Milton Duff Distillery, Elgin.
WE arrived betimes the next morning at Elgin, and at once made our way to the Gordon Arms, a well-known hostelry patronized by the Duke of Edinburgh and other notables. After securing comfortable quarters for our intended abode for a few days, and refreshing ourselves with a substantial breakfast, we drove to Milton Duff. Our good host, Mr. Edgar, who does the principal posting in the district, and prides himself on his stud of horses, turned us out in fine style, and our high stepper started off at a rattling pace. Leaving the pleasant suburbs of Elgin, and crossing the bridge over the Lossie, our way lay through the richly cultivated plain of Pluscarden, called the " Garden of Scotland, and justly celebrated for its growth of fine barley. At the head of the vale, in a secluded and beautifully wooded glen, stand the romantic ruins of Pluscarden Priory. This ancient monastic establishment, said to have been one of the richest in Scotland, was founded in 1230 by Alexander II., and the lands belonging thereto, which stretched almost to the borders of Rothes, included the site now occupied by the Milton Duff Distillery. The monks of Pluscarden, among other things, were adepts in the art of brewing fine ales, the quality of which was considered to be superior to any in Scotland. It was so good that it -
“Made the hearts of all rejoice, and filledThe abbey with unutterable bliss;Raised their devotions to that pitchThat Heldon’s hills echo’d their hallelujahs.”
They brewed their ales and made their drinks from the waters of the Black Burn, a rivulet which descends from the mossy uplands of the Black Hills and runs through the plain, and which every storm converts into a torrent. Of this stream the following legend is told: - On a New Year’s Day in the fifteenth century, an imposing ceremony occurred on the grounds where now stands Milton Duff. It was the occasion of blessing the waters of the Black Burn, previous to its being used by the Benedictine Monks of Pluscarden. Attended by his priors, palmers, and priests, an aged abbot proceeded to the banks of the stream, where, kneeling on a stone with hands outstretched to heaven, he invoked a blessing on its waters, and ever after the life-giving beverage distilled therefrom was christened “aqua vitae,” the rivulet being to this day held in high repute and veneration by the natives. We were shown the stone on which the abbot is said to have knelt; it bears an indistinct date, and is built into the wall of the Malt Mill.
Our driver was a clever, cheery individual, well up in the annals of the district, and as we proceeded on our way interested us very much. He asked, with a serious air, if we had heard of “Enoch Arden.” On our replying in the affirmative, he informed us that this gentleman lived close by, and if we liked he would drive us there in ten minutes to see the house. We immediately assented, and soon found ourselves passing a rustic cottage, standing in a well cultivated garden. From an upper window a comely-looking matron was looking down upon her children below, and our driver informed us that she was Mrs. Arden No. 2. As we returned to the main road, the coachman related the story as follows: - " ’Arden,’ a married man, with no family, was in straitened circumstances, and leaving his wife behind, went to America to retrieve his fortunes. After a time, having prospered, he wrote for his wife to join him in his adopted country, but received no reply to his various communications. Time rolled on, and believing his wife to be dead, he married again, and had two or three children. After the lapse of a few years, on returning to his native country, accompanied by his wife and family, he found, to his surprise and distress, that his first wife was still living, but mourning for him as one dead. Now comes the strange part of the story of Enoch Arden reversed, Mrs, Arden No. 1 was overjoyed at seeing her husband again, and included in her embrace his second wife and her children; from that moment they all fraternized, and have been living together in perfect bliss ever since, to the horror of the parsons and the amazement of their neighbours. ’Arden’ is said to be the only man in the country who is blessed with two wives.
Our first halt was at the Old House of Milton Duff, occupied by Mr. Stuart, an ancient and picturesque building, dating back to the year 1640. Its grey walls are of immense thickness, and mostly covered with pear-trees, said to have been planted by the monks. After strolling through the pleasure and fruit-gardens, we entered the house to explore some of its hidden nooks and quaint apartments, and found it to be one of the most curious and interesting dwellings we have ever visited. We then returned to our carriage, having previously regaled ourselves with a nip of creamy Old Milton Duff Whisky, and then drove to the Distillery, a short distance further on. The appearance of Milton Duff is a complete contrast to the other Distilleries in the district. There is scarcely a building alike, and they are all, with one exception, detached.
The works, which now cover two acres of ground, were mostly rebuilt as far back as the year 1824, by Pearey and Bain; but previous to that time the site was occupied by the descendant of a band of smugglers, of whom many interesting tales are told. At one time there were as many as fifty illicit stills in the Glen of Pluscarden, and there are those living who remember some of them in operation. In this well-known establishment some of the oldest fads and methods are in use, and the ancient style of stills and utensils as carried on by the smugglers, have also been continued. These gentlemen, who were the pioneers of whisky making, well knew in what locality the best water was to be found, hence their choice of Pluscarden, and the erection of “sma’ Stills” by the score on the banks of the Black Burn.
