The Distilleries of Great Britain and Ireland Glen Mhor

Whisky fans with a taste for history, are excited by the arrival of The Distilleries of Great Britain and Ireland, a new book from James Eadie that brings together a series published in the 1920s that has long been dismissed and consigned to a dark and dusty corner. 

It features over 120 distilleries and an onslaught of photographs, which I'm thankful to say includes Glen Mhor. I was fortunate to speak with Leon at James Eadie about the book briefly, and in greater detail about the Glen Mhor entry, which will be one of the first released digitally, in a low-resolution format.

I'm not going to review the book, as that's the job of consultants etc. Instead, in this article, I'm going to provide additional context about the Glen Mhor entry, what it reveals and any new leads for this ongoing research project. My expertise is Glen Mhor, after all.

I had my doubts initially when the book was revealed, as it brings together all of the articles into a handy compilation. Think of it as the 1920s version of Now That's What I Call Music or a lost album from The Shaggs. Using advanced technology, the book is faithful to the original text, which means it may (or may not) have incorrect information. We don't even know who wrote the articles. Initially, I had thought it would be great if someone had researched all 124 distilleries from the ground up in a modern context, but perhaps that epic task might be undertaken one day. If my work around Glen Mhor says anything, it is that information is out there if you look hard enough.

The 1920s are often an overlooked period of scotch whisky. A raft of closures and harsh economic conditions are often sighted as the reasons for this. It also marked a period of acquisitions and growth for certain companies. For Glen Mhor, it remained in private hands and our Timeline was until recently, a little barren during this decade.

The most important historical whisky book is stated as being Alfred Barnard's epic The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (that's a Kindle book link), a unique snapshot of distilling in the 1880s, which was published in 1887. Glen Mhor missed out as it wasn't in existence at the time. Although regulars will know I am still looking for a copy of Pictures of Inverness, with a peep into Glen Mhor Distillery which was a promotional publication commissioned by Mackinlay & Birnie. This was published in October 1897 and was written by Alfred Barnard himself, so I always think of it as a lost chapter to his aforementioned book. As of yet, I'm unable to find a copy of this publication.

Moving onto this newly discovered text, it contains two photographs that you can see within this article. Our lead image shows the malting floor at Glen Mhor and the manually intensive process at hand. This is a significant image as the floor was soon to become the bottleneck in the production process at the distillery, with Glen Albyn often providing additional malting capacity as it was the bigger site. This neighbouring distillery had a floor that could cope with its size, whereas Glen Mhor had sporadic upgrades that may have increased the potential output, but the malting floor was never addressed until the late 1940s, as highlighted with the discovery of a self-published pamphlet on the debut of their Saladin Boxes.

The image is the perfect foil, for this poignant image the malting floor featuring William Birnie and his dog, taken sometime in the late 1940s, which I believe was to mark the retirement of the malting floor:

Rather than reproduce the text in its entirety, I'm just going to highlight the lines of interest and talk about these in greater detail, before discussing the second image, which is of the stills. Okay? So, let's go...

'The distillery is one of two owned by Mackinlays and Birnie, Limited, and the premises were built in the year 1893 by Mr. John Birnie'

Easy to skip past this one, but there's a real nugget here and one that underlines all the research so far i.e. the Mackinlay's provided the financial muscle and let John Birnie get on with distillery side of things. This is the first time effectively it has been stated in print. Charles C. Doig designed the building layout, but the actual fundamentals of production would have been from John.

Given his time at Benrinnes before switching to Glen Albyn, then turning around that distillery, after its resurrection (the previous year to his arrival), John would have been well versed in distilling and the Muirtown area as a whole. Glen Mhor was his opportunity to create his own style of Highland whisky in his own co-owned distillery.


'two extensive malting barns afford ample space for the germination process'

As detailed on our Timeline, these were two storeys in height, 130 feet in length and 25 feet wide. And as noted above, would become an issue due to their size limitations and the amount of malt they could produce.

'a Boby dressing machine', 'the malt mill is an excellent Boby 2-high model'

This would be a mill from Robert Boby Ltd, Engineers, of St Andrew Street, Bury St Edmunds, who were involved in the agriculture and malting industry. This is the original mill, as we know in later life according to sources, it was replaced with a Porteous mill, which was more common. What happened to this 2 roller model is of particular interest to Alan and an area of ongoing research. We also don't know what happened to the 4 roller mill when the distillery was demolished, if anyone has any insight into this I'd appreciate any detail.

