After the Spirit of Speyside Festival earlier in 2014 was over, we stayed another week and visited the Knockdhu Distillery where we met distillery manager Gordon Bruce and his right hand Alistair “Ally” Reid. After this great day Alistair accepted our request to send some questions over to get some more information on this beautiful distillery and its workings. A great place tucked away just of the main roads, but surely is one not to be overseen.
When Inver House Distillers purchased and reopened Knockdhu in 1989, Alistair applied for one of the shift operator jobs, which were advertised in the local paper, and received an interview from a gentleman called Stuart Robertson, the new distillery manager, who offered him a job and he started work on the 9th Jan 1989. 25 years later he is still there, with no regrets.
He was born and raised on a farm 2 miles from the distillery, left school at 16 and served a 4 year apprenticeship as a joiner-carpenter in the local town of Keith where he met his wife. They lived in Keith for 3 years when they got married, but with Alistair always being a country lad, they moved back out to the countryside near to where he was raised which has been very handy for work, especially in the winter time!
Alistair feels very lucky to enjoy his work with this much passion. Another passion is racing pigeons which he has been doing since he was a boy on the farm. He is a member of an organisation that arranges races to be held on the weekends from April to September starting off at 60 miles right out to 500 miles. Alistair has been known to have a dram while waiting for the pigeons to come home from a race, but as they can sometimes take a long time to return, it can be a dangerous hobby…
A great place to enjoy a dram is the boardroom at the distillery, which has a good atmosphere to sit down with the log fire burning, and as long as he is with friends he is happy to be anywhere. His favourite anCnocs are the 12 yo anCnoc as an anytime dram – a very smooth and easy going whisky, where the 16yo anCnoc is his special treat. He does enjoy trying other malts out there, but keeps coming back home to anCnoc. Until the launch of the first three peated anCnoc whiskies earlier this year, Rutter at 11ppm, Flaughter at 14.8ppm and Tushkar at 15ppm he was no fan of the more peaty drams. Holding on to a lot of the anCnoc characteristics, he thinks them to be smooth and subtle. The most recent peated anCnoc release is Cutter (which we still have to try), the heaviest peated so far at 20.5ppm which he thinks is stunning.
Alistair describes his role at Knockdhu as “assist the manager in the day to day running of one of the bonniest wee distilleries in Scotland”. It is a very busy job and there is a lot to be done around the place. The whole distillery is run by eight people in total. Next to Gordon and Alistair there is a team of six guys: Ian, James, Fraser, Cyril, Ali and Alex who are all very talented and multi-skilled, and work single man shifts in the distillery, which means that there is only one guy on shift at any time and they are responsible for all aspects of production from milling, mashing right through to distilling, cleaning and polishing. This low-key, hands on and non automated or computer-controlled environment is deeply connected to the local community, and Alistair could not see any reason why it would not stay as it is.
Alistair’s interpretation of “A Modern Tradition” as how the website states it is that the anCnoc brand could be seen as quite stylish and fresh, but the whisky is still made in the most traditional of ways, keeping the history alive. There are many old distillery memorabilia, tools, books and photographs which can be seen in the old kiln house and boardroom at the distillery. They have also kept the old Porteus screen dresser, with no plans as of yet to what to do with it, and as long as it is not in the way, nothing gets thrown away either.
It is easy for the crew not to become button pushers, because everybody at the distillery is quite down to earth and nothing seems to faze them. Any obstacles are taken in their stride and they get on with the job. A little exposure is okay and they have a fair bit of pride in their distillery, and their whisky, and they don’t mind sharing the Knockdhu experience. Alistair likes to think they can carry on as they are because it is a craft which has been passed on to them by their predecessors, and being hands on, they are more involved in the process, giving greater satisfaction and pride in their work, the human element is still very important.
Knockdhu distillery does not have an official visitors centre but they try very hard not to turn people away. Alistair told us that for him it is an enjoyable part of the job meeting folk from all over the world. We will have to wait and see if this gets commercialized in the future.
Alistair describes the new make spirit from Knockdhu Distillery as to be light, fruity, citrus and floral. This fits in with the location, set between the beautiful green hillside scenery, slightly hidden away. When you are there, take some time to climb the Knock Hill behind the distillery, the highest hill in the area where you get a fantastic view. The water source for the distillery comes from this hill and Knockdhu is the only one using it. Something to check out for ourselves when there again.
