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What are Lost Distilleries?

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Lost distilleries are those distilleries closed due to either economic factors, under political pressure or, on rarer occasion due to indurmountable technical problems such as water shortages. Over the past century, over half of all malt whiskey distilleries in Scotland have been either closed or completely demolished.

The removal of a railway, change in shipping routes, and other consequences of globalization are responsible for the end of many distilleries. This often happens when distilleries are bought up by large spirits companies. Diageo alone closed 16 distilleries alone, 11 along in 1983.

The Remnants of lost distilleries

Anyone who delves deeper into the world of whisky will sooner or later hear about a now closed distillery. Their names are spoken of in hushed tones, their bottles fetch small fortunes at auction. These lost distilleries with names like:

  • Glen Albyn
  • Glen Mhor
  • Millburn
  • Rosebank
  • Dallas Dhu

were “lost” at some point, which is to say closed. Sometimes these mothballed distilleries such as Brora, Rosebank or Port Ellen resume production, others are demolished utterly like Littlemill or Imperial. Others remain visible landmarks, often repurposed as flats with only their Doig ‘cupola’ ventilator roofs signaling that once the water of life flowed here. Some such as Dallas Dhu spend the decades as museums awaiting the chance to distill for future generations.

Crisis from The First Whisky Stills

The Scottish whiskey story begins in 1494. The list of the King’s financial records lists the procurement of malt for the production of ‘aqua vitae’ for posterity. While people today groan about the retention periods for financial records, this document is the first surviving witness to the production of whiskey that we know to be whisky. While few doubt that distillation long predates this time, no least Ireland relegated to second place with the documented year of 1608, this documented starting point must take the form of a beginning.

With the advances in agriculture and early industrialization, which manifested itself particularly in the world power of the British Empire, whiskey also advanced. Copper had become ‘affordable’ in the transition from the 18th to the 19th century and so the small distilleries sprouted like mushrooms all over Scotland. This gave the farmers the opportunity to convert perishable grain into a durable and valuable commodity, raw spirit.

The Crown soon recognized the opportunities offered by an alcohol or malt tax, and findling themselves unable to control compliance in the hard-to-reach Highlands and Islands, simply banned the production of whiskey in these regions. An imaginary line from Greenock in the west to Dundee in the east divided the ‘forbidden’ Highlands from the Lowlands. However, the Highlanders were not stopped from making their beloved whiskey, and there were a suspected 14,000 illegal distilleries in the Highlands at the beginning of the 19th century. In truth the number may have been higher.

The 1823 Excise Act

In 1823 a law was passed that allowed the production of whiskey in the Highlands again for those willing to acquire a license and pay alcohol taxes. Thus marking the turning point, and illegal distilleries began disappeared in the middle of the 19th century. At the time of Alfred Barnard’s travels to The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom in the 1880s only an estimated 658 pot stills still in operation. Over the decades, the number of illegal distilleries that have been excavated has also declined massively.

The Excise Act and the changes that followed it were themselves a double edged sword at best. The Kennetpans distillery owned by the famous Haig whisky family was the largest in all of Scotland, the tax paid on it’s production being was greater than all of Scotland’s land tax, even this monstrosity was unable to stave off the fluctuations of the market and it ceased in 1825.

The Railway Arrives

The railroad opened up Scotland. On the one hand, this resulted in concentration processes in the whiskey industry. With the better traffic routes, the tax collectors were also able to reach formerly distant regions. The space for illicit distillation was growing ever smaller.

Gladstone’s Spirit Act 1860

Another nail in the coffin of a great many distilleries was Gladstone’s Spirit Act of 1860. The act allowed Scotch whisky blenders to create blends consisting of grain whiskies and single malts. The output of even the most inefficient grain stills dwarfed what was possible through batch distillation alone and thus favoured the creation of blends over single and blended malts. It also set the stage for Distillers Company Ltd. (DCL) which would ultimaltey grow into a controlling giant in the Scotch whisky industry

The Pattison Crisis

In the 1890s, a distillery building bonanza spread across Scotland, with 39 new distilleries constructed in the decade, with nine being built in 1897 and ten in 1898. Blended scotch whiskey was all the rage having replaced the brandy as the English gentleman’s spirit of choice and quickly becoming a world renowned drink. Well-known names such as John Walker & Sons, John Dewar & Sons and James Buchanan & Company were at the forefront of the blended scotch revolution, but a company less known today was the focus of activities that made the boom bankrupt. This company was Pattisons Ltd.

