If your idea of a Scottish distillery is something built from whitewashed stone and crowned with bold pagodas, then a visit to Cameronbridge in Fife might come as quite a shock. The plant is vast in scale and modern in design, and its buildings betray nothing of their function until you get close enough to see that the two glass-fronted structures, the size of an office block, house a range of stills.
However, despite appearances, the distillery boasts a long and honourable heritage, having been established in 1824 by John Haig, of the great Scottish Lowland distilling and blending family.
Today, Cameronbridge is at the very heart of owner Diageo’s blended whisky empire; providing a crucial grain component for the company’s array of blends, headed by the best-selling Johnnie Walker ‘family.’ The site also produces white spirit for Smirnoff vodka and Tanqueray and Gordon’s gin.
In 2007, Cameronbridge was already turning out some 66 million litres of spirit per annum (mla), but that year saw the announcement of an extremely ambitious expansion plan, named ‘Project Forth’ and designed to increase capacity to 105 million litres by 2013. The budget for this programme was some £45 million, and in addition to that expenditure, a further £65 million was allocated for a state-of-the-art bio-mass plant.
The man charged with overseeing the vast investment at Cameronbridge is general manager Jim McCowan, who has been employed by Diageo for the past 21 years, and based at Cameronbridge for the last five.
Beside his desk are bottles of ‘standard’ Old Cameron Brig, the name under which the distillery’s single grain whisky is marketed, and a special 12 Years Old bottling, which is exclusively available to company employees. Lifting up the latter, McCowan declares that “Cameronbridge at 12 years old is a major component of Johnnie Walker Black Label and the expansion of Cameronbridge distillery is ultimately driven by the growth ambitions of Diageo’s global whisky business.
“Blenders are moving towards using a lighter style of grain whisky – the style of Cameronbridge is what they want. It has been very consistent. We are about high volume and relentless quality.”
The large-scale investment programme at Cameronbridge comes as Diageo consolidates many of its non-malt distilling interests in the east of Scotland. The Fife distillery is now Diageo’s only wholly-owned grain distillery, although the company has a half share in Edinburgh’s North British distillery, along with The Edrington Group. Diageo’s Port Dundas grain distillery in Glasgow closed last year, along with the Johnnie Walker bottling facility at Kilmarnock, a measure that provoked widespread public opposition. As evidence of its positive commitment to Scotland, however, Diageo points out that a total of some £600 million has been invested in the country over a six year period.
In addition to the money spent at Cameronbridge, the existing bottling plant at nearby Leven has been expanded to include a third bottling hall, additional bulk whisky storage and a new cask filling and disgorging unit. The facility will see headcount double to almost 900 employees.
Meanwhile, at Cameronbridge, Jim McCowan outlines just what has been achieved since the announcement of ‘Project Forth’ in February 2007. “Phase one saw £7 million spent on increased bulk storage capacity, tanker loading, offices and roads – all essentially infrastructure projects,” explains McCowan. “Phase two was about constructing a new fermentation and CIP [cleaning in place] plant, which cost £18 million. It contains 16 x 500,000 litre vessels, and means an increase in fermentation capacity of 75 per cent.
“Phase three involved mashing, in which we demolished the old tun room in April 2009 to make way for the construction of a brand new £18m mash house. In line with phases one and two, construction went extremely well and we were in full production again by April 2011. The mashing process includes milled and cooked wheat, which is combined with a malt feed to produce worts for fermentation.”
The increases in mashing and fermentation capacity have effectively reduced ‘bottlenecks’ in the overall production process, much as adding a new pair of washbacks in some of Diageo’s malt distilleries has allowed output to rise there. “The Coffey stills at Cameronbridge always had more to offer,” says McCowan. “Since increasing mashing and fermentation, the team on site has already set a new production record last year of 72 mla”.
At the time of writing, work on phase four of Project Forth, the bio-mass plant, is nearing completion, and Jim McCowan notes: “The case for developing the biomass facility is predominantly environmental rather than a financial. While reducing our environmental impact the investment also secures our energy supply as well as insulating our operation from the volatilities of the UK gas market.”
Once commissioned, the plant will supply 95 per cent of the distillery’s power requirements, while 30 per cent of distillery water will be recovered and effluent disposal into the Firth of Forth will fall by 99 per cent.
You might think that having overseen what has essentially been a large spirit-making building site for the past four years, Jim McCowan would be looking forward to quietly turning out large quantities of consistent grain spirit in the years ahead. However: “I believe innovation and investment are not finished at Cameronbridge. They are certain to continue in the future.”
There is still a belief in some quarters that grain whisky is essentially neutral spirit, intended purely to ‘bulk out’ blends. However, sampling expressions even from a single grain distillery soon reveal that this is far from being the case.
New Make 94.6%
Fresh, soft, sweet, appley and estery in character.
Single Grain 40.0%
Soft and delicate on the honeyed nose. Coffee with cream. Fresh fruit, cereal, gentle spice, toffee and vanilla on the palate. Medium in length, fading gracefully with a hint of spice and oak.
Singe Grain 1978, Duncan Taylor 56.8%
Malt, ginger, toffee and American cream soda on the nose. Full and spicy in the mouth, with peaches and rum and raisin ice cream. Long in the finish. Spices persist to the very end, with positive oak notes and no negative tannins.
Facts and figures
Grain whisky production differs from the processes used to create malt whisky in several key ways. Firstly, the bulk of cereal is not malted barley, but unmalted wheat or maize, with a small proportion of malted barley included to promote effective fermentation. The use of unmalted cereals reduces costs.
Secondly, prior to mashing, the unmalted cereal is milled and fed into giant cookers, where it is heated with water. It is then pumped into large mashtuns, where the malted barley is added. From this point onwards, production mirrors the sequence familiar to malt whisky distilling, though the actual distillation process takes place in continuous, columns or Coffey stills, all of which operate on similar principles, and consist of parallel analyser and rectifier columns. These stills are able to produce much larger quantities of spirit than their pot still counterparts. The use of non-malted cereal and the sheer scale of operation make grain whisky considerably cheaper per litre than malt whisky.
At Cameronbridge 4,000 tonnes of cereal are used every week, and it is estimated that the distillery consumes as much as 15 per cent of Scotland’s entire wheat crop. Each of the three Coffey stills can turn out 4,000 litres of alcohol per hour, and is able to operate continuously for more than 200 hours before cleaning is required. While one of Diageo’s smaller malt distilleries, such as Oban, handles 36 tonnes of mash per week, Cameronbridge processes up to 30 tonnes of mash per hour. It is Europe’s largest beverage alcohol distillery, with a total capacity by 2013 of 145/150 million litres per annum (mla), comprising 105mla of grain whisky and some 40/45mla of white spirits for gin and vodka production. This is the equivalent to approximately 400 million bottles per year.