The Man who built his own Washbasks

By Anthony Troon
Reproduced from the SWMS newsletter, Summer 1994, with permission

The headline is an exaggeration of course hut that's headlines for you. Archie Ness, now manager at Craigellachie, didn't really build the distillery's washbacks himself. But he was certainly involved, back in 1964, when he was a young member of staff and Craigellachie was being completely rebuilt.

In the Sixties and Seventies, the Scotch whisky industry was going through one of its periods of optimism. A few new malt distilleries were being built, but large numbers of older plants were being extended, and Craigellachie, Speyside, (dating from 1891) was one of these. It was being "doubled up" from one pair of stills to two and - with the exception of a few buildings like the traditional, long, low maturing warehouses, with their earthen floors - everything was to he torn down and replaced.

This might have been sad, hut it was also essential. The original buildings and layout had been designed by a well-known 19th century distillery architect, Charles Doig of Elgin. But the coming of automation marked another stage in the progress of whisky distilling - a development that had raised a local, farm-based activity into an international business. The original buildings were no longer adequate.

Archie Ness, who had joined the distillery as a mashman a few years earlier, was able to watch this amazing transition take place. Incredibly, the rebuilding and re- equipping of the distillery took only nine months. In particular, he remembers the building of the eight wooden washbacks, the huge vessels in which the liquid is fermented, a job contracted to a firm of coopers from Glasgow.

This company brought to Craigellachie the thick, heavy staves of Oregon pine which had already been shaped with plane and spokeshave, along with the massive iron hoops which would hold the constructions together. The traditional wooden washback is, after all, not unlike a gigantic barrel standing on a broad base.

Archie Ness was one of the squad of distillery workers who helped to assemble the washbacks under the supervision of the foreman cooper. With the wooden staves held in place, the metal hoops were forced downwards into position. This had to be done evenly, by several men working from a platform round the washback and striking the hoop in unison with heavy metal "pokers". It was painstaking - "and," said Archie, "very hard work."

Thirty years on Archie Ness is back at Craigellachie Distillery, where he learned the distiller's craft. The washbacks he helped build are still in business, part of the process now delivering 47,000 litres AV of wonderful Speyside malt each week. The learning of management skills took him to other plants in the United Distillers group - Balmenach, Benrinnes, Dailuaine, Convalmore, Glenlossie, Speyburn, Imperial, Cardhu... In Speyside, you don't have to travel far to change your distillery.

In Craigellachie, the distillery that bears the village's name is known locally as the "White Horse distillery". This is because it's an important constituent in that blend which is now the biggest-seller in Japan. But it has links that go back to the island of Islay and the era of illicit distilling.

There, around 1740, a local entrepreneur ran ten "bothies" distilling whisky which, of course, was then drunk unmatured. In the early l9th century, this skill was legalised and developed into the distillery called Lagavulin ("the hills in the hollow").

In 1878 a man called Peter Mackie joined the company. He was to become one of the great pioneering enthusiasts for Scotch whisky - "Restless Peter", his staff called him - and having learned his craft on Islay he went into partnership in 1888 to build Craigellachie. It was he who developed the White Horse blend and took it to conquer world markets.

The site of Craigellachie Distillery was chosen for the usual sound reasons. There were good rail communications in those days. The buildings were erected beside the River Fiddich which supplied cooling-water and power: for until the 1964 rebuild, a water wheel drove the rummager in the wash still. And there is the whisky-making water itself, taken from a spring on the nearby hill of Little Conval and collected in the large Blue Hill dam which is up to 40 feet deep. Craigellachie has never been troubled by summer water shortages.

When Archie Ness first joined the distillery in 1962 it had up to 50 employees, compared with 10 today. It had its own floor maltings, kiln and small cooperage. He gained experience in every stage of production, but enjoyed most the pre-automation days in the tun room. This is where the ground malted barley is mashed before the wort is sent on her fermentation.

It was an interesting, active job, constantly checking the temperature of the "liquor" and adjusting it manually with a cold-water valve. In those days, water was applied to the ground malt four times, at increasing temperatures, and drained off four times. The fourth water was basically to help the mashman push the spent flour towards a central sump, which he did from above with a long-handled shovel. Nowadays, this job is done by a mechanical plough and only three waters are applied.

The arithmetic of production is neatly organised, and distiller's arithmetic has a marvellous logic. Each 5-day week, 117 tonnes of malt is converted into 13 mashes, producing 26 runs of wash and 16 runs of spirit. What it doesn't produce is runs of tourists: Craigellachie Distillery, rebuilt for efficiency rather than charm, is not part of the whisky trail.

Every Friday the manager and his panel gather to nose some samples of the week's production. This is a highly specialised form of nosing, because they are assessing very strong, unmatured spirit: yet it is the ultimate form of quality control. At this stage they look for a waxy sweetness, and any peatiness should he barely discernible.

Less than a tenth of this noble stuff is bottled as a single, hut it's given 14 years in the cask. That's some years longer than the average Speyside. But its journey to your glass, via Archie Ness's hand-built washbacks, is never less than an adventure.
© (1993) Anthony Troon, SMWS

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