Happy Anniversary to These 5 Scotch Whisky Distilleries

Come and celebrate! From the lush southern Highlands, past a cluster of Speyside gems, to the rocky coastline of Islay, five Scotch whisky distilleries are reaching major anniversaries this year. Lagavulin becomes the fourteenth working bi-centenarian distillery in Scotland, while near neighbors Strathmill and Craigellachie clock up 125 years, and Deanston and Tamnavulin reach their half centuries. Intriguingly, despite geographical and chronological separation, their individual strands of history have become intertwined occasionally across time. Behind the doors of these distilleries, stories emerge of influential characters from the whisky trade, the origins of great blends, and the whisky company equivalent of plate tectonics as a timeline of consolidations, breakups, and amalgamations are revealed which have shaped the configuration of today’s modern Scotch whisky industry.

Deanston Distillery

Deanston Distillery: 50 Years

Beside the roaring flow of the River Teith in the pretty village of Doune, you’ll find Deanston distillery, recognizable by its long flat-roofed buildings and dark brickwork. The area has quite a movie pedigree: Doune castle served as a location for Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and Deanston distillery featured prominently in The Angel’s Share. This Stirlingshire distillery began producing whisky in October 1966, after a consortium of James Finlay & Co., Brodie Hepburn & Co., and A. B. (Sandy) Grant undertook to convert the 18th century cotton mill into a distillery. Invergordon Distillers Ltd. acquired Deanston in 1972, and the distillery was mothballed in 1982. At the end of 1990, Burn Stewart Distillers bought Deanston for £2.1 million and production began again in 1991 under the direction of master distiller Ian Macmillan. An unabashed traditionalist, Macmillan preserved the original fermenters and the traditional rakes, gently turning in the open-topped mash tun.

The ink has rarely dried on Deanston’s history: Burn Stewart was bought by Distell for £160 million in 2013, the distillery now welcomes visitors, and Ian Macmillan recently departed to tackle new challenges at Bladnoch. Deanston goes far beyond being a component of Scottish Leader blended Scotch whisky, and the quality and variety of Deanston single malts has grown steadily. You can sense the best is yet to come.

Deanston distillery has been producing handcrafted, natural color Highland single malt whisky on the banks of the River Teith since 1966. Rooted in heritage and its community values, Deanston continues to create single malts using only traditional methods. This year marks the distillery’s 50th anniversary; half a century on, each bottle is still produced with the utmost care and dedication, without the aid of modern technology. An important milestone in our history, it reinforces our commitment to continue to devote time, energy, and enthusiasm over the next 50 years to create the creamy, sweet, honey blossom taste that is unmistakably Deanston.

—Andrew Anderson, Deanston distillery manager

Tamnavulin Distillery: 50 Years

In the tiny village of Tomnavoulin, just opposite the post office, lies Tamnavulin distillery. It doesn’t feature on tourist postcards. Surrounded by a carpet of springy mown lawns, the distillery appears as a juxtaposition of sloping sea-green roofs with a patina of verdigris, and blank facades the color of porridge oats. The name comes from the Gaelic Tom a’Mhuilinn, or “the mill on the hill.” Tamnavulin sits on the banks of the Allt a Choire (the stream of the corrie), a tributary of the River Livet. The adjacent former wool-carding mill once served as the distillery visitor center, even appearing as a sketch on the whisky label.

The Tamnavulin-Glenlivet Distillery Company, a subsidiary of Invergordon Distillers Ltd., was founded in 1966, meaning that it was once on the same roster as Bruichladdich, Deanston, and Tullibardine distilleries. After constructing Tomintoul distillery earlier that decade, the same contractors built Tamnavulin. Whyte and Mackay, a company that sometimes feels like it’s passed through more hands than George Washington’s face on a dollar bill, bought Invergordon Distillers in 1993 and mothballed Tamnavulin in 1995. The site fully reopened in 2007 during the United Spirits Ltd. (USL) era of Whyte & Mackay and the distillery now makes 3-4 million liters of pure alcohol (lpa) per year. The current owners are Emperador Distillers, who bought Whyte & Mackay for £430 million in 2014, a sale required under UK competition laws after Diageo purchased a majority stake in USL.

