Friday, July 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

ArchitectureDistillery VisitsHistory



I never promised that this blog would be in any way current. Never promised to keep my finger on the pulse or provide hot takes. Instead I am more like an ancient retainer in a comedy show who slowly moves his tired and aching body, “You rang sir?”.

Over three weeks ago I went to the final Dramboree and only now am I writing anything about it. Not the Dramboree itself, Billy and Angus have most excellently covered everything you need to know and so there is no need to add anything extra.  Instead I will focus on the distillery visit to Deanston – because writing-up my distillery visits is one of the things I do. This visit may also have been written up by others, including Matt at Dramble and Sarah at I love whisky  but nevertheless I  feel the pull of duty.

The first thing to say is that it was a fantastic visit and not just because they had gone to great trouble to engage with a group of opinionated whisky enthusiasts. We had a super deluxe tour with Dr Kirstie McCallum, Distell’s senior blender and Stephen Woodcock, their distilleries manager. You could not ask for two more knowledgable, engaging and amusing people to guide you through the processes, the type of whisky they produce and their plans for the future. I know that in such a situation, at such an event, I am likely to see things with a rosey glow, and every whisky tour is engineered to get you onside, but nevertheless I left feeling that it was no coincidence that I have been rating the whisky from Distell much more highly in recent years.

Before the visit I know little about the distillery apart from the fact that it was post-war but housed in an eighteenth century cotton mill. But when you visit you become much more aware of the amalgamation of buildings from different times. The first view is of 1960s offices and warehouse, built in brick, in the Scandinavian influenced municipal style typical of the time. As I live in Hemel Hempstead, one of the New Towns, I know it well and also know how easy it is for the plain, clear lines can slip into drabness, nevertheless it just as clearly reflects its era as the mill building behind reflects the industrial revolution. The lettering on the wall also has a  period feel – the slab serif font  reminds me a little of the old Granada name on the side of its Manchester studios. I am glad  they have not changed it to match the more modern, cleaner lettering of their current logo but have instead have opted to maintain architectural consistency.

Whilst we are on the subject of type design I think we should recognise the work that has recently been done to update the Deanston brand image. The new bottle design and a condensed sans serif font with a feature E, is both simple and quite elegant. The agency ‘good’ describe their work In any branding presentation there is bound to be a certain amount of management bollocks and if you collect such things you can savour the quote from Carina Gous. However the slides are worth reading. I like the idea that  ‘honesty’ was the primary virtue they wanted to convey – it really chimes with impression I had after the visit. I also like that on the label they reserve space for ‘romantic text’ i.e. bollocks but slightly flowery bollocks (I actually have nothing against this because all of us want to consume imagery along with our whisky – it adds to the enjoyment). If you look at an old and new bottle of Deanston side by side you can see the agency has done a good job.

As a side note I can only, off the top of my head, think of one the distillery that uses a san serif font: Bruichladdich, who have done it to look a bit modern and designery.  This probably shows how important the message of tradition has always been in the marketing of Scotch whisky and how most distilleries choose a typeface to subtly convey this. But younger, more design aware,  people are coming to whisky and the days of tartan and stags are gone. Fonts, bottles, and imagery are all subtly evolving to move with the times and it is fascinating watch. Whisky is a sensory experience of taste and association so we should always be aware of the extra information we take in, subconsciously, before the liquid hits the glass.

BTW I like honesty as a message.

But what of the distillery? Surely its now time to talk of the distillery?

Well yes and no – first there is hydroelectricity.

It is like going to a traction engine rally. They make you think of past times, when things were that much more chunky, tactile and empirical but they also make you think about a time when things were built to last. I am just about to get rid of my two year old phone – madness! Looking at these machines makes me ashamed. How can I throw something away so easily? But when looking at my phone I only see the smartness of the design, which quickly fades, I think nothing about physical labour and the effort of manufacture. Here though, looking at cast iron machines that have been working for 80 years and knowing the lade, channelling water from the river Teith for about a mile, was cut over 200 years ago, you cannot but think of work, labour, history. 

if you want to go further back there was a mahoosive water wheel, here pictured in the 1930s. Look at the scales measured by the man. This is industrial machinery to impress.

