Distillery Focus

Brewing up a storm

Gavin Smith tells the complex story of Scottish brewing and its inextricable links with distilling
By Gavin D. Smith
Whisky may be Scotland’s national drink, yet brewing beer predates the documented origins of Scottish distilling by many centuries, and has arguably played a greater part in the economic and social life of the nation. In 1840 Scotland boasted some 280 breweries, with around 30 in Edinburgh alone, though the number gradually declined until in 1970 there was a nationwide total of just 11. Today there are more than 30, and the encouraging growth in small-scale breweries producing innovative, characterful beers is a healthy sign that Scottish brewing may at last be heading down the road taken a couple of decades ago by single malts. Beer in Scotland is increasingly being seen as a ‘craft’ product, with a wide range of styles and an emphasis on individuality and provenance. Alongside the ranks of McEwan’s Export and Tennent’s Lager in Scottish supermarkets the discerning drinker may also now find the likes of Fraoch Heather Ale and Harviestoun Old Engine Oil.The processes of making beer and making whisky are remarkably similar until the point in whisky-making when distillation takes place. The man in charge of mashing and fermentation in a distillery is called the brewer, and what is known in Scotland as wash is often called ‘beer’ in the USA and Ireland. In the USA the wash still is frequently known as the beer still, while the residue left in the wash still after distillation is known as burnt or pot ale.Little wonder then, that many of the same factors that have influenced distillery locations have also influenced brewery sites. Traditionally these included a guaranteed supply of high-quality water and ready access to barley, along with easy availability of coal or peat for fuel. Edinburgh grew into a great brewing centre because of the quality of its water, much like Speyside and whisky, while Alloa became a brewing town partly because of the mighty thirst on its doorstep as the industrial revolution gripped central Scotland, but also because barley could easily be shipped in to the Forth port from as far afield as East Anglia, and there was an abundant supply of locally-mined coal. The growth of the railway network also influenced brewery locations just as much as it did distilleries.Not surprisingly, a number of well-known distilleries were founded on old brewery sites, or were converted from existing breweries, though in at least one case, the opposite was true, and a distillery briefly became a brewery.The impetus for many such conversions came as a result of whisky ‘booms’, sometimes created by new excise legislation. For example, there was a period of rapid distillery expansion in the years immediately following the 1816 Small Stills Act, and one early instance of a brewery being converted into a distillery occurred in 1818, when the Denny Brewery in Stirlingshire was redeveloped to make whisky.The 1823 Excise Act provided the next stimulus for expansion of distilling interests, and in 1824 Ebenezer Connal & Co’s Finnieston Brewery in Glasgow was converted to produce whisky. Two years later the Ardgown Brewery in nearby Greenock went the same way. According to Alfred Barnard, writing of the situation in the north-east of Scotland, “…the Government resolved, about the year 1820, to encourage distilling under legal authority, and the erection of distilleries was suggested to the brewers of the period. Strathdee, one of the first distilleries in Aberdeenshire, was erected by Mr Ogg, the principal partner of the Ferryhill Brewery, and about the same time the Devanha Distillery was established by the owners of the brewery of that name.” William Black & Co’s Devanha Brewery dated from 1768, and it grew during Victorian times to become the largest brewery in the north of Scotland.Most celebrated of all the distilleries which were formerly breweries is Glenmorangie. The Dornoch Firth distillery on the outskirts of the ancient Royal Burgh of Tain dates from 1843, when William Mathieson, a partner in the nearby Balblair Distillery, bought Morangie Farm, which had been the location of Mackenzie & Gallie’s Morangie Brewery since 1738. Brewing is said to have taken place on the site since the Middle Ages, and Matheson converted the old brewery buildings into his new distillery. Coincidentally Glenmorangie’s Speyside sister distillery Glen Moray also began life as a brewery, and some of the buildings which make up the Elgin distillery’s central courtyard date from Henry Arnot’s 18th century West Brewery. It was adapted to whisky making in 1898, at the very height of the whisky boom, and a time when the blenders’ demands for Speyside malts outstripped the available supply.Just a few miles to the south-west of Elgin lies Miltonduff distillery, which occupies a location formerly belonging to the Benedictine Priory of Pluscarden. The monks were both brewers of ale and distillers of uisge beatha, and the Black Burn which supplied process water for their activities was blessed by the abbot of Pluscarden during a 15th century New Year’s Day ceremony. Miltonduff was built in 1824, in the wake of the Excise Act, on the site of one of 50 illicit distilleries allegedly operating on the blessed burn by the late 18th century. It is said that the old brewhouse of Pluscarden became the tun room and stillhouse of the new distillery, and that the stone on which the abbot knelt to bless the burn four centuries earlier was incorporated into one of the maltings walls. To the west, in the Highland capital of Inverness, the now demolished Glen Albyn Distillery was founded beside the Caledonian Canal in 1846, during the same boom in legitimate whisky production following the 1823 Excise Act that stimulated the development of Miltonduff. It was built on the foundations of a derelict brewery by Invernness provost James SutherlandDown in Perthshire, the now-silent Kyndal Tullibardine Distillery, located beside the A9 at Blackford near Auchterarder, was built in 1949 by the celebrated distillery designer William Delmé-Evans. It was an early example of post-war distillery development as the next boom hit the Scotch whisky industry.Tullibardine stands on the site of what is often said to have been the first public brewery in Scotland, and it is known that on his way south after his coronation at Scone, near Perth, in 1488, King James IV purchased a barrel of ale from the Blackford brewery for twelve Scottish shillings. The attraction of the area in terms of water supply is illustrated by the fact that in Victorian times two breweries operated in the little village, and Blackford is now home to the vast Highland Spring operation.Anyone wishing to see what is probably the most distinctive of all Scottish distilleries should visit Lochside in the east coast port of Montrose. Time is of the essence, however, as, despite being a splendid example of late 19th century Munich-inspired ‘Brauhaus’ style brewery architecture, Lochside is under threat of demolition, and is eventually destined to disappear beneath a housing development like Glenury, 20 miles up the coast at Stonehaven.Lochside was built as a brewery on the site on an earlier, 18th century beer-making establishment, and drew water from its own artesian wells. For many years it belonged to a member of the famous Deuchar brewing family, who sold the business to Newcastle Breweries Ltd (later Scottish & Newcastle Breweries Ltd). Lochside was soon abandoned as surplus to requirements, and in 1956 was sold to Macnab Distillers Ltd, who converted it into a distillery, preserving the copper-lined brewing vats, and installing four pot stills and a Coffey still, making it one of the few distilleries producing both malt and grain whiskies at the time.In 1973 Lochside was acquired by the Spanish distilling operation DYC, who proceeded to cease grain production, but continued to make a highly-regarded single malt until the company was taken over by Domecq, which ultimately became Allied Domecq. Allied had something of an embarrassment of distilleries, and Lochside closed in 1992. Bucking the historical trend of breweries becoming distilleries is Glenugie, the Peterhead distillery that has been silent since DCL’s draconian rationalisation programme of 1983. Glenugie was founded in 1831 by Donald, McLeod & Co, and was adapted for brewing some six years after its construction, being turned back into a distillery in 1873.