It’s known as a light, aromatic whisky, but they have made batches of heavily peated spirit this decade. Never tried it? Toasting this semicentennial anniversary is problematic as bottlings are scarce, but obtainable at auction if you know where to look.

Throughout my whisky life, I have always been a great admirer of the Speyside malts, especially for the Tamnavulin distillery which went into production exactly the same year as I vowed to dedicate my life to the Scotch whisky industry. Tamnavulin truly radiates with elegance, finesse, and unsurpassed refinement reflecting the very warmth and beauty of this revered region. As I look back over 50 years, I would like to think we have both matured in a dignified manner.

—Richard Paterson, master blender, Whyte and Mackay

Craigellachie Distillery (Photo by Jonny McCormick)

Craigellachie Distillery: 125 Years

There is much to recommend about the town of Craigellachie, the settlement built where the River Fiddich flows into one of the more serpentine parts of the River Spey. Take your pick from the Speyside Cooperage, the iconic Thomas Telford bridge, the internationally renowned whisky bars inside the Craigellachie Hotel and the Highlander Inn, and of course, the town’s two distilleries (Macallan is on the opposite bank). Craigellachie or Creag ealeachaidh means “crag of the rocky place,” and it can appear to be a 1960s building to the passing motorist. Those massive windows reveal glimpses of the large stills, a common feature in distillery building of that decade—just look at Clynelish or Glendullan. True enough, Craigellachie was refurbished in the mid-1960s, doubling the number of stills to four, but the original distillery dates from 1891. Coincidentally, that is the same year that John Dewar & Sons registered ‘Dewar’ as a trademark. Craigellachie was built by a partnership of blenders and merchants including Alexander Edward and Mackie & Co. (Distillers) Ltd. Peter Mackie, owner of Lagavulin distillery, would go on to buy Craigellachie distillery outright during World War I. Following Sir Peter Mackie’s death in September 1924, the company reorganized as White Horse Distillers with ownership of Craigellachie, Hazelburn, and Lagavulin distilleries by then. In 1927, the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) took over White Horse Distillers and transferred it to its subsidiary Scottish Malt Distillers (SMD) in 1930. The landmark of 1991 passed rather quietly, other than a centenary dinner held in the Craigellachie Hotel. In 1998, the newly formed Diageo was forced to sell John Dewar & Sons including Craigellachie, Aberfeldy, Royal Brackla, and Aultmore distilleries to appease U.S. and European competition regulators. Bacardi, the successful suitor, paid £1.15 billion for its prize.

Until recently, few whisky drinkers knew what to expect from Craigellachie single malt unless they had sampled the official 14 year old or chanced upon an independent bottling. This is a substantial whisky: large stills favor reflux, and it is one of the few in the area to have worm tub condensers. Collectors seek out the rare Flora and Fauna bottles or the Rare Malts Selections distilled in 1973. Ahead of their quasquicentennial this year, the admirable 2014 releases of prime-number aged Craigellachie single malts brought this distillery back into the light.

As the master blender for Dewar’s portfolio of blended Scotch and single malt whiskies, it is my honor to pay tribute to the distillery and to the people who have created this complex, sophisticated yet approachable whisky since 1891. As a new make spirit, fresh from the stills, its character is dominated by intense notes of sulfur, with a hint of green notes.  However, when left undisturbed in an oak cask for 13, 17, 19, 23, and 31 years, the sulfur notes which once were dominant are much more subdued and mingle enticingly with the exotic notes of fresh pineapple. Sláinte.

