I seem to have been writing about J & A Mitchell quite a lot recently, but since last weekend marked the 12th Anniversary of the opening (re-opening?) of Mitchell’s Glengyle distillery, I figured that warranted another post. At least it is about Kilkerran this time rather than Springbank!
At the time, it was quite a novelty - it was one of the forerunners in the wave (now practically a tsunami) of new Scottish Distilleries, and the first distillery to open in Campbeltown in well over 100 years. The original Glengyle distillery had been founded in 1872 by William Mitchell, who ran it until 1919, when it was sold. It closed its doors a few years later in 1925. Although all the distilling equipment was removed, and the stock sold off, the distillery buildings themselves remained pretty much intact over the intervening years, being used first as a rifle range, then as an agricultural depot.
The story goes that Mr Hedley G Wright, current chairman of J & A Mitchell Co Ltd, during one of his visits to Springbank, had noticed that the buildings were for sale and commented, “Hmm, my great-great uncle used to own Glengyle. I think I should buy it.” I may be paraphrasing slightly but you get the idea! Buy it he did (in November 2000), and the ambitious plan to create a brand new distillery within the walls of the old one began.
The first time I saw the soon to be new Glengyle distillery, in 2002, it was an empty shell. A very large empty shell! Over the next couple of years though, I, along with all the other staff at Springbank, gradually watched the new distillery come to life under the direction of Mr Wright and Frank McHardy, who was Springbank Distillery Manager at the time.
The stills and mill were sourced second hand - the stills from Ben Wyvis distillery and the mill from Craigellachie - although the shape of the stills was altered somewhat to give the distillery character they wanted. The rest of the equipment was new though - the very large stainless steel mash tun was brought down by road (I’d have hated to be stuck behind that lorry on the way down to the town!) and fitted by Forsyths of Speyside. I vividly remember watching the washbacks be built on site - now that was impressive! If you’ve ever been to a cooperage and watched them building casks, it was like that but on a much, much larger scale. The noise of 5 or 6 guys hammering the huge hoops into place around the newly installed washbacks was something else! I also remember the first time the new washbacks were filled - and the water just poured out the bottom! They do that apparently, until the giant staves absorb enough water to expand into place and make them watertight. That’ll be why they were filled with water first then, won’t it? (That’s also why wooden washbacks are kept full of water when not in use, so that they don’t dry out and start leaking).
For some reason our copy of the 4th Edition of Scotch Missed by Brian Townsend arrived some 10 days before the official release date so thought I’d do a wee preview review for anyone out there considering buying it. When I say ‘our’ copy, I really mean my husband’s copy (but what’s his is mine, right?) - he is a total whisky geek and has had this on order for months now. We already have the first edition in the house so I admit I was initially skeptical about why he needed two copies of the same book. Having perused the new 4th Edition over the last couple of days though, I can see why as it is not the same book at all!
I’ll rephrase that. Parts of the book are the same. It is after all a book about Lost Distilleries so once they are closed, there’s not really anything else to add. There are however a number of striking differences between the two editions (I should point out here that I haven’t read the 2nd and 3rd editions, published in 1997 and 2000 respectively, so cannot include them in my comparisons. Don't know why they are missing from our whisky library, Mark must have slipped up somewhere!)
Firstly the design and layout is so much better! (I’m interested in design ok, I like things to be aesthetically pleasing). Divided into geographical sections, the lost distilleries are accompanied by a very eclectic mix of images; old and new photos, bottle shots, old marketing postcards and posters. Most of the distillery entries also have a picture of the old OS map showing the location, which I love. I would love it even more if the maps were zoomed out a bit more so you could situate the distilleries better in comparison to existing roads etc but that’s just me being very picky.
Secondly the content has also been updated. Yes, as I already mentioned, a lot of the content is the same but there is quite a lot of new stuff too - some 30 extra distilleries have been added since the first 1993 edition; from Brora and Port Ellen, two iconic closed distilleries mothballed in the 80s which I would have expected to be included in the first edition but weren't (maybe they were still classed as mothballed rather than lost) to the half dozen mothballed in 1992/1993 and the more recent closures such as Caperdonich and Port Dundas. However there are also a handful of very old (ie closed in the second half of the 1800s) distilleries which have been added and three ‘lost and found’ distilleries which have risen, phoenix-like, from the ashes since the first edition; Annandale, Glengyle and Imperial/Dalmunach. Interestingly over half of the new additions have some connection to Diageo, or UD/SMD/DCL as was, so I would imagine the author has had access to the Diageo archives since the first edition!
My only criticism, and this is me being very picky, is that I would have liked to see more photos from the present day to compare with what was there before. Admittedly this is not very interesting when the buildings have been completely razed to make way for a supermarket or housing scheme but when there are some vestiges, or indeed complete buildings, left of the original distillery it would be interesting to see. A wee photo of the new Annandale, Glengyle and Dalmunach distilleries would have made a nice addition I feel. As would one of Parkmore, which is described as, ‘externally the most perfect survivor of the late 1890s boom in distilleries’, but there is no photo showing how it looks now. (Incidentally, local chat in Dufftown, where I used to live, attributed the closure of Parkmore to problems with the water supply, possibly due to the limestone quarry nearby, but this may just be local gossip). As I say though, this is me being picky, and there are limits to how many photos one can reasonably fit in a book.
All in all, a very enjoyable read, written in an accessible, engaging style. One for the history buffs rather than the casual drinker though. And definitely worth buying even if you already have the first edition!
Inspired by the book, I had a wander round Campbeltown this afternoon and took some photos of our lost distilleries. Some are more recognisably still distilleries than others!
Okay, so admittedly a housing scheme and a supermarket don't make for the most interesting 'lost distillery' photos. Let's try again...
Whisky Impressions is run by Kate Watt. Previously at Springbank and then Glenfarclas, I now design some whisky related stuff and write about it, and anything else that takes my fancy, on this blog.