Granite city blues

Gavin D. Smith looks at how Aberdeen went from several distilleries to none
By Gavin D. Smith
Scotland’s ‘third city’ of Aberdeen has a long and distinguished Scotch whisky heritage, having been the historical home of a number of well-known blending companies as well as several distilleries.

Blenders based in the city included James Catto & Co Ltd, Gordon Graham & Co Ltd, who established the Black Bottle blend, now in the hands of Burn Stewart Distillers, and most famously of all, Chivas Brothers.The Pernod Ricard-owned Scotch whisky subsidiary traces its origins back to an Aberdeen grocery store in 1801.

As far as distilleries are concerned, a considerable number sprang up in the wake of the Excise Act of 1823, which made legal distilling more financially rewarding, but many of these did not last for long, and the Aberdeen Directory of 1855 lists just five whisky-making operations.They were John Begg, 17 Weigh-house Square, Henry Ogg and Co, Strathdee, Cooperston, Reid, Smith and Co. Union Glen, Holburn Brown, Farquhar and Co, Glenburn, Rubislaw, and William Black and Co of Devanha.

By the time Alfred Barnard visited Aberdeen during the mid-1880s, describing it as “...one of the prettiest cities in the Kingdom,” there were three distilleries in action, namely the above mentioned Strathdee and Devanha, along with Bon Accord.

Bon Accord came into existence in 1856, and was based in substantially renovated and upgraded premises on Hardgate, formerly occupied by the Union Glen distillery, which was sequestrated in 1853, and an adjacent 18th century brewery, which ceased trading the following year.The new distillery utilised plant from the Union Glen and developed into a major venture, being described by Barnard as “...one of the largest Highland Malt Distilleries in Scotland.”It had an annual capacity of more than 300,000 gallons, and bottled its own single malt as Cock O’The North. Interestingly, the Bon Accord Distillery Company chose to sell all of its spirit to export markets.

Like so many distilleries featured in this series, Bon Accord suffered a major fire, in 1885, which necessitated a major rebuilding programme. The owners seem to have struggled in the wake of the blaze, and in 1896 they sold out to Dailuaine-Talisker Distilleries Ltd, who renamed Bon Accord the North of Scotland Distillery.

Fire struck again in September 1904, causing the loss of 800,000 gallons of spirit and damage estimated at more than £100,000. Records suggest that the distillery did not make whisky again, though some state its date of closure as 1910 or even 1913.The site is now occupied by housing.

Devanha distillery had earlier origins than Bon Accord, being established by the Devanha Brewery in 1837, on an extension of its existing site. After his visit, Alfred Barnard noted that Devanha was “...situated on the banks of the beautiful river Dee, within two miles of its confluence with the German Ocean, and nearly a mile distant from Aberdeen.The works...are built principally of granite, and separated from the Dee by a splendid esplanade
[Riverside Drive], which has been recently constructed, and cost the city £95,000.”

When Barnard visited, Devanha was in the hands of William Black & Co, who had taken over the distillery in 1852, operating it until its closure in 1910. Barnard recorded the annual output of Devanha as 220,000 gallons, so, like Bon Accord this was a substantial distilling operation.Today, some buildings remain largely intact, and are clearly visible from trains on the neighbouring Dundee to Aberdeen railway line.

The third of Aberdeen’s trio of distilleries which survived into the 20th century was its oldest, smallest, and most enduring. Strathdee had been established back in 1821 by Ferryhill Brewery owner Henry Ogg on Great Western Road, and it remained a family-run enterprise until 1895.

From 1895 until 1915, Strathdee was in the hands of local businessman David Walker, then being incorporated as the Strathdee Distillery Company. Five years later this company was acquired by Robertson and Co, subsequently taken over by Glasgow-based Train and McIntyre in 1925.They in turn became part of National Distillers of America during the 1930s.

Strathdee fell silent during the Second World War, and never re-opened.The site was eventually cleared and redeveloped. Barnard wrote that “The Whisky is Highland Malt, and the annual output is from 45,000 to 55,000 proof gallons. It is principally sold in Leith, London, and Liverpool.”