The Man Who Saved the DCL

September 24, 2020 § Leave a comment

Ross, as portrayed in the DCL Gazette of Autumn 1944

The son of a tenant farmer, Willie Ross rose through the ranks of the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) to rationalise the Scotch whisky industry in the early decades of the 20th century.

William Henry Ross was the last child born to John and Euphemia Ross (née Forrest), tenant farmers at the 100-acre Gowanside Farm, outside Carluke, Lanarkshire, on 19 June 1862. Here the children experienced a strict upbringing which revolved around work on the farm and attendance at the local Kirk, instilling in them a strong work ethic grounded in faith.

A year later John and Euphemia, seeking to improve their circumstances, moved their family which consisted of Elizabeth (19), James (18), Sam (16), Janet (12), Archie (11), John (9), Mary (5), Grace (2) and the infant William, to the larger 275-acre Westfield Farm at South Queensferry in Dalmeny parish, to the west of Edinburgh.

The family prospered to the degree that Ross spent his formative education at the renowned George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, which had opened in September 1870 and to which he travelled each day by train. He left Watson’s in 1877 and joined the Grassmarket branch of the City of Glasgow Bank, leaving after its collapse a year later to be engaged at the head office of the DCL at 12 Torphichen Street, Haymarket, as a Junior Clerk. The company had just been formed in 1877 as an amalgamation of six Scottish grain distillers: Macfarlane & Co., John Bald & Co., John Haig & Co., MacNab Bros & Co., Robert Mowbray and Stewart & Co.

Ross furthered himself with night-school classes in bookkeeping while continuing to live at Westfield. Diligent, trustworthy and hard-working, he rose steadily through the DCL management ranks as his promise was noted by the then family dynasty-controlled business. Ross eventually left Westfield and moved into Edinburgh to raise a family with another Lanarkshire native, Annie Dalglish, whom he married on 21 August 1888. They lived at 12 Cluny Gardens in the fashionable district constructed in 1885 for the merchant classes in the lee of Blackford Hill, on Morningside’s southern limits.They went on to have two sons and one daughter.

His career path would take him to the positions of accountant and cashier (1884), company secretary (1889), general manager and secretary (1897) and managing director (1900), the first ‘outsider’ to be so appointed. During 1899 Ross steered through the creation of the United Yeast Company Ltd (UYC), in order to streamline the manufacture and distribution of yeast for distillers and bakers throughout the country. UYC would become a major factor in the DCL’s growth into the 20th century.

In modern parlance, Ross would have been considered a workaholic, renowned for taking work home after leaving head office. Aside from bringing up his family, he had few leisure pursuits but occasionally played a game of bowls.

After the failure the Pattison brothers at the turn of the 19th century, Ross had the vision to see that only a programme of industry-wide rationalisation would safeguard the its future. The scandal had affected almost every concern in the trade, including the DCL as the Pattisons were its fifth-largest customer at the time of the crash.

The DCL started this by acquiring other companies and distilleries in order to manage stocks and prevent over-production. In 1902 Ardgowan Distillery in Greenock and Loch Katrine (Adelphi) in Glasgow were bought out, as well as Harvey’s Dundashill Distillery on the banks of the Forth & Clyde Canal in Port Dundas, Glasgow, the following year. In 1905 the vast Saucel Distillery in Paisley joined the fold but was to be gutted by fire in 1915 and only used as bonded warehouse capacity after that.

The ‘What is Whisky?’ issue, which came to the fore in the first decade of the 20th century, meant that the grain distillers had to mount a campaign and lobby the Government to ensure that when a Royal Commission made its determination regarding the definition of what Scotch whisky actually was, their interests were to the fore. Ross undertook this huge task and the Commission’s verdict of July 1909 meant victory for the grain distillers and blenders when it determined that grain whisky was as much Scotch whisky as malt whisky was.

Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd (SMD) was then established in 1914 to acquire the five Lowland pot-still distilleries of Clydesdale in Wishaw, Grange in Fife, St Magdalene in Linlithgow, Rosebank at Camelon in Falkirk and Glenkinchie, near Pencaitland in East Lothian.

With the outbreak of the First World War Ross persuaded the Government to allow the DCL to almost exclusively continue distilling industrial alcohol for the manufacture of armaments. In 1916 DCL took over the prominent blending and export firms of John Hopkins & Co Ltd (Speyburn and Tobermory distilleries) and John Begg Ltd (Lochnagar).

The DCL’s manufacture of yeast became critical to the nation’s bakers at this time as imports had been stopped and by the end of the war the DCL had expanded further with the addition of J&G Stewart Ltd in 1917, which brought in the company’s massive stock of 8,000 maturing butts. Two years later J&G Stewart Ltd took over Andrew Usher & Co. Further acquisitions were John Haig & Co Ltd, James Gray & Sons Ltd in 1920 and J.G. Thomson & Co a year later. More rationalisation came with Camlachie (1920) and Yoker distilleries (1925) in Glasgow which were closed and used exclusively for bonded warehouse capacity, while Phoenix Park in Dublin and Dundalk Distillery were closed for good.

The competing interests of United Distilleries of Ireland were finally acquired in 1922 after years of frustration for Ross whose plans had been continually thwarted by other parties.

However, history will record that Ross’s major accomplishment in his career was the merging in 1925 of the three largest independent blending firms which accounted for 46% of Scotch whisky home trade sales in 1924: John Walker & Sons, James Buchanan & Co and John Dewar & Sons. Much of the DCL’s trade activity continually revolved around arrangements made with these firms, many of which frustrated Ross, such as the failure of Buchanan-Dewar to acquire Mackie & Co in 1923. The process of the amalgamation had been dragging on since 1909, when the three firms had first started discussions amongst themselves.

While this consolidated the DCL’s role as industry leader it did not prevent those companies pursuing independent business strategies and continuing to compete against each other, a conflict that Ross failed to resolve as chairman of the DCL board.

The effects of the temperance movement and prohibition in the USA in the 1920s had largely been ignored by the DCL but Ross did manage to get the company involved in distilling in Canada, Australia and the USA to avoid heavy import duties, but only the post-prohibition American operation at Linden, New Jersey, where Gordon’s gin was produced, was considered a commercial success.

On a business trip to Australia Ross suffered an accident that almost blinded him. He resigned from the DCL in 1935 and worked hard to overcome his disability, setting up the W.H.Ross Foundation for the Study and Prevention of Blindness in the same year.

Annie Ross died on 4 February 1936, aged 72. Increasingly infirm, Ross then married his nurse, Florence Ridley, and after her death he married her successor, Gladys Murdoch. Ross died on 22 August 1944 at his home, Stanmore, Barnton Avenue, Edinburgh. He left £246,000 in his will and his third wife survived him. His son, Henry, later Sir Henry (1893-1973), would follow in his footsteps and rise to the position of chairman of the DCL from 1948-58.

