Glen Albyn Chapter 1987 Philip Morrice

Recently, I received a wonderful email from Philip Morrice regarding my work over at Glen Mhor. For those unaware, Philip is the author of the Schweppes Guide to Scotch, which was published in the 1980s and remains as essential today as it was when it first appeared in the shops.

interviewed Philip a couple of years ago regarding the book and its creation, legacy and took much from our conversation. I was already brewing my Glen Mhor research project internally, and our discussion gave me that added motivation to finally realise this ambition, leading to Glen Albyn. Philip has kindly offered the Glen Albyn chapter which in his own words...

 “A truly brilliant source on a much-neglected fine whisky. I visited the distillery – and Glen Albyn – in 1985 just a week or so before they were both due to be demolished. I was doing research for my rewrite of the Alfred Barnard book which was published in 1987.”

I'm very humbled by such praise as Philip and his work has been a source of inspiration to me and many whisky enthusiasts. And here is his wonderful synopsis of Glen Albyn...

'Glen Albyn Distillery, Inverness

Proprietors: Scottish Malt Distillers Limited (Guinness PLC)

Registered office: 1 Trinty Road, Elgin, Morayshire, IV30 1UF

Managing Director: Dr K.G. MacKenzie

Distillery Manager: V. Ritchie (until May, 1983)

The saddest sight on my long journey around Scotland was to witness the dismemberment of Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor Distilleries. Their history and my visits to them are recorded in this and the next chapter, for the sake of completeness; since whisky will never pour again from their gutted stills, although at the time of my travels the licenses for both were still valid.

It was perhaps appropriate that my arrival at the distilleries - which sit on opposite sides of the Great North Road where the Caledonian Canal finds its head at Muirtown Basin - should have been on an afternoon plunged in torrential rain and menacing skies. The gloom was completed by the sorry state of the two premises and the relentless swing of the demolition squad's hammers which were already at work in one of the still-houses. The task of guiding me over the two sites fell to Mr Allan, a former distillery manager who has been in the trade since 1941, ending up as inspector of distilleries, Northern Group, for Scottish Malt Distillers Limited, with his offices located at Glen Mhor. He comes from a family much involved in distilling: his father, David Allan, started just after the First World War ending at Ord Distillery in 1954, his eldest brother, Roy, was manager at Springbank, another broker, Teddy, was brewer, then manager at Glenfiddich and a third, Ronald, used to work at Ord.

Glen Albyn is believed to have been built in 1946, by Provost James Sutherland of Inverness, on the site of what was Muirtown Brewery. As the malting capital of the Highlands, Inverness was host to many breweries which had ready customers in the workers and soldiers engaged in transforming the Highlands in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellions, and so there is every likelihood that Glen Albyn's forerunner was indeed producing ale. The distillery's early years were dogged by ill-fate including a fire in November 1849, which destroyed the main building.

Distilling got under way again in 1852 but within three years - Sutherland was bankrupt. This distillery was converted to a flour mill for a short period but then lay idle for many years until 1884 when A.M. Gregory, a local grain merchant, acquired the site and built a new Glen Albyn Distillery. This was soon expanded, principally under the direction of the then manager, Mr John Birnie. The latter was so frustrated as not being allowed by the owners to acquire share capital in the company formed to run Glen Albyn that he quit the latter and set up in 1892 a rival distillery - Glen Mhor - within spitting distance of his former charge! The latter continued as The Glen Albyn Distillery Limited until 1920 when it was taken over by Mackinlays & Birnie Limited, as the company formed to establish Glen Mhor.

The floor maltings at Glen Albyn, for which peat had regularly been taken by sea from Pitsligo in Aberdeenshire, were replaced in 1961 by a Saladin box malting system, but this in turn went out of use in 1980 in favour of malt delivered from SMD's new and much larger mechanical maltings. By then Distillers Company Limited had acquired (in 1972) the entire share capital of Mackinlays & Birnie Limited: in which the major DCL subsidiary, John Walker & Sons Limited, had 43.5% share holding, the rest belonging to Scottish & Newcastle Breweries Limited (10.9 per cent), 11 members of the Birnie family, and 14 members of the Mackinlay family. Mackinlays & Birnie was wound up as a company shortly thereafter, although it is alleged that a Mackinlay, long since deceased, still haunts Glen Albyn.

Although Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor were run as two separate production units - and indeed the two whiskies are said to be quite different - they had a common administration under one manager, the last being Mr Val Ritchie who left in May 1983, when production at both distilleries ceased. As a result of the persistent downturn in demand for new malt whisky, DCL decided to take a number of distilleries out of production for a period of years. However, it was felt that Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor would never be needed again and so the process of stripping them was started in 1985. Thereafter, disposal of the buildings will proceed as the group sees no need to retain the premises for warehousing purposes, which was often the fate of DCL distilleries decommissioned in the past.

Although Glen Albyn is a blending whisky, I have been fortunate to sample it as a single malt the previous evening in the bar of Culloden House, by courtesy of a well known Elgin whisky merchant, and found it quite palatable in the Highland malt tradition.

Capacity at Glen Albyn was 1.125 million l.a. but in the last year of production, 1982, only 330,000 l.a. were filled.

The wash still at Glen Albyn had a capacity of 13,600 litres, the spirit still slightly less at 11,360 litres; both were steam-heated via oil-fired boilers.

Commonality between the two distilleries was the water source, Loch Ness itself, and warehousing where the capacity of 60,000 casks, Mr. Allan informed me that 40,000 casks still remained, including a good proportion of both Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor, although other DCL whiskies are also held therein.

Untypically of SMD, little had been done - since their acquisition in 1972 - to develop the two distilleries, which seem to have become part of the DCL estate, more by accident than by design.'

I'm sure you'll agree that this is a wonderful chapter from Philip and rarely seen nowadays due to the scarcity of the original book. He sums up the sad moment of visiting both Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor. Their fate sealed and a sense of destruction as the stripped buildings are demolished and the site cleared from development.

His final words are very in touch with the reality of the situation. Both distilleries were bought to cover a shortfall in DCL Highland whisky production. A rather expensive bandaid while other distilleries were offline for refurbishment or deployed elsewhere i.e. Brora producing a more Islay-style malt. There seemed little interest in modernising either site or building upon their legacy and this fact wasn't just applicable to the Inverness distilleries, as shown by the closures across Scotland in the early 80s.

The reduction in production underlines the severity of the situation and how reduced both producers were - Glen Mhor was on part-time distillation from a couple of years and I expect the same applied to Glen Albyn. 

The ownership history is well synopsised, something we'll delve into more as this research project begins to gain momentum. Also of interest is the role of Mr Allan, who was based at Glen Mhor, covering the northern range of distilleries and the mention of a Mackinlay that haunts the site. The only Mackinlay death that I'm currently aware of, did come in Inverness, but at the Station Hotel and Charles Mackinlay in 1896 who was visiting Glen Mhor. At the time they were not owners of Glen Albyn, nor would be for over 20 years, so it seems unlikely he'd decide to haunt a rival distillery. 

However, it seems Glen Albyn is a place shrouded in mystery, with its legend of an illegal pipe to a potential ghost. There is much work to be done and I'm sure plenty of wonderful discoveries.

Please note the lead drawing is of Ord, presumably demolition crews and an empty distillery, does not make for a good sight.


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