Cameronbridge: The Unsung Hero of Scottish Whisky Production

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.

Cameronbridge distillery

An aerial view of Cameronbridge distillery.

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Lagavulin 16 year old

Lagavulin 16 year old reviewDistillery: Lagavulin
Region: Islay
Age: 16 years old
abv: 43%

Although founded legally in 1816, Lagavulin traces its roots back to a group of illicit distillers on Islay’s southern shores, far away from the grasp of nosy excisemen. After several decades of moonshining, these smugglers ultimately merged into what would become the licensed Lagavulin distillery. Lagavulin is distinctive for its low, pear-shaped stills and slow distillation process. This allows many of the rougher, more flavourful vapours to make the cut. Paired with the high levels of peat in its malt, this makes Lagavulin’s raw spirit one of the roughest, wildest liquids you can find. It should come as no surprise then that its core expression is aged for no less than 16 years. While this maturation takes some of the sharper edges off the spirit, Lagavulin remains a wonderfully characterful whisky, full of punch but with a dignified sophistication to match its ferocity. The result is an absolute masterpiece: my favourite Classic Malt and one of the jewels in Diageo’s whisky crown.

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Glenkinchie Distillers Edition

Glenkinchie Distiller's Edition ReviewDistillery: Glenkinchie
Region: Lowland
Age: Distilled in 2000, bottled in 2013
abv: 43%

Glenkinchie is one of only a handful of distilleries in the Lowlands. Situated just 15 miles from Edinburgh, it is a popular day trip for tourists wishing to visit a Scottish distillery. Part of Diageo’s Classic Malts range, Glenkinchie embodies the ‘typical’ Lowlands character of gentle, grassy whiskies. As with the other Classic Malts, Glenkinchie produces a Distillers Edition; a whisky that has received an extra maturation. For Glenkinchie, Amontillado sherry casks were chosen, giving the whisky a dry, fruity character. This version was distilled in 2000 and bottled in 2013, meaning it is likely a few months older than Glenkinchie’s standard expression.

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Talisker 10 year old

Talisker 10 year old reviewDistillery: Talisker
Region: Islands
Age: 10 years old
abv: 45.8%

Talisker may have been “made by the sea”, but there is nothing fishy about their whiskies. Being the only distillery on the Isle of Skye, Talisker is a perfect reflection of the island on which it was produced. Rugged, windswept and utterly breathtaking, Skye’s favourite drink has weathered the storms since 1830.

Despite a flurry of No Age Statement releases in recent years, Talisker 10 year old continues to hold its own as one of the distillery’s finest expressions (the same coincidentally can be said for the 18 year old). Bottled at the distillery’s customary 45.8%, Talisker 10 has taken on many of Skye’s coastal influences during the maturation process. The result is a bold whisky that packs quite a punch, despite being only mildly peated.

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The waterfront of the abandoned Port Ellen distillery.

Longing for Islay’s Lost Distillery

On the shores of Kilnaughton Bay on Islay stands one of the most important buildings of the global whisky industry. Diageo’s Port Ellen Maltings, responsible for providing malted barley to all of Islay’s distilleries. Touch (almost) any bottle of Islay whisky anywhere in the world, and its raw ingredients will have passed through the Port Ellen plant. Yet for all its industrial success, the maltings form but a sad remnant of one of Scotland’s most beloved whisky producing sites. For in the shadows of the big, grey factory lies the now dysfunctional Port Ellen distillery. Its twin pagodas still contrast proudly against the Islay sky, while wafts of peat smoke can still be caught in the air. Yet for all its beauty, the distillery is now an eerie place. After years of inactivity, the stillhouse and the surrounding buildings have become a veritable ghost town, its warehouses reduced to storage space for its more commercially successful counterparts.
 

The Port Ellen distillery, with the still operational maltings on the right.
The Port Ellen distillery, with the still operational maltings on the right.

Although no longer operational, the distillery continues to capture the imagination of whisky fans everywhere. Much like a Van Gogh painting or an Emily Dickinson poem, Port Ellen whisky gained huge fame posthumously. The mere mention of Port Ellen often evokes a sense of excitement mixed with a tinge of sadness. For its spirit is of undeniable quality; its character typical of the Islay whiskies so loved around the globe. The dwindling stocks of Port Ellen whisky have now become so popular that Royal Mile Whiskies advertises one of its expressions by claiming that “we could tell the world this tastes of rotten fish and stagnant sewers and it would still sell out instantly”. Indeed, the 2013 annual release sold out before it even hit the website. As a result, Port Ellen has become so expensive as to be out of reach for all but the most affluent whisky aficionados. Selling at just £30 a bottle three decades ago, it now easily commands £1500 or over. A quick search on Master of Malt will bring up many more sold out and discontinued bottlings, while Port Ellen’s ‘dearly departed’ section on Royal Mile Whiskies is among the longest of any distillery. Port Ellen whisky can occasionally still be found at festivals, but in addition to a wonderful tasting experience provides the drinker with a lingering sense of regret for what might have been. How is it that a whisky so universally loved came to be resigned to the pages of history?

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