Distillery Focus

Where small is very beautiful (Edradour)

History lives at Edradour, the world's smallest Scotch whisky distillery, where traditional whisky-making methods remain unchanged to this day. Jane Slade describes the pleasures on offer when she slipped back in time
By Jane Slade
The Black Spout waterfall is the only natural barrier that stops the wild salmon leaping up to Edradour (pronounced as in ‘sour’), an idyllic, quintessentially Scottish haven buried deep in the southern Highlands. But while the salmon may not make it, whisky lovers are more fortunate and there is no better place, especially for the novice, to learn about the traditional ways of creating the golden nectar. To find your way to this unique enclave, you must drive north of Edinburgh for about an hour. Then at the village of Pitlochry, home to the Bell’s and Blair Athol distilleries, take a sharp right up the winding road that leads to an unpretentious collection of small whitewashed buildings. This is Edradour, the world’s smallest Scotch whisky distillery. It was back in 1825 when a group of local farmers, known as the founding fathers of Edradour, established their distilling co-operative – or rather made it legal. These men were among the pioneers of Highland malt distilling. Initially they had been in the business of making whisky for themselves as it was something they could do with the excess barley they produced. Then unwittingly they became part of turning a cottage industry into a global enterprise. But the story of Edradour remains unique because, some 175 years on, the distilling methods remain unchanged – living history for all those who have the chance to witness it. Since 1986 Edradour’s annual whisky production has been 90,000 litres (600 gallons), roughly the equivalent to a week’s output of an average Speyside malt distillery. But here small is beautiful and quality counts more than quantity. Some two thirds of Edradour’s whisky production goes to the blended whisky, House of Lords, among others, and one third to the Edradour single malt. John Reid, is the manager of this, the doll’s house distillery in the Campbell Distillers’ portfolio, overseeing production from malting to maturation with two co-workers James Kennedy, a former roofer and David Ramsbottom, a former salesman. Between them they fill 14 casks a week by hand, empty the mash tun manually (the mash tun has one ton capacity and they do four mashes a week), and shovel weekly the ‘draff’, otherwise known as the mashed malt or barley residue, onto lorries so it can be recycled as animal feed.This latter practise has continued since the days of illicit stills (pre-1823 when an Act of Parliament was passed reducing the minimum legal still size from 500 gallons to 40 gallons). Before 1823 the ‘pot men’ had to find ingenious ways of getting rid of crushed husks and barley hearts so excise men could not trace them. Feeding them to animals destroyed all the evidence. It was and still is hard, physical work for the legal pot men of Edradour, but today Reid and his men have a passion and pride in creating the last handmade malt in Scotland using only Scottish barley. “There is something fantastic to be involved in the whole process,” said James Kennedy. “It is all about working as a team and having a hand, literally in making great whisky.”The production process at Edradour is a triumph of tradition over modern technology. And despite the distillery changing hands many times over the years, its current owners, Campbell Distillers, are committed to preserving Edradour’s unique distinction of maintaining the entire whisky-making process under one roof – and using the same or reconstructed equipment. The mash tuns, for example, are no bigger than they were 175 years ago, about the size of a hot tub, and the wort cooler is a curious series of brass vanes called a Morton refrigerator which has been in situ since 1933. It is the only working model of its kind in the industry. “It is still in good condition.” insists Reid. “And cools the wort from 60 to 20 degrees.” Fermentation occurs by hand in Oregon pine washbacks, which are made to exactly the same specifications as the 19th century originals. Each tub has a life expectancy of between 25 to 30 years and needs regular maintenance to prevent micro-organisms taking hold. Fermentation normally takes 42 hours in these small tubs compared to 48 and 50 hours in larger distilleries. But the central and perhaps most beautiful pieces of equipment in Edradour’s whisky making equipment collection are the two bulbous copper stills, the smallest allowed under Customs and Excise regulations. “There are two runs in each still a day,” explains Reid who firmly believes in the old adage that ‘the smaller the still, the finer