The important point though is not nostalgia, it is the fact that the machine still works. The distillery is not only self sufficient in electricity, it contributes to the grid. In 2012 the Scotch Whisky Association produced a paper on sustainability energy for distilleries and Deanston was the case study for hydro. It makes interesting reading.  Every distillery has something they point to as  unique or unusual but your own sustainable power plant is one of the biggest and best of differences.

Now time for the distilling?

No, sorry there are still some things to say about the building.

It is not simply an eighteenth century mill with a 1960s adjunct. The mill was in operation for more than a century and a half and was a working estate and not a piece of heritage and so it is inevitable that there were changes made over that time. It is actually quite a complicated site, as can be seen from this arial photograph. During the visit I had no idea how the different buildings fitted together. From the photo you can see the old mill occupies a smaller area than you think from the ground and the warehousing is more extensive. The interesting roof is the one that looks like it has been the site of a number charcoal fires. This is the old weaving shed and it is rather brilliant. At the time, and for many years after, the standard design for such a building was a saw tooth roof with north facing sky lights. Here the innovation was to have a groin vaulted ceiling supporting a flat roof with circular skylights. It was originally covered with grass, for increased insulation, something that sounds quite modern but actually goes back centuries. It shows the inventive mind of James Smith, the most important character in the history of the mill, which he managed for 35 years from 1807. The DNB sums up his period of tenure:

“Smith restructured and extended the Deanston mill, adding an engineering shop which built machinery for Deanston itself, Catrine, and other mills in the United Kingdom. He designed and sought patents for textile machinery and developed substantial additional power for the factory by installing four large overshot water-wheels, built in the Deanston works and each capable of a drive of 80 hp, and by constructing a weir on the River Teith, including the device of a ‘fish-ladder’ to give salmon access to the upper reaches of the river. By 1813 a gasworks had been developed and the factory was lit by gas. The parish minister, writing in 1845, sensed the drama of these changes when he described how local people ‘were shy of entering this tower of Babel with its unknown sights and sounds’.”

That is an amazing legacy and one of the reasons this place is an interesting industrial archaeology site. The weaving shed is listed and its cool even temperature is an ideal environment for maturing whisky. I love whisky warehouses with their quiet, the dim light, and cool, heady atmosphere and with its crypt like design, Deanston is one of the best.

Now the distilling?

Oh okay, a little – but mainly about the equipment

There is something anachronistic about the distillery. It was founded in the 60s and so is part of a wave of twentieth century distilleries and so should feel more modern than those still housed in nineteenth century buildings – but it doesn’t. Everything is still done the old way, with not a computer in sight and all the equipment looks as if it was forged in the first industrial revolution rather than the second.  The mash tun is the prime and glorious example of this. It is open topped, made of cast iron and agitates the mash with a rake. The only equivalents are Bruichladdich,  Springbank who make a big point of highlighting their traditional (i.e. old) methods. But Deanston is the largest and impressive in its size ( Edradour by the way also has an open mash tun about as its about the size of a jacuzzi I didn’t include it as a comparitor, just as I ignored Royal Lochnagar’s because it is stainless steel). Why it has remained uncovered I don’t know but there is great visual fun in watching the rakes plough in and out of the mash like sea monsters, seeing them being driven round by cogs and looking at the sheer heft of the cast iron plates.  As it takes you back to the days of heavy engineering and steam power I have rendered the photo in sepia. 

The washbacks are also interesting in that they are a mixture of stainless steel and corten steel. Corten steel was quite widely used in the industry in the 60s and 70s mainly because of cost but now most washbacks are either wood or stainless steel. As stainless steel is more more easily cleaned and more hygienic it is preferable to corten steel, which can corrode. Deanston is in the process of replacing its old washbacks.

In the still room the undiminished pleasure of seeing the shiny copper and noting the differences in shape and arrangement. The stills of very distillery have there own character and here they have a large boil ball and a lyne arm that slopes upward. But the other thing to notice is that it is a bit cramped. Converting an old building sometimes means that the layout might have to have some compromises. When our group stood in front of the stills it felt a little crowded. With this came the sensation of heat. These rooms are can be hot but that is a good thing. It reminds you of the process – what is happening – the heating of a liquid so that alcohol evaporates. Although the copper stills look beautiful, they are not large ornaments, they are part of an industrial process.

Is that it?

Yes I’m finished now except to say that Deanston is an interesting place with an unusual history and well worth a visit.

P.S. the photos that were not mine were:  arial view


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