour and just over one mile from the existing Dailuaine Distillery. It too, was owned by Dailuaine-Talisker Distilleries Ltd, and in honour of Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, when construction began, the malting kiln was topped with an enormous gilt crown. Due to this, the distillery was christened Imperial.

Fast forward to the summer of 2015 and the Scotch whisky business is once again in boom mode. Distillery construction and expansion is at a level unprecedented since the 1890s, and where Imperial once stood is a brand new state-of-the-art distillery and now named Dalmunach.

Owners Chivas Brothers Ltd have taken pains to commemorate the old Imperial Distillery within Dalmunach, so it is worth reflecting briefly on the heritage of that venture before exploring the structure that has taken in its place.

Having been created as a 'second distillery' to Dailuaine, and built not from stone but from Aberdeen red brick on an iron framework, Imperial operated for just one season before it fell silent until re-opening in 1919. However, the plant closed once more six years later, by which time ownership of Dailuaine-Talisker Distilleries Ltd had passed to the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) and Imperial did not make whisky again until 1955.

This followed a major rebuilding programme - during which the now rusted crown was removed and processes to convert waste products such as draff and pot ale into high-protein cattle feed were developed. The number of stills was subsequently doubled from two to four in 1964/65.

Imperial ceased production in 1985, and four years later was sold to Allied Distillers Ltd. Distilling recommended in 1991, but seven years later the site was silent once again, and when the Allied Distillers' empire was sold off in 2005, Imperial came into the ownership of Chivas Brothers Ltd.

As part of the Chivas portfolio, Imperial remained unproductive, but as global demand for Scotch whisky grew The Glenlivet was doubled in capacity during 2009/10 and production was increased at several other existing distilleries, while the mothballed Glen Keith Distillery was re-commissioned during 2012/13. Additionally, Chivas Brothers decided in 2012 to construct an entirely new large-scale distillery, just as major rival Diageo had done with Roseisle, established in 2009.

The site chosen for the new distillery, christened Dalmunach, after a nearby pool on the River Spey, was that of Imperial, and after demiolition of the old structures, construction of the £25 million project began in 2013. According to a Chivas Brothers' spokesperson, "The distillery architecture of Dalmunach has been inspired by the shape of a sheaf of barley reflecting the core ingredient of single malt whisky."

"It houses eight unique copper pot stills, with a tulip shape used for the wash stills and an onion shape used for the spirit stills, replicating those from the Imperial Distillery which was situated on the site from 1897 until 2012. In a departure from tradition, the stills have been positioned in a circular design that provides a unique aesthetic for the future. Dalmunach also features a unique hexagonal spirit safe housing four safes with a waterfall feature which is a first in the Scotch whisky industry."

The old Imperial still style was copied by Rothes coppersmiths Forsyth's, but slighlty increased in scale, with the intention of providing a relatively rich, fruity spirit, destined for the blending vats and a role in key Chivas' brands such as Chivas Regal, Ballantine's and Royal Salute.

As well as replicating the Imperial still design, other nods to the heritage of the site include the use of reclaimed brick from the Imperial mill building and wood from the original washbacks in the new distillery foyer, while washback timber also forms the gable wall of the tun room. The old Imperial mill, dating from 1955, has been placed in the new millroom, although it is only for show. Perhaps most siginificantly of all, Dalmunach's water source is the same as that previously used by Imperial.

Dalmunach was built using the latest environmentally friendly innovations, such as heat recovery technology. Indeed, it is the most energy efficient distillery within Chivas Brothers' portfolio, with a 20 per cent efficiency improvement over other traditional Scottish distilleries.

The design and construction of Dalmunach was overseen from start to finish by Douglas Cruickshank, who stepped down from his role as Chivas Brothers' Production Director two years ago to concentrate on the project. According to Cruickshank, who retired on completion, "I started work at the age of 15 at Imperial, and I stayed on to see Dalmunach completed, to see it all come full circle, as it were."

The first spirit flowed from the Dalmunach stills in September 2014, but the distillery was officially opened by Scotland's First Minisiter Nicola Sturgeon in June of this year. At the official opening, Laurent Lacassagne, Chairman and CEO of Chivas Brothers, declared that "Dalmunach Distillery is an excellent example of securing the future of the industry by respecting its heritage, and it's fitting that the remnants from the old Imperial Distillery have been built into an extremely efficient distillery with an architecturally stunning design. It is a real pleasure to see this piece of land in Carron which has had a role in whisky making back to 1897 play a future role in whisky production."

Lacassagne added that, "Over the last three years we have expanded our malt whisky distillation by 17 per cent as part of an annual capital expenditure commitment of £60 million per annum. This investment continues and we have already begun work on significantly increasing capacity at The Glenlivet." Although Dalmunach will not be open to the public, it is situated beside the popular Speyside Way walking trail, and passers by will be able to see its stills in action through the glass fronted stillhouse, and the distillery has been sympathetically designed to harmonise with its landscape, while making a contemporary architectural statement.

Chivas Brothers now operates 13 Speyside distilleries, and its flagship Dalmunach plant is a proud addition to its portfolio.

Getting Technical

Malt: unpeated Concerto barley
Mashing: full-lauter Briggs mashtun, as at Glenlivet - 12 tonnes mash
Fermentation: 16 x stainless steel washbacks - 59,000 litres each. Fermentation times upwards of 54 hours
Distillation: 4 wash stills - 30,000 litres charge, 4 spirit stills - 20,000 litres charge
Capacity: 10mla