There’s still life at Annandale

April 25, 2013 § 6 Comments

My visit to Annandale Distillery last year seemed to suggest that production would start in late 2012 … all being well. As the summer progressed things did not quite go according to plan as the scheduled works continued. The Victorian brickwork foundations of the original distillery had to be preserved in some way, the rear wall of the main distillery building was found to be in a state of near collapse, massive water ingress on the other side of the building was discovered which was permeating down through the site to the lower levels and manager Malcolm Rennie broke his leg when he fell through rotten flooring in the old maltings. Owners David and Teresa must have wondered what could possible happen next. One thing was inevitable … their bank balance was a lot less than they had expected.

All of these setbacks could have put an end to this exciting project had less resolute people been involved but on returning on the 18th April I found that all of the above had been fixed although Malcolm was finding it difficult to remain standing on the same spot for any length of time.

Annandale takes shape.

Annandale takes shape.

I was visiting primarily to meet up with whisky author and photographer Ian Macilwain (Bottled History) who had supplied photographs for a whisky book I had published on Glenglassaugh Distillery and who had kindly agreed to work with me and Brian Townsend (author of Scotch Missed: The Lost Distilleries of Scotland) on a new project called The Crafts and Skills of Whisky in which some of the practices currently on display at Annandale would feature. Ian was on site most of the week and I had arrived just after the stills had been moved onto their plinths in the narrow stillhouse and prior to the condensers being lowered by boom crane onto the east side of the stillhouse. David wore a broad smile as he could now see that the buildings were beginning to resemble a distillery proper.

The warm red sandstone is at last revealed.

The warm red sandstone is at last revealed.

He had the good grace to open the top security door (which was drilled and bolted) to the stillhouse to allow us access to take some pictures. The copper stills (2 spirit, 1 wash) newly arrived from Forsyths were in place and only needing to be rotated until ready to be plumbed in.

Ready to be refaced in the local sandstone, the distillery has been almost totally rebuilt on this side.

Ready to be refaced in the local sandstone, the distillery has been almost totally rebuilt on this side.

The stills are a tight fit in anyone’s language but this space was where they had to be so it is a masterfully economic arrangement which will allow viewing from the mash house next door. The malting floors too are renewed and looking magnificent and with the Victorian foundations to be a centrepiece for visitors, the distillery offices will now be built in a curved structure that will back on to the distillery burn. Completion? David is more comfortable with the prospect of the stills running later this year and he has also bought adjoining nature woodland to enable visitors to ramble and picnic when they visit the distillery.

The stills in position.

The stills in position.

Condensers are lowered into position.

Condensers are lowered into position.

A new malting floor.

A new malting floor.

It was a brief but informative visit and I was thrilled with how things had come on. When I first visited Annandale in 1987, there was little or no hope of it ever coming back to life. It is genuinely moving to see the transformation. This week, the washbacks arrive and Ian has returned to cover their installation.

I can’t wait for my next visit.

Unobtainable Johnnie Walker … inspired by tea?

March 19, 2013 § 1 Comment

Dr Nicholas Morgan at Diageo is a man on a mission. As Malt Whisky Director he oversaw the implanting of Diageo’s malt portfolio in the consciousness of aficianados worldwide for many years, but as Head of Whisky Outreach since November 2012 he has been addressing the fact that Diageo had almost forgotten that its existence was due to the success of its blended whiskies. Bluntly, blends are actually where it’s at … and always have been. Whisky historians have always known this of course, but punters? The problem in terms of the public’s perception is that 95% of the ‘whisky conversation’ is about malt whisky, but 95% of worldwide Scotch whisky sales are of blends. Last year I was at one of the first of his presentations to readdress this imbalance to scribes, bloggers, retailers and  journos at Diageo’s HQ in Edinburgh and on the 5th March I was amongst nine non-Diageo attendees at Nick’s next lesson in the Scotch Whisky Experience.

Caroline Master and Nick Morgan of Diageo take us through the Johnnie Walker cardinal flavour groups

Caroline Martin and Nick Morgan of Diageo take us through the Johnnie Walker cardinal flavour groups

Others there were Vince Fusaro from Luvian‘s in Cupar, Paul McLean and Liz Gillespie from the Angels Whisky Club, Graeme Gardiner from the Edinburgh Whisky Blog, Andy Simpson of Whisky Highland, Caroline Dewar of, Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies and Richard Joynson of Loch Fyne Whiskies.

This time, he went straight to the heart of the matter – the reasons why Johnnie Walker is the world’s most successful Scotch whisky brand and how that brand was built. So he started with how it all began in KIlmarnock, in a grocer’s shop, selling tea.

Tea? According to Nick, the branding and selling of tea in Britain was a forerunner to how blended whisky was sold. Basically, single teas were considered too strong and blends also commanded a higher price. Tea blending was big part of Walker’s grocery business and in creating blends he was essentially brand-building so that his customers came back to him rather than the other, competing grocers in the town. But Walker was not the only one intent on this activity. In 1871 James Greenlees moved his whisky business to London to trade as the world’s first commercial blender. He sought, above all, uniformity and conformity in his blended Scotch whisky. In 1909 he said, ‘Ninety nine men out of every 100 would prefer a blend; the other man would prefer an Islay, and the other 99 would not look at it.’ What Greenlees was effectively stating was what Nick then told us: ‘Single malts in the 19th century were undrinkable.’ Shock, horror. Surely some mistake?

The 2008 to 2012 JW Director's bottlings. So limited as to be unobtainable.

The 2008 to 2012 JW Director’s Blend bottlings. So limited as to be unobtainable.

Well, let’s look at the facts. In the 1820’s the Glasgow liquor trade was all rum. Not whisky. Punch was the social lubricant which oiled the chattering classes in trade halls, merchants’ houses and inns. Evidence? The punch bowl collection at Glasgow’s Peoples’ Palace. When William Wordsworth visited Glasgow in 1803, he stayed at the Saracen’s Head Inn on Gallowgate which was the terminus for the coaches arriving from London after a 12-day, 400-mile journey as John Duncan records on the website:

This inn was the rendezvous of the elite of the city where many splendid functions were held, and something of its past grandeur can be seen in the form of a five-gallon punch bowl on show at the Peoples' Palace in Glasgow Green, with the words inscribed on the inside of the bowl SUCCESS TO THE TOWN OF GLASGOW. This punchbowl was made at the Delftfield pottery near Anderston. Punch was made with sugar and rum brought to Glasgow from the West Indies and was greatly appreciated by cold travellers, who would set themselves down around this bowl of steaming punch and light up their clay pipes.

When whisky was consumed it was done so as a toddy with the addition of lemon and sugar. With the arrival of blending the drinking of toddies declined, or simply transformed into the taking of cocktails. The likes of Greenlees and Alexander Walker recognised that the market for good quality blended whisky in England was immense and the only way to satisfy it was to create a uniformly consistent Scotch from the ‘undrinkables’ which in those days were far more robust and smoky in style than, with perhaps Islay apart, they are today.

