Ask someone to name the largest producing whisky distillery in Scotland, and people will invariably choose Glenlivet or Glenfiddich, one of the single malts that is ubiquitous in shops and bars around the world. The real answer however is a distillery few will ever have heard about: Cameronbridge. With a production as high as the 20 largest malt whisky distilleries combined, Cameronbridge truly is the unknown giant of the Scottish whisky industry.
The reason so few people have heard of Cameronbridge is because it does not have its own single malt on the shelves. In fact, it does not even produce malt whisky at all. Instead, Cameronbridge is a grain distillery, and forms the foundation upon which Diageo built its whisky empire. Nothing like the picturesque distilleries often associated with the traditional art of whisky making, Cameronbridge is a huge industrial complex, an efficient machine that spews out over 200 litres of alcohol every minute. Each week, the distillery uses 50 million litres of water, 3500 tonnes of wheat and 15 tonnes of yeast, to achieve an annual production of 120 million litres of alcohol. By comparison, the output of all Islay distilleries combined adds up to only around 16 million litres. Cameronbridge’s grain whisky is used in practically all of Diageo’s big selling blends, from Johnnie Walker to J&B’s, to Bell’s and Vat 69, to name but a few. Moreover, the distillery now also produces gin and vodka, since Gordon’s and Smirnoff moved their production to Cameronbridge. Add to this schnapps such as Malibu, Pimm’s and Archers and it is easy to see why Cameronbridge produces over 80% of all white spirit consumed in the UK. Despite this fact, whisky continues to account for over two-thirds of the distillery’s output.
The story of Cameronbridge begins in 1824, when John Haig started the eponymous Haig distillery on the river Leven in Fife. He was the offshoot of a long line of proud whisky makers, going as far back as 1655, when Robert Haig was ordered to appear in front of church elders to explain why he dared defile the holy Sabbath with his whisky distilling. John Haig married into another dynasty of distillers when he wed Margaret Stein. This did not come without its advantages: Margaret’s cousin designed a still that could run continuously, and Haig Distillery was the first to adopt it, dramatically increasing its productivity. Because of the Stein still’s penchant to spontaneously explode, Haig set family loyalty aside and replaced it with the more reliable Coffey still, which remains the most popular way of producing grain whisky, bourbon and Armagnac to this day. Even so, at this stage output was not limited to grain whisky, as the distillery also owned some pot stills, used for making malt.
In 1877, John Haig & Co. merged with five other grain distilleries to form the Distillers Company Limited (DCL), controlling some 75% of Scotland’s grain whisky production. Cameronbridge was the powerhouse behind this mighty monopoly and has remained so even after DCL slowly evolved to become today’s drinks giant Diageo. The distillery switched to exclusively producing grain whisky in 1929, and has in recent years released single grain whiskies such as Cameron Brig and Haig’s Club.
Cameronbridge may be Diageo’s only grain distillery in production, but that does not mean it is unique in Scotland. Sites such as Invergordon, Girvan and Strathclyde also produce grain whisky used in blends including Whyte & Mackay, Grant’s and Ballantine’s. What does make Cameronbridge unique however is the sheer scale of its production. Although it is hard to underplay the immense output of Scotland’s other grain distilleries, Cameronbridge simply operates on another level altogether. Where Diageo’s marketing machine keeps propelling Johnnie Walker to the spot of world’s best selling whisky, Cameronbridge continues to dutifully provide the raw ingredients.
And while a true whisky connoisseur may be somewhat disdainful of blended whiskies, they are a large part of what allows single malts to exist in the first place. Although grain whiskies form the heart of many blends, these blends also provide a vital lifeline to many a malt distillery, which could not survive without the revenue that the blending industry brings. Take Caol Ila as an example: the vast majority of its production disappears into Johnnie Walker and Black Bottle, but this does enable the distillery to produce some fine malts. In many ways then, blended whiskies allow for the vast range of malt whiskies that are on the shelves today, and malt enthusiasts should be happy for every blended whisky sold in a night club that is subsequently drowned in coke. As I take another sip of malt whisky, I for one am thankful that Cameronbridge keeps on grinding away in obscurity.