Distillery Focus


Once a hub of international trade, single malt Scotch whisky has finally returned to the Queen’s Dock in Glasgow
By Christopher Coates
The still house overlooking the Clyde
The still house overlooking the Clyde
As might be suspected, Scotland’s most populous city has long associations with whisky and today it is home to the headquarters of a number of prominent brands. But it wasn’t always this way. During the medieval period, Glasgow was little more than a small agricultural settlement and, later, an academic hub after the founding of its namesake university in the mid-15th century.

At that time, the town had a few thousand inhabitants and the River Clyde, which one day would be pivotal to the area’s development, was so shallow in places that one could wade across it at low tide. In fact, upstream of Dumbarton the water was only navigable by small boats or barges. To make matters worse, Glasgow’s position on the west coast of the country made it poorly situated for international trade, which at the time prioritised Europe, although the union of the Crowns in 1603 did benefit overland trade with the South and stimulate the local economy to some extent.

Nevertheless, as access to the Atlantic became more of a priority the town began to prosper and grow. Now considered important enough to be made a Royal Burgh, the true turning point in Glasgow’s fortunes came when the Clyde was dredged in the late 1700s.

By the turn of the 19th century, Glasgow’s population had swollen to more than 70,000. This was in line with the exponential growth of its transatlantic trade revenue, which had been buoyed by a near-monopoly on the sale of American tobacco to Europe and its role in the ‘triangular’ trade.

Although the declaration of independence by Britain’s colonies across the pond did throw a spanner in the economic works for a time, the city was now too big to fail and was well prepared for the industrial revolution to come. But what about the whisky? Well, by 1787 the city was home to three licenced distilleries (Dundashill, Yoker, and Gorbals) and countless illicit stills, with the industry seeing further growth following the favourable terms of the 1823 excise act, which was shortly followed by the deepening of the Clyde to accommodate larger ships.

During the following three years no fewer than 10 distilling licenses were granted and by the 1860s the local population was being well served by a network of ‘dram shops’, such as the 18 establishments operated by William Teacher. These heavily regulated operations facilitated access to high quality alcohol (by the standards of the day), despite opposition from the growing temperance movement. All of this coincided with the emergence of Scotland’s earliest whisky brands as grocer-blenders extended their influence further from home; many such whiskies, for example Teacher’s Highland Cream, are still available on shelves today.

Into this history another familiar name appears. In 1877, the Morrison & Mason Company constructed Glasgow’s famous Queen’s Dock, from which ships (often laden with Scotch whisky) would depart for far-flung corners of the globe.

At the entrance to the dock was an elegant pump house, topped by a clock tower, that controlled the bridge entry system and thus the flow of goods in and out. The company’s founder was one John Morrison, an industrial pioneer whose son, Stanley P. Morrison, would establish a whisky brokering company that laid the foundations for what would become Morrison Bowmore Distillers – now subsumed into the distilling giant Beam Suntory.

But it wasn’t just trade that flourished during this golden Victorian era. The city’s shipyards were world renowned and ‘Clydebuilt’ became a byword for quality in maritime circles. Thus, Glasgow became known as ‘the second city of the British Empire’.

However, much changed during the following century. If Morrison & Mason’s completion of the Queen’s Dock and its pump house heralded the Clyde’s rise to prominence, then its closure and infilling in 1977 was a veritable death knell. In the previous decades, trade of whisky (and almost everything else) on the Clyde had dried up and one by one Glasgow’s distilleries had closed – reflecting the sad trend set by the Clyde shipyards.

The last single malt distillery to be built in Glasgow was Kinclaith, which was added to the Strathclyde grain distillery complex in 1957. Although grain whisky production on that site continues today under the ownership of Pernod Ricard, the malt distillery element was dismantled in 1975. Glasgow’s other remaining Scotch whisky distillery, the Port Dundas grain site owned by Diageo, managed to survive until as recently as 2010 before being closed and demolished.

Regardless, since the mid-70s there hadn’t been a pot still to be found in Glasgow – unless you count the superb Pot Still whisky bar on Hope Street! Although a number of whisky company headquarters remained in the city, by the 2010s Glasgow was most definitely in need of a visitor-friendly malt distillery. This fact was not lost on Morrison Glasgow Distillers’ chairman Tim Morrison or his son Andrew, the company’s commercial director.

