Up on the hill

Gavin D. Smith charts the fortunes of Port Dundas
By Gavin D. Smith
In the last issue we focused on Tamdhu, the latest Scotch malt distillery to close, and this time around we turn the spotlight on the latest grain distilling casualty, Port Dundas.

While Tamdhu remains mothballed, and could recommence distilling at some future date, there is no such hope for the Glasgow grain facility, where the last cask was filled in April of this year.

The 21-acre site is to be cleared and sold off by owners Diageo for future development.

Along with the distillery, the neighbouring Dundashill Cooperage has also closed, leading to a net loss of 140 jobs, but some Port Dundas staff have moved to Diageo’s Cameronbridge grain distillery in Fife, which has been progressively enlarged and upgraded. Similarly, some cooperage staff members have transferred to the Carsebridge Cooperage in Central Scotland, which will continue to operate until Diageo’s new £9 million coopering hub at nearby Cambus is operational next summer. Both Carsebridge and Cambus were once important grain distilling centres for the old Distillers Company Ltd, closing in 1983 and 1993 respectively.

The demise of Port Dundas distillery brings to the end a whisky-making heritage that began in 1811, when a distillery was established in the vicinity by Daniel McFarlane & Co.

Two years later, a second distillery was built close by for Brown, Gourlay & Co.

From March 1845 onwards, both distilleries ran Coffey stills and produced grain spirit, though McFarlane’s distillery continued to be equipped with pot stills, too, until the late 1880s.

Port Dundas had become the focus for industrial development after being established as the terminus of a branch of the Forth & Clyde Canal between 1786 and 1790. It was named after Sir Lawrence Dundas, a prominent backer of the Canal project.

During the 19th century, engineering and chemical works, textile mills, iron foundries and power stations all sprang up in the area to the north of Glasgow city centre, along with the brace of distilleries. The two distilleries amalgamated during the 1860s and became part of the Distillers Company Ltd in 1877.

Port Dundas had the distinction of being the first distillery visited by Alfred Barnard when he set out on his epic mid-1880s adventure to see at first hand every whisky-making distillery in Britain, ultimately leading to the publication in 1887 of his Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom.

Barnard’s description of the location of Port Dundas distillery is worth quoting in full. “Port Dundas...is situated, strange to say, at the top of a hill overlooking the city. The appearance of ships’ masts in such a position, over-topping the houses, presented to us a peculiar surprise. The canal, which is a direct water-way from the Clyde to the Forth, a distance of same thirty-seven miles, over the whole of its progress through bustling towns and quiet villages, commands fine views of the country, pretty water scenes, and the magnificent background of the Forth. Port Dundas itself, however, is the scene of great commercial activity, and the prominent feature of the locality is the Distillery.”

Barnard noted that No. 1 Still House contained three “...Coffey’s Patent Stills. These handsome town-like vessels are 70 feet high and after a full inspection, we passed on to No. 2 Still House, where are five Pot Stills, one of them having a capacity of 24,000 gallons, and said to be the largest in the kingdom.”

Barnard concluded his observations on Port Dundas by noting that “The annual output of this Distillery is no less than 2,562,000 gallons,” but the plant was to suffer a major fire in 1903, which necessitated a large-scale rebuilding programme, with whisky-making not commencing until a decade later.

The scale of the plant was gradually increased, with modernisation taking place after the Second World War, and a £7 million upgrade was initiated during the 1970s, with a new still house – containing a pair of column stills - being built on the site of the old spirit store in 1976. When it closed earlier this year, the distillery boasted a capacity of some 40 million litres.

£50 will buy you a bottle of single cask 17 Years Old Port Dundas from Dewar Rattray, while for double that sum you can sample single cask 36 Years Old Port Dundas, distilled in 1973, and offered by Duncan Taylor & Co.