During the first few centuries since the (alleged) invention of aqua
vitae in Scotland or Ireland, all whisky came from traditional copper
pot stills. However, that changed when Aeneas Coffey invented an
entirely different type of still in the middle of the nineteenth century;
the patent still a.k.a. Coffey still. Well, actually... Some sources say
that this type of still was in fact invented by Robert Stein in 1826.
Whoever invented it; the thing to remember is the fact that this
type of still is used to produce grain whisky - a type of whisky that
is very different from malt whisky. Grain whisky is the foundation
of every blended Scotch Whisky. These distilleries closely resemble
big factories and are located primarily in the Lowlands of Scotland.
Grain whisky distilleries use a continuous distillation process from
a mash of cereals. This mash always includes some malted barley,
but other unmalted cereals like maize and wheat are allowed as
well. These cereals are considerably cheaper than malted barley.
Cameronbridge (Cameronbridge is Scotland's oldest - and largest - grain whisky distillery.)
Girvan (This distillery was built in 1963 by William Grant & Sons. It's the home of the 'Blackbarrel' single grain whisky.)
Invergordon (Built around 1960, Invergordon was one of a new generation of grain whisky factories. It is now owned by Whyte & Mackay.)
Loch Lomond (The Loch Lomond distillery is an odd one out in this list; they produce both malt and grain whisky in their weirdly shaped stills.)
North British (When I write this latest update - the autumn of 2009 - North British is the second largest grain whisky distillery in Scotland.)
Port Dundas (But if I'm not mistaken Diageo will close this distillery shortly - I'll watch the news and update the information soon...)
Strathclyde (The Strathclyde grain whisky distillery was founded relatively recently - in 1927 - by gin producers Seager Evans.)
With a production capacity of circa 100,000,000 litres of alcohol per year, the Cameronbridge distillery dwarfs all other distilleries in Scotland, both malt and grain. The rivers Leven and Ore flow nearby the distillery that was founded in 1824 as Cameron Bridge distillery (two words), also known as the Haig distillery. That makes it not just the largest, but also the oldest grain whisky distillery in Scotland. It is one of the two grain distilleries owned by Diageo - the other one is Port Dundas, located in Glasgow (but that was about to close in 2009). Founder John Haig decided to build Cameronbridge at a location some 40 miles south east of Perth, That's not far from the Lowlands (where most grain whisky distilleries are located), but technically speaking it's in the Eastern Highlands.
In 1826 Cameronbridge became the very first distillery to produce grain whisky
in a continuous still.
This was not a 'Coffey still' yet - but a more primitive version, invented by Robert Stein (John Haig's cousin). This version of the continuous still was basically just a series of pot stills, arranged consecutively. According to fellow malt maniacs Dave Broom and Craig Daniels, Aeneas Coffey was the inventor of the column still design where the analyser and the rectifier were installed side by side, as depicted in the picture above. So, Aeneas Coffey improved upon and patented Stein's design. The column still house was constructed during the 1960s, and so were two of the three column stills. The third still was transferred from the Carsebridge distillery in Alloa when it was closed by United Distillers in 1983.
In 1877 John Haig & Co. merged with five other whisky companies into DCL, the Distillers Company Limited
(a predecessor of Diageo).
Until 1929 the Cameronbridge distillery used a combination of pot stills and column stills, allowing them to produce both grain whisky and malt whisky. After 1929 they shifted to producing grain whisky exclusively. The portfolio of spirits was expanded again after a major renovation around the year 1990; Diageo now produces other spirits besides grain whisky at the site, including Smirnoff, Gordon's Gin and Tanqueray.
Girvan is the latest addition to this list of grain whisky distilleries, built as recently
as 1963 by William Grant & Sons Ltd. The company behind the Glenfiddich and
Balvenie single malt brands (and the Kininvie malt whisky that isn't sold as a
single malt) recently built another malt whisky distillery near this grain whisky
plant; Prince Charles opened the Ailsa Bay distillery in January 2009. The Ailsa
Bay distillery was built in nine months, supposedly the same amount of time it took
to build Girvan almost five centuries ago. According to Grants' chairman Peter
Gordon: "We were honoured to show the Ailsa Bay distillery to His Royal Highness,
and he was able to meet some of our team. (...) By driving forward the quality of our
blend, we hope to ensure the long-term future of our Girvan site and 130 employees."
In a way, it's nice to see so much activity in the Lowlands that have witnessed the
closure of many distilleries in recent years. One of those closed distilleries was the
Ladyburn malt whisky distillery that operated within Girvan's buildings between
1968 and 1975. Girvan prospered after the pot stills were removed; the distillery
has a capacity of 15,000,000 litres of alcohol per year, produced by four wash stills
and four spirit stills. A relatively small part of Girvan's massive production is sold as
the Black Barrel Single Grain whisky (without an age statement). I've bought
one or two bottles in the mid 1990's but managed to avoid it in more recent years.