—Stephanie Macleod, master blender, John Dewar and Sons

Strathmill Distillery (Photo by Jonny McCormick)

Strathmill Distillery: 125 Years

The late Michael Jackson referred to Strathmill’s style as “the whisky world’s answer to orange muscat,” though few would have tasted the single malt whisky when he wrote those words. The distillery is situated beside the River Isla in the town of Keith, deep in Speyside whisky country. Strathmill comes from the Gaelic Strath a’Mhuilinn, meaning “the valley of the mill,” although it was first named Glenisla-Glenlivet distillery when it was founded on June 10, 1891. The building was originally erected in 1823 as Strathisla mill, which milled corn and oats for flour.

W & A Gilbey were wine growers and merchants, gin distillers, and distillery owners who renamed the distillery Strathmill when they bought it for £9,500 in 1895. Their portfolio already included Glen Spey distillery, purchased for £11,000 in October 1887 from the owner of Macallan, and they added Knockando distillery to their books in 1904. The company began to blend their malt whiskies with grain in 1905, and like Peter Mackie, presented evidence to the 1908-09 Royal Commission into whisky and other potable spirits. Their whisky production developed internationally, and they went on to make local whiskies by establishing production facilities in Toronto, Canada and two in Australia.  Although Alfred Gilbey died aged 46, Sir Walter Gilbey lived until 1914 and died a wealthy man at the age of 83.

W & A Gilbey merged with United Wine Traders (which included Justerini and Brooks) to form International Distillers & Vintners (IDV) in 1962. Oil-fired steam heating of the Strathmill stills was introduced in 1968. At the same time, a second pair of stills was added, with purifiers being added to lighten the spirit. Watney Mann bought IDV in 1972, only to be swallowed up by Grand Metropolitan later that year. Guinness and Grand Metropolitan merged to form Diageo in 1997, and the rest as they say, is history.

Strathmill produces 2.6 million lpa and operates seven days a week, with the majority of the mature spirit going for blending. It was a key component of the Dunhill Old Masters and Gentleman’s blends, and of course, J&B Rare. The Dunhill Centenary blend was created at Strathmill distillery to celebrate 100 years since Alfred Dunhill founded his business. One hundred casks were filled with a blend made using only rare whiskies selected from malt and grain distilleries operating in 1893, and each cask was sold for HK$500,000 though that did include first class flights to Scotland.

Michael Jackson’s early books repeatedly pointed out the absence of a Strathmill single malt whisky. “It is time for an official bottling,” he appealed. Although there were a number of independent bottlings (it was the 100th distillery to be bottled by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society), an official Flora & Fauna 12 year old bottling only debuted in 2001. More recently, Strathmill Manager’s Choice 1996 was bottled in 2009, and Strathmill 25 year old was selected for inclusion in the Diageo Special Releases 2014, giving whisky lovers further opportunity to get better acquainted with the liquid.

Hidden away in the heart of Keith is Strathmill, a little-known but long-served distillery that celebrates its 125th anniversary this year. Originally a corn mill, taking its power from the powerful River Isla that courses through the center of the site, Strathmill became a distillery in 1891, shortly after which it was acquired by W&A Gilbey, eventually falling under the management of Justerini and Brooks, for whom its delicate and floral malt remains a critical blend component. An unsung hero of whisky distilling, it should be congratulated for its endurance, and its timeless contribution to the world’s sixth best-selling blended Scotch whisky.

—Dr. Nicholas Morgan, Diageo’s head of whisky outreach

Employees of Malt Mill distillery, built on the site of Lagavulin in the early 20th century.

