This book is in its final stages of design. Jim McEwen the Master distiller of Islay has kindly agreed to write the foreword for me and Eddie Ephraums whose name is well known to the landscape photographers amongst you, is publishing it for me.
It will only be available on line through this website or at distillery shops , whisky shops and photographic book shops.
A personalised slipcased edition will be available for those who wish to buy a quantity, with their logo embossed on the front. Contact me if interested.
The book will be a 12inch square fine art folio produced to the very highest standards as a lasting tribute to the men and the places in which they worked. It will be available early in 2009 on line and will be available in signed copies at the Speyside and Islay festivals in May 2009.
This book will be the culmination of five years work . The project formulated slowly in my mind from a life long interest in distilling.
A chance purchase of Alfred Barnard’s seminal work ‘The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom’ which had been reprinted on its hundredth anniversary, put me in mind to retrace his steps.
I started locally with Balvenie and Glendronach in 2003 and then gradually spread the net wider to encompass the Inver House group and eventually over 50 of the functioning and recently closed distilleries.
As a medical student I remember my first introduction to the smoky Glengarioch within view of Aberdeenshire’s iconic mountain Bennachie, also the name of a long lost distillery at Jericho close to the village of Colpy.
My first encounter with the floor maltings and the heady aroma of the warehouses has never left me.
Starting to brew beer myself in the mid nineties gave me a more sophisticated appreciation of the mysteries of fermentation , the behaviour of yeast and the pleasures of making it myself (and being complimented for it!)
I hadn’t really appreciated how the distilling process was becoming centralised under pressure from accountants and automation.
Only when I started to visit distilleries did I become aware that the old methods were rapidly disappearing , replaced by technically superior and highly consistent computer controlled production methods. Within the industry these changes are viewed quite ambivalently.
One particular distillery (which shall remain anonymous!) has surrounded its computer control monitors with a brass frame to make them look traditional.
I had an argument with a manager about the fact that his production was tankered to Alloa for maturation.
‘It’s a load of rubbish this business of old casks absorbing sea air’ he said .
How come ( as one of the old guys told me ) that if the workers are offered a dram from a cask they will always pick one from a dunnage warehouse ( earth floor) ?
Superstition ? Nostalgia? I don’t know.
It is not my intention to ridicule or criticise current practice. They all have to survive.
However there is a quaint wholesomeness to the old way of doing things which is rapidly being supplanted by a streamlined cleanliness in the new distilleries. The jury is out regarding the impact on the final product.
It became clear to me that I needed to record and document the old ways while traces of them still remained. A few years in the late seventies marked a sea change in production methods.
Maltings were centralised and malt was ‘bought in’ to the distillery's specification.
The ubiquitous ‘clearic’ or clear spirit which lubricated the wheels and was used as a reward for all dirty jobs, bit the dust under the increasing emphasis on ‘health and safety’.
The excisemen were centralised and the close relationship between excise and manager which existed prior to that time broke down.
Even the ‘characters’ many of whom were alcoholics, became an endangered species.
Rather like the Roman empire the implementation of these changes was patchy, and the less mainstream the distillery the more likely it was to retain some aspect of this vanishing era.
I have taken it upon myself to record those places where the old methods are still visible – either those in active use like, Highland Park and Springbank or those which have retained the old equipment like a ‘time capsule’ like Glentauchers and Speyburn.
I have also interviewed many elderly men , ex distillery employees , who have been keen to share with me their memories of the ‘old days’ .
If you can afford the often ( but not always!) hefty price for a whisky made prior to 1975 then you can sample for yourself whether those old methods really made any difference. Every time you buy such a bottle you can truly be said to be sampling ‘BOTTLED HISTORY’
Ian Macilwain September 2008