Silent Island Stills

Silent Island Distilleries by Gavin D. Smith

If one looks at a map of the ‘lost’ distilleries of Scotland it may seem that the Scottish islands have escaped relatively unscathed. This is, of course, in part due to the fact that there were never too many distilleries there in the first place, and secondly, much of the distilling that was carried on in island communities took place without the tiresome formalities of licences and documentation.

Two islands which would appear to have acquired their first licensed distilleries in relatively recent times are Arran in the Inner Hebrides and Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. A distillery opened for business at Lochranza on Arran in 1993, and has gone on to establish a reputation for seriously good whisky, while the jury is still out on the comparatively youthful spirit of Lewis’ Abhainn Dearg distillery, which opened in 2008.

Yet both islands once boasted licensed distilleries, with Lagg in the south of Arran being the last of three legal distilleries on the island, operating between 1825 and 1837, though it has been reported that some 50 illicit distilleries were working on Arran during the early 19th century!

Lewis was also renowned for its illicit distilling tradition, which some say has not entirely died out in the more remote parts of the island, but a licensed distillery operated in the capital of Stornoway from 1825 until 1840. Both it and Lagg were clearly established in the optimistic years following the 1823 Excise Act, which incentivised legitimate whisky-making.

Three significant island distilleries were lost during the economically harsh years between the two world wars, namely Stromness on Orkney, in the north, and Lochindaal and Port Ellen on the ‘whisky island’ of Islay, though Port Ellen was to enjoy a second role of the dice between 1967 and 1983.

Port Ellen's former Glory. Diageo Archives image
Port Ellen’s former Glory. Diageo Archives image

Today Orkney is well-known for is Highland Park and Scapa distilleries, close to the island capital of Kirkwall, but apart from these two survivors, there were as many as six licensed distilleries in and around Kirkwall during the 1820s and two distilleries in Orkney’s second-largest town of Stromness. One of the Stromness pair only operated from 1825 until 1831, but the principal Stromness distillery lasted from its establishment in 1817 until 1928.

It was located close to the harbour, and was initially licensed to John Crookshanks, and though named Stromness distillery, the whisky it produced was sold for many years as Man O’Hoy, after one of Orkney’s most distinctive landmarks, the red sandstone sea stack off the island of Hoy.

Stromness was in the hands of no fewer than six individuals before closing in 1867, but 1878 saw it restored to use by the Macpherson brothers, who renamed the distillery itself Man O’Hoy and marketed its whisky as Old Orkney, or ‘OO’.

A bottle of Old Orkney from Stomness/Man O' Hoy distillery. Sold at auction for £2,500 in 2012
A bottle of Old Orkney from Stomness/Man O’ Hoy distillery. Sold at auction for £2,500 in 2012

The Macphersons ran Stromness distillery until it was acquired somewhere between 1900 and 1910 by Belfast-based J&J McConnell Ltd, who operated it through their McConnell’s Distillery Ltd, London subsidiary. However, the harsh economic climate of the inter-war years forced its closure in 1928. It was subsequently owned for a time by Booths Distilleries, but the distillery buildings were demolished during the 1940s, and ultimately replaced by local authority housing.

When he visited during the mid-1880s, journalist and author Alfred Barnard, whose book Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom was published in 1887, described Stromness as “The most remote Distillery in the Kingdom,” He added that “In the little old-fashioned Still House are to be seen two of the ‘sma’ old Pot Stills,’ each holding 300 gallons. One of these, a veritable smuggler’s Still of a peculiar shape, is the quaintest we have seen in our travels, and was formerly the property of a noted law evader; its body is shaped like a pumpkin, and is surmounted by a similarly shaped chamber one fourth the size, to prevent the goods boiling over, through which the neck passes to the head of the Still.”

Barnard continued by noting that “The Whisky, which is Highland Malt, is principally sold in Scotland, where there is a good demand for it, and the annual output is 7,000 gallons.” To get a sense of just how ‘boutique’ the enterprise really was, it is worth noting that Barnard records 50,000 gallons being distilled per annum at Highland Park.

Islay has long been home to more licensed distilleries than any other Scottish island, and Alfred Barnard visited nine licensed facilities when his travels took him there. Today Islay boasts eight distilleries, with another in the shape of Gartbreck currently under construction near Bowmore.

Of Islay’s ‘lost’ distilleries, Lochindaal distillery was founded during 1829 in Port Charlotte village, on the shores of Loch Indaal, initially operating under the name Port Charlotte Distillery. The facility was making 128,000 gallons of spirit per annum during Barnard’s visit, which compared with Lagavulin’s 75,000 gallons and the 250,000 gallons being produced by Ardbeg at the time.