England was duly taken by storm and the world followed as the likes of Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan, Peter Mackie and Alexander Walker established overseas agencies in the Colonies and the United States. Blended Scotch whisky quickly usurped brandy in Australia as the spirit of choice and its worldwide domination has continued from the late-Victorian era to the present day.

It was this quest for uniformity and excellence that moved Walker to make the following statement in 1887 that still resounds as one of the great mission statements of the Scotch whisky industry: ‘ … we are determined to make our whisky, so far as quality is concerned, of such a standard that nothing in the market shall come before it.’

In the early days the Johnnie Walker style was heavily influenced by the then Highland, Islay and Campbeltown styles … heavy, robust and smoky. By the late 19th century Alexander Walker had developed a regional approach to his blend drawing from the whole range of malts available to him. He introduced a ‘building block’ approach drawing from vattings of regional whiskies which had labels such as ‘North Country’, ‘Islay’, ‘Speyside’, ‘Grain’ and so on. By 1910 Walker was drawing from 70 malts up to 10-years-old with some up to 16-years-old, and 12 grains which gave quality and flavour combinations and created complexity and quantity to spread the risk in supplying the company’s expanding markets. The diversification which this system created has been the key to JW’s success.

Now Caroline Martin, one Diageo’s Master Blenders, took up the story to explain exactly how Johnnie Walker fits into Diageo’s stategy … or perhaps that should read how Johnnie Walker drives Diageo’s strategy. In order to maintain the mantra of consistency, uniformity and excellence, Diageo had to deconstruct the current JW blends by referring back to the stock books that Alexander Walker had created. In doing so, they identified 6 cardinal flavour groups, each of them influenced by the wood in which the component malts and grains had been matured:

1. Highland malt: robust and savoury, meaty with smoky elements, heavily influenced by European ex-sherry casks.

2. Highland smoke: complex smoke. A lingering remnant of the original Highland malt style.

3. Island smoke: powerful smoke, heavily influenced by European oak casks.

4. Grain: spicy cereal, influenced by American oak, delivering sweet, vanilla notes.

5. Speyside fruit: fresh fruitiness, the post-Victorian Speyside style with fruits and esters. Matures will in ex-bourbon casks.

6. Light Lowland: fresh, cereal maltiness, the lighter style balancing the heavier Highland and Island malts.

To date some of these flavour groups have been used to create a distinctive style in the first 5 bottlings of the Directors’ Blends. In this way the JW blending team have created a unique whisky experience which Diageo uses to promote the excellence of the JW blends. By restricting access to around 500 bottles each year and distributing these to key people in the company and further afield, the aim is to stimulate conversation and create discussion about Johnnie Walker. You won’t find these bottlings for sale anywhere in the world.

Caroline took us through each one in a systematic, informative and entertaining manner. During the discussion she explained how Diageo’s range of 28 malts are produced within a narrow range of key specifications, commonly called ‘distillery character’. In response to a question from Andy she also confirmed that competitors’ malts that Diageo buys in are similarly scrutinised. This allows her to use the largest possible range of malts and grains to construct the JW blends. Checks are continually made to ensure that each constituent malt or grain remains within its character range, and if they stray from that character, remedial action is taken, whether it’s a Diageo product or someone else’s.

Caroline and Vince making their judgements.

Caroline and Vince making their judgements.

The range of Directors’ Blends are bottled with no age statements, as it is all about flavour which is not necessarily delivered simply by choosing aged whiskies. The strengths also vary. Of the five bottlings here are my scores:

2008. Cardinal flavour: Grain. 46%abv. Score 2 out of 5.

2009: Cardinal flavour: Coastal smoke. 43%abv. Score 3 out of 5.

2010. Cardinal flavour: Speyside fruit. 46%abv. Score 1 out of 5.

2011: Cardinal flavour: Wood influence. 46%abv. Score 4 out of 5.

2012: Cardinal flavour: Fresh malts. 43%abv. Score 5 out of 5.

Once we had finished a show of hands was taken and years 2011 and 2012 came on top, although in a different place and time I might have plumped for the smoky 2009. When Nick presented these whiskies to a group of connoisseurs, 2009 came out on top.

‘Were there many Germans in that group, Nick,’ I asked.

‘Err, yes, there were quite a few Germans,’ he confirmed.

When it comes to malt whisky, Germans do tend to be unable to see past the smoke. Or should that be through it?

At last, a return to Islay …

January 8, 2013 § 1 Comment

One of my oldest pals is Allan Wright, the landscape photographer, who has a well-established reputation throughout Scotland and further afield. We both attended St Andrews University in the 1970s when  a pint of beer in the Union bar was 17p, a plate of haddock and chips 21p and it was possible to live off £10 a week: £5 for Monday to Friday and £5 for the weekend. I rented a room in the middle house of a peculiar three-house terrace on the hill at Mount Melville for £20 a month. My son Ruaridh’s room in his flat at Dundee costs £285 just now! While I was at St A’s I had started to build my  Manx Triton motorbike (Manx Norton featherbed frame and a 750cc Morgo-converted Triumph Bonneville engine) and actually had it there during my final year. I was able to store it in the internal coal cellar at the rear of the house which shared a wall nextdoor to the retired minister of the Church of Scotland who played his organ loudly on Sunday mornings accompanied by his less than tuneful singing wife. The racket was not welcome to students sleeping off the night before and I decided one day to fight fire with fire. I fired up the Triton inside the cellar.

My Triton. 750cc ... light, fast and unreliable.

My Triton. 750cc … light, fast and unreliable. But very loud!

He stopped playing and didn’t speak to me for a week but we got to lie in on Sundays after that. Allan and I both went on to work in the oil business after graduation and we kept up when possible.  He was one of the photographers who came with me on the trip on the ketch Alystra around the distilleries of the Hebrides in 1984 which formed the basis of my first book, Scotch and Water. I like to think that perhaps the Classic Malts Cruise which was started up in the 90s by UDV was inspired by our nautical sojourn from Islay to Skye back then, but they have never admitted it. I was however invited in 2001 to join the cruise as a guest of Diageo on board the brigantine Jean De La Lune for the Islay to Skye leg and found myself retracing part of the route of 1984 but in considerably more style and comfort. Out of that trip came my updated history of the island distilleries, The Island Whisky Trail, which is still selling well 10 years on and is shortly to be available as an Ebook.

Front cover IWT

Diageo are no longer directly involved in the cruise  (which explains why it is no longer ‘Classic’) but the fact remains that muggins came up with the idea first.

Islay has remained a feature in my life since the Alystra cruise and I have returned as often as I can, often on professional business (writing, book launches, magazine articles) and sometime just for fun. In April last year Allan and I decided it was time to hook up again and head over there on our bikes. For fun. The last time I had been over on a bike was when I borrowed my father’s DL650 Suzuki V-Strom back in late-May 2004 when I was one of the first guests to stay at Ronnie and Mhairi Brown’s new guesthouse, The Monachs, which they had just opened. The Triton had long gone by then and would never have survived a trip like that. The Suzuki handled the whole thing admirably … comfy, fast and frugal, returning 70mpg at all times with a 300-plus mile tank range to boot.

