The stillhouse is the beating heart of any distillery, the place where the real magic happens. And if you walk into the stillhouse of a Caribbean rum distillery, a Mexican Tequila distillery or a whisky distillery anywhere from Ballindalloch to Ailsa Bay, Taiwan to Tasmania, the chances are you will see on the shining copper stills the legend 'Forsyths of Rothes.'
The Speyside village of Rothes is home to three distilleries and the premises where many of the world's stills are produced by dedicated craftsmen, working for a family firm that has expanded out of all recognition in the last couple of decades.
Chairman of Forsyths is Richard Forsyth, who works alongside his son and managing director, Richard Junior. "My grandfather Alexander started as an apprentice coppersmith for Robert Willison during the 1890s," says Forsyth snr. Graduating to the role of foreman, he purchased the business when Willison retired in 1933, forming A Forsyth & Son.
The son in question was Ernest, better known to the people of Rothes as 'Toot,' and after wartime service he took over the company and introduced welding techniques to replace the age-old practice of riveting together copper stills.
The late 1960s saw brothers Richard and William become involved with the firm, with Richard taking charge during the mid 1970s. "I started working in my father's workshop when I was 13 or 14 years old," he recalls, "as I'd decided this was what I wanted to do, so I've been over 50 years in the trade already!"
He explains that, "The 1970s and early '80s were bad economic times, with the 'three day week' and lots of industrial unrest, and with many Scotch distilleries closed we decided we needed to diversify. In the 1980s we got involved in paper mills and built up a major engineering and draughtsmanship operation. We did, however, construct three distilleries in Korea during the 1980s."
"With what we had developed we were ideally placed to go into the oil and gas business in the 1990s. By around 2005/6 oil and gas and the whisky business were doing very well, and we grew substantially. We bought a site in Buckie Harbour and developed that for the oil and gas side of things."
Back in Rothes, the company acquired the mothballed Caperdonich Distillery that adjoined their premises from Chivas Brothers in 2010 and proceeded to demolish it. As Richard Forsyth recalls, "We sold on the stills and mashtun, but it cost £300,000 to knock the distillery down! We kept the two racked warehouses which are currently leased out, and used the rest of the site to expand on."
He explains that, "We had some huge oil and gas contracts a few years ago, when the split was probably 70:30 oil and gas to distilling, but now it's closer to 70:30 distilling to oil and gas, and we have no involvement in the paper business any more. Our whisky activities have increased three or fourfold over the last seven or eight years, not only in Scotland, but all over the world.
Declaring that on his 65th birthday, he did not have time to take the day off, Richard Forsyth says, "The company is very busy now, so I'm still working hard. I'm closely involved in the Macallan contract, so I'm here until mid 2018 at least, when that is completed."
The 'Macallan contract' in question is the creation of an entirely new Macallan distillery alongside the existing plant, and Forsyths are the main contractor for the processing side of the project. "We're responsible for everything," notes Forsyth. "It's a £130 million contract - the biggest ever construction job in the Scotch whisky industry. We are making 36 stills for Macallan, all replicas of those already in place. As well as Macallan, we're also involved in major expansion programmes at Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet. We're making 14 stills for The Glenlivet."
Ireland has also been a happy hunting ground for the Forsyth's of late, as they have equipped new distilleries such as Great Northern in Dundalk, The Walsh Distillery in Carlow and Waterford in the south east Irish port. The largest Irish project, however, has been for Irish Distillers. As Richard Forsyth says, "We've recently made three new stills for The Garden Stillhouse at the Midleton Distillery in County Cork, and we're making another three at the moment. These are the biggest pot stills in the world. We make them in the production yard we have at Buckie and ship them over to Cork."
Noting that another recent project involved fabricating 81 Tequila stills for Mexico, and that Caribbean rum distilleries have also proved a lucrative source of income, Forsyth says that, "We rebuilt the James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington, South Africa, and we've done work in Russia and Brazil. We've built five distilleries in Sweden and two in Finland. We're making stills for malt whisky for China, Taiwan and Thailand, and I can see the Far East business going for a few years yet, but I do see it levelling off in Scotland."
Forsyth adds, "We've not pushed for much work in the USA because we're so busy, but we built Balcones in Texas and we're doing two or three boutique distilleries in the States each year. Twenty years ago we made the three pot stills for Woodford Reserve when the distillery was revived."
Forsyth's has been based on its present site since 1974, and as well as fabricating new stills and associated equipment, much of the firm's workload involves maintenance of existing distilleries and replacement of parts. Around 50 members of staff are employed on the whisky related side, and Richard Forsyth points out that, "Coppersmiths serve a four year apprenticeship, and 10-15 per cent of our workforce are apprentices.
Forsyths employees work with large sheets of copper, which have their origins in mined copper ore, which is smelted and further processed. North and South America are the world's largest producers of copper, which was first used by man around 8000BC, and was first smelted from its ore circa 5000BC. It is ideal for vessels such as whisky stills as it is relatively easy to work and boasts excellent high thermal conductivity.
"All our pot stills are still hand-beaten, but we do use mechanical hammers now to finish them. We have six finishing or 'planishing' hammers. Copper is very soft metal, and if you heat it, it stays soft when it cools. Hammering it, hardens it and puts a 'skin' on the copper. All welding is done in the traditional way, and while we used to do all the sheet metal cutting with hand cutters, now it's carried out with a water jet cutter."
On the odd occasions when he is not working, Richard Forsyth is a keen golfer, and he has also branched out and acquired the closed Station Hotel located on the main street in Rothes and totally refurbished it.
"It had the reputation of being a great fishing hotel," notes Forsyth, "and I remember the Rolls Royces lined up outside when I was a boy. The head ruled the heart, but it gives us a good place to go for a meal after a round of golf!" More than that, the Station Hotel with its excellent whisky selection is now arguably the best place to dine and stay on Speyside.
When it comes to something liquid to accompany that post golf meal, Richard Forsyth declares that, "I'm getting too old to drink much malt whisky, and I tend to drink Sauvignon Blanc wine these days. But in terms of whisky, Aberlour 10 Years Old is one of my real favourites."
Musing on the future, Richard Forsyth says that he is considering making a 'grand tour' of all the distilleries around the world where his company has installed stills. Given the global nature of its work, perhaps he should start planning the lengthy trip quite soon. Until the middle of 2018, however, there is the small matter of the Macallan contract to deal with, not to mention all those other distillers crying out for the copper creations manufactured in a yard behind the main street in a small village on Speyside.