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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Phylloxera

Phylloxera: The Bug that Saved the Whisky Industry

Looking at the worldwide popularity of whisky these days, few whisky drinkers would guess that the contents of their glass might have been very different, had it not been for the interference of a tiny insect native to North America. 1mm long,  0.5mm wide, and listening to the name of daktulosphaira vitifoliae, this bug does not sound like much of a superhero. Yet it played a huge role in popularising whisky, at a time when the industry’s future looked far from bright.

During the Victorian era, the UK spirit market was a very stratified place. As a general rule of thumb, the working classes drank gin, while Britain’s high society enjoyed brandy. Towns with a strong naval tradition would typically drink rum, leaving whisky to fight an uphill battle, particularly outside of Scotland. Yet help arrived from a very unexpected corner, in the form of a tiny unassuming aphid called Phylloxera.

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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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