Unlike most other grain whisky distilleries, the company that owns Invergordon is not a member of the Scotch Whisky Association.
That's not the only exception; it's also the only grain whisky distillery that's not located in (or at least very close to) the Lowlands. Instead, the Invergordon distillery can be found in the Northern Highlands, not far from Dalmore and Glenmorangie. The distillery was founded fairly recently (between 1959 and 1961) by Invergordon Distillers Ltd. This company would become part of Whyte & MacKay in 1993.
Nowadays they manage to produce circa 40,000,000 litres of alcohol per year at the Invergordon grain whisky distillery.
For a relatively short period of time (between 1965 and 1977), the Ben Wyvis malt whisky distillery was located at the same address.
When they started out, Invergordon operated with just a single column still. Two more stills were added in 1963 and a another (much larger) one in 1978. This new, larger Coffey still was used for the production of neutral spirit. I'm not sure if the output of that still is part of the annual capacity of circa 40 million litres I mentioned earlier. The water required for the production is sourced from Loch Glass.
Although I have included the Loch Lomond distillery in the overview of all
malt whisky distilleries in Scotland, it's also a grain whisky distillery. In fact,
when I write this latest update (the summer of 2009), Loch Lomond and
the SWA (the Scotch Whisky Association) are involved in a conflict about
the classification of Loch Lomond's whisky. The conflict may seem a little
odd, unless you realise that Loch Lomond is NOT a member of the SWA.
The lobby organisation has been on the war path in recent years in order
to bend the laws and regulations in favour of their members.
The SWA already managed to force the fancy classification 'blended malt'
into the dictionary (despite strong opposition from 75% of the public), but
they were just warming up with that one. In another proposal that cynically
tries to bend the rules of tradition in favour of the large drinks corporations,
the SWA tries to make the case that malt whisky has to be produced using
a pot still. Historically, malt whisky has been made in both pot stills and
column stills; they even invented the name 'silent malts' for malt whiskies
that were made in a column still. For SWA employees, lying is a way of life!
The crucial point here is that Loch Lomond produces some of their malts in column stills.
As I mentioned earlier, this practice doesn't make them unique; Glenburgie / Glencraig used this method of distillation for years.
I'm not saying that Loch Lomond's malt whiskies are very good - many of them are actually on the 'Shit List' in the mAlmanac - but instead of letting the customers discover that for themselves the SWA wants to bully Loch Lomond from the single malt market. Not sportsmanlike... Anyway, when I write this latest update (the autumn of 2009) the issue has not been resolved yet, so we'll have to see how it develops.
As far as I'm concerned: Loch Lomond should be allowed to keep making their (fairly crappy) malt whiskies as long as the SWA members are allowed to keep 'finishing' their whiskies - a practice that's much further away from what can be considered 'traditional'...
The North British distillery was founded in 1885. and these days ownership is shared between Diageo and the Edrington Group.
The founders of the distillery in Edinburgh were a group of businessmen including Adrew Usher, who was one of the first whisky merchants to market a blended whisky. Operations started in 1887 and over the years North British grew into Scotland's second largest grain whisky distillery with a production capacity of circa 64,000,000 millions litres per year. The distillery used to be owned by the North British Distillery Co. Ltd., but in 1993 ownership passed to Lothian Distillers Ltd. This was a 50:50 joint venture between The Edrington Group and Grand Metropolitan plc (a predecessor of Diageo) in order to acquire the North British Distillery Company Limited. The North British distillery produces the grain whisky for many different blends, including Chivas Regal, Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse, J&B and Lang's. North British also produces other spirits like gin and vodka, and in 1916 the distillery was converted so it would be able to produce acetone from maize. However, North British never actually produced any acetone - possibly due to the developments during the first world war. In 1948 North British was the first distillery in Scotland to use a Saladin Box for malting its barley. Many malt whisky distilleries would follow circa two decades later.
The Port Dundas distillery in Glasgow is one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland - but it looks like Diageo will close it shortly
before the distillery will celebrate its 200th birthday. As early as 1811 the first Port Dundas distillery was founded by Daniel
McFarlane, while another distillery with the same name was founded at the same location in 1813 by Brown, Gourlie & Co.
There were close ties between both distilleries from the start and in 1845 column stills were installed at both distilleries for
the production of grain whisky. In the 1860's or 1870's both distilleries merged and they joined the Distiller Company Ltd.
(DCL) in 1877. Next to the distillery lies the Dundashill Cooperage (currently owned by Diageo) that has been producing
hogsheads since 1770.
The distillery buildings were severely damaged in 1903 by a fire. By 1913 the distillery was rebuilt and reopened, but in
1916 there was another big fire - which was sort of an occupational hazard in the whisky world in the past. Port Dundas
was closed during World War II. From 1966 on the Port Dundas distillery was operated by Scottish Grain Distillers Ltd.
who also decided to renovate the distillery at that time. Further modernisation occurred during the 1970s, when a new
grain intake, a new boiler house, a new spirit store and a new still house were added. The owners also included a dark
grains plant. These days the grain whisky distillery has a production capacity of 39,000,000 litres of spirit each year.