Allan and I under Screelwood Hill by Dalbeattie, about 25 years ago.

Allan and I under Screelwood Hill by Dalbeattie, about 25 years ago.

Allan and I had done similar jaunts before but only on day trips. He used to have a 750 Triumph Bonneville and we would trundle through Galloway on a summer’s day listening to the exhaust beats resonating through the countryside along the way. His Bonneville eventually went the same way as my Triton and he now rats around on a Cagiva Elefant 500 which is a fine machine on which to tackle the Galloway backroads and forest trails. A long period of abstinence followed after I sold the Triton in 1991 (surreptitiously interrupted by a Moto Guzzi Le Mans III – my second – and a Honda Africa Twin, about which my then wife kent nowt) but after my divorce in 2007 I eventually sourced a 1997 Honda VFR750 (after a three-year fling with a Moto Guzzi Norge 1200), arguably the finest all-round bike ever built and one that I could never have afforded new when it cost £8500. I picked up mine with 33000 miles on the clock and a full service history for £2000 from those delightful people at Cupar Motorcycles. With an engine like a Swiss chronometer, it had reliability built in from the start.

We decided to island-hop over in early June taking the early morning CalMac ferry to Brodick from Ardrossan, then going round the  top of Arran to Lochranza and hopping over to the east side of Kintyre at Cloanaig. From there we would cross over Kintyre to West Loch Tarbert and get the Kennacraig ferry to Islay for a four-night stay at the excellent Port Mor campsite at Port Charlotte. The Honda had come with a Givi wingrack so I invested in a topbox and panniers, bought a Vango tent and was all set. At 4am on Friday, 8th June, I reversed the bike out of garage in Moffat, loaded the panniers, and headed off up the M74. Alan was doing the same thing over in Castle Douglas and we agreed our ETA at the ferry terminal. I needed fuel on the way so peeled off at Happendon Services, which were deserted, and filled her up. I had a coffee and continued up towards Lesmahagow when I noticed the power dropping off after an overtake. The engine began to die but I got her off at the next junction and parked her on the sliproad. I thumbed the starter button but the lady was not for turning over. Bugger. There was only one thing for it. I called the AA. Then I called Allan who had stopped for a coffee south of Ayr. With the glum news received he decided not to go on and headed back home. I said I’d arrange the refunds via CalMac.

Thank god for my AA membership.

Thank god for my AA membership.

So that was our trip to Islay in 2012. We never got there. And the problem with the bike? There wasn’t one. I had filled it with diesel. Cupar fixed it and Gareth the mechanic said I shouldn’t be embarrassed as he had done the same  thing … twice! ‘You always do it twice. Think you can’t but generally you do.’ Bollocks, I thought. Only a dickhead would end up doing it twice!

On Saturday 25th August,  I did exactly the same thing again.

My biking year … en retard.

December 31, 2012 § 1 Comment

I have almost forgotten that this blog was supposed to deal with whisky, hills and bikes in equal measure so here is my year-end attempt to redress the balance as the whisky-related posts have been much to the fore.

Saturday May 12th, 2012 at Tan Hill Inn.

Saturday May 12th, 2012 at Tan Hill Inn.

Over the past couple of years I have chummed up with my biking mates (some of whom have been mentioned in previous posts)  and we generally try to escape on weekend trips in the early, mid and late summer. One of us is accorded routemaster status on a daily basis while an accommodation supremo deals with the thorny problems of where to stay well in advance.

The early trip was from 11-13 May to the to the North of England with Nigel (BMW RGS1200) deciding that we should head for the Tan Hill Inn in North Yorks for the Friday night and I would decide the route there. My not inconsiderable skills on Google Earth would be put to good use as I had decided that come what may the chaps would never forget how we got there. All bike trips should be memorable, never forgettable. With that tenet in mind, I set to work. I decided we should approach Tan Hill in roughly this way. Down the A7 to Longtown, then on to Brampton (really simple this bit so no one would get lost), then to Alston, down Teesdale to Barnard Castle, then on to Bowes, crossing the A66 and up onto the moor leading to the Pennine Way where a clearly marked farm track leads  directly to Tan Hill. I called the inn to make sure we could approach along this route and was told it would be fine. In the true spirit of 2012, clearly ‘Not a problem’ then. I did however let the chaps know that this last 8 miles was adventure biking so it would be stand-up-in-the-stirrups country. As usual, no-one paid me a blind bit of notice.

We agreed to meet in Selkirk with the main group coming down from Edinburgh, myself from Moffat and Nigel crossing over from St Boswells. In total there were six of us: Nigel, Peter (Triumph Explorer 1200), myself (Honda VFR750), Ally (Honda Blackbird 1000), Neil (Triumph ST 955i), and Graham (BMW RGS1200 Adventure). They were late of course, except Ally, and we headed off to Langholm and Longtown with me leading, Ally next (team HRC) followed by the others. At Longtown, where there is a muckle sign stating: ‘Brampton A6071, 11 miles’ we all turned left. From here you meander though estuarine farmland, then through Smithfield to Irthing bridge where there are traffic lights. In Smithfield I checked to see that we were all in convoy, and at the bridge Ally pulled up beside me. We waited and went but it looked like the rest of the crew had got lost. By Brampton it was clear they had so Ally went back and I phoned Peter. ‘Neil, we don’t have a fecking clue where we are!’ Brilliant. Follow a main road for 11 miles and the ‘Adventure’ bikes go and get lost.

Most of us managed to eventually regroup on the A689 that took us to Alston where Neil and Graham were already esconced in the The Swan’s Head pub. With coffee ingested we needed to get a shift on as we had to get to Tan Hill before 9pm or we’d miss the food. The weather was foul now and the run over the top and down Teesdale was ruined by strong winds and lashing rain but we managed to get to the start of the moor road beyond Bowes by 8pm. Not far now.

Soon tarmac turned to rough track and than after passing a farm I noticed the shut gate ahead. A sign hanging on it stated ‘Road Ahead Not Suitable for Motorised Vehicles.’ There was only one thing for it … bluff it out. I swung the gate open and signalled the team through telling Nigel to stop at the fork a mile ahead. This was not quite going according to plan but I caught up with them and Nigel checked his satnav to show 4 miles to go. It was 8.20 and I lead off the up the track on full beam (it was May but bleakly dark up there) and I soon was up on the pegs guiding the VFR between runnels and potholes that cars would definitely have baulked at. Then I was hit with a bout of ‘hazard fixation’ as I trundled towards a washed out long section that appeared no wider than the bike and about a foot deep. I froze and was in it before I knew it then almost as quickly out of it. The Honda barely missed a beat and there was no contact with the ground. This, I felt, was the limit of my daily dose of luck so I went extra canny from then on.

