Tag Archives: Gavin D Smith

Bottled Icons – Black Bowmore




Every now and again a whisky is launched which becomes an almost instant classic. Mention the name alone and the eyes of investors and collectors light up with eager recognition. Such a whisky is Black Bowmore, initially marketed in 1993, with further releases following during the next two years.

Here we ask members of the Bowmore team to reveal some of the background to this epic bottling.

Who decided on the name?

The expression really named itself; being sherry matured and so unusually dark it was only natural that it should be called Black Bowmore.

Had Bowmore always been aware this was likely to be great whisky and earmarked these casks accordingly?

All the casks in Bowmore’s legendary No. 1 Vaults were, and continue to be, regularly checked. The Black Bowmore casks would have been selected for bottling accordingly, and although it is unlikely that anyone at the time could have predicted it would become so iconic, we knew that it was a truly great whisky.

No 1 Vaults

So just what is it about the Black Bowmore that makes it such a classic?

  1. Distilled in 1964 at Bowmore, Islay’s first single malt distillery and one of Scotland’s oldest distilleries, the spirit was filled into oak casks which had previously been used for maturing rich, sweet Oloroso sherry.
  2. The casks were transferred to the distillery’s No.1 Vaults, Scotland’s oldest maturation warehouse located below sea level on the shores of Loch Indaal, to mature in a truly unique atmosphere.
  3. The young spirit developed into one of the most incredible whiskies ever produced in Scotland with an aroma that is incomparable; rich, sherry, cocoa, dark cherries, toffee, chocolate orange and mature oak.
  4. On the palate, the concentration of flavours is inimitable, gently rolling over the tongue like waves to the shore.
  5. Of the 5,812 bottles produced, very few exist today and have become extremely collectible.


What are the main influences on its character?

The main influences on the character of Black Bowmore are the new-make spirit matured in first-fill sherry casks and the maturation process in Bowmore’s legendary No.1 vaults. Being matured below sea level produces a perfect recipe of balance and richness, peat smoke and fruit.

Was there anything special about the casks used?

The casks used to produce Black Bowmore are perfect examples of the exceptional quality sherry casks selected by Bowmore to be ideally suited for long maturation.

Was the distillery using a lot of first-fill oloroso casks at the time, or would this have been really unusual?

Sherry filling was used in a higher proportion during the 1960s, and this was a style known to suit Bowmore, however Black Bowmore is proof of the quality of the wooden casks and conditions in our No.1 Vaults.

I understand you replace the wax capsule for buyers if it is cracked. How many times have you done that?

We don’t replace the wax, however we do re-seal with a spun capsule if the wax has broken off.  We have probably replaced only two or three over the years.

Did Bowmore ever expect Black Bowmore to become so iconic and increase so dramatically in value and collectible status?

It was understood at the time of release that Black Bowmore was an exceptional whisky; however no one could have predicted such a stratospheric rise in collectability. Black Bowmore remains one of the most iconic expressions to come out of our distillery.

What were Bowmore’s original tasting notes?

Tasting notes on the back of the original Black Bowmore bottle read ‘Remarkably complex, yet mellow, Black Bowmore is a superb example of an Islay whisky matured in sherry butts.’


I recall way back in 2011, I think… maybe 2012… I had what could be called an interesting conversation with Mark Gillespie from Whiskycast about the whole topic of investing in bottles of whisky.

Mark appeared to be strongly against whisky being used as an investment which is great; as always, whisky has the ability to generate passion among its fans and also healthy debate.

So why reference a conversation which happened some four years ago?

We had a very specific conversation about Black Bowmore and the relative price consistency the bottles had been achieving at auction. If something has a completely consistent price it’ll never make it as an investment and, almost like clockwork, the first three Black Bowmore’s had been selling for around £1,600 each. In-fact throughout the latter part of 2010 and into early 2011 the first three releases could be picked up for exactly that – £4,800 for the trilogy.

Wind the clock forward a few short years and let’s take a look the state of play now.