In 1975 Glenugie’s association with brewing was revived, as its then-owner Long John International was purchased by the famous London brewer Whitbread & Co Ltd, who at the same time acquired Laphroaig, Tormore and Strathclyde grain distillery in Glasgow.It was not, therefore, always a case of distillers buying up breweries. There was a time when no self-respecting brewer would be without its own house whisky blends, and in 1960-63 William Delmé-Evans was called upon to reconstruct the Isle of Jura Distillery from its derelict state for Scottish & Newcastle Breweries. In 1967/68, demand for their Mackinlays Finest Old Scotch Whisky was such that the company built from scratch Glenallachie Distillery near Aberlour-on-Spey, again to the design of Delmé-Evans.The often convoluted commercial histories of companies such as Allied Brewers (now Allied Distillers) who purchased William Teacher & Son in 1976, Hiram Walker (Scotland) a decade later, and then Whitbread’s spirits division in 1990, illustrate the synergy between brewing beer and distilling whisky. Of course, a certain Irish stout brewer took the whole business to its ultimate extreme by becoming the largest player in the Scotch whisky game, and eventually part of the biggest drinks business in the world, but that is another story. Perhaps the most tangible example of the close relationship between breweries and distilleries, between beer-making and whisky-distilling, is William Grant’s Ale Cask Reserve, the result of a unique co-operation between Grant’s and the Caledonian Brewery in Edinburgh. Grant’s pioneering new product, launched in the autumn of 2001, has been finished in casks that previously held Edinburgh Strong Ale. The character of the resultant whisky certainly reflects its last resting place in terms of aroma, colour and flavour. Let’s just hope it won’t render superfluous the old Scottish bar tradition of a nip and a half of beer …
GAVIN SMITH is the author of The Scottish Beer Bible, published by The Mercat Press @ £9.99.