The Drappie from the Highland Line

By Anthony Troon
Reproduced from the SMWS newsletter, Spring 1991, with permission

A phantom railway line runs through the manager's office and visitor centre at the Aberfeldy Distillery. All that remains of it is a flat embankment of grassland and traces of masonry where steam locos once rumbled over the driveway.

But when this most attractive distillery was built here in 1898, overlooking the swollen River Tay and the winding road through Grandtully to Perth, the railway line was an important factor in its location.

For the Aberfeldy was designed to be a blending malt to fatten and enrich whiskies of the Dewar dynasty, which grew from a wine and spirit wholesale operation based in Perth. So, in the 1890s, access to a railway line (with a private siding) was a significant business asset.

But there was more. These "Breadalbane lands" of upper Perthshire had a long tradition of whisky-making from the time when this most worthwhile activity of prudent and inventive farmers became something to be licensed and policed by the Excise - with a bit of undeclared distilling on the side. All of these pieces of the whisky mosaic have thrived in this luscious, wooded backwater.

There had been another distillery close to Aberfeldy, called Pitilie. This been a typical farm-based operation of the mid-19th century. In Aberfeldy Past and Present (N.D. Mackay, 1954) there's a description of the remains of this distillery which took its name from its water-source, the Pitilie Burn. The barley was malted at a nearby farm, in a building with a hard clay floor over which the steeped grain was spread to germinate. Mackay tells how this floor was constructed:

"First the clay was spread evenly over the area to be covered. Sheep were then driven over it slowly, to and fro, until it was trampled and packed to a hardness as of concrete; simple, yet effectual."

Not a process, however, that would find favour with today's health authorities Nevertheless, a century later, the floor was still sound enough for the building to he used as a tractor shed.

Pitilie Distillery closed in about 1867: but the fact that its burn water had been proved in whisky-making was another factor in siting the Aberfeldy Distillery. So when you sip the Aberfeldy you are saluting a vanished cratur from another generation.

The busy Dewars were expanding their blending and bottling operation in the late 19th century, and began to build or acquire malt distilleries to safeguard their production. There was a nostalgic aspect in their choice of Aberfeldy, for the original John Dewar's crofter parents had lived in this iovely strath.

Here they wanted to produce a good blending malt, a whisky of high quality which was neither too assertively peaty nor too light in character. They got it right: for today, with the Aberfeldy part of the United Distillers group, its whisky has a nutty robustness halfway between the tang of Lagavulin and the subtlety of Rosebank, which are Islay and Lowland malts. Yet the Aberfeldy is undoubtedly a Highland style whisky.

The design of the Aberfeldy Distillery clearly marked the advance from farm-based production to an industry in its own right. The buildings form a long, continuous row. The barley was delivered at one end, at the barley lofts, and passed in a production flow through the steeps, malting floors, kiln, dressing, mashing, washback and distilling sections to emerge transformed ar the other end, where the casks were filled and taken to the adjacent warehouses.

Nowadays, as is the case with most such distilleries, the malting is carried out elsewhere. Aberfeldy gets most of its malted barley from the Glenesk Maltings, Montrose, and its requirements are for a medium-peated grain.

This distillery was expanded in 1972 from one pair of stills to two. But the manager, Brian Bisset said a highly traditional approach to whisky-making remained paramount, with wooden washbacks rather than stainless steel, and with no computerisation. "Here, we still work by skill and judgement rather by machine programs."

He has worked at many malt distilleries - North Port, Glenlossie, Mortlach, Glentauchers, Dailuaine, Strathisla - before going to Aberfeldy nearly eight years ago. What struck him immediately about the Aberfeldy operation was the exceptionally slow distillation rate of the wide-necked stills. Before the spirit is captured, the foreshots are allowed to run for a long time, up to three times as long as at some other distilleries, in his experience.

"It is a gentle distillation which produces a purer and gentler spirit," he said. "This gentleness was clearly what the founders sought in a good blending malt. "

But not all of this mellow Perthshire beastie disappeared into the blending vats. Some has long been available as a single-malt through the independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail: and in 1988, thanks to Brian Bisset's persistence (he put the idea to Sir Norman Macfarlane, chairman of Guiness plc!) the distillery has organised its own bottlings. Three butts were selected for bottling in 1988, rising to ten this year. The label says " 15-year-old", but in fact the actual age has been from 17 to 20 years.

Current policy dictates that you will probably have to travel to the Aberfeldy district to buy some. Which makes the Aberfeldy a true vln du pays, a rare prize to be sought out near its birthplace.
© (1991) Anthony Troon, SMWS

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