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Issue 90 - Out of fashion, out of time

Scotland Magazine Issue 90
December 2016


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Out of fashion, out of time

Joe Trotter looks back on Scotland's lost whisky makers

The emergence of Scotch whisky from the crofts of the Highlands to the lips of drinkers around the world is a story of evolution, endeavour and efficiency. For every established whisky brand, there is a litany of little known rural farm, as well as urban, distillers whose craft was the driving force behind the whisky industry. From Caithness to Campbeltown, there are Scotch-producing legends that were forgotten in the drive for energy efficient, high-yield, modern whisky production.

The beginnings of the whisky industry we know today came in 1830, when Irishman Aenas Coffey invented what’s known as the ‘continuous still’ (or Coffey still) and changed the nature of whisky production forever. Previously, most whisky was manufactured using pot-still distillation methods that, after many decades of refinement, are still employed in Scotland’s malt whisky distilleries today. Indeed, the elegant, gleaming copper stills of the Highland distilleries remain a defining image of Scottish culture.

However, the introduction of the continuous still allowed whisky producers to produce spirit on a far greater scale than had been previously possible and, what’s more, produced a lightly flavoured grain spirit that many found to be more palatable. In the 1850s, the first mixing of this grain (described as such because it was made using a variety of grains, including wheat) and malt whisky (made exclusively with malted barley) took place and the resultant product became known as ‘blended’ whisky.

The light grain spirit made with the Cofffey stills was mixed with the oily, heavy whisky of the Highland malt distilleries, which created a drink that appealed to the tastes of both London high society and the climate of the wider British Empire. Blended Scotch whisky also filled a gap in the spirit-and-soda market, which arose due to the Phylloxera aphid epidemic of the late 1800s. Fortuitously for the Scotch whisky industry, the pest destroyed swathes of French vines and devastated the prevalent brandy industry that had dominated the drinking habits of British high culture. Descendants of these early blends can still be found on shelves today.

For traditional farm distillers, this was a brave new world. Producing for a local market, these traditional distilleries were generally rural, remote and – by this point – old-fashioned by the standards of the period. There was a direct correlation between the quality of the farm distillers and their ability to produce whisky on a profitable scale. Lossit, a farm distillery on the Isle of Islay with illicit origins, was the biggest producer of malt whisky on the famous island until the early 1830s for exactly this reason.

One of five farm distilleries that emerged on Islay in the 1820s (having been illicitly operating since 1817), Lossit was the most successful farm distillery on Islay in its time, but was unable to compete with comparatively modern industrial distilleries, such as Caol Ila, situated on the island’s coast. The advantages to the new distilleries were clear; shipments of raw material, such as barley, could arrive easily at their harbours, while steamers laden with casks could make their way quickly to the key market of Glasgow. The farm element was now obsolete and unnecessary. The last of Islay’s original farm distilleries, Lossit closed in 1867 and it was another 138 years until Kilchoman, a new breed of farm distillery, opened in 2005.

The experience of Islay’s farm distilleries was representative of trends in the rest of Scotland, with the farm element cast aside or separated as the making of malt whisky became the sole business focus of the enterprise, and the old plants were replaced with new equipment. The arrival of the railway in Northern Scotland removed the need for absolute self-sufficiency within the Scotch industry as malt could be delivered direct to distilleries from the fertile Lowlands, Banffshire or even abroad.

Evolution and necessity had emerged into a convenient solution for the Highland malt distillers, with a new freedom of access to the lowland markets and blending centres. The Speyside distillers seized the opportunity and a boom saw 21 new distilleries built in the region out of a total of 33 in Scotland in the 1890s. Most of these were built on existing rail lines with private sidings, or had lines built out to them. Others were built outside of the Speyside region in places like Tomatin and distilled Speyside-like spirit. This style was in favour with the major blenders due to its lighter body mixing well with grain whisky, topped with a characterful dash of Islay or Campbeltown whisky.

The Campbeltown distilleries suffered greatly due to the reduced demand for their product as less of it was required to make the light, smooth blends. This region represents a different type of lost distillery to farm distilling – that of the small urban malt distillery.

The tradition of illegal whisky making emerged from stills in the kitchens and cellars of the urban environment before being sold to neighbours and friends. Several early distilleries in Campbeltown were built as an evolution of the urban illicit distilling model, claiming what space they could to expand their small businesses. These purpose-built distilleries in the town – such as Springbank and Hazelburn – were built by urban distillers who almost certainly had experience of illicit whisky making.

The success of these enterprises relied upon the utilising of what space was available to them and having a secure market for their product. Alexander Bonthrone, the owner of town-centre based Stratheden distillery in Auchtermuchty, Fife, boasted of his small enterprise selling its entire output to five select customers. Built in 1829, Stratheden used former illicit stills for its production and still used manual and water power to run the distillery into the 20th Century.

However, the reality for small businesses was closely attuned to the volatile whims of the major blenders, the sporadic fiscal crashes, and periods of over-production that blighted the whisky industry. One reason so many of these distilleries were old-fashioned was the lack of capital to update the plant and this fact probably preserved old styles of whisky longer than expected.

The 20th Century began with a succession of industry collapses, rising costs, overproduction, a vigorous temperance movement and crippling duty rises. These small enterprises struggled on, but their fate was clear. Only the luckiest or most stubborn survived. The majority didn’t; and each unique style of whisky making was finally lost – never to be tasted again.

Further Information

Joe Trotter is the head archivist for the Lost Distillery Company. This Ayrshire-based company hand crafts present day expressions of legendary whiskies from long closed distilleries across Scotland.

Over 100 whisky distilleries in Scotland have permanently closed or been destroyed in the last century. The Lost Distillery Company was born to bring these lost malts back to life. In-depth research is conducted to create a marriage of aged single malts, offering modern day expressions of each long lost whisky.

The Lost Distillery Company’s collection includes three ranges of blended malt Scotch whiskies – Classic, Archivist and Vintage. These whisky expressions have triumphed at some of the industry’s most prestigious international taste awards.

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