Port Dundas produces grain whisky for a large number of different blends, including Bell's, Black & White, Haig, J&B,
Johnnie Walker, Vat 69 and White Horse. If Diageo's plans are executed the production of the ingredients for these
blends will move to the Cameronbridge and North British distilleries.
Confusingly enough, the Strathclyde distillery is located on Moffat Street in Glasgow - unlike the 'Moffat' distillery in Airdrie.
The Strathclyde distillery was founded in 1927 by Seager Evans. That company was founded in 1805 by James Lys Seager and William Evans and owned the Millbank gin distillery in London. When they built Strathclyde they also founded Long John International Ltd. - a subsidiary for their Scotch whisky adventures. Just like most other grain whisky distilleries, Strathclyde is located in the Lowlands; the water source is Loch Katrine. Three decades after the distillery was founded (in 1957) the owners also built the Kinclaith malt whisky distillery within the Strathclyde plant. In 1975 Kinclaith was closed to make room for more grain whisky production and Long John International became part of Whitbread, currently the UK's largest hotel and restaurant company. Ownership of Strathclyde was first transferred to Allied and later (on July 26th 2005, to be precise) the grain whisky distillery became part of Pernod Ricard. Strathclyde produces circa 40 million litres each year.
Is that all? No, it isn't!
The number of grain whisky distilleries has been declining over the last few decades, despite the fact that the sales of blended Scotch whisky have been growing steadily. Apart from the Moffat
distillery I mentioned earlier, there were a few other active grain whisky distilleries around 1970 - at least according to David Daiches. There used to be a Caledonian
distillery west of Edinburgh which was closed by UDV in 1988. The Caledonian distillery was located north of Edrington's... eh... North British distillery which is located a little to the south. (They're both located
on the imaginary line between Glenkinchie and Saint Magdalene. There used to be three grain whisky distilleries near the Deanston malt
whisky distillery in the Midlands as well; Cambus (founded near Stirling in 1836 by John Mowbray and closed in 1993 by the owners UDV), Carsebridge (closed in 1983 and demolished in the 1990's) and Strathmore
(apparently active between 1957 and 1992). There have actually been two distilleries with the name Dumbarton - both located in the town of Dumbarton, on the confluence of the River Leven and the Clyde,
west from Glasgow. One was a long gone malt whisky distillery in the Lowlands that was founded in 1817, the other a grain whisky distillery that was opened in 1938 by Hiram Walker.
And to wrap things up, here are a few tasting notes on grain whiskies...
Girvan 1993/2007 (46%, Jean Boyer 'One Shot', single cask)
Nose: Paint thinner. Light and sparkly, mellowing out. Little complexity. Opens up a little after half a minute with light fruits.
Very faint tobacco? I have to admit this has more character than I expected.
Taste: Smooth start and centre. Bitter centre. Grows grittier towards the dry finish.
Score: 73 points - which isn't a bad score at all for a grain whisky that's still in its teens.
North British 45yo 1962/2007 (59.9%, The Prestonfield, C#46556, 235 bottles)
Nose: Very smooth. Old, dark fruits - but only briefly. Turns flat after that - with perhaps a hint of rubber or glue?
Taste: Powerful yet smooth - but hard to describe. Weird sweetness. Menthol? Pinch of peat? Interesting but not really my cup of tea.
Score: 82 points - impressive for a grain whisky, but then again this whisky has had 45 years to prepare for this encounter.
Grain whisky distilleries were never as numerous as malt whisky distilleries, because it's
always been very easy to scale up the production considerably. Unlike the malt whisky
distilleries that still work in a 'batch process' with their pot stills, you don't always need
to build another distillery (or add more stills) if you want to increase production. In fact,
the number of grain whisky distilleries has declined considerably over the last decades.
At the moment, these are the only seven operating grain whisky distilleries I know of;
Apart from these active grain whisky distilleries, there have been other grain whisky distilleries in the
past as well. The Moffat complex in Airdrie, East of Glasgow for example. Built as recently as 1965, it
was home to the stills that produced the "Gairnheath" grain whisky (I've tried a magnificent specimen
from Olivier Humbrecht's cellars) and the rare and expensive Glen Flagler and Killyloch malt whiskies.
The odd one out in this list is the Loch Lomond distillery which also has the equipment to qualify as a
malt whisky distillery. This used to be the case with the Ben Nevis and Lochside malt whisky distilleries
as well, but in both cases their column stills were removed again at some point. As far as I know Ben
Nevis is still making malt whisky, but Lochside's pot stills fell silent just like their column stills. If you'd
like to learn more about pot stills and how they are used to produce malt whisky, I suggest you check
out the Beginner's Guide to single malt Scotch whisky. There you can find ten chapters filled with all
you'd ever wanted to know about the production of malt whisky. As far as grain whisky is concerned;