Our friend, Mr. Ross, the manager, conducted us over the premises, and first led the way to the Malt Barns, a triangular building, the top flat of one side being used for the storage of barley, and containing upwards of 2,000 quarters; the lower and remaining portions divided into three compartments which are used for malting purposes, and contain a concrete Steep. One side of this triangular building measures 160 feet, the other 130 feet; both are 30 feet wide. The Kiln is a very ancient structure, about 40 feet high and 28 feet square. It is floored with steel plates, and only Orkney peats are used for drying the malt. The Orkney peats are said to be the finest in the kingdom. In the adjoining sheds we saw two ship-loads of this valuable fuel, which Mr. Stuart had just imported from Edday, in Orkney, for the following winter’s use.
The dried malt is pitched through an opening in the wall to the two Malt Deposits, which are placed at a slightly lower elevation, and when required the malt is dropped therefrom through a Sluice Hopper to the Mill below, which contains a pair of metal malt cylinders, driven by steam power, grinding 150 bushels every hour. Leaving this department we now crossed the yard to the Still House, which also combines a Mash House. This venerable building is at the left hand corner of the court yard, and tradition says that it was the brew-house of the ancient monks. Some parts of the roof were so low that we had to stoop as we went along; at some places there were depressions of the floor, and our guide frequently said “mind the steps.” Ascending a rickety stone stair we reached a gallery whereon is placed the grist hopper and a copper heating tank, which holds 1,600 gallons; the pulverized grist is brought over from the Grist Loft in sacks to this hopper, which conducts the groundmalt to a Steel’s Mashing Machine. Looking over this projecting gallery we see below us the Mash Tun, a metal vessel, 14 feet in diameter and 4 feet deep, wherein the worts are stirred with oars. The draff from the Mash Tun is thrown out to the pit by manual labour, and is used for feeding a number of fine cattle. Climbing a short flight of steps we came to the Cooling Room, where is placed a Morton’s Refrigerator and the Worts Receiver. This latter is an old-fashioned vessel made out of an old Mash Tun, which originally belonged to the smuggler-founder of the Distillery. The Worts are pumped up to this dish, and from thence flow over the Refrigerator to the Washbacks. We then passed through the gallery, and came to the stage in the Tun Room, a building 40 feet square, wherein are placed seven Washbacks, three of them holding 4,000 gallons, and the others 3,000. From the Backs the Wash is pumped into the Wash Charger, a square wooden vessel holding 3,500 gallons. We then retraced our steps to the Distilling House, where there were many things to awaken our interest, not only from the monastic associations of the place, but also from the quaintness and antiquity of the vessels in use. At the east end the roof is considerably higher, and here are placed two old Pot Stills of great age; one of them is a Wash Still, and holds 1,500 gallons, the other a Spirit Still, called the Low wines, holds 1,200 gallons. The Wash runs by gravitation from the Charger to the Wash Still, and after distillation has taken place the process is twice repeated. This is certainly the most interesting part of the process, and if we had space and time, would describe fully how the Whisky at Milton Duff undergoes the operation of three distillations, and the old-fashioned way in which at various stages it is manipulated.
After lingering here much longer than our guide approved, we passed out into the open square, and were shown the Worm-tub connected with the Stills. It consists of a deep cement tank, 20 feet square, with a pathway round and a bridge across it, which contains upwards of 400 feet of worm coils. Standing on this bridge, we noticed two well-worn but solid timber vessels for supplying cold water to the Refrigerator, and the large water-wheel which drives the still chains. The waste water from this wheel also supplies a smaller one, which drives the saw mill machinery connected with the carpenters’ shop. At a short distance is the open conduit, by which a part of the stream has been diverged from the Black Burn, and which here rushes madly on to join the latter before it reaches the Lossie. We now returned to the Still House, and ascended a stepladder to the Charging and Receiver Loft, where are to be seen a Low-wines and Feints Charger holding 1,400 gallons, a Spirit Receiver, 1,200 gallons, a Low-wines and Feints Receiver, 600 gallons, and the Safe. Returning to the court, we continued our tour of the Distillery, and after passing the Spirit Store, entered the largest of the five Warehouses distributed about the premises; it is 240 feet long and 120 feet broad, very dry and well ventilated. All the Warehouses together held, at the time of our visit, 3,100 casks, containing 274,000 gallons of Whisky of various ages. They are, however, capable of holding another 1,000 casks. Adjoining the larger Warehouse is the Cooperage and Carpenters’ Shop, before referred to; also the stables wherein were twelve horses, two of them magnificent animals, used only for carting Whisky to the station. Mr. Stuart’s farm covers 200 acres, and at a short distance he owns a delightful shooting box on the river Lossie. The chief Excise officer is Mr. Bain, and ten men are employed, for whom Mr. Stuart has provided comfortable dwellings.
The Whisky, which is supplied to all parts of the world, is pure Highland Malt, and the annual output is 75,400 gallons.