Our regular features contributor, renowned whisky writer Gavin D. Smith, talks in detail about Silent Stills.
Gavin D. Smith
Just like any other commercial activity, whisky-making is subject to highs and lows, periods of ‘boom’ and ‘bust.’ Usually these periods coincide with wider economic prosperity or recession for the nations involved.
So it is with Scotch whisky that unprecedented levels of growth in terms of distillery expansion and new-build ventures during the Victorian era were followed by half a century of ‘bust,’ or at best stagnation.
The whisky boom of the late 19th century saw no fewer than 33 new distilleries built across Scotland between 1890 and 1900, but the bubble burst around the turn of the century due to over-production. Two world wars and global recession – ‘The Great Depression’ – meant that no new distillery was constructed in Scotland between 1900 and 1949.
Not only that but a significant number of existing distilleries fell by the wayside; many never to reopen. Distilleries had, of course, come and gone before, and it still possible to see the remains of the once mighty Kennetpans on the shores of the Firth of Forth, which closed in 1825. However, the first four decades of the 20th century gave us a body of well-documented ‘silent distilleries,’ and the remnants of many remain today.
Speyside had been at the heart of late Victorian distillery construction, and despite the challenging times of the early 20th century, very few distilleries in the region fell silent forever. One notable example was Parkmore in the ‘malt whisky capital’ of Dufftown. which operated between 1894 and 1931, though its failure to re-open when better times returned to the distilling industry was largely due to historic problems with its water supply. Today, Parkmore remains externally one of the best preserved Victorian distilleries in Scotland, though it is really just a shell, with all distilling equipment long since removed.
By contrast with Speyside, the great distilling centre of Campbeltown was permanently decimated during the 1920s and ’30s. At various times more than 30 distilleries operated in the remote Argyllshire port on the Kintyre Peninsula, with 20 working in 1885. By 1930 that figure had fallen to just three, and the last two survivors, Glen Scotia and Springbank have endured long periods of silence at various times in their history.
The demise of Campbeltown was directly related to the rise of Speyside as a favoured distilling destination. Campbeltown produced big, pungent whiskies, not always of the finest quality in the early years of the 20th century, and its remote location counted against it in terms of transporting whisky to the blending halls of the Scottish Central Belt. By contrast, Speyside single malts were stylistically ideally suited for blending, and an expansive rail network linked the distilleries of the north-east with the blending halls of Perth, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
Elsewhere in Scotland, casualties in the far north included Dingwall’s Ben Wyvis (1879 – 1926), the Easter Ross duo of Pollo, which operated from 1817 to 1903, and Glenskiach, operational between 1896 and 1926, and Gerston at Halkirk in Caithness (1886 – 1911). Up on Orkney the Stromness distillery of Man O’ Hoy ended more than a century of whisky-making in 1928, and Islay’s Lochindaal shut its doors in 1929, after precisely 100 years of activity.
Aberdeen lost its trio of distilleries – Bon Accord, Devanha and Strathdee – and Glasgow’s tally of newly-silenced distilleries embraced Adelphi, Camlachie, Provanmill and Yoker.
It is worth remembering that those distilleries named above hardly scratch the surface of whisky-making operations that perished before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939.
From the 1950s onwards the Scotch whisky industry began to revive, and new distilleries were constructed, while existing ones were enlarged. It was just like the late Victorian era all over again, and once more the bubble was to burst. Over-production led to a ‘whisky loch’ to rival the famed EU ‘wine lake, and in 1983 the biggest player in the industry, the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) closed 11 of its 45 malt distilleries, with a further 10 ceasing production two years later.
Seven of these sites subsequently re-opened, but it is single malt from the other 14 DCL distilleries which makes up much of the ‘silent still’ whisky being traded today. Among the brands in question are the sought-after Brora and Port Ellen, along with ‘supporting players’ like Banff, Convalmore, Glen Mhor, Glenury Royal, Millburn, North Port and St Magdalene.
Since 1985, distillery closures have been relatively few and far between, but Imperial on Speyside met its demise in 1998 and Caperdonich in nearby Rothes closed in 2010, while a few miles away in Dufftown, Pittyvaich was demolished in 2002, having only been built in 1975. The highly-prized Lowlander Rosebank ceased distilling in 1993, while fellow Lowlander Littlemill closed in 1996, having been established as early as 1772, and Lochside in the east coast port of Montrose was silenced in 1992, having been converted from a brewery during 1957.
There have, of course, been altogether more exotic losses, including the fabled Malt Mill, produced in a tiny distillery adjacent to Lagavulin on Islay from 1908 to 1960 and the subject of the 2012 Ken Loach movie The Angels’ Share.
Other relatively obscure malt distilleries to disappear were constructed within grain distilleries to provide variety for blending purposes, and all were removed at a later date to increase grain distilling capacity. Five such ‘distilleries within distilleries’ were created, namely Ben Wyvis (Invergordon distillery, 1965 – 1976), Glen Flager and Killyloch (Garnheath distillery, 1964 – 1975 and 1964 – 1985 respectively), Inverleven (Dumbarton distillery, 1938 – 1991), Kinclaith (Strathclyde distillery, 1957 – 1975) and Ladyburn (Girvan distillery, 1966 – 1975).
While spirit quality is one of the key factors in a whisky’s appeal to collectors and investors, having sampled the five whiskies in question, it has to be said that rarity and obscurity plays a greater part in their collectability. Not all whisky made in silent stills was superb. Sometimes, that was why they closed!