In the beginning

Distilleries covet the title of Scotland's oldest – but where was Scotland's first distillery, and what happened to it?
By Ian Buxton
The historical record implies the widespread production of ‘aqua vitae’, often flavoured with berries or herbs, from the early 1500s. The Scottish Parliament early 1500s. The Scottish Parliament early as 1505 we know little or nothing of the early commercial distillers.

It took an act of revolutionary violence for the first distillery to be recorded by name.

In March 1603, Queen Elizabeth, died. She was unmarried and had no children Her nearest relative was the Stuart king, James VI, King of Scots, who then took the throne of England as James I.

The Stuart dynasty continued in power in Scotland, until a constitutional crisis in 1688 led to the ousting of the Catholic James VII and II in favour of the Protestant William of Orange. However, James and his successors continued to claim the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland and there were periodic uprisings, the most famous of which was the 1745 Jacobite Rising.

All this was enormously controversial so, when in 1689 Duncan Forbes of Culloden declared for King William, his Ferintosh estate and distillery near Dingwall were attacked by supporters of the Jacobites and the distillery burnt down.

It must have been a substantial operation as he famously petitioned the Scots Parliament for compensation, claiming the sum of £54,000 Scots (£4,500 sterling), and thus the name Ferintosh was written into history. But what happened next?

Perhaps Forbes was lucky or perhaps he had political influence, either way the Parliament swiftly treated the claim with notable generosity, awarding him and his family the privilege of distilling grain from their own estate in perpetuity free of duty, on payment annually of 400 Merks Scots (about£22 in sterling).

This was a valuable concession and one which the Forbes family was not slow to exploit. By the 1760s, despite much local illicit distillation, his successors were able to expand and built three more distilleries. They also acquired additional farmland to grow barley and, by the early 1770s, were producing 400,000 litres annually and making substantial profits. At least one contemporary commentator claimed that more whisky was distilled in Ferintosh than the rest of Scotland and the profits were estimated at £18,000 sterling per annum.

But it could not last. In the Culloden Papers of 1815, published from the Forbes family archives, it is suggested that the family had neglected their distilling interests but proposed to let them to a commercial distiller who intended to energetically expand the operation.

In 1784, under pressure from other licensed distillers who resented the Forbes concession, possibly in reaction to the proposed expansion (and thus further loss of duty) and as part of a general reform of distilling law, Parliament moved to withdraw Ferintosh’s special privileges and the distillery was closed.

That was not the end of the story, however. Distilling continued in the local area, probably on the estate, as by now the name Ferintosh was synonymous across Scotland with quality.

In the map appended to the report of the important Parliamentary Commission on the Distilleries in Scotland of 1798/99 the Ferintosh district is shown as a distinct distilling region along with the Highland, Lowland and Intermediate districts. However, this distinction was meaningless and swept away in subsequent reforms. Ferintosh passed quietly into history.

Or so it would seem. There was to be one last flourish of the name, though. The Ben Wyvis distillery of Dingwall was built in 1879 and subsequently passed through several hands, until its eventual closure by the DCL in 1926. Between 1893 and 1924, however, it traded as the Ferintosh Distillery Co Ltd and, presumably, sold Ferintosh whisky on the strength of a distant echo of a great and famous name. Today, only some warehouse ruins remain.

Of the original Ferintosh distillery little may be seen today. However, Japanese bar owner and whisky enthusiast Teimei Horiuchi has made a special study of Ferintosh for his remarkable Lost Distilleries of Scotland website.

“There is still an L-shaped and two square bases remaining of the Ryefield distillery, and in the field near Mulchaich there are three substantial foundations which make us imagine how big the building used to be,” he said. “It can easily be imagined that a large-scale distillery used to stand there.”

Horiuchi has made several visits to Ferintosh to document what remains of the various distilleries and formed a firm friendship with the present Duncan Forbes, whose family still own the estate, now somewhat reduced in size.

“We see occasional parties of visitors, mainly from overseas,” commented Duncan Forbes “who seem more interested than the Scots in whisky’s history.

“Quite an amount of family papers survive and at our house we still have a building in use today that was probably part of the original distillery.”

For the most part, though, Ferintosh is simply a memory; a name that we see and understand only obscurely. However, it was formed in fire at a time of violent and turbulent change in Scotland; it was associated with great wealth and privilege and it stood as a watchword for quality.

At a time when a single bottle of malt can sell for £10,000 it’s instrumental to remember how it all started!