After a mile, the lights disappeared in my mirrors so I stopped. Nobody was behind me. Shit. I started back and after 200 metres lights appeared over the hill. Graham pulled up. ‘Where are they? I asked. ‘Dunno. I lost them way back. I’ll go back and check.’ He then began a multi-point turn which on a tank like a RGS1200 Adventure ain’t easy. But Graham was not fazed … ‘It’s got traction control mate. It’s a dawdle … ‘ And so the longest turn in biking history commenced and the traction control wouldn’t work so muggins ended up behind the beast pushing it back up onto the track after Graham had reminded himself not to let the bike go back too far otherwise it might slip off the edge and … oh dear, what happened there, could you give me a wee push mate … You get the gist of this I am sure. I pushed and pushed, the BeeEm huffed and puffed and eventually 300kgs of bike and rider started off down the road again just as two pairs of headlights appeared over the horizon. The intelligence delivered by these two intrepid adventurers (Nigel and Pete) was that Neil had capsized the Triumph and Ally was helping him get back on the road. Oh and my name had been mentioned several times in the same sentence as a number of Anglo-Saxon sweary words and also the words ‘kill’ and ‘dead’.

I told the boys to head on to Tan Hill and secure our supper while I stayed back for Neil and Ally. I kept my helmet on. Soon they appeared and looked none the worse but the Triumph was burning some oil on the exhausts that had come out of a breather pipe when it was cowped. Fortunately, the bike had gone over onto heather and soft turf so there was no discernible damage and Neil did not attack me so things were on the up.

We all got in just in time before our host, Terry, assumed we had been slaughtered by the beast of Sleightholme Moor. By God, this place is as bleak as it gets. Mile after mile of unremitting black and grey heath and upland moor and not a soul in sight. But the inn is great.

A good time was had by all.

A good time was had by all.

We had an exceptional night in the bar, one that will not be forgotten soon. My highlight was Terry revealing that he used to be one of Alabama 3‘s roadies before the joys of running a bar at 528m in Yorkshire seduced him to draw ale for the walkers on the Pennine Way. Pubs like this are the future, although they are almost wholly resonant of the past.

The next part of the trip took us to a curious wee port on the east coast of Northumberland but more of that in the next few days as it is time for Hogmanay and I promise to make more regular posts next year … starting almost immediately!

Fred says Happy New Year from the Tan HIll Inn ... in May!!

Terry says Happy New Year from the Tan HIll Inn … in May!!

2012 in review

December 31, 2012 § Leave a comment

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Annandale Distillery … the First and Last.

August 20, 2012 § 2 Comments

Almost always it remains an unfulfilled dream. A couple of whisky lovers happen upon a defunct distillery over 180 years old, they covet it and manage to buy it, then they set about the really hard part … bringing it all back to life and achieving that lifelong ambition.

Annandale Distillery

Annandale Distillery undergoing restoration, 2011

For David Thomson, a former cereal chemist, and his wife Teresa Church, both co-owners of the multi-national MMR market research company, that ambition is now being fulfilled on the outskirts of Annan in Dumfriesshire. They met while he was studying for a doctorate in consumer psychology at Bristol University in the late 1970s and they went on to create MMR which now has sensory science centres in China, USA and the UK. Employing almost 150 people, MMR has an annual turnover of over $35m and has afforded them the means to underwrite the costs of rebuilding the picturesque Annandale Distillery, established in 1830, at Northfield. In doing so Annandale will become the first distillery visitors crossing the border from England encounter, and the last as they return south.

I first visited Annandale Distillery in 1987 when I was preparing a broadcast for BBC Radio Solway which followed in Alfred Barnard’s footsteps as he toured through the region taking in Langholm, Glen Tarras, Annandale and Bladnoch distilleries. Back then I was shown round by one of the Robinson family who owned the farm and distillery and I was surprised by the generally good state of preservation of the place. Today, looking at the amount of work now being done as the rebuilding programme enters its 14th week of a projected 52, it is clearly going to be a massive financial undertaking for them. I ask David about the cost.

‘I don’t like discussing that,’ he responds affably, ‘but take it from me, it’s a multi-million pound project.’ Teresa then expands on their motivation. ‘This is not an investment. There are no plans to repay the capital outlay and profits will be re-invested in the distillery. It’s all about David’s vision and making that come true. We are fortunate to have access to the necessary finance, but David is from Dumfries and this is his local distillery so when he found out he could acquire it, he felt it had his name on it.’

Once the rebuilding and commissioning are completed the distillery will have been kitted out by Forsyths of Rothes with Browns of Dufftown supplying the Douglas Fir washbacks. Malcom Rennie has been employed fulltime for 14 months since moving from Kilchoman to ensure that things are done in the correct order from the word go. What is very evident from the range of work being carried out on site is that this is no bit-at-a-time, see-how-it-goes operation, but a properly managed and funded project that is meeting its objectives on a day-to-day basis. Everything is falling into place to finally re-introduce malt whisky drinkers to the style of medium-peated whisky which was produced when Barnard visited. At that time the distillery was leased by John Gardner of Liverpool who was to remain in business until 1896 when John Walker & Sons took over until final closure in 1919-20. The freehold on the farm and distillery was eventually secured by the Robinsons from the local Mackenzie family some years later.

Dr Jim Swan has been working closely with David and Malcolm to create the correct distillery specifications along with the proposed styles of malt, as the plan is to have a principal ‘Bowmore-style’ with phenolic levels around 20-25ppm and a secondary ‘Glenlivet-style’. Wood policy will be first and second-fill ex-bourbon with some ex-sherry finishing very probable. Spirit should be running in the late autumn of 2012 subject to there being no major reconstruction issues as this progresses and further down the line there are plans for the floor maltings to be reinstated along with a cooperage as well. A visitor reception area will employ two or three staff and the recently discovered foundations of the original stillhouse will be preserved and act as a focal point for visitors. Architects from the School of the Built Environment at Edinburgh Napier University have submitted three designs to incorporate the excavations into the visitor experience and Historic Scotland is providing grant aid towards particular aspects of the rebuilding work.

In the meantime there is going to be a long funding gap before mature stocks can be sold so income will be generated by selling bought-in fillings in much the same way Isle of Arran had to in the early years of its establishment.

It’s difficult not to admire the sheer dedication and commitment that David and Teresa have put into bringing Annandale back to life. In a moment of candour David admitted to me that a lot of people think he’s ‘mental’. As a Dumfries-born man myself, I prefer to think of him as something else … David, you’re a local hero.


Since writing this in 2011, much has happened in the course of reconstruction and inevitably delays have occurred due to the complexity of many of the issues that the engineers and builders have had to deal with as the site has been excavated. Keep up to date with progress at the Annandale website.

