Mythbusters

Mythbusters: On the hunt

Searching for the Methuselah distillery
By Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton
Chris Middleton
Distilleries of longevity pride themselves on surviving manufacturing vicissitudes, government intrusions, vulnerabilities of economic downturns and shifting consumer habits. Longevity imbues a whisky distillery with the halo of romanticised past and semblance of tradition for the public. While age is not synonymous with quality, it infers consistency and competency. Yet, age is an arbitrary term. Of the 3,500-odd registered whisky and grain distilleries in the world today, only 100 can claim more than 100 years of near-continuous operation.

Even fewer can claim to have been manufacturing at the same site since their inaugural year of production. Disruprutions impact year-on-year production due to famines and floods, wars and bankruptcies, prohibitions and bans. Nor does longevity mean unchanged as the liquid product evolves with new biological processes, manufacturing technologies, changes to raw materials and cask sources, altering the distillery’s flavour profile with time, generally for the better.

Until the late 18th century, most whisky was unaged grain spirit flavoured with spices, herbs, fruit and sweetened for palatability. Before Gaelic uisge was Anglicised in the 18th century, it was aqua vitae or strong malt waters, while in other countries, similar grain spirit was poteen, brantrim, schnapps, vodka, and samshu. As modern whisky evolved, distillation shifted from household and cottage scale into adjunct business for millers and brewers, ushering the arrival of larger commercial enterprises dedicated to the seasonal manufacture of potable spirits.

Europe’s perdurable distilleries trace back to the Czech Republic, where, in July 1518, Greentree distillery (Zelena Stromu) began distilling beer and continues to make rye whisky. In Hesse, Germany, the Schlitzer Destillerie has been producing korn schnapps since 1585, continuing with malt whisky today. Lucas Bols Distillery started in 1575 and Nolet Distillery in 1691; however, both Dutch businesses moved to new locations in Amsterdam and Schiedam, breaking the spatial connection to place. In the British Isles, the oldest is Bushmills, founded in 1608 at Antrim, Ireland. Nearly 150 years later, Kilbeggan started; however, it remained silent for half a century until its revival in 2007. In Scotland, Glenturret is the longest surviving since 1763; originally called the Thurot Distillery, renamed Glenturret in 1875, it closed in 1923, before its revival in 1959. Next is Bowmore, in 1779, and Strathisla, in 1786, previously named Milltown. Strathisla claims the longest (almost) continuous production.

In North America, Kentucky’s Woodford Reserve is the oldest whisky distillery, previously known as Oscar Pepper Distillery. Upgrading from a small household pot still beside the residence, it expanded to a commercial enterprise in 1830, operating until Prohibition, falling silent for several decades before a new fit-out in 1996. The second-to-oldest whisky distillery, also in Kentucky, is Buffalo Trace, beginning as the 1858 Old Swigert Distillery. Anecdotal reports also posit homestead stills operated in the Leestown cove since 1782. Other than the Lever Act, followed by the Volstead Act legislating Prohibition, the distillery has been in near-continuous production. In Tennessee, the oldest registered distillery is Jack Daniel’s Old Time Distillery in Lynchburg, which opened in 1884, built on the demolished Hiles & Berry Distillery site that briefly operated in the early 1870s. In Ontario, the oldest in Canada is the one Hiram Walker started in 1858, and it continues as a major whisky manufacturer to this day.

Grain and whisky distilleries have long operated in Asia. India’s Kasauli distillery in Calcutta started whisky production in 1835. The world’s two oldest grain distilleries are in China. By the Yangtze River, Luzhou Laojiao began in 1573, flavouring the spirit with herbs to compound the local liquor, baijiu.

Chengdu’s Shui Jing Fang Distillery is the Methuselah, the oldest in continuous operation. It has distilled grain mash bills of sorghum, barley and rice since 1408, nearly a century before John Cor at Lindores Abbey.