Lagavulin: 200 Years

Take a coastal ramble along the jagged southern shores of Islay and you’ll soon come across Lagavulin, the latest Islay distillery to mark its bicentenary. The distillery name is Lag a’ Mhuilinn in Gaelic, meaning “mill in the valley.” Michael Jackson described a glass of Lagavulin as, “the classic Islay whisky, with the driest start of any single malt.” It is familiar to many drinkers as one of the Classic Malts, though it is unique in that group as the only one that uses shell-and-tube condensers. Twice during its history there were two distilleries operating here. First, neighboring distilleries were founded on the site in 1816 and 1817, though after 20 years, only one remained. In the early 20th century, Malt Mill distillery was built within the Lagavulin complex, after Mackie & Co. (Distillers) Ltd. lost the agency for Laphroaig and attempted to produce a replacement. It was designed to distill a traditional Islay-style whisky and existed for over 50 years, its status given a recent boost by the reverence paid to the lost cask auctioned in The Angel’s Share movie.

Peter Mackie, who we met earlier in conjunction with Craigellachie, joined his family firm at the age of 23 and traveled to Lagavulin for training. Mackie & Co. was the originator of White Horse in the late 1880s, a quality blended whisky that ‘restless’ Peter exported successfully over the coming decades. The blend was named after the White Horse Inn in Canongate, Edinburgh, which still stands at the foot of the Royal Mile. In times past, a white horse was painted on the roof of the sea-facing Warehouse #2, the white building wall emblazoned with the distillery’s name in colossal black letters. As a malt whisky producer, but with interests in grain production and blending, Peter Mackie was an active figure in the ‘What is Whisky?’ debate and subsequent Royal Commission. An outspoken and controversial figure at times, his resounding message was one of quality, age, and maturation. Sir Peter Mackie was a strident advocate of aging whisky for a minimum of 3 years, and the diversity and quality of the modern Scotch whisky industry certainly owes him a debt of gratitude.

After Mackie’s death, the same fate befell Lagavulin as Craigellachie, passing to the DCL in 1924, and then SMD in 1930. There was a fire at the distillery in 1952, the stillhouse was rebuilt in 1962 incorporating Malt Mill, and in 1974 the floor maltings were decommissioned. Distilling was hit hard on Islay during the 1980s and production at Lagavulin was down to two days a week. Over the past decade, the distillery manager’s job has changed from Donald Renwick, to Graham Logie, to Peter Campbell, but since 2010 it has been Georgie Crawford in charge, guiding her team to deliver an annual production of 2.5 million lpa.

Amongst the people of Islay, back in the 1800s, there was this understanding that Lagavulin was a step apart from other whiskies.  It really was a whisky they held in high-esteem. During the celebrations throughout the year, we’re going to tell a lot of stories of the 200 years of the distillery, about the passion of the people working at the distillery, and the passion of the people who drink and love Lagavulin. The anniversary malt for the year pays homage to the visit of Alfred Barnard when he came to Lagavulin in 1885, where he tasted an exceptionally fine 8 year old whisky. This whisky is for everyone around the world to be able to raise a glass at the same time and join in the celebrations for our 200th anniversary.

—Georgie Crawford, Lagavulin distillery manager

After a winter when the distillery was battered by storm after squally storm, Georgie has been reflecting on times past at Lagavulin. “I’ve enjoyed looking back through old photos of the Lagavulin production and trying to get my head around how people actually could have done the job,” she says with admiration. “How back-breaking, labor intensive, dirty, and challenging the work must have been, even 100 years ago. Every single mash must have been a battle. I worry about getting the production through in modern times when there are more ferries and planes connecting the island than ever before, but back then, how they managed to do the work they did is just astounding.”

This will be the last bicentenary of a working distillery on Islay for 30 years, so make the most of it. A bicentenary bottling of Lagavulin 8 year old was released globally in April, bottled at the same age as the dram that Alfred Barnard enjoyed on his visit in the late 1880s. The man himself wrote, “no prettier or more romantic spot could have been chosen for a distillery.” Stand at the end of the pier on a summer’s morning and drink in the view over Lagavulin Bay toward the ruins of the 14th century Dunnyveg Castle, the coastal stronghold of the Lord of the Isles. Then turn back, and admire the painted chimney and cluster of white distillery buildings that in one form or other have been the source of Lagavulin whisky for 200 years.

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