Welsh bikes, hills and stills, camp men, that beach in Torchwood and some sad losses of memory …

August 21, 2011 § 1 Comment

Early July was a chance to get down to Wales and stay with friends in Cardiff and tackle some hills in the Brecon Beacons. As my 15-year old Citroen Xantia was once more showing signs of resistance to another 800-mile round trip, I bargained with my father to swap it for his uber-motorway devourer Skoda Octavia which was a good move as the front offside suspension strut on the Xantia had decided to relocate itself against the underside of the bonnet thanks to one of Glasgow’s notorious potholes. Gareth had pitched his caravan in Crickhowell the week before I arrived so we were able to use this as a base for walks in the area. I was also on the lookout for bikes and intended to drop in on Gillian MacDonald at Penderyn Distillery on the way home to see how things were progressing there. We set off on the Saturday morning from Cardiff and after a couple of minutes his in-car phone rang. It was his wife Jan, so it was serious. ‘Got everything there have you Gareth?’ ‘I think so,’ he replied but I could sense what was coming next. ‘You’ve left your rucksack behind.’ ‘Ah, OK we’re coming back.’ It transpired that that was not the only thing he forgot but as I need to create some suspense, we’ll leave that til a bit later suffice to say his memory loss resulted in a side-trip to Abergavenny and an encounter with a much-modified BSA A10.
Gareth had, however, managed to remember where he had left his caravan  and after arriving in Crickhowell, the first outing was to the Bridge End pub to sit in the beer garden and quaff two overpriced pints each before the off. That was after we had got the caravan set up (beers in fridge, malt whisky medicine cabinet transferred safely) as we were closely scrutinised by the surrounding campers who doubtless had started to wonder who, of the two of us, was the dominant male and who would be doing the washing up. It seems that two men sharing a caravan in this part of the world is still considered about as curious as an episode of Gavin and Stacey containing a conundrum. (Ieuan Evans will need to explain that one). I was expecting the beer after the day’s exertions but he does like his ale and being one of those lucky chaps who has retired at 55, he can do what he wants I suppose. The target we were aiming for was the large limestone escarpment that hangs in the distance to the south of the town at the end of a shallow valley that largely forms a nature reserve. The cliffs are a massive slab that lie on top of the coal seams stretching down into the South Wales valleys. It is a mecca for potholers as there are miles of caves within the limestone … more of this later. We crossed the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal  and passed through some sylvan meadows before finding the right access point to get up to the ridge.

No caption required!

This was to be my first walk since starting in the gym a few weeks before in an effort to get back to the levels of fitness I once had many moons ago so it was going to be interesting to see how I fared. Up we went by way of an old track beside the fields to meet the ridge above the valley with no ill effects. The views as we gained height were stunning with a vast panorama to the north of Crickhowell opening up.

The ancient track up to the ridge.

Once gained we headed along what was an old horse-drawn tramway track which had been used to take the limestone down to the canal. The extent of the workings on Craig y Cilau were evident from the amount of quarrying that had been done. This must have been a massive industrial undertaking once.

The Sugar Loaf (596m) dominates the view east towards Abergavenny.

Mr Simmonds ponders for a moment on the track. 'Shit, I'm sure I've forgotten something else!'

After that it was easy walking for the rest of the afternoon as we headed west towards the nature reserve at the end of the escarpment passing a couple of entrances to the caves from which cool but fetid air rose. One of them could have inspired the work of Georgia O’Keefe, to put it mildly.

Ooh err, Georgia ...

Eventually, after a mile or so,  we were heading down the woodland tracks into the nature reserve and the curious raised bog at its western end.

The nature reserve map

We retraced our steps down the riverside to the canal and took a walk along it to Llangattock and the old kilnworks which explains why all this industry once existed.

The lime kilns

Double click on this and you might be able to read it

From Llangattock we crossed the old bridge back to Crickhowell. Beneath us there was some sort of quasi-religious baptismal ceremony going on by the side of the river which I chose not to photograph as it felt slightly intrusive, suffice to say that some of those immersed did not look particularly keen to get wet. Then it was back to the beer garden where  we decided to tackle Pen y Fan the next day except that we didn’t and did a river walk down towards Abergavenny but I can’t remember why. We barbecued that evening before tackling the medicine cabinet. Out of that I managed to find a sample bottle of 42.8%abv 50-year-old Glenury Royal bottled in 2003. I think Gareth finally realised what truly great malt whisky can be like when sipped and savoured. No water required, just like a fine armagnac. Bliss. A bottle of this went for over £600 on ebay in July so I reckon our two drams would have been about £22 each if you could still find any of this stuff (you can’t!).

Next morning, after ensuring that the neighbours were kept on edge by traipsing off to the showers together, we did the river walk. But only after Gareth realised he had forgotten to bring any underpants. That meant an immediate council of kak-finding meeting over breakfast at which it was decided to head into Abergavenny to find said replacement kaks. Just to add some spice to the al fresco breakfasting of our neighbours I ensured that my comment ‘Forgotten your underpants, Gareth? Don’t worry, just borrow some of mine’ was delivered loudly enough for all to hear. Then we were off … after I had done the washing up, of course. In Abergavenny I came across bike culture in South Wales. Oh dear … masses of bikers all meeting up in the same place and doing the same stupid things. However, there were a few exceptions. In the car park I spotted this rather lovely take on a short-track special based on a BSA A10, my second bike (see the post on this model under the bikes category).

Mmmm ... tasty.

We discovered a kak-emporium open on a Sunday up the jaded, but clearly once beautiful High Street, and with six pairs duly purchased we realised that our day was foreshortened … ah, that’s why we didn’t do Pen y Fan … so we headed back to Crickhowell watching the bikers playing cat-and-mouse with the local police. I have never understood this aspect of biking, but it seems to engage thousands of them each summer. More moronic behaviour is difficult to understand. And so to the the walk. Well, not much to talk about here except the weather was staying scorchio and there was a nice pub half-way round where  we quaffed two pints of good cider each. I then found out that the stuff was 8%abv and the rest of the way back was a bit befuddling to say the least. Back in Crickhowell we bought some essentials and the ref decided on the way back that a pint was in order so we took the back lane down to the Bridge End where it appeared to be his round. But he couldn’t find his wallet. He’d forgotten it. ‘I think I’ve left it in the shop we were in.’ Well, we emptied his rucksack to no avail, so he legged it back up the lane and returned five minutes later none the richer. ‘Check your rucksack again,’ I suggested. Ah … there it was, in a pocket within a pocket. So he hadn’t forgotten his wallet, he had just forgotten his pocket within a pocket. And the effect of strong cider at lunchtime on a hot day …

Another barbecue that night and our neighbours decided we needed feeding up and offered us the remnants of their ‘spicy Chinese chicken curry … home made.’ Err, no thanks, that’s a barbecue over there with sausages and burgers on it and we’re not gay by the way or as Gareth said as soon as the invite had been extended, ‘The wife let me away for the weekend, you know. She knows where I am!’

The next day it was the big one, Pen Y Fan. ‘Where the hell is Pen Y fan?’ I asked. ‘Hang on,’ says Gareth, ‘it’s here somewhere on the map.’ ‘You haven’t forgotten where it is by chance have you Gareth?’ ‘No … here it is! Now, I’ve forgotten the way to get there … ‘ I offered to navigate and we were off into the west in search of this big lump of a hill. The clever bit about this approach is that when you park in the Taf Fechan forest you’re already at 400m and all that’s required is a brief climb up to a monstrous ridge that runs for a couple of miles from the south to the summit area. First Corn Du is reached (873m) where suddenly a mass of people coming up from the west arrive … busloads. Then to the east the paved path (yes … paved) leads up to Pen y Fan (886m). It looked like a motorway so if you are going to do these hills, attack them from the south, if only to preserve some sense of solitude for as long as possible.