the whisky’. “We have the smallest spirit low wine still in Scotland, and probably the world,” he adds. The copper worm pipe, which is submerged in a tank of circulating cold water is another rarity and has been in use since the distillery was founded in 1825. Even the spirit safe, where the condensed vapour is collected, dates back to 1912. The on-site warehouse can store up to 70 casks, also filled by hand. “We fill the casks and then reduce the strength by adding water from our local spring,” Reid explains. “We used to do this with copper jugs, but now we have a water meter.” The casks themselves are a combination of American and Spanish oak made in the sherry heartlands of Jerez. When the season’s Olorosos have matured after six years in the barrels, the empty butts are shipped to Speyside where the distillery collects its share. It is the special casks which give Edradour its pale honey colour. The natural spring water, which rises through peat and granite, reaching the surface a few hundred yards from the distillery gives the malt its softness. Such painstaking devotion and attention to tradition has attracted much praise, including a compliment from one American expert who declared, “Edradour is the Tiffany of the whisky trade.” Perhaps it is strange then that for many years the so-called jewel in the crown of Highland’s malts could only be tasted in such blends as; House of Lords, King’s Ransom and Clan Campbell Legendary, a 21-year-old whisky which was previously reserved for the Duke of Argyll’s own family. It was not until 1986 that Edradour was first bottled as a single malt and launched as a premium whisky.The distillery itself is open to the public and has an excellent visitor’s centre and gift shop. Guided tours are free and begin with a tasting of the 10-year-old single malt, followed by a 10-minute video presentation on the history of Scotch and Edradour. Romantic stories abound that one of Edradour’s many owners was a mafioso, but this has yet to be substantiated. More interesting is the tale of a previous Edradour owner, the flamboyant William Whiteley, who bought the distillery in 1933 and saw its whisky as a vital ingredient in his ambitious blending plans. In fact the House of Lords, today sold as eight and 12-year-olds, was the fruit of Whiteley’s early work and he was responsible for turning it into one of the most widely exported premium whiskies. By buying Edradour, Whiteley, who was known as the Dean of Distillers, fulfilled a dream of having sole access to his favourite malt. Today the whisky is only available in the Palace of Westminster and at the distillery itself. But John Reid does not fear the blend’s days may be numbered with the recent reformation of the English Parliament’s upper house. “Indeed not,” he insists. “I believe it will become even more popular for its rarity value.” Whiteley saw his premium blend playing a role on the world stage and introduced it to the US during Prohibition. He recruited a sophisticated gang of entrepreneurial New York bootleggers to sell it to the city’s high-class speakeasys and clubs. He even designed the square bottle still used today, so the crates wouldn’t rattle and attract attention from the excisemen. Such was the bootleggers’ imagination and enthusiasm for the whisky that they even filled torpedoes with the stuff. Indeed steel torpedoes, each containing 40 gallons of House of Lords whisky were discovered in the British schooner Rosie MB during the late 1930s. The undetected missiles were launched, fully loaded, onto American beaches and carried off into the night by smugglers. One of Whiteley’s other creations distilled from Edradour’s malt was King’s Ransom whisky, which is no longer available but earned a reputation as the world’s most expensive blend. It was even stocked in The White House and various European palaces. But Whiteley didn’t believe in letting his whisky sleep for years in warehouses. Instead he loaded his casks onto sailing ships. He not only offered his valuable product as ballast but also believed that the swaying motion of the sea, combined with the differing climates around the world, would bond his blends better in the barrel. A more likely reason for keeping his whisky afloat was that he didn’t want to pay the extortionate warehouse rates to stow them on dry land. Each bottle of King’s Ransom used to contain a drop of the original Round the World Whisky as a tribute to Whiteley’s so-called vision.It was also the King’s Ransom blend that gave Sir Compton Mackenzie such valuable material for his best-selling novel Whisky Galore. The book’s plot centred on the SS Politician which was wrecked off Eriskay in the Outer Hebrides in 1
941 while carrying over 200,000 bottles of American-bound whisky, most of which was King’s Ransom. Indeed Edradour’s own history is also the stuff of story books. For while the big whisky players have been creating new blends and plundering new markets over the past 175 years, this distillery has quietly forged its own path, against the odds, producing malts that have seduced all those lucky enough to have tasted them. Edradour is a survivor, and a fine one at that. Here’s to one small and perfectly-formed Highland jewel.