Inchgower Distillery, Fochabers.
WE started off for Inchgower on a bright summer morning with an Italian sky over our heads. All along the route, noble woods crept up and covered the lofty hills. Hedges, rejoicing in a wealth of foliage and blossom, divided the cultivated lands, and in the valley below, numerous water courses sparkled in the sunlight. When we reached Fochabers Station we found our carriage awaiting the arrival of the train, so off we started under a broiling sun. The heat was so intense that the cottagers remained in the shadow of their homes and the husbandmen sought the shadiest places in which to rest. Driving along we soon reached some thick plantations and came to a rippling burn, murmuring among the young fir trees, whilst below, the valley of The Spey lay mapped out at our feet, and the river, now a roaring stream, winding through the wooded hills and rocky cuttings, rolled in furious baste to reach the sea. Immediately in front of us stretched out for miles in all their glory and beauty the densely wooded policies of Gordon Castle, and behind us rose Benaigen and the rugged and massive hills of Benrinnes. We were now in the midst of scenes which no pen could justly describe or pencil delineate, but which have left traces on our memories never to be forgotten. After crossing the new bridge over the Spey, which has replaced the old one, washed away in the floods of 1829, we reached the beautiful and picturesque village of Fochabers, environed by the deer park and woods of Gordon Castle. Leaving the grateful shade of the lofty trees, which for a mile or two overhang the road, a wider range of country opened before us. Cultivated fields clothed the slopes of the hills which reached the roadside, and a glorious and expansive view of the sea and the hills of Sutherlandshire across the Moray Firth, was obtained. Proceeding along we passed broad acres of goldening grain, studded over with gaudy corn flowers and ornamented with lines of beautiful trees. Here and there were patches of wild flowers, growing in the, rose-covered hedges, the yellow, blue and white cups of these humble blossoms upturned to the sun. As we rattled along through this rich and fertile country, we now and then caught sight of a village or hamlet and presently, on our left, the famous Bin Hill of Cullen, some miles distant, standing out in bold relief from a background of blue sky. At the next turn of the road the Distillery came into view and the Letter Burn, which runs through the meadow land of the plain and past Inchgower. As we drive along our coachman points out a farmhouse on the high ground, opposite the Distillery, where lived McPherson, a noted smuggler, who for many years evaded the law, but was at last captured with several kegs of whisky in his possession, which he was carrying in his cart, concealed in trusses of straw, to the sea-shore. He was heavily fined and in default of payment imprisoned. The fine would have been remitted had he revealed to the judge the Still from whence it was procured. As a matter of fact it was the product of an illicit Still at Aultmoor Glen, at the back of the Bin Hill, a regular smuggler’s haunt, and these men used the same water as that now in use at the Distillery.
The Still was worked in a cavity in the hill side, the entrance to which was covered up with turf and heather, and might be passed a hundred times and yet never be seen. It was an accident which disclosed the secret. Some Highland cattle were being driven home, when one of them strayed from the track and putting its foot in a hole displaced a large piece of turf, disclosing to the eyes of the former, who was up to every dodge of the smugglers, McPherson’s well-kept secret and the means of securing the offered reward. On reaching home he communicated with the revenue officers, who proceeded to the place, dismantled the Still and vessels, broke up the Worm, and brought away several kegs of whisky. McPherson and his associates, having heard of their approach, took to their boats and escaped.
Our carriage then diverged from the public way down a private road which led to Inchgower. After passing the picturesque house on the left, occupied by the Brewer and manager, and the eight model workmen’s cottages, designed and built by Mr. Wilson, we drove through a pair of timber gates direct into the large quadrangle, where we were received by Mr. Wilson, to whom we made known the object of our visit.
The Distillery, which lies in the parish of Rathven, four miles from Gordon Castle and five from Fochabers, is of handsome elevation, and the buildings, which are of stone, and slated, are erected in the form of an oblong quadrangle, and cover nearly four acres of ground. It has a frontage of 454 feet to the highway, and 500 feet to the sea, the ends being 145 feet. The original business was established at the Tochieneal Distillery, in the year 1822, by Alexander Wilson, the granduncle of the present proprietor, who there carried on most successfully the manufacture of the Whisky for which his name is famous.
In the year 1871 the present handsome Distillery, Inchgower, was built, and the business of Tochieneal removed there. It is a modern work, and is fitted up with all the latest improvements of machinery and vessels. Inchgower is situated in the heart of the finest barley-growing district in Scotland, and the water supply is from the Letter Burn, which runs from the uplands over huge peat mosses and flows past the Distillery into the sea, and also superior quality.