IF you’d bought these three icons of whisky at what appeared to be the capped max price of £4,800, would that price-ceiling turn out to be made of impermeable stuff or would it subsequently prove to be glass? Let’s not forget these bottles originally retailed for around £100 per bottle so the increase-over-retail price was already vast. Could these bottles physically extend further gains or were they already exhausted?

An understatement would be to say they’ve done okay! In-fact they’ve performed remarkably well. The chart below shows their performance since 2008. The early years of the chart clearly illustrate the lacklustre performance and near stagnation before we started to see positive momentum.

Black Bowmore Index

Rather than vast spikes in their performance, it’s encouraging to see the rate of more recent growth is relatively consistent. Natural peaks and troughs give way to a fairly regular pattern of increasing values.

While these are not the best performers in absolute terms, an almost tripling in price over the last four years from an index value of 106.19 at the end of May 2011 to 294.25 at present is clearly impressive.

Had the set of three bottles been purchased in 2011 for £4,800 they would now be worth £13,300. That’s £8,500 ahead of their 2011 auction price and an almost unbelievable £13,000 increase in value from their original retail price.

With this level of increase over recent years, is there any scope for future growth? That’s clearly impossible to answer; however, the current high demand for Black Bowmore doesn’t look like it will abate any-time soon. In fact general Bowmore values have been hardening rapidly over recent months meaning the likelihood of plummeting values for these three icons looks slim (never say never though).

We frequently talk of the right and wrong bottles from a collectors/investors perspective; in our view the first three Black Bowmore’s don’t get much more right! Pure bottled icons.

Our hearty thanks go to Morrison Bowmore Distillers for their contribution, their images … and of course for releasing such exceptional Scotch!

Black Bowmore 1

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.


Part 2

Gavin D. Smith

Exports of blended Scotch to the USA were a major contributor to the renewed health of the Scotch whisky business in the years following the Second World War, and between 1959 and 1966 grain production in Scotland rose from just over 41 million gallons (186 million litres) to almost 90 million gallons (409 million litres).

The malt sector’s on-going expansion also continued, with output growing from 29 million proof gallons (131.8 million litres) in 1963 to 51 million proof gallons (231.8 million litres) in 1967, and new capacity was created in a diverse range of geographical locations.

Despite all the individual distillery creations and expansions, a significant part of the overall increase in malt capacity during the 1960s was due to the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), which embarked on a programme to augment output at many of its existing distilleries. Indeed, between 1959 and 1967 DCL increased the number of stills in its distilleries by more than 50 per cent, with major reconstruction projects being undertaken in some cases.

Overall, the 1960s was a decade of growth for Scotch whisky not seen since the heady days of the late-Victorian era, with the malt sector doubling its output. As Moss & Hume (The Making of Scotch Whisky) explain, “The reasons for the rapid growth of distilling in the 1960s lie in the relaxation of restrictions on production. The United States market, which had taken the bulk of exports since the end of the war, showed a phenomenal rate of expansion, reflected, for example, in the great success of Dewars, Cutty Sark and J&B Rare blends. In 1960, American imports were 12,000,000 proof gallons [54,000,000 litres]); by 1968 they were 33,000,000 [150,000,000 litres].”


However, economics difficulties began to develop as a result of the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973, which caused a major rise in oil prices the following year. The global economy faltered as a result, with US demand for Scotch fluctuating wildly during the next few years.

Once again, enthusiastic expansion had caused supply to outstrip demand, and the press dubbed this surplus stock ‘The Whisky Loch.’ The Distillers Company Ltd was particularly hard hit, closing nine malt and one grain plant in 1983, followed two years later by a further 10 malt distilleries.

Brora distillery - Gone but by no means forgotten.
Brora distillery – Gone but by no means forgotten.

Malt whisky output had peaked at 207.660 million litres in 1978, falling to 93.383 million litres in 1983 – its lowest level since 1964.   This “crash” in production helps explain the very tight supply for aged malts from the 1980s now affecting the 25 and 30 years old sector.