What we do know is that the power supply to the malt mill and other malting related equipment was replaced in 1954, with the water turbine power being retained for other purposes.

What's also worth highlighting is that it seems Robert Boby were the engineers of choice for Mackinlay & Birnie. We know that they were commissioned to help with the introduction of the Saladin Boxes at Glen Mhor in the late 1940s. So, they had a long association with the distillery. 

Robert Boby records held in the Suffolk archives, include order books for 1890 and 1891, so potentially the original machine order might reside here.

'malt bins will shortly be installed in the deposit, and to permit this alteration the present offices are to be demolished and replaced by new buildings on a site near the gate of the distillery'

I know from speaking to Alan about the original distillery plans, an oddity was the fact that the Customs & Excise and Distillery Manager's offices were within the production main building was an oddity. Trapped between the Kiln and Mill rooms respectively, it did seem an unusual location.

The original design of Glen Mhor we've come to understand was very functional. Potentially limited by financial capital at the time and a modest initial outlook from the co-owners. That would suddenly start to change with all the alterations that we continue to uncover via our Distillery Plans section. 

The above statement confirms what I already knew from a set of plans that I've yet to publish - more on this soon as we work through the alterations in chronological order.

'the mash-tun, which was inserted in the mash-house shortly before the War, sixteen hundred bushels weekly are mashed.'

Now, this is interesting, as it was generally believed in existing books that the original mash tun (described in 1898) was capable of handling 250 bushels, or approximately 1.61 tonnes. This was replaced in 1925 with a new tun capable of offering 10 metric tonnes capacity. Made from Scottish larch. 

So, this article from 1924 suggests the mash tun as well as the 3rd still, were in place by late 1924. From the description and our existing research, it seems clear that the 2nd mash tun is the one referred to in this article given the increased size. As such, we must investigate the suggestion that it was installed prior to July 1914.

'seven washbacks are available for the fermentation of wash and supplied with switching apparatus.'

What is known is that Glen Mhor had 7 washbacks  (in 1975, there are noted to be 7, holding 55,000 gallons) and upon opening, the original number was 4. The 1898 Alterations included plans to extend the fermentation room to accommodate at least 2 new 'backs. The 7th remains shrouded in mystery so far, but this report would confirm it was in place by 1924 at the latest. 

'there are three stills with a joint capacity of eight thousand gallons'

The wash still was originally built by Glasgow firm, Fleming, Bennet & McLaren. A capacity of 8,128 litres, onion-shaped. The 2nd wash still introduced in 1925 is unknown in dimension or was until our research found an unpublished image from 1946 (see Photographs), which confirms a size of 12,274 litres.

The spirit still was also built by Fleming, Bennet & McLaren, had a capacity of 6,919 litres and was also onion-shaped.

'one of the Spirit stills being provided with a purifier'

The reference here is likely to be spirit still in general rather than an actual Spirit still, as Glen Mhor only had one such still and not two.

'the tiled still furnaces were manufactured by Messrs J. and J. Glover of Dundee'

Looks like we'll have to do some research on tiles and bricks from Dundee.

'Nine warehouses afford storage capacity of nearly a million gallons of whisky'

If you count the number of warehouses at Glen Mhor using any of the aerial images we have in our photograph section, you'll always reach the number 8. So, where is the missing warehouse? I believe this comes about due to the previously unknown warehouse extension that we discovered had taken place in 1895, just a year after the distillery opened. 

The original number 1 warehouse was only around half the size that any of us had believed it was. In 1895, the works doubled its size, and in doing so, ensured it ran the width of the site. Returning to the extension plans, there was no external door, to enter this warehouse you had have to enter warehouse 1 and then walk towards the former outer wall, which now housed a door that took you into the 1895 extension.

I suppose it depends on how they counted the warehouses, but for the unknown writer (who would have been shown around either by John Birnie or Robert Robertson, the distillery manager), it looks like the extension was counted as a separate entity and this would make it warehouse 2 and boost the overall number of warehouses on site to the 9 quoted in the article.

'A splendid supply of water comes direct to the distillery from Loch Ness'

This is the usual marketing line. The water came from the Caledonian Canal, which in turn may have been fed by Loch Ness as well as countless water ways. My research has confirmed the inlet pipe itself was just loch-wards of Muirtown Top Lock. I suspect this is traditionally where Glen Albyn took its water supply from - as I've seen a very old canal document which confirms its original location. 

