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Remnants of Lost Distilleries

Posted by Bill Gorham on February 18, 2016 at 9:40 AM

From the February Newsletter of Whisky.com

Glen Albyn, Glen Mhor, Millburn, Rosebank, and Dallas Dhu

Rosebank 25yrs

 

 

The history of Scotch whisky begins in 1494. An entry in the Exchequer Rolls notes the purchase of malt for the production of 'aqua vitae'. People today may complain about compulsory retention periods for financial documents, but this document is the first historical testimony about the production of whisky. Ireland only comes second, with the first mention in records dating back to 1608. However, this doesn't mean that the whisky is better in Scotland today or that there hadn’t been Irish whiskey before. Only the documented year counts.


With the progress in agriculture and the early industrialisation, which manifested particularly in the world power of the British Empire, whisky gained ground, too. Copper had become affordable during the transition from the 18th to the 19th century. Thus small distilleries mushroomed up all over Scotland. The farmers were given the opportunity to convert perishable grain into durable and valuable merchandise. The crown soon discovered the possibilities that an alcohol or malt tax would offer. And since it was hard to control compliance with the law in the Highlands, which were difficult to access, they simply prohibited the production of whisky in the Highlands.


An imaginary line from Greenock in the West to Dundee in the East separated the 'forbidden' Highlands from the Lowlands. However, the Highlanders would not abandon the production of their beloved whisky, and thus there were about 14,000 illegal distilleries in the Highlands at the beginning of the 19th century. Yet the actual number might have been even higher. In 1823 a law was passed that allowed the production of whisky in the Highlands again. However, you had to get a licence and pay alcohol taxes.


By the mid-19th century the illegal distilleries had vanished. Alfred Barnard visited the distilleries of the United Kingdom in the 1880s and wrote his famous book about it. In 'The Scotch Whisky Industry Record' there's only given the number of 658 working pot stills for the year 1825. Over the course of the decades also the number of detected illegal distilleries declined drastically. The railway opened up Scotland. On the one hand, this caused concentration processes in the whisky industry. On the other hand, the taxmen could now reach formerly remote regions. There was no more place for illegal activities. After World War II the concentration process was complemented by a strong rise in demand during the following economic recovery. The number of distilleries became smaller and smaller, but the distilleries became bigger and bigger. There were even some extreme extensions at the end of the 60s/beginning of the 70s. Caol Ila, Clynelish, Glen Ord, Teaninich … the list of newly built or massively extended distilleries is long. As the saying goes: One man's joy is another man's sorrow.


While the new and modernised distilleries could produce large amounts at low costs, old distilleries had their problems with that. Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor, two distilleries both erected next to each other in Inverness at the Caledonian Canal in the 19th century, had to be closed during the great British recession from 1980 to approx. 1985 due to lack of demand. First it looked like the buildings of Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor could survive, but in 1986 both were torn down to make room for a shopping centre. There are only few bottles of Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor left in private collections.


The Millburn Distillery, which was also located in Inverness, and the Rosebank Distillery in the Lowlands shared a similar fate. They were also closed in 1983 and 1985, respectively. However, their legacy lives on. Today there are restaurants in the old buildings. You can have a nice dinner and at the same time experience the old charm of the Millburn and Rosebank distilleries. Unfortunately there's not much left of the production equipment of Millburn. However, there are always rumours about a reopening of Rosebank, which lies at the Forth and Clyde Canal, because in contrast to Millburn, at Rosebank the old production equipment can still be found in the slowly decaying buildings. The old Dallas Dhu Distillery fared better. It was also closed during the height of the British recession in 1983, but already in 1988 it was reopened as a non-working museum and was designated a listed monument. Since then the organisation 'Historic Scotland' has been caring for the old buildings and installations. In 2013 even a feasibility study was carried out to determine whether the distillery could be reopened and run profitably within the framework of operating the museum.

 

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