Nevis Distillery, Fort William.
FROM Edinburgh to Oban, on a cold winter’s day with the snow on the ground and sleet beating against the windows of the railway carriage is no joke, and a sail from Oban to Fort William, with the wind due east in mid-winter, requires some fortitude even if the weather is bright and the sky cloudless. We were well provided with warm wraps, and braved the piercing wind on the main deck of the “Mountaineer” in order to catch a view of the scenes which we had passed during the previous summer, now wrapped in their winter robes. It would be impossible for us adequately to describe the various pictures presented en route. The atmosphere was so clear that the snow-covered hills on either side seemed terribly close, and impressed us deeply with their grandeur and solitude. As we steamed along between these “ocean mountains,” if we may so call them, the most remarkable and beautiful winter scenes came into view; now extraordinary ravines, their waterfalls frozen into huge solid hanging masses of quaint and fantastic devices then some little bar or intersection of the coast fringed with dark pine trees, which seemed to stand out in bold relief from the white background of the mountain; anon a little hamlet, with its kirk nestling cosily on the mountain side, the whole forming a picture it would be impossible to describe. As we passed Appin we catch sight of Ben Nevis, the monarch of the mountains, and shall never forget its appearance on that day. As a rule, fogs, clouds, or a hazy state of the atmosphere often conceal certain portions of the grand mountain, and thus disturb the wonderful impression of the whole, but we were fortunate, and could see this gigantic mass almost from its base to its summit. Its near presence and supreme dignity, standing out, as it does, from the surrounding hills, awed us, and suggested the might and power of the Great Creator. As we looked on its heights and glimmering peaks, dark projections of rock peered out and broke up the spacious white mantle, whilst at the top the frozen snow glittered in the sunbeams, and contrasted brilliantly with the black masses beneath. We continued our journey and neared our destination, keeping this glorious prospect in view, our minds full of the wonders we had witnessed, and thankful that we had been permitted to gaze upon this stupendous work of creation, clothed in all its winter glory. Well might Mackellar break out into song and say: -
“Oh for a sight of Ben Nevis,Methinks I see him now,As the morning sunlight crimsonethThe snow-wreath on his blow;As he shakes away the shadowsHis heart the sunshine thrills,And he towers high and majesticAmid a thousand hills.”
After passing Stroncreggan, we soon found ourselves at Fort William, welcomed by friends who had come down to the boat to meet and convey us to our destination.
Early next morning we set out to explore the Nevis Distillery Works, which are situated on the banks of the river Nevis, about half a mile from the town. They are approached from the tumpike road by a stone gateway, and consist of a double series of white concrete buildings, divided by a central avenue and all communicating with each other by gangways and bridges. On the morning of our arrival the whole place looked like a busy village, and we were informed that some unusually heavy export orders had arrived, and deliveries by that day’s steamer were most important. There was a foreign air about the whole proceedings; the dazzling whiteness of the concreted buildings, the numerous carts, gaily painted a crimson and green colour, laden with casks of Whisky, the big coopers with their leathern aprons, the noise of the blacksmiths’ anvils, the Distillery clerks and excisemen running to and fro, reminded us of the champagne districts.
The Nevis Distillery is a modern work, and was built in the year 1878 by Mr. D. P. McDonald on the most approved plans, and under his own personal supervision. At the death of his father in the year 1856, the present proprietor succeeded to the business, which at that time was the only Distillery in the district. Ben Nevis was turning out about 200 gallons per week. In 1864 the trade had so much increased that the Distillery was enlarged from time to time, until its capacity reached 3,000 gallons per week. In 1878 it was found necessary to build a new work to meet the growing demand for “Long John’s Dew of Ben Nevis”; hence a new Distillery was built in close proximity to the old one, on the banks of the river after which it is named. It contains all the newest improvements known in the art of distilling, and Mr. McDonald has here brought to bear his long experience and practical knowledge, in planning and erecting a model Distillery. The water used is the same as is supplied to the old Ben Nevis Works, and has its source at the top of the mountain from the spring now known as “Buchan’s Well,” which is the highest in the kingdom, and whose water has been celebrated for ages past in prose and song, more particularly when converted into the “Dew of Ben Nevis,” and imbibed by mortals below. We have seen the analysis of this wonderful water, Dr. Stevenson Macadam, who closes his remarks with these words: - “The freedom of the water from organic impurities may be observed from the general analysis. The water is therefore very pure, and I am decidedly of opinion that either for domestic purposes or distilling operations it is of the very best quality: cannot be surpassed, and is very seldom equalled in quality.”
The Distillery buildings cover six acres of ground and are so arranged and connected with each other by gangways, bridges, and elevators, that the barley is developed into Whisky through the various stages by a continuous process of gravitation. On the right hand side as you enter there is a raised roadway, which leads to the top storey of the first series of maltings; at the door of this building the barley is shot out of the carts and distributed over the floors. It is a three-decker house, 160 feet long and 127 feet broad, with concrete floors. The ground and first floor are used for Malting, and the top storey for storing the barley, at the end of which are two lofty Kilns each measuring 30 feet square, and contiguous to some are three large Malt Deposits. At the beginning of the season of 1885 these Deposits contained 6,000 quarters of Malt made in the previous season, which was noted for the particularly fine quality of barley grown in the north-eastern counties. The dried Malt is filled into oval box barrows and wheeled from this department over a short root-bridge into the Mill, which contains two handsome sets of cylinders for crushing the Malt.