The economic policies of the UK’s Conservative Government headed by Margaret Thatcher from 1979 led to a fall in inflation and greater business confidence, and globally the situation was also improving. As a result, output of malt spirit rose from 264.947 million litres in 1986 to 428.762 million litres during 1990, and Scotch began to find new markets in countries such as Brazil, Russia, India and China.

Return to growth

The impetus of growth through the past decade has seemed unstoppable, and having spent £40 million establishing the vast Roseisle distillery near Elgin during 2009/10, in April 2013, Diageo announced an additional £30 million of investment in Speyside, including a doubling of capacity at Mortlach.

Roseisle distillery - Affectionately known as the Death Star.
Roseisle distillery – Affectionately known as the Death Star.

At the time, a  Diageo spokesperson noted that “These developments build on recent Diageo investments in Speyside totalling in excess of £40 million, including distillery expansion and upgrade projects at Linkwood, Mannochmore, Glendullan, Dailuaine, Benrinnes, Inchgower, Cragganmore, Glen Elgin and new bio-energy plants at Dailuaine and Glenlossie.”

Meanwhile, Chivas Brothers, having increased capacity at The Glenlivet by 75 per cent in 2010 with the creation of a new distillation unit, went on to enhance potential output at at Glenallachie, Longmorn, Glentauchers and Tormore distilleries in 2012, as well as re-opening the silent Glen Keith plant during April 2013. Overall, Chivas has committed £40 million annual capital expenditure on its whisky operations, the bulk of which is being spent on Speyside, most notably with the creation of a ‘super-distillery’ named Dalmunach, destined to rival Diageo’s Roseisle on the former Imperial distillery site.

An end to boom?

However, after Scotch whisky exports hit a record £4.3 billion in 2012 – an increase of 87 per cent in 10 years – the trend began to reverse, with a decline in sales, and the first half of 2014 saw a slump of 11 per cent, or £220 million in terms of value.

The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) blamed new anti-extravagance drives in China, the stronger pound and an economic slowdown in some markets for the decline in Asia and the Americas, previously two of Scotch whisky’s fastest-growing regions.

Overall, the downturn principally concerns blended Scotch, with malts continuing to perform well. In 2013 malts sold more than eight million nine-litre cases for the first time, and in the USA, the volume of the malts market grew by 12.9 per cent.

The USA and Asia Pacific are becoming increasingly significant malt territories, while there is an ongoing premiumisation of malts in France. Over a 10 year period, the global ‘Super premium plus’ malts sector has grown by 10.2 per cent Compound Annual Growth (CAGR), compared to an overall malts growth figure of 4.3 per cent CAGR.

‘Premiumisation’ is the key term here, as both malts and blends in what is termed the ‘Premium plus’ segment have outgrown the Scotch whisky category as a whole, increasing by 4.9 per cent CAGR in the last decade, compared to a sector rise of 1.8 per cent CAGR.

Such statistics provide some comfort for the Scotch whisky industry, but by far the bulk of its sales are of ‘standard’ blends, and Diageo has blinked first in the face of headline figures, halting construction of a proposed £50 million malt whisky distillery at Teaninich, north of Inverness, as well as a £30m expansion of Clynelish distillery, construction of a bio-energy plant at Glendullan, and the planned £18m expansion of Mortlach distillery in Dufftown.

To date the situation has really only caused the sound of quite muted alarm bells. What should, in theory at least, prevent too much pain for the Scotch whisky industry this time around is the sheer geographical spread of its spheres of operation.

However, the current dip in Scotch whisky’s fortunes serves as a timely reminder that ‘boom’ cannot last forever, and there is always a reckoning of sorts…


Part 1

Gavin D. Smith

1900 was a pivotal year for the well-being of the Scotch whisky industry. Unprecedented growth of whisky production during the late Victorian period had led to the creation of 33 new distilleries in the last decade of the 19th century alone, while many others were extended and modernised.

As the decade progressed, investment in whisky came to be fashionable, with banks lending money for speculators to acquire both stocks of maturing whisky and distillery shares. Blending companies spent money both on the acquisition of speculative stocks and new distillery projects.

