Keith Strathmill Distillery by Tim Shanks

This Highland Malt Pot-Still Distillery again underlines the agricultural and historic links of the Scotch Whisky Industry with the land of its birth and growth. It occupies a charming site on the banks of the River Isla, thus emphasising at the start the dependence of the industry on water and geographic conditions. The Isla is famed not only for running through the ancient town of Keith in the heart of Banffshire but a few hundred yards down the stream from the Distillery was the scene of a ”hot engagement” in 1746 between the forces of ”Bonnie Prince Charlie” and the Duke of Cumberland, in which the rebels got the best of the fight. In the churchyard on the left bank of the Isla is a spot still known as the “Campbells’ Hillock” which is generally supposed to be the last resting place of that fierce clan’s warriors who were killed at Keith.

Strathmill Distillery, originally known as Glenisla-Glenlivet Distillery, was set up in 1823 as an oatmeal mill under Mr. A. G. Johnston, though there seems also to have been a small Distillery on the site between about 1820 and 1831. Later the building was used to house an engineering works, and was later amalgamated into flour and meal mills. In 1891, it was definitely rebuilt as a Distillery – Scotch Whisky was then entering a period of fame and glory as a Spirit beverage – and in 1895 it was bought as a going concern by Messrs. W. & A. GILBEY, for £9,500 and renamed “Strathisla”. It has never looked back since, though some of the more humanly striking fragments of its past deserve recalling.

For instance, about 1829 it was the scene of a barefaced attempt to drown the gauger, or Excise Officer, presumably because he happened to be the handiest personification of the hated and recently imposed new Excise regulations. One morning, the workers at the Distillery cut the bearers of the footbridge leading to the Distillery and lay in wait for the Officer, whose usual method of entry it was. The river was well in flood, so much so in fact that it saved the Officer’s life: he took a detour to avoid the floods and came on the spot to find the staff of the Distillery crouching behind bushes by the bridge. Some hasty explaining had to be done.

Similarly, the old Distillery had what must have been the only Whisky fountain of its time in the highlands. The Whisky was run into open vessels and a mug was placed in a handy position for any passer-by on friendly terms with the management to help himself. Alas, with Excise control so tight, that is no longer possible, and we prefer our Whisky well matured, and not new from the Still.

With the ever increasing demand for whisky, a modernisation scheme was carried out at Strathmill during 1967. Malting at the Distillery ceased and all malt is now bought from a South Maltster who produces the kind of malt, peated as we wish, from the type of Barley we require to maintain our quality spirit. The old Malt house became a Warehouse in which the new spirit is matured. The kiln is now utilised for the housing of a nest of eight malt storage hoppers each with a capacity of 24 tons of malt. Malt arrives in Bulk Grain Vans; is discharged into a hopper, then conveyed to storage at a speed of 18 tons per hour. The grinding of the dried malt is done by a grinding mill from the firm of Robert Boby of Bury St. Edmunds. The ground malt isconveyed from the mill to deposits by a steel elevator, this being enclosed as a precaution against explosion.

Some 3,000 bushels of Malt are mashed each week as compared with 1,200 bushels prior to modernisation. The usual drag is provided to remove the draff from the bottom of the mash tun after its vital juices have been extracted with hot water in mashing. The draff being taken by farmers as a valuable animal foodstuff.

Six Wash backs are provided for fermenting the mash extract, with each wash back having a capacity of 6,000 gallons. Fermentation, from the time the yeast is added to complete finish, being 36 hours, after which the fermented liquor now termed wash, is ready for distillation.

In the new Still-House, there are four stills, two for the distilling of the wash, each still having a capacity of 2,400 gallons, and two Spirit Stills for the distillation of low wines and feints , each having a capacity of 2,000 gallons., The effluent from the stills, always a difficult problem for the Highland Distillers, is run into a settling plant, and after purification the liquid element is allowed to disperse into the river. The solid material left behind in the tank can be disposed of and no harm is done to nature’s waters.

With the addition of the old malting as a Warehouse, there are now six Warehouses for the storage of whisky during maturation with a holding capacity of some 1,000,000 gallons.

Also located at Strathmill is the administrative centre which controls Gilbey’s three Highland Distilleries. One closing feature of the firm’s adoption of modern aids to Whisky making, where they do not interfere with the Spirit itself, may be seen in their method of transporting the products of their Highland Distilleries to the south for their own activities. Blending Clients of the distilleries may have their casks of Mature whisky moved as they please, but Gilbey’s have brought into action two stainless steel road tankers to bring the Whisky south, thus avoiding any strain on the casks themselves, and reducing overheads in many directions. By the time the Whisky is called forward by the parent firm it has, of course, reached a ripe old age, is ready for blending, and the casks selected are simply emptied into the tanker, and remain at the Distillery to be filled with another “make”. The benefits are obvious and need no stressing, but one may be mentioned: the used cask has advantages over the new or unused wood every time. Under this method no slacking is allowed: it is a case of “out with the old, in with the new”.