Head brewer, Angus Mackay, was still following this official line in a newspaper article in 1975 for the American market: 'we don't use ordinary water. We use the pure water of Loch Ness which has a lot of seepage from the rocks and peat. Scottish barley is allowed to germinate in this water.' There was no direct pipe from Loch Ness to Glen Mhor.

'Power for driving the machinery consists of a turbine and an excellent 19h.p. gas engine. The entire premises are lit by electricity generated by a dynamo in the distillery.''

We know this was installed in 1893, by Frederic Nells of London, this turbine utilised the Caledonian Canal to provide electricity to the distillery and was still in use - albeit in a more limited form - until 1960 when the turbine was retired.

Let's move onto the second image in the article, which is a splendid view of the still room featuring 2 members of the distillery team, including a chap who would not look out of place in a trendy Edinburgh bar today. What I can tell you from research is that in 1924, the Stillman at Glen Mhor was John Fraser, and the maltman was John Macrae, so they might feature in either of the photographs, or not at all. Yet you've got to think that there's a high probability that John features in the one below.

We have the two stills to the right of the image. The existing photographs that we have on the site are often directly facing these giant kettles. From this perspective we can appreciate their bulbus nature but also the elegant swan-like necks and lyne arm angle. 

If you've ever been to the Dallas Dhu distillery on Speyside, which has been kept as a time capsule. Then, you'll appreciate the variety of ropes, chains and valves that dominate the distilling process. Today, things are clean and streamlined, but during the 1920s it was a very gritty, dirty and manual process. These dangling items are a legacy to that effort which went into producing every drop.

I'm also taken by the tank or still on the left hand side, which partially features. From our 1898 Alteration plans, this is the proposed location of the 3rd still and prior to this - and all the plans and images I've discovered so far - nothing was previously noted as occupying this area. So, I reached out to Alan Winchester for his thoughts (he also assisted James Eadie with the book itself), and as usual, my thanks for his insight and details we can take from this photograph:

'Tying up the photograph is interesting, firstly I am looking for the settling ball (the wooden ball they knocked the wash still with to detect the level of the boiling wash, still seen at Tomatin).  

Also, the water wheel driven rummager can be seen so is it driving the rummager on the right hand still? that would be the wash still. I think I can see a foul pipe on the left hand still, which would carry any liquid condensed in the purifier back into the Low wines still.

On looking at the plan you have sent, I suspect the elevated tank is the brewing copper, as the mash tun is next door and there is no mention of Hot Liquor Tanks, as at this time the distillery does not have a boiler, so the hot water would have been heated in the copper.

Behind the nearest man, is the safety valve, that they were asking permission to blank in the Customs Records.

The good news is that the air cran has a lock and capture device, to ensure the air cran is open before the discharge or charge valve can be used.'

So, there you have it. We have two Stills in this photograph with a tank (or giant kettle) to the left. From the 1898 Supplement article, we know Glen Mhor had a copper tank capable of holding 3000 gallons. The location of the tank makes sense as explained above and the fact that it could be heated in a similar fashion to stills with furnaces beneath.

I would conclude that the Stills in this photograph are the originals, the new Wash Still was much larger in size and would have sat where the tank is situated, according to the plans we've documented so far. Why locate a tank elsewhere that relied on the same method to heat its contents? We know that coal was shipped in by train to the distillery from Fife, so it would have been stored near the still house ready for use.

Overall thoughts

There's a surprising amount of detail and information to digest in this short article. Information we've previously established is validated and new details emerge. There's also the variation in dates around the stills and other features that requires more investigation, particularly the mash tun. 

It could be a simple explanation that the guide highlighted the improvements (some of which were delayed from 1898) to the writer. John Birnie gave a similar tour in 1898 when Glen Mhor was the subject of the Distillers' and Brewers' Magazine article. To make the article current, these works in progress were included and this is a possibility.

I am taken with the little details that add more to our knowledge and this is what often separates whisky fans from whisky geeks. You might be happy in the knowledge that Glen Mhor had 3 stills and that's sufficient, whereas, I want to know their configurations, manufacturer and life story. Those that share my interest who will find this book fascinating. A snapshot of distilleries in the 1920s; all it takes are likeminded individuals to translate the information and piece together the clues.

For those who enjoy their podcasts, I've recently put together a series of Glen Mhor podcasts including an episode that specifically discusses this 1924 article.

The book itself is released tomorrow (23rd August) exclusively from Royal Mile Whiskies and will cost £150.

My thanks to Alan Winchester, Leon of James Eadie Ltd for their input and to Rose for her image work. Photographs 1 and 3 are from the Glen Mhor chapter itself and remain property of their original owners.