Output of Scotch whisky had peaked in 1897, when 35.76 million gallons were produced, and the largest number of working distilleries during the second half of the 19th century was reached in 1899, with 161 in operation. Moss and Hume (The Making of Scotch Whisky) write that “Stocks were built up…to ridiculous levels…The annual increase in stock warehoused in Scotland rose from just under 2,000,000 gallons in 1891-2 to 13,500,000 gallons in 1897-98 and 1898-9 net additions to stock amounted to 40 per cent or more of total output.” The rise in production of pot stills was largely paralleled by the patent still producers, and grain whisky output rose from 9,400,000 gallons in 1886 to nearly 21,000,000 gallons in 1900.

Too good to be true

Outwardly, the Scotch whisky industry had never looked in ruder health, but all good things come to an end, and the years of plenty were soon to cease. The crisis was to be precipitated by the actions of R&W Pattison, a Leith-based firm which had been established in 1849.

Pattison’s began to blend Scotch whisky in their own right in 1887, as Pattison, Elder & Company, and while apparently extremely successful, both the Pattison brothers, Walter and Robert, were noted for their personal extravagance and flamboyance, and as early as the summer of 1894, when the business appeared to most observers to be flourishing, the Distillers Company Ltd board described Pattison’s finances as “…very doubtful.”

In 1896 the partnership became a public company, with the two Pattison brothers owning all the ordinary shares and 25 per cent of the preference shares, and they were also paid some £150,000 in cash. Such was their level of expenditure and outlay, however, that despite this large injection of capital, in order to remain in business, the brothers had to resort to selling stock which they bought back at inflated prices by obtaining bills of exchange which were then discounted. This resulted in greatly exaggerated valuations of their whisky. Amongst other dubious practices, the Pattison’s also over-valued property which they owned and, in order to maintain an impression of probity, paid share dividends out of capital.

The Pattison Crash

Inevitably, the whole facade would eventually crumble, and the firm collapsed spectacularly in December 1898. When formal liquidation proceedings commenced, it became clear that there was a deficiency of some £500,000, and available assets were worth less than half that sum. In 1901 Robert and Walter Pattison were convicted of embezzlement and fraud and sent to jail.

The wider consequences of what became known as the ‘Pattison Crash’ were the bankruptcy of 10 individual companies with whom Pattison’s had done business, and a slump in whisky prices, affecting distillers, blenders and merchants throughout the industry.

However, It seems highly likely that the failure of Pattison’s was really just the catalyst of the crisis, and ‘boom’ would have turned to ‘bust’ before too long in any event, as the level of stocks being accrued bore little relation to the level of sales. The Pattison’s were not alone in being determined to believe that the good times would last forever.

In reality, the Pattison collapse and its consequences meant that the Scotch whisky industry saw no further growth in terms of distillery construction for half a century.

Image from the National Library of Scotland

Scotch in the 20th century

The end of the Boer War in South Africa during 1900 led to a reduction of spending by the British government on armaments and war-related materials and services, which played a part in the onset of a period of economic depression during the early years of the new century.

Overall Scotch whisky output had reached a peak of almost 36 million gallons in 1899, and by 1906 this figure had plummeted to below the 24 million gallons mark. Grain whisky production was particularly badly hit, falling from 21 million gallons to 12.5 million gallons during this period.

By contrast, pot still whisky production fell far less than might have been anticipated during the early years of the 20th century, after initially dropping from an 1898 level of just under 16 million gallons to some 10 million gallons in 1900. However, this had more to do with accumulating stocks than consistent demand for the product. The quantity of stock held rose from almost 90 million gallons in 1898 to more than 120 million gallons five years later.

While 159 Scotch whisky distilleries were operational in 1900, that number fell to just 15 in 1933, and US Prohibition (1920-33), an inter-war global economic slump, high UK taxation levels and two world wars all contributed to the relatively depressed nature of the Scotch whisky industry until more prosperous economic times arrived during the 1950s and beyond…..

Silent Stills

Our regular features contributor, renowned whisky writer Gavin D. Smith, talks in detail about Silent Stills.

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.

Silent - Mill St MagFrom 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!

Silent Cream & Brown CC