The lost legion

Gavin D. Smith looks at the Perthshire region
By Gavin D. Smith
Perthshire is well endowed in terms of working distilleries, with six currently in operation. Historically, however, it is estimated that distilling has taken place on some 140 sites in the Scottish county, and the remains of some can still be located. Indeed, Whisky Magazine contributor Ian Buxton owns the relatively intact remains of Tomdachoille distillery, one and a half miles from Pitlochry, and active from 1816 until 1878.

Today, the much-visited Edradour is the last active, smallscale Perthshire distillery designed to provide an outlet for barley grown by local farmers, Indeed, Edradour was founded by a 'cooperative' of farmers around 1825, but three other, similar distilleries survived into the 20th century.

Of these, the first to be established was Ballechin, created near the hamlet of Ballinluig, and beside what is now the A827 road to Aberfeldy. Ballechin was constructed in 1810 by members of the farming fraternity, being operated by relatives of the founders until 1875, when Robertson and Sons took over.

Ballechin turned out a modest 18,000 gallons of spirit per year at peak production, and following Alfred Barnard’s visit during 1886, he wrote of “two antiquated Pot Stills, a Wash Still, holding 753 gallons, and a Low Wines and Feints Still, holding 660 gallons. The Worm Tub is the most ancient we have seen, a regular smuggler’s worm, laid in a vessel fed from the overflow of the burn.”

Robertson & Sons maintained production at Ballechin until 1910, and there was a brief revival between 1923 and 1927 under the auspices of new owner William Rose. After his death, all remaining casks were sold off in 1932 and the warehouses emptied the following year. Although dilapidated, some of the old distillery buildings remain in place, and can easily be seen from the A827 road. The Ballechin connection with whisky making continues, as the name was revived in 2002 by Edradour for its range of heavily-peated single malts.

Auchnagie distillery, also sometimes referred to as Achnagie and Easter Tullymet, was located to the east of Ballinluig, and was built just a couple of years after Ballechin, also by local farmers. It was initially licensed in the name of James Duff & Co, but went through no fewer than six different owners before being acquired in 1890 by John Dewar & Sons Ltd. Although the Perth-based blenders could only get a maximum 24,000 gallons per annum out of Auchnagie, it must have proved a useful source of malt in the years before their new Aberfeldy distillery came on stream in 1898.

Dewar’s continued to operate Auchnagie until 1912, when it was closed and the plant dismantled.

The third of our trio of Highland Perthshire distilleries is Grandtully, constructed on the banks of the Cultilloch Burn, which flows into the River Tay, close by. It was three miles from Grandtully village, which straddles the A827 Aberfeldy road, and was one of many distilleries to spring up after the liberating 1823 Excise Act. It was actually built two years later, passing through the hands of five proprietors before being purchased by the Thomson family in 1837. They ran it until its closure around 1910, and Lloyd George’s People’s Budget of 1909, which raised the tax on whisky to 15 shillings per proof gallon, no doubt hastened its demise.

Barnard visited Grandtully while touring Perthshire, and declared that “Grandtully is...the smallest Distillery in the United Kingdom...It is the most primitive work we have ever seen. The whole “bag of tricks” could be put inside a barn...”

Grandtully could only make 5,000 gallons of spirit per year, but small appears to have been beautiful, as Barnard observed that the Grandtully ‘make’ was “...much appreciated by the shooting proprietors in the neighbourhood, including Sir Donald Currie, M.P.”

Barnard rarely commented on the character of the whisky, but Grandtully is an exception. “We tasted a sample of this Whisky, six years old,” he wrote, “and found it delicate in flavour and smooth to the palate.”

Anyone wanting to get a flavour of what those lost distilleries of Highland Perthshire were really like could do worse than pay a visit to Edradour. There may be coaches in the car park and a shop selling shortbread, but the spirit of the place remains resolutely intact.