The manager, Mr. John Gallow, escorted us round the work and explained the various operations. We commenced at the Maltings, two-storied buildings, which form the right side of the quadrangle. They are 400 feet long and 26 feet wide, with open roofs, and lighted by forty-five windows. The top floor is the Granary and will hold 3,000 quarters of barley. Following our guide we next inspected the Malting Floors underneath, which are in three divisions, Nos. 1 and 2, 100 feet long, have each a stone Steep wetting 30 quarters of barley at one time, and No. 3, 150 feet long, wetting 45 quarters. Crossing to the opposite side of the quadrangle we came to the Kiln, a tower-like structure, 50 feet high, to the floor of which the malt is sent by elevators driven by steam-power. Peat is the only fuel used in the open furnaces for drying the malt, and the floor above is laid with metal plates. The dried malt is conveyed from the Kiln floor, through a sluice, into the Malt Deposits adjoining, one of the most convenient places for the purpose we have as yet seen. It is divided or binned off into six compartments for convenience sake, also to keep the malt dry and clean; very little light is allowed to penetrate, and the air is excluded as much as possible. These compartments hold together upwards of 6,000 bushels of malt, and there is a Feeding Hopper, in the centre of the floor, for the Mill below. Continuing our progress through the Mill building, which contained a pair of malt rollers and grinding machines we came to the Grist Loft, a neat little chamber, where the pulverized malt is stored ready for use, and when required is projected by a screw to the Hopper over the Mash-tun.
We next inspected the Engine-house which contain a 10-horse power engine, which does all the work of the Distillery, also a steam boiler, 18 feet long by 5 feet in diameter, and a centrifugal and other pumps. The two chimney-stacks are 60 feet and 50 feet high, respectively. Ascending some stone steps, from the court yard, we entered a noble building which forms the Mash House, Tun Room, and Still House. The section devoted to mashing is 65 feet long and 24 feet broad; the two metal brewing tanks, heated by steam, hold 2,500 gallons, and are built into a recess, underneath which is the Draff House. In the building there is a Steel’s Mashing Machine and a metal Mash-tun 11 feet in diameter and 5 feet deep, with the usual draining plates and stirring gear enclosed. Underneath the Tun is placed the Underback, from which vessel the worts are pumped up to the Coolers, forming the roof of the Tun Room, and possess a double set of old-fashioned fans. Passing through an archway we next came to the Tun Room division, which contains six Washbacks, two holding 4,500 gallons and four 2,500 gallons each. From these fermenting Tuns the wash is pumped up to the Wash Charger placed on a platform over the Stills. Returning once more to the quadrangle we entered by a stone porch into the Distilling division. It is part of the house has a lofty and church-like appearance. It is 60 feet long and l4 feet wide, lighted by stained windows, quite a suitable habitation for the perfection of the barley into a perfect spirit. Here we were shown two Old Pot Stills, consisting of a Wash Still, holding 2,900 gallons, and Spirit Still 1,700 gallons. A small water-wheel, driven by the waste from the Worm Tub, drives the Still chains.
In the front of these vessels there is space sufficient to seat a small congregation of spectators to witness the progress of the work and spiritual mission carried on within its boundaries. Against the wall, at the end of the building, there is placed a grandfather’s clock, a relic of the old Tochieneal Distillery, which keeps time better than any other clock on the premises. On the floor at the opposite end of the Still House are placed a Low-wines and Feints Receiver, holding 2,200 gallons, a Spirit Receiver, 1,500 gallons, and a Spirit Safe. For cleanliness and neatness this Distillery will vie with any of the modern Distilleries of the north.
We next bent our steps to the Worm Tub, a deep concrete vessel, 40 feet square, supplied with water from the Letter Burn, and afterwards to the Spirit Store, which contains a vat holding 2,500 gallons, and the usual weighing and casking apparatus. In a line with this building there is a Cooperage and Carpenter’s Shop, quite a department in themselves, containing a steam saw and other machinery and appliances. All the Washbacks and timber vessels were made on the premises by skilled workmen. Continuing our inspection, we visited the Smithy, a little work of itself; the smith with brawny arms was there, but the chestnut tree was wanting. At the western end of the quadrangle there is, besides the duty-paid Racking Store and Inland Revenue Offices, a Cask Shed and the public offices of the Distillery. Opposite the Still house are the Bonded Warehouses, forming a range of buildings, 100 feet long by 80 feet broad, divided into three sections and holding 2,000 casks. At the back of the Distillery we noticed two large peat sheds, each containing about 400 loads of peat, also capital cart-sheds and fine stabling premises for six horses.
Connected with the Distillery there is a farm of 200 acres, and a model farm-steading arranged on new sanitary principles. Upwards of 100 head of black-polled cattle, nearly 200 sheep, and a quantity of pigs, all bred on the farm, are fed with the burnt ale and draff, conveyed by gravitation from the Distillery to the farm buildings. We noticed that most of the workmen were middle-aged or elderly, and of a superior class, and were informed that most of them came from the Old Distillery, and had been with the firm all their lives. Mr. J. Bayley is the principal Excise Officer, and there are upwards of 20 persons employed on the premises. The make, which is pure Highland Malt, is a single as well as a blending Whisky, and is sold principally in England and exported to the Colonies. It is considered clean and mellow to the palate and much appreciated by connoisseurs. The annual output is 62,000 gallons, the bulk of which is generally sold before it is manufactured. After fulfilling our duties at the Works we accepted Mr. Wilson’s invitation to dinner. His house is a charming country retreat, embosomed in trees and surrounded by lawns and gardens. We thoroughly enjoyed the Highland hospitality, and we would gladly have accepted his pressing invitation to stay a night; but alas, business and duty called us to the South, and we, who would fain have lingered many a day, parted from our host with regret, only to wish that another opportunity might be afforded us of renewing these enjoyments.
When we returned the sun was lingering among the hills, and the hum of the insects, together with the chirping of crickets, made pleasant companionship during our homeward journey to Fochabers.