Highland Malt Distilleries 'A Broadcast' Unpublished Interview with William Birnie

Regular readers will have noted that William Birnie appears in several newspaper articles that we continue to document in our newspaper section from the 1950s and into the 1970s. He was well versed in giving his opinion on all things Scotch related, as you can see from the material associated with the William Birnie hashtag. So, it is fairly safe to assume that he received many requests for his wisdom on what makes Scotch whisky exactly what it is. 

Today, I'm delighted to be able to publish an unpublished (as far as we can tell) interview with William Birnie from July 1953, mysteriously entitled A Broadcast, from Alan Winchester's own personal archive. The purpose of this interview seems to give an outline to the specific qualities of a Highland whisky before deviating into more generic questions for a currently unknown interviewer. Some elements are reminiscent of the Try Touring a Scotch Distillery article that was published in 1963. Yet William was only mentioned and not quoted in that piece, and it seems the general interest in Scotch and a growing international acclaim prompted this unaired broadcast. In 1952, William was promoting the virtues of not bottling whisky at its minimum age - a theme that is touched upon below.

Interestingly, as you 'll discover, we have two different dates for this summary, and I'll explain which option I think is best.

Also included with these documents is a letter from 1967, which is unrelated, and I'll publish in a separate article
. For now, we'll replicate the article in its entirety (inserting some paragraph breaks) and debate some of the things that William mentions in relation to Glen Mhor.

So this is a Highland Malt Distillery, Mr Birnie?

Yes, we are right in the centre of the Highlands.

What actually constitutes a Highland Malt Distillery?

Well, Highland Malt Distilleries are all situated around the Highlands of Scotland, roughly north of a line between Perth and Oban. There are about 70 of them, and in the manufacture of their product they use only Malted Barley - no other cereals or anything else at all - the resulting liquid from the Malted Barley being distilled two times over in what are termed Pot Stills.

This is quite different from the Grain Distilleries operation in the South of Scotland, when only about 25 per cent is Malted Barley and about 75 per cent. Unmalted Maize of some other cereal. The resulting liquid is distilled in what is a Patent Still.

Now then, what is the difference between Highland Malt Whisky and Grain Whisky?

Highland Malt Whisky is a heavier type of Spirit and constitutes the bod of the blend we drink. Grain Whisky is a much lighter type but it has been found that the two blended together make the most palatable beverage. They are probably blended together 50-50. Highland Malt Whisky alone might be somewhat liverish to those who do not take much exercise but the Ghillie¹ or Stalker, and others in similar walks of life, consider real Highland Malt Whisky the only stuff worth drinking.

How is it that Whisky can only be made in Scotland?

This is a most difficult question to answer. Whisky, of course, can be, and is, made in other countries, but for some reason or other "Scotch" has some subtle difference from distillations in other countries which the connoisseur salutes but no chemist can isolate. It is just like Virginia tobacco from America, Tea from India, Ceylon or China. Many efforts and money have been expended in trying to make "Scotch" in other countries, but entirely without success. We Highland Malt Distillers are quite content about this as it is our bread and butter, and we are pretty confident our "Scotch" can never be made elsewhere. The reason is probably a combination of factors:

1. The peat smoke that first helps to dry the Malt.

2. The soft burn water used in the mashing and distilling process.

3. The soil and climate of our country.

4. The long-backed warehouses of an even temperature where the Spirit lies maturing so wisely throughout the years, often in fresh emptied Sherry Wood. 

In addition to this, there is the traditional skill which goes back into the mists of Scottish history. These seems to be some of the reasons why Scotch Whisky is, and must remain, the finest Spirit of its kind in the world.

Have you any special secrets in its manufacture?

No, none really. We buy good Scotch and English barley which we convert into Malt. We are careful about using the correct proportion of peat in drying the Green Malt - not too much and not too little. We keep our large wooden vessels scrupulously clean each week by sterilisation with steam. A little point is that we scrub our vessels down with brooms made of withered heather from the Scotch moors. This gives them a certain sweetness. Our stillmen, born from father to son during generations, see to it that an even slow distillation goes on all the time.

What does it cost you to produce a bottle of Whisky?

Well, we do not bottle whisky at all. We sell it to our Blender friends in casks, each containing so many proof gallons. A proof gallon is simply a unit used by the Customs and Excise for Duty purposes, and ourselves for costing and invoicing.

A proof gallon roughly consists of 50 per cent pure alcohol and 50 per cent distilled in water. As a matter of fact, coming down to bottles, we are selling this year to our Blender Clients at the equivalent of about 1/8 per bottle. Before the War, when Barley was cheaper, we sold at the equivalent of 6d per bottle. This does not mean that the Blender is making a great profit. He has to finance the Whisky for many years, loses over 15 per cent of it owing to evaporation while maturing, has to pay about 25/- duty per bottle and he has his overheads, bottling, casing and his retailers to think of. The Government get the only real rake. Our cost price is generally about 3d a bottle less than our selling price.

Why do you not bottle your own Whisky?

As I have already said, a pure Highland Malt Whisky alone would, I think, not be popular in the South, although others have different opinions. Also, we are Distillers and it would not be correct, in my view, to compete with our own Clients, the Blenders. They know what the public want, and know how to produce it in bottled form. We distillers know how to produce it in bulk.

Do all Highland Malt Distilleries produce the same Whisky?

Now, this is a very interesting question. First of all, Highland Malt Whisky can be made in this part of the world. Each Distillery, produces a very different type of Spirit. Why this should be, nobody knows. As somebody said - 

"The Malt Distillers are surely among the most remarkable phenomena in British industry. Why a score of Highland Malt Distilleries should produce twenty slightly different types of Whisky, all good and all apparently, unimitable, no one seems to know with any certainty."

