Distillery Focus

Weaving the magic

Rob Allanson visits a resurgent Deanston Distillery
By Rob Allanson
I t was one of those moments where the hunger was really beginning to bite; perhaps I should have had more for breakfast, but then I knew I wanted to get to Aberfeldy and then down to Deanston, near Stirling, and its new shiny visitor centre.

Perhaps it was down to the decision not to stop at motorway services and look for more interesting places to eat and drink.

Let me explain further. Most motorway services usually feature a petrol station, a collection of big name fast food outlets and, generally, a freezer food restaurant. By this I mean large quantity, minimum cooking fuss type joints. Normally these are no too bad but sometimes a burger and chips can weigh heavily on a body when riding a motorbike. That and I just wanted to eat a little healthier and better on the road.

Thankfully Deanston offers more than just a dram and a tour; it has a full on, fresh cooked food, varied menu cafe too. Perfect for a decent bite before taking a tour, and in my case a fantastic goat's cheese and haggis panini. Now that's a great way to start and afternoon wandering round a distillery.

Deanston itself is to be honest a rather plain looking building from the outside, more office like than distillery; only the sweet smells of mashing and distilling to give away the secrets hidden inside.

Much of this is down to the fact the in a former life Deanston was a mill, and an impressive one at that.

Built in 1785, the mill really got into its stride in the early 1800s when James Smith, who was related to the mill's first owners took over and became the first mill manager at the age of 17 and created a model of efficiency, continually improving the production processes used.

By 1840 Smith had increased the output of the mill to a level that required more than 1,000 workers who were drawn, not just from Doune and Deanston, but also from the surrounding areas.

The formidable mill lade, 1,608 yards in length and the embankment wall had been built as had the Lanrick dam that feds the lade.

Four famous waterwheels, designed by James Smith, were installed and inaugurated in 1830. Hercules, the last wheel was installed in 1833. All the wheels were made at the mill foundry, and the oldest turned for 120 years.

In 1945 the more efficient turbines replaced the massive wheels, which were some 36ft in diameter and 11ft or so wide, it was a sad but inevitable step forward in evolution.

Hercules was said at the time to be the largest waterwheel in Europe, and the second largest in the world. You can still see the mounting points on the wall in the turbine room, and there is a projected image to give you an idea of the size.

During its history Deanston made many different types of cotton goods including curtain lace, cotton sheets and towelling for many great institutions, using complicated jacquard looms.

One of the lovely points of the introductory video is that fact that the archive team at owner Burn Stewart had taken time to find a lady who worked in the mill before it closed in 1965; living history and curating it in this way is a joy.

Also look out for the original mill clocks which have been kept; the ghosts of the mill workers are never far away.

The mill was converted into the distillery between 1965 and ‘66, under a year - take note would-be distillery builders.

The conversion included taking out four internal floors to accommodate the stills and other machinery. There are two pairs of large bulbous pot stills, capable of distilling three million litres of alcohol a year, with high necks with ball-shaped bulges and slightly upward sloping Lyne arms to give lighter spirit through reflux. When you walk into the stillroom you can see the joist marks on the wall where the floors would have been. Now where there is the hum of a distillery in full flow, once the sound of hundreds of people and weaving looms would have filled the air.

When people talk about distilleries becoming green Deanston has been cutting its own path for a while. Water powered turbines are the energy source; the engine room. The turbines allow the distillery to sell 75 per cent of the energy produced back to the National Grid. The distillery was also one of the first to receive an organic certification.

There is a good mix of familiarity and surprises as you walk round the distillery. The massive open mash tun is pretty arresting as you walk into room. Also there is a distinct lack of computerisation of the equipment.

However the most fascinating part of the tour, after wandering around corridors not seeing people for a while, this is a Tardis of a site, is the warehouse that is joined to the distillery.

It smells like a dunnage warehouse when you first walk in, and as your eyes grow accustomed to the gloom you realise you are in an incredible vaulted ceiling room; quite unlike anything else in the whisky world.

This was once the weaving shed, built with a cast iron “Cupola” roof covered with earth for insulation, and has proved very effective and efficient for maturing whisky. Standing there with your eyes closed you can imagine the deafening roar of the 1,000 looms that were in here before. Deanston's history is ever present in a very tangible sense.

Deanston hydro scheme

  • There has been power generation at Deanston using water since the late 18th century.

  • Water wheels were originally employed to convert the power but were replaced by turbines in the early 1900s. The machines currently in use date back to the 1920s; in the last few years, they have been totally refurbished and continue to provide power for the distillery and the electricity network.

  • A gravity stone weir diverts the required water from the River Teith into a lade. This lade transfers the water to the two turbines before being returned to the river just below the distillery. The mean flow in the River Teith is approximately 26m3/s and the turbines use a maximum of 6m3/s at full power. The head, (fall), across the machines is 10m; they have a combined installed capacity of 400kW.

Fish movement is provided for by the installation of a large fish ladder at the weir. Screens are in place to prevent adult fish and juvenile smolts entering the installation.

The average annual energy yield is about 2,000MWhrs, with a potential load factor of about 60 per cent.

The distillery uses a monthly average of between 45,000 and 50,000kWhrs resulting in a net export into the local distribution electricity system of about 1,500MWhrs, (on an average daily consumption basis, the overall yield of the scheme provides power for about 400 homes).

Tasting notes


12 Years Old
Nose: Candy floss, rum and raisin fudge, vanilla cream. A cut grass and herbal edge. Cooked apples and buttered popcorn.
Palate: Soft and gentle with a lovely sweet edge. Bags of creamy oak. A little wood spice as well, cinnamon and cumin.
Finish: White chocolate and sugared almonds.


Virgin Oak
Nose: Dunnage warehouses, a little musty, cedar boxes, then a citrus zip cuts through and the whole thing freshens up. Oak sap in abundance. Spring like with a lot of depth, orange marmalade and demerara sugar.
Palate: Sugar candy hits initially then a pastry note, croissants and butter. A tropical fruit edge, mango, passion fruits. A little menthol at the end.
Finish: Herbal and a little earthy.


Toasted Oak
Nose: Deep rich, dense and lush. Caramelised sugar and almonds, honey roast peanuts, figs in syrup. A citrus zip then an almost coal dust note, charcoal and lightly smoked meat.
Palate: Waves of spices, cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and a touch of creme patisserie. Baked lemon pie. Great complexity and good balance between the oak, spices and distillery character.
Finish: Spiced apple and warm rye bread.


Spanish Oak
Nose: Leafy, mulchy, woodlands in Autumn, damp oak and cigar boxes. Then spiced pears, oiled leather, Barbour jackets with a lush treacle sweetness.
Palate: Apple and cinnamon pastries, creamy oak that gives way to candied orange peel and spices. Plum pudding, sherry soaked raisins and
dark honey.
Finish: Warm and spicy.