The long ridge walk up to Pen y Fan.

Corn Du from Pen y Fan

and Pen y Fan from Corn Du

The best option from the summit is to descend by the steps on the east side and pick up the Beacons’ Way path towards Cribyn and on down the broad flank path which joins what the locals maintain is a Roman road until you are back at your starting point on the other side of the reservoirs. It’s a long drag and the highlight was spotting a common lizard at about 810m on the way down from the summit. Is this a record for the height of the typical habitat of this reptile? Presumably not in winter.

Is this Britain's highest lizard or just a wee Welsh dragon?

It was then home via a pub on the canal which shall remain nameless as the landlady clearly had some sort of nervous disorder whereby she constantly referred to me as ‘darling’ and concluded every transaction with the comment ‘Welcome to my world!’ The things you come across when you don’t have a gun. Safely back in the van, several wee lagers were consumed before we went to a pub over the bridge which was overpriced and served awful food with tons of vegetables that were beyond edible. It was packed.

We bid farewell to the happy campers the next morning, hitched up and headed back to Cardiff in order to tackle some coastal routes on the last two days. As these did not involve big hills, I will be brief. We did stroll along the beach at Rhossili Bay on the Gower Peninsula and can confirm that the house that was trashed by dark forces in episode 1 of the new series of Torchwood is still very much in good nick and available for rent. Also, there are a lot of dead gannets on this beach. If you should ever come across an injured one, DO NOT APPROACH! If you do, this might happen to you.

It was time to head home on Friday via Penderyn Distillery and a meeting with Gillian MacDonald (she’s Welsh by the way) who showed me their plans for expansion. And expand they must as their exports are now really going places. Spain is now taking loads of their malt whisky and other markets are opening up so it looks like a new still will be on its way soon. A large part of the operation has been moved down the road into vacant premises on an industrial estate and the whole affair is moving in the right direction. Good on them.

Gillian in her 'new' warehouse

On the way home I got a text from Gareth. ‘You forgot your over-trousers!’ Oh dear …

Barley … crunching the numbers.

September 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

My second visit to Daftmill was to look into the business of growing distilling barley. This article  appeared in Whisky Magazine, no 104.

Sowing at Daftmill

Sowing at Daftmill

On a dreich April day I returned to Daftmill to see what a barley farmer actually does when supplying distilling barley to the Scotch whisky industry. I hopped into Francis Cuthbert’s Landrover and we headed out to tour some of his 350 acres of newly seeded Spring barley. Francis has this split roughly equally with disease-resistant, high quality malting barley strains of Concerto, Belgravia and Minstrel. ‘You can only sow what you can sell so it’s the end-user who determines what you will harvest,’ Francis says. In Daftmill’s case the Belgravia which is a high DP (diastatic power) grain will go for grain distilling as the high diastase content is crucial in enabling the conversion of starch to sugar in the wheat/maize mash. The Concerto and Minstrel are destined for malt distilling, some of the former going directly to production of Daftmill single malt, and all of the latter exclusively to Macallan.

New spring barley at Daftmill

New spring barley at Daftmill

These latter two varieties are of the high-starch, low-nitrogen type that malt whisky distillers need to produce the required yield of 420 litres of alcohol per tonne of malted barley. Nitrogen content in these types is around 1.4%, while in the high DP strains it is 1.8-2.2%. Currently Francis is in the final year of a three-year contract with Simpsons of Berwick at a set rate of £150 per tonne. The spot rate on the day I visited was £180 but a quick glance back at the autumn surplus of 2010 revealed a rate of £90, so there is some security in this arrangement.

Harvesting at Daftmill

Harvesting at Daftmill

But what are the costs? First there is the seed which he ordered in December/January at £495 per tonne. On a rough working of 115 acres for each variety, he needed 75-100kg per acre so his seed costs alone came to around £40 per acre. Sowing the seed amounted to £21 per acre and after that the crop has to be maintained by spraying. Fertiliser costs have risen steeply in the last few years and is now around £300 per tonne. Francis’s recipe is a 20% nitrogen, 10% phosphate and 14% potash mix. That adds another £60 per acre. Add to that the cost of the actual spraying at £50 per acre, and the minimum cost per acre is £171 or around £60,000 prior to harvest.

Harvesting at Daftmill

Harvesting at Daftmill

If you happen to own your own harvester as Francis does, you can ‘save’ the £30 per acre charge for contracting this out, but bear in mind a new one will set you back around £280,000. Francis did the canny thing and picked his up second-hand for around £40,000 but has to maintain it and they are expensive animals that depreciate while sitting and doing nothing for 11 months of the year so it still works out at around £30 per acre. Our cost per acre is now £201 or £70,350 in total.

Barley in storage at Daftmill

Barley in storage at Daftmill

After harvesting in late August and early September the barley’s moisture content is checked. Ideally Francis wants to deliver grain to the merchants with a moisture content of 15% so if it is higher he has to reduce this in the grain drier. If grain at 20% is harvested it will require £2 per tonne for every reduction of 1% of moisture so to get the content down to 15% costs another £10 per tonne. Should barley delivered to the merchant be found to be higher that 15%, a sliding scale of excess charges is applied so if the barley arrives at 16%, a 1.2% moisture deduction is made. If it creeps above 19.1%, the charge is 6.3% with another charge of £3.50 drying charge applied per tonne. It pays to get the sums right before despatching it all down to Berwick.

The merchant will then pass the barley over 2.5mm screens to get rid of small particles and a magnetic field draws off any metal objects. This is where farmer’s mobile phones sometimes reappear! The dried barley is stored in vast silos, most commonly found nearest to where barley is grown, as in Francis’s words, ‘It is cheaper to haul malt than barley as it is lighter.’ There are large silos in ports as seaborne transportation to maltsters is more economic than road haulage. The maltsters in turn then dry the barley down to 12% moisture content while malting it to each distiller’s precise specifications.

So where does all this leave Francis? His 350 acres will yield him 2.2 tonnes of barley per acre, or 770 tonnes which he will sell for £115,500. His variable costs have amounted to around £71,000 including an estimated £650 for drying some damp harvest, his gross profit is around £44,500. And that’s before we have discussed his fixed costs per acre …

The Curious Story of Glenkura Springbank

May 22, 2012 § Leave a comment

I was recently asked to evaluate a private bottling of 18-year-old Springbank by J David Simons, the Glasgow-based writer, in the company of Stephen McGinty, McTears whisky valuer. David was pondering that after taking some of the cask as a 15-year-old for himself (see label below) and the rest of his syndicate, was it time to bottle the remainder now, or let it wait a while longer? While Stephen and I got to grips with this conundrum, David explained the curious existence of Glenkura Springbank. “I actually bought the whisky with two friends when I was working as a visiting professor at a university in Japan in 1993,” David told us. ” The three of us were living in a seaside town called Kamakura which is about 50 miles south of Tokyo.  The name Kamakura in Japanese means storehouse (Kura) of the short sword (Kama). Consequently, when we were looking for a name for our whisky we decided to call it Glenkura – i.e. Glen (valley in Scots) and Kura (storehouse or perhaps distillery in Japanese).  A few years later when I was looking for a fictitious placename for my
novel, I chose Glenkura, then I put a distillery there, then I had my characters drinking Glenkura whisky.  That is how the whisky figures in the novel and also why we have Japanese lettering on the label.”

