Loch Fyne Whiskies
 Loch Fyne Whiskies

BEYOND DISTILLING pt. 1

GAVIN D. SMITH

    We have commissioned Gavin to guide us on the journey your dram takes between the malt distillery and your tumbler. Future articles will explore this fascinating world of logistics, bottling, packaging, etc.

It may seem unseemly and unseasonal to divert your attention from the notion of rich, golden malts consumed beside a blazing log fire with a favourite Labrador draped over your feet. However, we are about to talk not turkey but gin.

This is because that most quintessentially English drink is now almost as Scottish as whisky. Around three out of every four bottles of gin produced in Britain actually originate in Scotland, and worse still, for the malt purist, that most quintessentially Russian drink Smirnoff vodka is also a product of Scotia’s shores.

Far from having its origins somewhere in the Home Counties, Gordon’s London Dry Gin is distilled exclusively at United Distillers & Vintners’ Cameronbridge distillery, close to the village of Windygates, on the banks of the River Leven in the county of Fife. Here Grain Neutral Spirit (GNS) for Gordon’s and Tanqueray gins, Smirnoff and a range of ‘sweetened products’ is distilled alongside vast quantities of grain whisky for use in United Distillers & Vintners plethora of blends.

If your idea of a Scottish distillery is something built from whitewashed stone, crowned with bold copper pagodas, then a visit to Cameronbridge might come as quite a shock. The plant is vast in scale and modern in design, and its buildings betray nothing of their function until you get close enough to see that the two glass-fronted structures the size of blocks of flats house a range of stills. One contains three Coffey stills for grain whisky production, while the second is home to nine patent stills for Grain Neutral Spirit production.

There are no pagodas, not even cosmetic ones, to make the nostalgic visitor feel comfortable, though the distillery, in fact, has a long and honourable heritage, and a number of 19th century stone buildings remain, hemmed in by their newer and bolder neighbours.

A large, imposing redbrick building stands at Markinch, a couple of miles from Cameronbridge, and although no longer connected with whisky, it still bears the name of Haig in large letters. This was the centre of the Haig whisky empire for more than a century, from its construction in 1877 until its closure during the 1980s.

Historically, Fife is very much Haig country, and no Scottish family can claim a longer involvement with distilling. Back in 1655 one Robert Haig was required to appear before the Kirk Session for the heinous crime of distilling on the Sabbath, and from the 18th century onwards, Haigs were major players in the Lowland distilling movement.

Robert’s great-great-grandson John married into an equally powerful Lowland whisky dynasty when he wed Margaret Stein in 1751, and the couple’s five sons trained as distillers at the Stein-owned Kilbagie distillery. The youngest of the five Haig boys was William, who went on to build his own Seggie distillery at Guardbridge, near St Andrews, which he passed on to his son John in 1837. John was already proving to be a chip off the old block, however, having taken out a licence for a malt distillery at Cameronbridge in 1824, while still in his early twenties.

In 1830 John decided to listen to what his cousin Robert Stein of Kilbagie had been saying about a new-fangled type of ‘continuous’ still he had developed, which had the potential to produce spirit far more quickly, cheaply and efficiently than traditional pot stills. The first pair of Stein’s continuous stills outside of Kilbagie was installed at Cameronbridge, and amazingly, one of them remained in use until 1929.

Initially they produced ‘silent malt’ spirit, but by the time that distillery chronicler Alfred Barnard visited during the mid-1880s, Cameronbridge was also equipped with a pair of more efficient Coffey stills and was turning out mainly grain spirit, utilising a variety of cheaper grains rather than the traditional malted barley favoured by Scottish pot still distilleries. In addition to the two Steins and the two Coffeys, a pair of pot stills survived, and malt whisky was made at Cameronbridge until the 1920s.

Writing of Cameronbridge, Alfred Barnard noted, “The actual buildings cover about 14 acres, and the Bonded Warehouses are capable of stowing 3,000,000 gallons… The whisky made here is said to have no rival in the world. There are several kinds manufactured, first patent “Grain Whisky”, second “Pot Still Irish”, third “Silent Malt”, and fourth “Flavoured Malt”. The annual output is 1,300,000 gallons, but this could be increased if necessary”.

A few of the current statistics available from UDV’s Communications Manager Peter Smith are enough to give you a sense of just how much John Haig’s original Lowland malt distillery by the Leven has grown and developed over the years, recently building on the reputation for diversity it enjoyed in Barnard’s day.

The actual buildings occupy a 75-acre site, and in a fortnight the distillery produces more spirit than many reasonably large malt distilleries do in a year. Annual output of grain whisky is around the 70 million litres of alcohol mark, and grain neutral spirit around 25mla per year. 170,000 tonnes of wheat—most of it grown quite locally in Fife, the Lothians and Angus—are consumed by the plant each year, along with 2.7bn litres of water. Some 100,000 tonnes of animal feed are recycled annually by the distillery.

The current Coffey still house was constructed during the 1960s, and two of its three stills are more than 30 years old. The third was transferred from Carsebridge distillery when it fell silent in 1983, as the old Distillers Company Ltd began a programme of closures that would result in the concentration of DCL —later United Distillers—grain distilling at Cameronbridge and Port Dundas in Glasgow. Despite the many advances in technology of all kinds, the basic still design remains much the same as that developed by Aeneas Coffey and patented in 1831.