A Small History
This very hill with its water source and the fact that there was a railroad was vital to building the distillery when Mr. John Morrison purchased the land in 1892 in the a barley growing area. The railway (pictured left) has been vital to the distillery for a long period, but nowadays most of their spirit gets tankered away.
The distillery has known some silent periods in its history, in the 1930’s, during World War II and in the 1980’s. In 1983 the distillery was closed by United Distillers but production restarted again in 1989 under the new ownership of Inver House Distillers. The new owners made the decision to give their malt the Gaelic name “anCnoc” which means “the Hill”, instead of the distillery’s name “Knockdhu”, mostly to ensure that whisky imbibers did not confuse it with the Speyside distillery “Knockando” owned by United Distillers, now Diageo.
When the distillery reopened in 1989, they produced around 450.000 liters of alcohol in that “first” year. Last year, in 2013, they produced 1.78 million litres. With the recent expansion in fermenters, they are now doing 20 mashes a week and producing in the region of 41,500 litres each week. Distillery manager Gordon Bruce has his sights set on a target of 2 million litres per year. In the winter of 2009/2010 some warehouses collapsed from too much snow. The rebuilt warehouses are filling up nicely with some bonnie first fill bourbon and first fill sherry casks.
Facts and Numbers (or “Marketing”)
Most of the Knockdhu spirit is transported to the headquarters at Airdrie for filling into casks and warehousing where they have the capacity to store 500,000 casks and are building more warehouses. A smaller number of casks is allocated each year to fill and mature in batches on site (opposed to e.g. weekly), which will be destined for single malts. How much of what they actually produce goes away for blends Alistair is not certain of, but he would say 85 to 90% goes away for blending, leaving 10 to 15% for single malts.
2014 will be the 10th year of processing peated malt. The quantities have varied each year from 10% in the first year to 25% of total production in 2013. The barley used for either peated and non-peated varieties is Concerto and the yeast is Mauri Pinnacle. Knockdhu uses the three different cask types, ex-bourbon, hogsheads and ex-sherry butts, each bring a different flavour to the maturation process. Cask quality is very important and the Master Blender based at Airdrie keeps a very close eye on the management of their casks.
Uniquely to the distillery is the wormtub outside. Most distilleries in Scotland use shell and tube condensers, a few (20-ish) still use wormtubs, Knockdhu being one of them, but this one is built to house both the wash and spirit worm in the same tub. Extra special is the shell-and-tube condenser positioned between the wash still and the spirals since 2012. This has proven to be an excellent energy saver. Before the condenser was fitted, the spring water they use to cool the sweet wort from the mashtun, went to the water tank in the mashhouse at approximately 56°C, it then had to be heated up to 78°C, using steam from the boiler before it could be used for the 2nd water. With the shell-and-tube condenser, instead of going straight into the tank, it goes to a underground holding tank (they call it the submarine), is pumped through the condenser which raises the temperature of the water to 90-92°C before going into the water tank in the mash house. They no longer use steam in the mashhouse for heating, which results in a big saving on their energy bill.
Another difference we noticed when we were there was the ‘extra resting period’ of the wash in two extra washbacks after the standard resting period in the washbacks. The two extra washbacks came about when their sister distillery Speyburn was to be expanded and opted to go for new stainless washbacks, so two wooden washbacks which were destined as replacements in their old tun room were now spare. Gordon kindly offered to take them off their hands and use them at Knockdhu, and they now sit in the old kiln which was the only place he could squeeze them in (pictured left).
The new washbacks are smaller than the ones in their tun room so they are used as intermediate chargebacks. From a washback, after the regular period of fermenting, the wash goes to one of the intermediate chargebacks in the kiln and sits there for an extra 16 hours of fermentation time, instead of being pumped straight to the still house. An added bonus is that if the yeast is getting tired, the movement from the tun room to the intermediate chargeback will liven it up. Adding these to the distillery did end the possibility of doing own malting and kilning at the distillery sadly, but it does give a lovely wash.
Knockdhu distillery has a lovely set of stills with a bit of a flat bottom shaped like a curling stone, that produces a light spirit. Lovely people are working there, with loads of knowledge and filled with passion. A place you really should visit when you get the chance. It was a pleasure to go there and send Alistair some of our questions. We hope to meet again soon for a dram. Or two. Slainte Mhath!
Copyright notice: Present time photos by WhiskySpeller, old photos from Knockdhu Distillery website