That  story he was writing  would eventually be published in 2008 as The Credit Draper, the story of a Jewish immigrant to Scotland in 1911 who sells cloth to the Hebridean communities before falling in love with a crofter girl. To precis the story a little Stephen and I both agreed that the whisky would gain nothing by remaining in cask any longer and we recommended that David bottle it now. As it stood it was an elegant and moreish ex-bourbon malt and was right on the nail at 18 years old. The result is that one of the remaining 36 bottles is being auctioned at McTears on June 6th. It will be interesting to see what it fetches.

Daftmill Distillery … not as daft as it sounds.

May 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have made two trips recently to a small farmyard distillery in Fife. The first resulted in the following article being published in Whisky Magazine (Issue 103).

Francis Cuthbert is no ordinary distiller. He also happens to be a farmer who, along with his brother Ian, tends to 1,000 acres of prime arable and beef stock land just south of Bow of Fife, off the A91 between Auchtermuchty and Cupar. This might make him something of an oddity within the industry today but a couple of centuries ago his twin occupations would have been regarded as fairly normal. Prior to the late-Victorian distillery-building boom much of Scotland’s malt whisky industry had evolved out of farmyard concerns that were dotted around the Highlands and Islands, aside from the grain distilleries, such as Kennetpans and Kilbagie, which were centred in Clackmannanshire and of a truly industrial scale, largely satisfying the voracious London market. Farming and distilling were symbiotic activities that complemented each other, so when the Cuthberts decided in 2003 to create a distillery on their achingly pretty Daftmill Farm, they were simply reverting to type.

Daftmill Distillery

Daftmill Distillery

But why did they do it? ‘That’s a good question’, Francis pondered. ‘I thought I was mental at the time but our motivation lay in the fact that we were passionate about Scotch whisky and it simply struck us as something that we could achieve if we set our minds to it.’ What would have been glaringly obvious to any casual observer who arrived at Daftmill Farm in the early 2000s was that everything required to create malt whisky was in place already. It simply needed exploiting. The grade B-listed farm buildings that the brothers decided to convert consisted of a three-sided courtyard arrangement with the old mill building operating as the grain store and mash house along with some neighbouring lean-to’s and other storage buildings opposite converted to stillhouse and bonded warehousing respectively.

Daftmill stillhouse

Daftmill stillhouse

But before any of that could be undertaken, the water source had to be analysed. Daftmill’s artesian well water was passed by Dr Harry Riffkin of Inverkeithing consulting chemists Tatlock & Thomson, and the brothers duly applied for planning permission in June 2003.  After some typical local authority delays, this was eventually approved later that year and over the course of the growing season of 2004 the external works were completed with the conversion of the old mill and the adjoining buildings. At the same time the farm’s stick shed was converted into the distillery office. After lying fallow for the winter, work recommenced in the spring of 2004 with the internal fabrication and installation of plant including two stainless-steel washbacks, the copper-topped mashtun and all the associated pipework. Spirit first ran in December 2005, but only after Francis had learned the craft at Raymond Armstrong’s Bladnoch Distillery whisky school.

As much as possible of the project was locally sourced within a five-mile radius with Houston’s of Cupar undertaking all the stainless-steel fabrication including the washbacks while Gray Fabrication, also of Cupar, installed all the steel decking and mezzanine floors. The only exception was that Forsyth’s of Rothes made the stills and condensers but the local electrician, Adam Nielson undertook all the pipework and circuitry. Francis has grown and supplied award-winning distilling barley on the farm for many years and some of this is now malted by Crisp of Alloa for Daftmill’s own requirements so the operation is about as close in concept and execution to the original farmyard distilleries of the early 19th century as possible.

At present Francis distils throughout the year on a periodic basis depending on circumstances. With 1,000 acres to tend, the distillery cannot be a continuous activity. With a capacity of 90-100,000 litres per annum, around 20,000 litres of spirit are currently produced. The process is very much small-batch.  A one-tonne mash produces 5,500 litres of 7.5-8%-abv wort to which is added dried yeast and fermentation in the curiously tall pair of 7,500-litre washbacks is then allowed to run for 72-96 hours. The spent grains from the mashtun are fed to the farm’s cattle as a welcome warm treat. A Monday mash will therefore be distilled half on a Thursday, half on a Friday with the 3,000-litre wash still taking a roughly 2,700-litre charge. This produces a 24%-abv, 1,500-litre charge for the 2,000-litre spirit still which Francis initially runs for just five minutes on foreshots before switching to the middle cut which results in a fruity spirit of around 72-74% abv, higher than the industry norm. A lot of copper contact, the large surface area of the condenser, as well as an upward-sloping lye arm which promotes reflux, also influence the character of Daftmill.

Bonded warehouse

Bonded warehouse

The collected spirit is then reduced to 63%abv and filled into ex-bourbon casks, mostly from Heaven Hill, and a smaller quantity of Spanish ex-oloroso butts which rest next door to the stillhouse in the former farm storehouses. The ex-bourbon barrels are best suited to the Lowland character of the spirit and will form the bulk of the malt that Francis will only bottle ‘when it is ready’. From a nosing of both the ex-bourbon and the ex-sherry I would concur with his estimate that this is likely to be around 2014. Certainly Daftmill is not far away from being a finished product and is maturing extremely well. There are plenty of sweet, citrus and floral notes with classic vanilla, butterscotch and custard overtones with some hints of Weetabix. The ex-sherry has fruitcake and Christmas pudding tones with a big sweet whack. When it is eventually bottled it will be available only through specialist retailers at cask and reduced strengths and will be in extremely limited supply so the Cuthberts should see a good return on their investment. Mischeviously Francis remarks as he locks the bond doors before I leave, ‘Of course, if it’s really good we might keep it all to ourselves … and if it’s rubbish, we’ll not be selling it anyway!’

New make, ex-bourbon and ex-oloroso

New make, ex-bourbon and ex-oloroso

It may have a daft name, but this is one distilling venture that will never be called mental.


Daftmill Distillery

Region: Lowland

Owners: Cuthbert family

Address: by Cupar, Fife, KY15 5RF

Tel: 01337 830303


Tours:  Strictly by appointment.



The name arose from the fact that the local burn appeared to flow upstream, so was called the Daft Burn. When the mill it powered was built it was named the Daft Mill.