After years of incredible growth, fuelled by overvaluing property owned by the company and buying back whiskey stocks they had previously sold at higher prices the boom turned to bust.

On December 5, 1898, Pattisons’ stock plummeted 55%, and a few days later Clydesdale Bank refused to extend the company’s credit, resulting in the initiation of liquidation proceedings. The result was more than simply the closing of distilleries owned by the brothers but ripples throughout the industry. Giants like Glenfiddich were brought to their knees by the Pattison crisis and the years after saw countless distilleries mothballed, or closed for good.

Four distilleries financial ties were almost destroyed by the crisis

  • Glenfarclas
  • Ardgowan (grain whisky distillery)
  • Aultmore
  • Oban

While others closed their doors or barely survived the aftermath

  • Glenfiddich
  • Caperdonich
  • Imperial
  • Glen Elgin
  • Kilkerran
  • Longmorn

Beyond mere closures however the crash changed the whisky landscape fundementally. Tullibardine distillery, constructed half a century later in 1949 has the honour of being the first new distillery opened since the crash. The one beneficiary of the time was undisputably Distillers Company Ltd (DLC). DCL managed not only to weather the storm, but acquire Pattisons stock for around a third of its actual value.

Prohibition: The Great Experiment

The 17th of January 1920 saw the 18th amendment, and thus Prohibition become operative. The great experiment ran until its repeal on December 5th, 1933. It’s rammifications were vast, making fortunes for those willing to break the law, and closing the US market to all others. It proved to be a near fatal death blow to Irish whiskey production which had at the turn of the century still been outselling Scotch whisky in England. Likewise during the 1920s no fewer than 17 Campbeltown distilleries closed and, by the end of the decade, only Rieclachan was still distilling. By 1934, the twin survivors of Springbank and Glen Scotia had restarted production, but Rieclachan itself had shut for good.

The Post War Years

After the Second World War, the concentration process was followed by a significant revival in the subsequent upswing. The distilleries became fewer and fewer, but larger and larger. There extreme capacity expansions in the late 1960s and early 1970s saw Caol Ila, Clynelish, Glen Ord, Teaninich, among the lengthy ranks of newly built or massively expanded distilleries.

Unfortunately as the saying goes: “one man’s joy, is another man’s suffering”. While the new and modernized distilleries were able to produce large quantities cheaply, the old distilleries often struggled. The Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor distilleries , built right next to each other in Inverness on the Caledonian Canal in the 19th century, had to close in the course of the great British recession from 1980 to about 1985 due to a lack of demand. The buildings of Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor stopped for the time being. But 1986 was the end for both. They were torn down to make way for a mall. Only the last bottles of Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor are still in collector’s possession.

The Millburn distilleries, also located in Inverness, and Rosebank in the Lowlands were similar. They too were closed in 1983 and 1985. However, their legacy lives on. Today there are restaurants in the old buildings. So you can comfortably go out to eat while experiencing the old charm of the Millburn and Rosebank distilleries. Unfortunately, there is not much left of Millburn’s production facilities. Around Rosebank, located on the Forth and Clyde Canal, are the rumblings of life ahead of the reopening.

The old Dallas Dhu distillery ‘got it’ better. It too was closed in 1983 during the great British recession but already in 1988 the distillery was reopened as a non-working museum and placed under a preservation order. Since then, the Historic Scotland organization has lovingly taken care of the old building fabric and furnishings. A feasibility study was even carried out in 2013. It is intended to show whether it is economically feasible to restart the distillery as part of museum operations.

Not Lost Forever

Some bottlings from Lost Distilleries such as Port Ellen, Brora or Rosebank are still available and their values ​​are increasing. Which has brought potential future to these lost sites. Lost distilleries generally take one of two forms:

  • Mothballed
  • Demolished

Mothballed distilleries, are those where some or all of the production facility remain, these distilleries such as Brora can be revived at any time with little effort. Demolished distilleries like Port Ellen, on the other hand, are already dismantled or perhaps even completely torn down such as with Littlemill and Pittyvaich. Reconstruction is a little more complex, revival of the distillery such as in the case of Glenturret during the 1950s may in fact require establishment of a brand new distillery in the same buildings, or on the former site with only a name in common.

Work is currently underway to put Rosebank, Brora (Clynelish I) and Port Ellen on Islay back into operation. Not for the first time a legendary distillery has resurfaced, back in 2008, the Lost Distillery Glenglassaugh was reopened after a 22 year slumber. As to whether we’ll see historic sites such as Kennetpans, Littlemill, Covalmore, Coleburn or Parkmore of Duffton fame revived is unlikely, though not impossible.

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