In 1989 Cameronbridge changed from being a large-scale grain whisky distillery into a ‘dual-purpose’ site, when United Distillers’ Grain Neutral Spirit operation was transferred to Fife from Wandsworth in London, and 24-hour, seven days a week working practices were introduced. Now GNS for white spirits and ‘sweetened products’ such as Archers, Pimms and Gordon’s Sloe Gin, was produced alongside grain spirit destined for blended whisky six or seven years down the line.

Before the expansion, Cameronbridge employed over 200 people, yet despite the vast increase in output, today’s workforce is around the 120 mark, principally due to greater automation. Four men work in the main control-room, conducting the actual distilling via computer screens.

Such is the requirement for quality control at every stage of production that twice as many employees are to be found in the on-site laboratory, where rows of miniature stills are active, performing test distillations, with juniper and coriander for gin manufacture being subjected to stringent analysis. Sadly, the miniature stills are not for sale to curious members of the general public – not even as Christmas presents for LFW customers. “The overall quality of what we produce is hugely important”, says General Manager Billy Mitchell, “because it supports very important brands worldwide”.

Following the merger between United Distillers and International Distillers & Vintners in 1998 a considerable amount of rationalisation was required, and one aspect of that rationalisation was the concentration of UK white spirit production at Cameronbridge. The White Spirits Complex dates from 1999, and it produces Gordon’s and Tanqueray gins and Smirnoff vodka.

The new complex contains the Gordon’s gin stills that were formerly located at Laindon in Essex, and the undoubted star of the new stillroom is Old Tom, a gin still which has been in continuous use since the reign of George III. There is something quite surreal about finding a still that was making gin while Bonnie Prince Charlie was alive and drinking brandy in exile in Rome cheek-by-jowl with an ultra-modern computer-controlled room in a two year old building. Across from the control room are 11 stainless steel Smirnoff columns, where charcoal filtration of the Russian tipple takes place.

For those of us who like our stills copper-coloured and curvaceous the old riveted gin stills are comfortingly reminiscent of the still house of a malt distillery, and below the control room is a marvellously fragrant ‘botanicals’ store, where the high-tech world is again left behind for a few moments, and the aroma of juniper, camomile, angelica and coriander escapes from old-fashioned hessian sacks.

The fashionable lemon-flavoured drink Smirnoff Ice has been produced at Cameronbridge since September 2001, having been developed at Santa Vittoria in Italy, and in the run up to Christmas demand for it was stretching capacity at Cameronbridge. As Billy Mitchell explains of the changed dynamics, “With the grain spirit for whisky there is about a seven year gap between production and use, but now we can bring in wheat today and in ten days time it can be Gordon’s gin”.

Grain whisky production is still at the heart of the Cameronbridge operation, however, and its grain is to be found in all UDV blends to a greater or lesser degree. With Port Dundas and ownership of 50% of Edinburgh’s North British grain distillery in addition to Cameronbridge, UDV has between 35 and 40% of the total grain whisky market in Scotland.

Contrary to popular belief, grain whiskies from the country’s eight grain distilleries are far from being characterless ‘silent spirit’. North British, for example, is made with maize, and is tangier and sharper in flavour than the more gentle, slightly sweeter Cameronbridge, distilled principally from wheat.

“Our role in life is to produce a clean, consistent spirit for blenders to hang other things on”, says Billy Mitchell. Not all the grain whisky ‘make’ of Cameronbridge goes for blending, however. Some is bottled as Cameron Brig single grain, and enjoys an enthusiastic local following in Fife.

For those of a technical bent, the process of making grain spirit at Cameronbridge begins with the wheat being cooked under pressure in giant cookers, then as much as 10% malt is added to help release fermentable sugars during mashing. Each mash takes some 44 hours. Cameronbridge boasts no fewer than 26 large washbacks, where the wash undergoes two days of fermentation—less than it would in a malt distillery.

The fermented wash at 7.5% is then either directed into the Coffey stills to produce grain whisky or the column stills of the neighbouring GNS plant. Those of a technical bent will already be comfortable with the complexities of what happens in the twin analyser and rectifier columns of the Coffey still, and the rest of us can content ourselves with the knowledge that grain whisky is distilled to 94.8% and GNS to 96.3%,

The grain whisky is taken away to be casked and matured, while the GNS that is not processed on site into gin or vodka is tankered to nearby Leven, where in the ‘SPA’ (Sweetened Products Area) Pimms, Archers, Gordon’s Sloe Gin and Smirnoff Ice are miraculously created from it by a process of ‘in-line’ mixing, involving the addition of flavouring and sugar to computer-controlled recipes. The ‘stickies’, as the SPA products are colloquially known, are also bottled at Leven, with the exception of Smirnoff Ice, along with gin and vodka distilled at Cameronbridge. The entire world output of Pimms and Gordon’s Sloe Gin is produced at Leven, which is also the only UK site making Archers and the coconut-flavoured rum drink Malibu.

The Leven site dates from 1973 and covers 150 acres, including warehousing, blending, sweetened product, packaging and coopering operations. It currently handles 141 different brands and employs 440 permanent staff. A few years ago it was concerned solely with whisky, but today some eighty percent of its business involves packaging white spirits. According to Billy Mitchell, “Taking Cameronbridge and Leven as one, probably no other site in the world has the diversity we have here”.

Now, if you wish, you may replace the Labrador and go back to thinking about those malts. Admit it, though, a Scotch G&T would slip down nicely before lunch…