Burning Issues

How often have we read in a distillery's history a phrase along the lines of “…the following year much of the site was devastated by fire…”? Gavin D Smith investigates in the first part of our series.
By Gavin D. Smith
The fact is that many of our older distilleries have, at one time or another, experienced a serious fire, and some of these blazes can be attributed to the use of ‘direct-fired’ stills. High strength spirit and naked flames are not always a happy mixture. However, incidences of fires within production areas have been virtually eliminated since the widespread introduction from the 1960s onwards of steam and oil to heat stills indirectly.Another factor relevant to distillery fires is that bonded warehouses containing millions of litres of flammable spirit are always just a source of ignition away from an inferno.Traditionally, fear of fire has dictated that distillers do not store all of one year’s production in a single warehouse or group of warehouses.As many distilleries are located in comparatively remote, rural areas, some of the more prudent, or pessimistic, distillers took the precaution of investing in their own fire-fighting appliances, horse-drawn examples of which are now on display at Dallas Dhu and The Glenlivet visitor centre.While the majority of distillery fires have been accidental, a number were quite deliberate, including those which destroyed the Deeside distillery of Lochnagar in 1826 and again in 1841. These episodes of arson were caused by illicit distillers, who resented Lochnagar’s owner John Robertson taking out an official licence as a result of the 1823 Excise Act. That legislation made legal distilling more tempting than had previously been the case and was intended to reduce the vast amount of illicit whisky-making going on in Scotland.George Smith, founder of The Glenlivet, gave a personal account of the travails he suffered as another distiller who had the courage to take out a licence in the wake of the Act. In an 1868 interview with the London Scotsman, Smith recalled that in 1824 he began to distil legally.“The look-out was an ugly one, though,” he noted. “I was warned by my civil neighbours that they intended to burn the new distillery, and me in the heart of it…Threats were not the only weapons used.In 1825 a distillery that had just been started near the Banks o’ Dee at the head of Aberdeenshire was burnt to the ground with all its outbuildings and appliances, and the distiller had a very narrow escape from being roasted alive in his own kiln.” By the time the great Speyside distilling boom arrived in the last decade of the century, ‘the bad old days’ of illicit whiskymaking were largely at an end, but the threat of distillery fires remained, even if no one was likely to set them deliberately.As well as fires, a number of distilleries suffered explosions caused by the ignition of dust from the milling process. The great Elgin-based distillery architect Charles Doig was keenly aware of this threat, and in 1893 he took out a patent to reduce explosions while milling. To eliminate the dust that could be ignited, Doig developed a method of discharging the grist into a sealed hopper, from where it was conveyed by a rotating Archimedes-type screw. Going one stage further, in 1902 he invented a patent fire extinguishing system which could be fitted throughout a distillery.Nonetheless, distillery fires continued to be commonplace, and in 1917 a blaze at Dailauine distillery on Speyside destroyed the first ‘pagoda roof’ ever fitted to a malt kiln, designed and installed in 1889 by Doig.Some distilleries seem to have been unluckier than others when it comes to suffering the effects of fire. Banff, situated on the Moray Firth coast, is a case in point.Established in 1824, Banff was completely destroyed by fire in 1877, though, remarkably, the distillery was up and running again no more than five months later. As insurance against the recurrence of such an event a fire engine was subsequently purchased and installed on the premises.Then, on August 16th 1941 a lone Junkers 88 of the German Luftwaffe bombed the distillery, scoring a direct hit on warehouse number 12, causing a major fire to break out, with casks of spirit exploding and lakes of burning whisky developing around the distillery. A report in The Banffshire Journal noted that “thousands of gallons of whisky were lost, either by burning or running to waste over the land,” and an eye-witness told the local newspaper that “even the farm animals grazing in the neighbourhood became visibly intoxicated.” Legend has it that cows were too drunk to be milked for several days afterwards and ducks and geese were killed by the alcohol polluting waterways close to the distillery.Somewhat harshly, a firemen tackling the blaze was charged of theft after filling his helmet with whisky as it flowed past him and offering it to his parched colleagues!It is sometimes claimed that the Junkers’ mission was to attack Aberdeen docks, but lost its way, and bombed the distillery instead, believing it to be a strategic installation of some kind. However, the distillery was used as a billet for trainee RAF pilots from occupied countries like Norway, so perhaps it was a deliberate target after all.A return to peace in 1945 and the restoration of distilling did not see the end of Banff’s troubles. In October 1959 an explosion was caused by a coppersmith who was undertaking brazing work on one of the spirit stills.Finally, in April 1991, eight years after Banff had ceased production, yet another fire destroyed the last remaining structures!