Lochaber Distillery … a mystery no more.

April 25, 2011 § 1 Comment

After my visit to the Diageo Archive in Menstrie I was determined to find out about the mysterious Lochaber Distillery. I recalled a similar conundrum when I was working on Richard Paterson’s engaging memoir of his life and times in the whisky industry, Goodness Nose. Richard produced some documents which dated from 1925 showing list of malts categorised by George Ballantine & Son for their blending recipes. Amongst the 17 malts in the third rank of Second Class Highland malts (in effect, the last ones they would draw upon), was a malt called Glencoe. That set myself and the co-author of the book, Gavin Smith, on a search which led us to Charlie MacLean, who, after contacting his good friend David Cooper, suggested that it might have been another name for a malt produced at Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William. Certainly the malt was produced and bottled from time to time and it was not the first time that Ben Nevis was to obfuscate the provenance of its whisky or the way it went about its business; it too is part of the Lochaber Distillery mystery.

After my last post on the subject, Dr Nick Morgan at Diageo, who would have been at Menstrie as well had he not been unwell, contacted me by email, stating simply, ‘Lochaber Distillery. Now there lies a tale … pity I was not there to tell the story …’  That was as good as a red rag to a bull and I started digging in earnest. At first I had failed to consider Fort William as I was sure that the three distilleries once in existence at the same time in the town, Nevis, Ben Nevis and Glenlochy were owned by two different companies (Nevis and Ben Nevis were part of the same company) and the DCL’s only interest there was Glenlochy. But that was only partly true because all three were actually owned, at one time or another, by the famous Canadian emigre Joseph R Hobbs. Was this whole convoluted ownership issue at the heart of it? When Hobbs name appears, nothing is simple.

However, something turned up on a blog which stated that Philip Morrice had made mention of Lochaber when he did a tour of distilleries in 1985 to celebrate Barnard’s original trek 100 years before.

The distillery when Barnard visited.

In his book, Morrice states that two years after Glenlochy’s closure in 1983 casks were still being stored at ‘Lochaber Distillery’ which was sited over the railway.

A view taken by John Hume in 1977 of Nevis Distillery for RCAHMS.

On this basis alone, the only possibility was indeed Nevis Distillery, as the railway crossed right in front of it and it lay across, and was bounded by, a loop in the River Nevis before it disgorged itself into Loch Linnhe.

Nevis Distillery lying in the loop of the River Nevis, c1945. National Libraries of Scotland.

It had closed in 1908, but remained largely intact until it was finally demolished to make way for a residential development in the 1990s. Fairly sure of my ground I asked Nick to confirm that Fort William was the town in question and he confirmed it was. Now, all I needed was some corroboration. Before that arrived I looked back over the history of Nevis to see if there were any further clues. Barnard described the distillery’s maltings as being ‘the largest under one roof in the north of Scotland.’ His description of the distillery suggests it to have been a massive affair with a lot of warehousing capacity so when it was closed the parent company operating Ben Nevis up the road utilised the entire site for malting and warehousing. I then received an email from James Brown, a former Customs & Excise officer who collects whisky artifacts. Attached was an image which I had seen on my last visit to Jim’s which at the time had aroused our curiosity. When the photograph was taken the distillery had been closed for at least 10 years but is clearly in good order.

Nevis Distillery in the background, c1918-22. Courtesy of Jim Brown.

In the late sixties the large commercial maltings that can be seen in many locations throughout Scotland were fewer in number so local malting capacity would have been important. The Menstrie records clearly show Scottish Malt Distillers (the DCL’s Scottish subsidiary that operated all the DCL distilleries) owned (or operated) the maltings at Lochaber in the late sixties. So when did the changeover come about?

Once again Jo Hobbs appears on the scene. His first interest in whisky in Fort William was with Glenlochy Distillery which he acquired through his companies Train & MacIntyre and its subsidiary Associated Scottish Distillers in 1937 for £3,500. In 1940, Hobbs sold ASD to National Distillers of America for £38,000. However, Hobbs, forever with an eye on the main chance, in 1941 negotiated the purchase of both Ben Nevis and Nevis distilleries from DP Macdonald & Sons Ltd for £20,000 and then promptly sold on Nevis Distillery to Train & MacIntyre for the same amount!  In 1953 Train & MacIntyre were taken over by DCL and thus acquired Nevis Distillery which allowed them more warehousing capacity which the Glenlochy site simply could not accommodate.

Then another whisky industry legend confirmed my findings when Alan Winchester, Master Distiller at Chivas Bros, emailed me with the following:

‘Lochaber Distillery was actually the old Nevis Distillery that was closed c1908.  It was a maltings and bonded warehouse complex. Following the Joseph R Hobbs sale of Glenlochy Distillery of Associated Scottish Distillers, and his subsequent purchase of Ben Nevis Distillery, a deal was made to sell the Lochaber Maltings and Bonds to the then owners of Glenlochy Distillery. You should find a number of closed distilleries still producing malt for DCL/SMD companies in the sixties.  Towiemore was another.’

Finally Sara Rodriguez at the archives in Fort William confirmed that the local valuation rolls showed SMD as the owners of Nevis Distillery in 1963 and a further call to Colin Ross, the manager at Ben Nevis Distillery added much local in-depth knowledge to the scenario and confirmed how Jo Hobbs was involved in the deal.

So Lochaber Distillery was Nevis Distillery under another name and was actually under DCL ownership from around 1954-5. The renaming was clearly to stop confusion between it and Ben Nevis Distillery.

And what more of Joseph R Hobbs?  Well (deep breath) … that is another story and probably another book in itself! It involves  much wheeling and dealing (the industry mandarins never considered him to be ‘one of them’), distilleries ranging from Islay to Speyside, a cattle ranch near Fort William, a private yacht that is now berthed in Leith as a floating restaurant and one of Scotland’s most exclusive hotels …

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