Distillery Focus

Lead on Macduff

Speyside's most eastern distillery is something of an enigma, but it's not without influence. Ian Buxton paid it a visit.
By Ian Buxton
The towns of Macduff and Banff are located in the North-East of Scotland, on either side of the banks of the River Deveron, reputedly a “first-class, second-class salmon river”. Both are ancient settlements, today characterised by attractive architecture, spectacular cliff scenery and two busy harbours.Over time, Macduff outgrew its neighbour, perhaps because, as one of Cumberland’s staff officers wrote at the time of the ’45, “the town, I believe, lives chiefly by smuggling.”Separated, not just by the entrepreneurial spirit of their ancestors and the river, they are forever joined by John Smeaton’s elegant seven arched bridge of 1779.In 1740 the then Baron Braco (later Earl Fife) commissioned the renowned Scottish architect William Adam to build nearby Duff House at a cost of some £6.5 million. Well, alright, it was actually just over £70,000 but that’s its equivalent in 21st century money. Today it’s an art gallery.And it was here – in the old orchard of Duff House, right on the Macduff banks of the Deveron – that, in 1960, a consortium of Glasgow-based whisky brokers and businessmen built their new distillery.It’s the most easterly of the Speyside distilleries and not without influence, even if Macduff and its Glen Deveron single malt are little known in the United Kingdom.The William Lawsons blend, with Glen Deveron at its heart, is even more anonymous in its homeland, but both are big sellers in Europe, being particularly popular in France, Italy, Belgium, Portugal and Spain.Lawsons, indeed, is a member of the ‘millionaires club’, being one of the few whisky brands to sell more than one million cases annually. It’s well up the list of the top 20 best sellers worldwide and sales are growing, where many of its blended competitors are stagnating at best.The original consortium reputedly commissioned the renowned distillery engineer William Delmé-Evans (see Whisky Magazine, Issue 28) to design Macduff. However, little documentary evidence of this survives and Delmé-Evans himself sadly died just as this article went to print, so we were unable to investigate further.Whoever was responsible, they built a state-of-the-art distillery and the degree of innovation suggests Delmé-Evans’ influence, if not his direct involvement.There were several ‘firsts’ in the original design. Macduff used steam coils to heat the stills and, instead of worm tubs, employed shell and tube heat exchangers to condense the spirit.The horizontal condensers remain a dramatic feature in Macduff’s soaring still room to this day. A number of competitors studied Macduff when planning their own distillery expansions in the 1960s and 70s. Changed times indeed when such gentlemanly courtesies prevailed!The original consortium sold out in 1964 to a London firm of wine merchants. There was a brief flirtation with bottling on site and it’s interesting to speculate how this might have developed in the light of our knowledge of the malt whisky market 30 years on.However, Macduff was not immune to the pressures of rationalisation and consolidation that shaped the Scotch whisky industry in the latter years of the twentieth century and, in 1972, the Italian drinks company Martini took over.It, in turn, was acquired by Bacardi and that is where the ownership rests today, with day to day control vested in their Scotch whisky operations headquarters in Glasgow.Under this enlightened ownership, Macduff has not lacked for investment: there have been additional warehouses and other plant added and the still room and tun house have been expanded and rebuilt.Today, Macduff has nine wash backs, feeding five stills – two large wash stills and three smaller spirit stills, the last added in 1990.At 2.4 million litres of alcohol annual production capacity, it’s one of the larger operations in the Bacardi family and kept pretty busy in supplying fillings to meet the growing demand for William Lawsons.Consequently, though the original design may still be discerned, much has changed and so, by virtue of both history and sales, Macduff is an important distillery, even if its profile is modest.With most of the whisky going for blending, there aren’t a lot of mature stocks, but Glen Deveron is available as a 10 year-old single malt and has a loyal following in France.Marketing director Neil Boyd told me: “We’ve rationalised the single malt range quite significantly in the past two years. There was a 5 year-old that’s been withdrawn as we saw that we needed stocks for the senior version and felt that