At the end of April 2016, during the Spirit of Speyside festival, a cold freezing wind and a watery pale sun remembered us we were closer to winter than we were to summer. We enjoyed a good sturdy home made breakfast in our rented cottage in Cullen, cleared the car of the night frost and drove the whole ten kilometres along the A98 to the neighbouring village of Bucky, where we find the Inchgower distillery. Originally built in 1824 as the Tochineal distillery in the village we just left, Alexander Wilson & Co. couldn’t afford to pay the high rents of the place and they made the decision to move the equipment to the current location in 1871, concurrently building a cooperage and on-site housing facilities for the distillery workers.
Like the Tochineal distillery before it, the facility was successful for a number of years, but in 1936, after a few years of lower demand, the company fell to bankruptcy and the site and its equipment into the hands of the village town council, who on their turn sold the property to Arthur Bell & Sons, who could use the waxy, nutty spirit in their blends. We all know about the ordeal of the multiple takeovers after that, which eventually resulted in the current Diageo ownership. With all these changes of control in the past, each and every one of them kept the Bell’s branding on the site’s signs, also stating the distillery isn’t normally opened for tours. One of the many pleasant quirks of the Festival that allowed us in today.
While we were waiting in the aforementioned cold wind for the group to complete itself, we were given a little time to walk about the premises and have a look at the exterior of the distillery, the many warehouses and the malt bins placed right next to the old maltings and kilns, still proudly showing their two pagoda chimneys confirming to their surroundings that this is a place where Scottish National drink is produced. Although the maltings have been closed for a while and there have been some recent updates to the site to make it more modern, the buildings still breath spirit and history.
Once the group was complete, we were directed to what must be the smallest mill house in the industry. An old, beat up, but still operational four-roller Boby mill dating back to 1928 fills the room, leaving no place for a person to be there without the doors being opened. Not that you would want to be in a small room with an old running Boby mill, but that is another story entirely. The mill is said to enjoy its deserved retirement soon, being replaced by modern version to chew away the eight tonnes of barley for each of the 13 batches per week.
From the cold of the courtyard we stepped into the warm distillery buildings, where we could already smell the familiar scent of porridge – this is where the ground barley is mixed with heated water from a burn in the Menduff hills, about four miles from the distillery. The eight tonne semi-lauter stainless steel mashtun is scheduled to run the 13 batches in the five days per week timetable, something we have seen more with Diageo distilleries we visited recently. If there is a demand to run a seven day roster, the six operators living on site will capably handle nineteen batches per week. Each batch in the mashtun takes about 6.5 hours before the cloudy and nutty wort in transferred into one of the six wooden 39.000 litre washbacks.
Adding a 50/50 mix of Mauri and Cameron distillers yeasts, the wort is fermented as short as 45 hours during the five day schedule, and 53 hours during the seven day schedules. The cramped stillhouse takes over after this, where the two onion shaped 13.640 litre stills are cosily positioned into a small square next to the pair of 8.185 litre spirit stills. The stillhouse, expanded with the second pair of wash and spirit stills when Bell’s took over, was clearly not designed for the four stills, witnessed by the steep downward angle of the lye arms, ducking underneath the ceiling beams and the small condensers. The water from the Buckie burn outside the distillery is pumped through the small condensers, and from what we understood their size is hardly enough to be sufficient and we are pointed at the extra condensers underneath the grated floors, which seem to help to get the spirit to the right temperature.
After saying our goodbye to the phantom of the stillhouse (what would be the true story behind that copper mask hanging above the spirit safe?), we made our way from the warm stillhouse back into the cold. Here we passed the older and newer warehouses holding the approximately 80.000 casks on site which is only 2% of their annual production, the rest is tankered off for blending. Back into the buildings, we were guided passed the offices into the tasting room, where we see a large table, and old still neck mounted against the wall, next to an old Grandfather’s clock, said to come from the Tochineal distillery. A large collection of Bell’s ceramic jugs is displayed on the shelves around the room. The distillery manager and site operations manager talk a little more about what they do on an average day while pouring us a dram of the Flora and Fauna 14 years old Inchgower with an Oyster Catcher proudly pictured on the label, before we are released into the cold and head out to our next destination, another distillery on the Spirit of Speyside Festival programme.
Thomas & Ansgar
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