In the latest of our series Gavin D Smithlooks at the history behind Convalmore
By Gavin D. Smith
Some Scottish whisky-producing regions such as the Lowlands and Campbeltown have been decimated over the years, but the malt-making heartland of Speyside has escaped comparatively unscathed. This has much to do with the fact that from the late 19th century onwards, with blended whisky taking the world by storm, Speyside malts came to be at the heart of virtually every blend on the market.Of the 33 Scottish distilleries constructed during the last decade of the 19th century, no fewer than 21 were located on Speyside, and a dozen entirely new distilleries within the Speyside designation have been built since the Second World War. While a few distilleries such as Coleburn, Parkmore and Pityvaich have been lost forever, others like Allt à Bhainne, Benriach, Benromach and Tamnavulin have weathered periods of closure to become productive once again.Dufftown has long been regarded as the ‘malt whisky capital’ of Scotland, and the historic Speyside town is home to six working distilleries, including the three William Grant & Sons’ plants of Glenfiddich, Kininvie and Balvenie.Adjoining the Balvenie site is the now silent Convalmore, the fourth distillery to be built in Dufftown. The Convalmore-Glenlivet Distillery Co Ltd was established in 1893 by the Glasgow blending firm of Peter Dawson Ltd, and distilling began in February the following year. Confidence in the Scotch whisky industry was sky high at the time.The distilling bubble was soon to burst in spectacular fashion, however, with vast levels of over-production being fuelled by an exaggerated degree of optimism. Once the house of cards came tumbling down, there were many casualties, not least the Convalmore-Glenlivet Distillery Co Ltd, and in 1904 the distillery and its stock were bought by WPLowrie & Co Ltd for the sum of £6,000.Two years later, Lowrie was purchased by James Buchanan & Co Ltd, and in 1925 Convalmore was one of several distilleries acquired from Buchanan’s by the Distillers Company Ltd. It remained in DCL’s hands, operating under its Scottish Malt Distillers subsidiary from 1930, until falling victim to the next bout of serious over-production in the Scotch whisky industry, which forced its closure in 1985.In the meantime, however, Convalmore experienced some interesting times, suffering a serious fire in October 1909, after which the rebuilt distillery was fitted with a continuous still in addition to its pair of pot stills.Experiments subsequently took place to ascertain the effectiveness of making malt whisky in the still, which boasted a remarkable capacity of 2,273 litres per hour.Unfortunately, perhaps, for the company accountants, the results were disappointing, with maturation producing decidedly variable spirit quality. The continuous still was removed in 1916, while pot still distillation continued.The 1960s brought another round of whisky-making expansion to Scotland, and to Speyside in particular. Convalmore benefited from significant investment, with the number of stills being increased from two to four in 1964/65. Adark grains plant was also built in 1972 to process draff and pot ale from the distillery itself and from others in the area, while the stock of warehousing was increased at the same time. Finally, a new mash house was erected in 1975, and a stainless steel mash tun was installed to replace the existing cast iron vessel.Following its closure a decade later, Convalmore was purchased from DCL’s successor United Distillers by William Grant & Sons Ltd in 1990. Grant’s demolished the dark grains plant and put the extensive warehousing – capable of holding some 17,000 casks - to use for the maturation of Glenfiddich and Balvenie spirit.Today, Convalmore appears outwardly intact, if slightly unloved, but it is really little more than an empty shell of a distillery. The good news, however, is that it is still possible to taste the spirit of Convalmore, thanks to the occasional independent bottling and Diageo’s own releases. A ‘Rare Malts’ 24-year-old Convalmore was offered in 2003, and two years later a 28-year-old (57.9%) from 1977 appeared in the ‘Special Release’ series. The latter is a delightful dram: sweet, spicy, fruity and sophisticated on the nose, big and rich in the mouth, with sherry and malt, liquorice and dried fruit. It dries slowly and stylishly with cough lozenges, blackcurrant and a final nuttiness.