In 1920, Lochindaal’s owners JF Sheriff & Co were bought out by Benmore Distilleries Ltd, and nine years later they suffered the same fate as many struggling distillery ventures during the prevailing  economic depression, being purchased by the Distillers Company Limited (DCL), which immediately closed Lochindaal.

Lochindaal distillery. Diageo Archives Image
Lochindaal distillery. Diageo Archives Image

The plant was subsequently removed, but some of the buildings continued to be utilised by the now defunct Islay Creamery until the 1990s, while others were taken over by a garage business and by Islay Youth Hostel. Two substantial, stone-built warehouses have remained in use for the maturation of spirit.

In the south of the island Port Ellen distillery was established in 1825. Port Ellen has a number of claims to fame, not least as the location where Septimus Fox’s spirit safe was tested and refined during the early 1820s. At the invitation of owner John Ramsay, both Aeneas Coffey and Robert Stein also carried out research work at Port Ellen, aiding the development of the continuous still.

Port Ellen distillery remained in the Ramsay family until 1920, when it was acquired by the major blending companies of James Buchanan & Co Ltd and John Dewar & Sons Ltd.  Port Ellen passed to DCL when Buchanan and Dewar merged with that organisation in 1925 and in 1930 the distillery closed, having been transferred to the DCL subsidiary Scottish Malt Distillers.

Unlike so many of its counterparts, however, Port Ellen was granted a second lease of life in 1967, when the distillery underwent an 18 months-long, £400,000 rebuilding programme, during which the plant changed quite dramatically, both internally and externally. It finally became operational one again in April 1967.

Six years later, the village of Port Ellen was transformed by the construction of a vast new mechanised maltings plant beside the distillery, and as a result, the old floor maltings at DCL’s three Islay distilleries of Port Ellen, Lagavulin and Caol Ila subsequently closed.

Floor Maltings at Port Ellen distillery
Floor Maltings at Port Ellen distillery. Diageo Archives image

Sadly, it was only a decade later that Port Ellen distillery fell silent once again. Port Ellen was probably selected as the most expendable of DCL’s Islay distilleries because its make was less popular with the blending trade than either Lagavulin or Caol Ila. In the early 1980s, Islays were very much blending whiskies, and it would have taken a remarkable crystal ball to foresee that one day Islay single malts would enjoy international cult status.

In 2005 owners Diageo demolished the sections of Port Ellen distillery dating from the 1960s rebuild, leaving the maltings and two early pagoda kiln roofs in place, along with a sea-front range of stone warehouses, which serve as a reminder of Port Ellen distillery’s productive days.

While the existence of Lochindaal and Port Ellen distilleries is familiar to many whisky aficionados, more obscure is the story of Malt Mill, whisky from which features prominently in director Ken Loach’s 2012 movie The Angels’ Share.

In the early 1900s, Lagavulin, some two and a half miles east of Port Ellen along the southern Islay shore, was owned by Mackie & Co (Distillers) Ltd, whose company produced the best-selling White Horse blended Scotch whisky. White Horse’s Peter Mackie also acted as sales agent for nearby Laphroaig, and when he lost this role due to a disagreement over water rights, Mackie decided to make his own version of Laphroaig by way of retaliation. Accordingly, he constructed a small distillery named Malt Mill within the Lagavulin site during 1908.

Despite Mackie’s efforts, Malt Mill never seriously rivalled Laphroaig, but the distillery survived until 1960, when production ceased, and two years later the plant was dismantled and its pair of pear-shaped stills were transferred to the Lagavulin still house, where they saw another seven years of service. The site of Malt Mill is now occupied by the Lagavulin visitor centre.

Precious Malt Mill
Precious Malt Mill

Islay is also noted for a proliferation of farm-based distilleries, many of which had their origins in illicit operations. A number of these small-scale distilleries were established, or legalised, in the wake of the 1816 Small Stills Act, which encouraged legal distillation.

The now lost distilleries of Ardmore (later absorbed into Lagavulin), Ballygrant, Bridgend, Octovullin, Octomore, Newton, Scarabus and Tallant all dated from the years following the Small Stills Act, while the 1823 Excise Act once again led to a spate of new Islay distilleries. These included Glenavullen, Lossit and Mulindry as well as the larger Port Ellen and Lochindaal distilleries, along with Ardenistiel, which was ultimately incorporated into the Laphroaig site.

The tradition of small-scale, farm-based traditional Islay distilleries was given a boost by the creation of Kilchoman distillery, which commenced production in 2005 at Rockside Farm, not far from Bruichladdich.

Gartbreck Distillery impression. Set to be Islay's newest
Gartbreck Distillery impression. Set to be Islay’s newest

Gartbreck distillery promises to follow in the same footsteps, even boasting that distillation will be carried out using a live flame – something to warm the hearts of old-time distillers all over the islands of Scotland.

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