Take, for instance, our two Distilleries, one where you now are here, and one over the road a hundred yards away, both using the same barley, same peat, same water and everything, more of less the same - they are both slightly different Whiskies, and the Blenders know the difference. Both are very good from my point of view of course! By the way, we get our water from Loch Ness, where the monster lives, but I don't think he has much to do with it, although I am sure he is there alright.

We Highland Malt Distillers are very old fashioned, and are even afraid to alter the bend of a pipe in our distilling plant in case it might alter the character of our Whisky. When a Distiller has to renew a Still he sees that the new one is exactly the same shape as the old. Once a Distiller had a dent in his old still, he insisted a similar dent be made in the new one! I think this is going a bit too far!

The Blenders know the character of each Distillery's whisky and they buy accordingly to suit their particular blend, which is their own secret. A blend may consist of about 15 different Malt Whiskies and about 4 or 5 different Grain Whiskies blended together about 50-50 or in other proportions. 

How much Whisky does a Highland Malt Distillery make in a year?

On average, about 150,000 proof gallons, or say, the equivalent of about 1,200,000 bottles.

How long does it take to make Whisky?

Once we have made our Malt, it only takes two or three days to make New Whisky. There is now any amount of New Whisky in Bonded Warehouses throughout Scotland, but it is not really drinkable. Highland Malt Whisky should lie maturing for at least 6 years before being used by the Blenders. Owing to the scarcity of well-matured Whisky this is not adhered to by some blenders just now. 

The war stopped a correct building up of stocks. Whisky, however, may not be used for Home Consumption till it is at least three years old. I do not think Whisky improves much after about sixteen years in wood. I am sure in a year or two's time there will be plenty of reasonably matured Scotch Whisky on the market.

How many men do you employ in your Distillery?

Not many - we employ about 26 men in our two Distilleries together.

Now, how is Highland Malt Whisky made - what are the various processes?

This would take some time to tell you in detail, but I shall go quickly over them.

Firstly, we convert the Barley into Malt by soaking the Barley for about 70 hours in water. We then manipulate the wet Barley on our Malting Floors, encouraging the rootlets, which normally grow into the ground, to sprout. This takes about 10 to 12 days. We then dry the Green Malt in a Kiln with the aid of peat.

We then grind the Dried Malt into a coarse flour. We mash this coarse flour in a large circular vessel with water at certain temperatures. This resulting juice is a brown sweet liquid which is called Worts. We then cool the Worts down to about 85 degrees fahrenheit. We ferment the cooled Worts in a large wooden vessels, each holding five to ten thousand gallons.

After fermentation is finished, the resulting liquid is termed Wash, and is pumped to the Still House. This Wash if first distilled in a large Copper Wash Still and then re-distilled in a smaller Spirit Still.

The second distillation is new Whisky, which is filled into Casks under the supervision of the Customs and Excise. The casks are then locked away in Bonded Warehouses, where the Whisky lies maturing until the owners, who are our Blender Clients, want it out for blending and bottling. The Bonded Warehouses are doubly locked - the Distiller cannot get in without the Excise Officer, and he cannot get in without the Distillery. Duty, as you see, has not yet been paid on this Whisky. Duty is only payable when the Whisky is cased and bottled by the Blenders and cleared for consumption. Duty first came into force in 1660 I think, when it was 2d per gallon - now it is £12 17s 6d per gallon (in 1964).

I could show you some of the processes now if you would like to see them and then perhaps sample our matured product.

My thoughts

There are some great snippets of information within this exchange. From the use of heather, the number of men employed across both sites and production details. But we should tackle the elephant in the room, which are the dates.

The letter is signed off July,1953. Whereas the final few lines mention duty in 1964. Clearly, both cannot be right. I would suggest that the 1953 date is correct as it is typed out, including the month. William also mentions the relevance of the war, which would have been firmly in the minds of distillers in the 1950s, and less so in the 1960s. Also, taking things further, I do have letters from William Birnie in the 1960s and the font is very different, as is the Glen Mhor header/footer. So, I'd suggest the 1964 should read as 1954 but either way, this is a great find and it's great to finally release it into the public domain after all this time.

Then, there is the statement that they do not bottle whisky. This would have been correct in the 1950s, but not in the 1960s. Giving further vindication to the earlier date.

William's thoughts on what makes Scotch special are interesting, including the use of warehousing. What would he think of today's climate controlled, and palate driven enterprises? The reference to Scottish and English barley goes against what we know of Glen Mhor, as published statistics showed that from 1894-1922 a large proportion was obtained from outside of the UK. And our train shipment invoices, and other sources show a great deal of barley was obtained the Black Isle, which has always been a hotbed of farming. Possibly, the advent of both wars, prompted a reliance on more domestic product noted here in the 1950s. It'll be interesting to see if further confirmation is obtained.

The Loch Ness line is something we've seen throughout the decades at Glen Mhor, including Head Brewer, Angus Mackay, in an interview from 1975. It is of course, complete bollocks but makes for a great soundbite. In reality, the direct source was the Caledonian Canal, or more specifically, an inlet pipe just loch-wards of Muirtown Top Lock. Loch Ness does flow into part of the Caledonian Canal network, but so do several other lochs and waterways, rendering such a claim fanciful, to put it mildly. 

The importance of the Excise representative is touched upon, and this has been magnified by our continuing publication of the Glen Mhor Distillery Logbook, which contains numerous examples. Onwards and upwards to the next discovery.

¹ A Gaelic term for a man who serves their master or guests, more recently it applies to an attendant on a hunting, fishing or deer stalking expedition. It is revealing that William uses this term (and also Stalker) as we have documented reports from relatives, 'I remember his office filled with unfortunately hunting collections!! large snake skin along the wall, Tiger mat below his desk other things hung!! the smell of Tobacco from his pipes.'