Whisky is booming. New distilleries are sprouting like mushrooms, and even old favourites are set to reopen. With the amount of distilleries numbering in the hundreds, you can’t blame whisky makers for trying to stand out from the pack. Therefore, distillers need to sell a story as much as they sell whisky. A remote location, a pure water source or traditional production methods all help to tell this story, so it features prominently on websites and packaging, whether justified or not. But if there is one company that could truly lay claim to the mantle of Scotland’s most artisanal distillery, it would be Abhainn Dearg on the Isle of Lewis.
Age: No age statement
The SunGrain Chita distillery is – what’s in a name? – a grain whisky distillery owned by Japanese drinks giant Suntory. Since 1972, Chita has produced the raw materials for Suntory blends such as Hibiki and Kakubin. With the current shortage of Japanese malt whisky though, Chita has taken on a more prominent role. Over the past decade, sales of Japanese whisky have skyrocketed. With stocks of aged malt dwindling quickly, distillers have been unable to keep up with the sudden spike in demand. Much like in Scotland, Japanese whisky has therefore seen a shift to NAS (No Age Statement) bottlings, but single grain has also entered the scene to fill the gap in supply. Nikka Coffey Grain was the first example of this, and The Chita followed quickly as Suntory’s answer.
I’ve visited quite some distilleries over the years, and at most you will be warmly received with a short tour of the premises, followed by a generous helping of the local liquid. While I love these distillery visits, there is no denying that by and large, they mostly show the same thing. This is why it’s so refreshing that Laphroaig has put on something more extensive for the die-hard whisky fan. The tour is called the Water to Whisky Experience, it takes around 4,5 hours and will currently set you back £100 (it was much cheaper when I went in 2011, but did admittedly not involve taking home your own bottle). A trip to Islay is always something special, but this distillery experience really is the icing on the proverbial cake.
If you’ve ever been on a distillery tour, chances are that the milling room wasn’t exactly the highlight of your trip. Sure, looking at the boxes with husks, grit and flour can be fun, but unless the machinery is running, there really isn’t all that much to see. And if the mill is in fact operational, the noise level is so deafening that you will quickly be ushered into the next room, where the tour guide can give an explanation.
While washbacks might be made out of fresh pine wood and a newly replaced still may yet be shiny, the malt mill is always the same old, worn machine, like something straight out of a dusty shed with antique, discarded equipment. There is a reason for this though, and that reason is simple: almost all the malt mills currently in use do date back a few generations. You sometimes hear the phrase “They don’t make them like this anymore”, and in the case of the malt mill, this is actually true: they stopped being produced in the 1970s. But the reason the malt mill went out of production wasn’t because it wasn’t working properly or had somehow become obsolete. Quite the contrary, malt mills were so effective and durable, that they forced the companies that produced them into bankruptcy. Never breaking down, never malfunctioning, just grinding away the tonnes of barley that are thrown at it, year in, year out. Since they hardly ever needed to be replaced, there wasn’t a whole lot of money to be made by selling them. Malt mills are an example of something that was simply too well made, and contemporary manufacturers have taken note. While a malt mill could easily last a lifetime, cars or phones these days are made to break down in mere years, thereby boosting sales.
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.
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.
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?