the extra years in cask delivered quite a jump in quality.”Beyond 10 years there is evidence of Glen Deveron maturing nicely, with a distinctly fuller flavour, and it won’t be long before it is available for the first time at 15 years old. With this superior product in the line-up, Glen Deveron plans a launch in the USA later this year though there are no hints of a UK launch just yet.Remarkably, just one cask survives from the 1960s. Overlooked for years, this is now being cherished for a major anniversary.I took a look at this venerable old gentleman on a recent visit and was surprised to see that it was a firkin – a nine gallon (approx 41 litres) cask more usually associated with real ale breweries than distilling.Unfortunately, there are few records from this period, so it’s not clear why the distillery was using this small cask size, though it may have been for private sales, a practice which has long since been discontinued.With such a small volume, the distillery could not be persuaded to broach the cask, even for Whisky Magazine, so the taste remains a mystery. The odds have to be that this will never surface for sale, as I believe the little cask will be bottled for private use and corporate gifts.I hope the favoured few fully appreciate the rarity of their bottle – it is a taste that certainly can never be repeated.However, the 10 year-old is well worth seeking out if you’re on holiday in Europe.It has a classic Speyside nose, with notes of fresh plum and a complex fruity background. The mouth feel is creamy and almost voluptuous. Some tasters compare it to a rich fruit pudding, though I thought there was a hint of dundee cake in there as well.The finish leaves you with some wood notes and is long and slightly drying. All this promises well for the 15 year-old and I sensed a quiet optimism about its prospects from the distillery team.There is also a strong influence of well-matured Glen Deveron in the Lawson blends – especially the prize-winning Scottish Gold (12 years old) and its senior partner, the 18 year-old Founders Reserve. Sadly, neither is easy to find but both are worth the effort if your taste runs to older, refined blends.Today Macduff uses a mixture of Spanish sherry and American bourbon casks for maturation, mainly in hogsheads. For some time, there was a cooperage at the distillery but this was closed a few years ago and casks are obtained from specialists such as Speyside Cooperage.The distillery itself is well worth visiting if you are in the area (so too is the gallery at Duff House).You can stroll through the grounds to the banks of the Deveron, described by Alfred Barnard as “a splendid river” and imagine battling the 61 lbs salmon landed in 1924 by a Mrs Morrison.Though there is no visitor centre, small groups can be accommodated if you call in advance (see details below).In all likelihood, you’ll be taken around by production manager Stephen Burnett and, for the informed visitor this is probably a lot more fulfilling than the standard tour from a student on a holiday job, however well motivated.Stephen is passionate about his distillery and keen to tell you all the history of the locale as well as Macduff itself.The still room is particularly impressive. Having been remodelled in 1990 it has been constructed on an impressive scale. A high-level walkway provides an unusual and dramatic view down into the still room and the substantial wash stills.I say there is no visitor centre, but that’s not strictly true, Lawson’s actually having a mobile centre, the Distillery on the Road, which tours Europe. (I should declare an interest here, having been involved in the initial design.)Packed onto the back of a remarkable expanding 40’ container it’s a distillery centre in miniature, with replica stills, a working spirit safe, a cooper’s workshop, a warehouse mock-up, nosing booths and a handsome bar.The Distillery on the Road tours clubs, supermarkets and major consumer events for eight months of the year, bringing a little taste of Scotland to drinkers across Europe. At the time of writing, it’s in Spain but has visited Holland, Belgium, Portugal, France and the Lebanon in its efforts to promote Lawsons and Glen Deveron.With all this, the folk at Macduff are in good heart. With a committed owner; sales running at record levels and the distillery in full swing there’s little time for self-promotion but there’s a welcome and justified air of confidence on the breeze and, as the Deveron flows quietly to the sea, you sense that Macduff has caught a rising tide. Macduff Distillery
Banff, Banffshire, AB4 3JT
For more information and visits (advance booking essential)
Tel: +44 (0)1261 812 612