Although unable to claim the title of Glasgow’s first single malt distillery since Kinclaith (that title goes to the 200,000lpa-per-year Glasgow Distillery in Hillington, which was founded in 2014), the opening of Clydeside Distillery in November 2017 was, nevertheless, nothing short of an absolute triumph.

In one stroke the £10.5million project has regenerated a badly neglected eyesore on the old Queen’s Dock, made visiting a Scotch whisky distillery a much more viable option while in Glasgow (previously this meant a 30-minute drive out of the city to Auchentoshan or Glengoyne), and created a centre of excellence for cross-brand Scotch whisky education.

The fact that the Clydeside Distillery stands on the site of the Queen’s Dock is made all the more fitting by the fact that Tim Morrison is John’s grandson and Stanley’s son. Incorporating the sandstone pump house built by his grandfather in the late 19th century, the Clydeside Distillery makes for an impressive sight on the waterside.

The existing Victorian building has been fully restored to its former glory and now serves as the distillery visitor centre, while a striking contemporary structure has been sympathetically added to house the production facilities. An elegant blend of the old and new, this gleaming monument to Glasgow’s distilling past, present and future is a far cry from the dilapidated Indian restaurant-cum-karaoke parlour that most recently occupied the site.

The tour at Clydeside offers visitors a crash course in the history of both the city of Glasgow and the Scotch whisky industry, from distiller-surgeons to grocer-blenders, Morrison & Mason to Morrison Bowmore. Next comes a guided tour of the production facilities, where a ‘typical Lowland spirit’ is being produced under the watchful eye of distillery manager Alistair McDonald, formerly at the helm of Auchentoshan.

Don’t be fooled by the contemporary glass façade of the still room. Although Forsyths of Rothes have installed a production facility that looks bang up to date (it is), ‘traditional’ is the word that crops up most often in relation to the spirit being produced here and much of the process is controlled manually. This includes the operation of the stills’ steam valves and also the spirit safe – with gravity reading and spirit cutting practiced in the time-honoured way.

According to Alistair, the rate of spirit distillation is ‘very slow’ in order to promote copper contact at every stage and thus create the desired ‘fruity, clean, and fresh’ new make spirit. The 1.5-tonne mash yields 7500 litres of clear wort that is fermented for 72 hours in stainless steel washbacks.

The wash still produces 2500 litres of low wines during its five-hour run and the seven to eight-hour spirit still run yields around 850 bulk litres of heart cut at 71% ABV. Although the distillery can produce a maximum output of 500,000lpa per annum, in the first year the plan is to produce only 280,000lpa.

What may come as a surprise is the fact that the distillery’s water source is not the River Clyde but Loch Katrine, which is about 40 miles away. Transported to the city via a series of aqueducts, the loch has in fact supplied water to the city and surrounding area since the mid-19th century.

Due to the nature of its relatively urban location, on-site warehousing isn’t an option and, although casks are currently being filled at the distillery, the plan is for spirit to be taken away by tanker for filling and storage in bond elsewhere. A variety of casks are being filled including first-fill Bourbon barrels, first fill and refill hogsheads, and sherry-seasoned hogsheads.

There is no announced release schedule for bottlings after the first spirit comes of age in 2020, but in the meantime visitors can enjoy a tasting of other regional single malts.

Building on foundations that were quite literally laid by its previous generations, the Morrison family has ensured whisky will once again depart from Queen’s Dock and be enjoyed across the globe.

Getting Technical

Malt variety: Concerto barley supplied by Simpsons.
Water source: Loch Katrine
Mashing: 1.5 tonne mash
Fermentation: Eight stainless steel washbacks filled with 7500 litres of wort that is fermented for 72 hours using dry bagged Anchor yeast.
Distillation: One wash still that is charged with 7500 litres of wash yielding 2500 litres of low wines. One spirit still charged with 5000 litres from the low wines receiver, yielding a heart cut of roughly 850 litres at 71% ABV. Balanced system.
Capacity: 280,000 lpa per annum projected in the first year of operation, with a maximum capacity of 500,000 lpa per annum.
Cask number 1 is ready to be filled
Cask number 1 is ready to be filled
Tim Morrison fills the cask
Tim Morrison fills the cask
The iconic pump house
The iconic pump house
The mash tun
The mash tun