Our guide now conducted us to the No. 2 Maltings across the roadway, the largest under one roof in the north of Scotland, measuring 151 feet long and 112 feet broad, consisting of an upper deck with an open space in the centre for lighting and ventilation, and for keeping the building cool for late season’s malting Seven hundred quarters of barley are malted on the ground floors of these maltings weekly throughout the season. The upper deck or gallery before referred to covers two-thirds of the area of the whole house, and is capable of storing 5,000 quarters of barley. The ground or withering floor is of concrete, and is so capacious that 3,000 persons could be seated there with ease. At the west end of the building there is a double concrete steep which wets 200 quarters of barley at one time. The Kiln attached to this Malting is at the east end of the building, and is 40 feet square. It is floored with wire cloth, and heated with peat only, in furnaces, which are enclosed hopper shape in sheet iron, concentrating the heat and causing a current of cold air to pass over the fire. The Malt is lifted to this Kiln by a patent American Elevator, which is so rapid in its movements that it loads the Kiln in twenty minutes. We next bent our steps to the Malt Stores, five in number, which communicate with the Mill before described by an iron bridge slung across the roadway, and from thence were conducted to the Grist Loft which is built directly over the Mash Tun. We then descended by a rather steep staircase into the Mash House. It is a lofty building forty-five feet by thirty-five and contains a circular iron Mash Tun twenty feet in diameter and six feet deep, also the Underback made of metal, twenty-four and a half feet long, seven feet broad and three feet deep. From the Mash Tun the grains are floated into a large iron drainer in the Draff House and the liquid returned into the Brewing Tanks, the grains left behind being used for cattle food. In the Mash House we were also shewn four Heating Tanks, with a total capacity of 25,000 gallons, a fine Engine by Tangye of twenty-five horse power, a Steam Pump, a Centrifugal Pump, and a Gwynne’s Pump of ingenious design and great power. At the back of the Engine we noticed two capital Steam Boilers twenty feet long and six feet in diameter, and it may here be remarked that the two lofty chimney stacks form a land mark in the plain and are distinguishable many miles distant. The Worts Receiver covers a part of the roof of the Mash House and the liquor runs therefrom over three of Lawrence’s Upright Condensers into the Wash Backs. We now retraced our steps a few yards, and came to the Tun Room, the lightest and cleanest we have seen in our travels. It is sixty-four feet long and thirty-five feet wide and contains eight handsome Wash Backs, two of which hold 17,000 gallons, and the other six 8,000 gallons respectively.
We now followed our guide to the Still House, a noble building, said to be as modern in style and construction as any in Scotland. At the northern end is placed, high up on a gallery, the Wash Charger, a timber vessel holding 7,000 gallons. The wash runs from the Fermenting Tuns straight into this vessel. We noticed that the seven Stills are all of the old “sma’ pot kind,” kept beautifully bright, and heated by furnaces. Two of them - the Wash Stills - have a capacity of 2,000 and 3,500 gallons respectively and five Spirit Stills, two holding 450 gallons, two 500 gallons, and one 550 gallons. The wash runs by gravitation from the Charger into the Wash Still, and the imperfect spirit, on leaving the distillation, emerging therefrom a perfected spirit, and running direct through the Safe into the receiver.
As we pass through all the different departments we are struck with the neatness and order of all the buildings. Everything goes on like clockwork, and the workmen seem to take a pride in keeping all the vessels sweet, bright, and clean. To every department there is appointed a chief workman, who is under orders from the manager, whilst Mr. McDonald Jun., like a general of an army, controls the whole staff. The Still-men are justly proud of their Stills and pointed out their perfections and brightness with as much pride as a sailor would the fittings of his ship. And as to the Brewers, their anxiety that we should peer down to the depths of some of the enormous Washbacks, down which they threw the light from the lamp, was positively amusing.
We now returned to the Distillery Offices to rest ourselves for a short time, after which our former guide conducted us to see the various industries pursued on the premises. The Joiners’ Shop is fitted up with all the necessary appliances, including a turning lathe, &c., and it is a notable fact that the operatives in this department have done all the joinery work in building the new Distillery, also the Warehouses and Stores connected with the Harbour and Wharf, and a whole street of Workmen’s Cottages. All the carts and lorries in both Distilleries and on the Farms have been made in the Wheelwrights’ Shop, which adjoins the Smithy and Engineers’ Shop. The Cooperage is an interesting department, and employs three skilled workmen and several subordinates on cask repairs. All the new casks are shipped from Glasgow, and placed in dry store sheds ready for use. The Stables and Cart Sheds are situated at the western end of the court yard. A procession of twenty horses and carts are constantly going to and fro between the Distilleries and Harbour. The motive power is principally water, supplied by a turbine wheel, fed by the river Nevis, which is here some 70 feet wide, and whose waters are as clear as crystal. Steam power is supplemented when necessary. There are fire-plugs and hose allover the premises, and beside this two extincteurs of a modern pattern. Mr. McDonald owns two large peat moors, and has therefore an inexhaustible supply of this fuel. There are 200 workmen employed, for whom the proprietor has provided most comfortable, and, in some cases, most picturesque dwellings.
The make is pure Highland Malt Whisky, and the annual output in 1884-5 was 260,103 gallons.
“Here’s a health to the land of the mountain and glen,To the land of the lake and the river,Where the wild thistle grows in her rode rocky den,Proud Freedom’s stem emblem for ever!The land of the Claymore, the Kilt, and the Plaid,The Bagpipe, the Bonnet, and Feather,Lets join heart and hand upstanding in pride,Here’s the land of the bright blooming heather.”