Friday, 22 December 2017

Whisky & Beer & Seasonal Good Cheer!

At this time of the year one’s thought turn mainly to...alcohol.

   Shockingly, there is – to my knowledge – only one major distillery in Angus still commercially producing whisky at the moment.  Brechin’s Glencadam Distillery (owned by the London based Angus Dundee who also own the Tomintoul distillery) was founded by George Cooper in 1825 and currently produces a single malt variety; though past issues have included the pertinently named Taranty malt.  Water for the whisky is sourced from springs at the Moorans and whisky expert Michael Jackson summarises the 15-year old Glencadam as ‘a little shy but sweet and satisfying’.

   A close neighbour of Glencadam was the North Port Distillery (founded in 1820, mothballed in 1983, officially closed in 1985, substantially demolished in 1994).  A more elusive lost brand and distillery was Glenesk, whose ever-changing names and even different output (sometimes grain, sometimes malt) make it difficult to pin down.  Based at Hillside, Montrose, this distillery closed its doors in 1985.  Founded by the magnificently named English wine merchant firm Septimus Parsonage (in partnership with James Isles of Dundee) in 1897 within a converted flax mill, it was initially named Highland Esk.  It became North Esk in 1899 upon acquisition by J E Caille Heddle.  After World War I the distillers was re-named North Esk Maltings, and then became simply Montrose.  By 1964 it was producing malt whisky under the moniker Hillside, changing its name finally to Glenesk in 1980.  The distillery was dismantled in 1996.  Some, rare bottles from this distillery are doing the rounds for figures fluctuation between the low hundreds and four figures.

   Dundee’s active association with whisky bottling ended in the 1990s when the Stewarts Cream of the Barley plant on the Kingsway closed down.  Alexander Stewart, trading from the Glengarry Inn in Castle Street, started blending in 1825.  The brand still continues and remains Northern Ireland’s favourite blended Scotch whisky.  Other Dundee companies which had a share of the early whisky business included the Seagate based James Robertson and Son Ltd (which owned Coleburn distillery on Speyside) and its neighbour James Watson and Co, founded in 1815, which owned four northern distilleries.  The Seagate was also home to George Willsher & Co, based in premises named Black Bull House.  Their principal brand was therefore named Black Bull whisky, and it survives today, albeit the product of a company based in Huntly.
(Lovers of whisky, incidentally, might want to drop into the Glenesk Hotel in Edzell,which has over a thousand whiskies for sale, something of a record.)

   Another spirits merchants in the city was George Morton Ltd, who traded not only whisky and brandy, but also imported rum, most noticeably the famous OVD (Old Vatted Demerara), first imported from Guyana in 1838 to Morton’s in Dock Street.  Now owned by William Grant & Sons Ltd, the Dundee connection with the spirit is, alas, long gone.  Such enterprise as surrounds production of spirits locally is now very minimal and, perhaps surprisingly, is not purely whisky centred. The Gin Bothy at Peel Farm, Lintrathen, produces fruit infused gin, while the Arbikie Distillery in Inverkeilor produces gin, vodka and whisky (though the production of the latter has not yet produced bottles for the market as yet - hurry up, please!). Another proud local producer is Ogilvy Spirits, based in the Sidlaw Hills, which specialised in potato vodka. 

Historic Illicit Whisky Production and Some Smuggling Lore

   Like the producers of peat reek whisky in the Angus glens, I have dabbled in this subject in the past (and will do again), as the lure and romance of whisky making and smuggling is too much to resist.  But the reality of Angus whisky production does not appear to be as venerable as one might suppose. In The Flower People, Duncan Fraser depicts the sudden illicit business of distilling peat reek whisky coming to Glen Isla as demand for the product and knowledge about its production came into the area in the 18th century.  There is the memory at Delnamer of  an exciseman finding whisky hidden in a sheep bught here.  Another exciseman hoped to follow up this discovery and came here with a gang of soldiers.  Though they searched, further whisky was not found.  The soldiers let their horses eat the scant grain in a store here and an outbuilding was set ablaze.  The locals wrote a furious letter to the authorities, stating that the sergeant of Dragoons had threatened them with a drawn sword after their complaint and say no more about their corn or he would satisfy himself with their blood.  'If the fiscal of the county doth not put a stop such barbarous practices,' their letter ended,'Blood for Blood must be allowed.'

   The Rev Andrew Burns, incumbent of Glen Isla 1806-1823, used to note when the authorities arrived at the opposite his manse and would wander the glen, using biblical language to warn the people to hide their whisky:  'The Philistines be upon thee, Samson!'  The whisky was of course conveyed south surreptitiously at night, not in barrels - which would have been too bulky and conspicuous - but in smaller, makeshift vessels, such as animals' bladders.  Fraser states:
Until about 1830 the whisky-making was the glen's chief industry and then it was suppressed by the Government.  Even a local minister admitted a few years later  that at first this was 'bewailed as a great parish calamity', for most of his congregation had depended on it for their livelihood. [The Flower People, p. 88]
   To the east, the same author reports that the people of Glen Esk also proved amenable to this industry.   'There was no depopulation in Glenesk, all the time its whisky-making lasted.  Over the hills in Glenisla there was none either.  But when the stills were closed Glenisla lost almost half its inhabitants.' [Glen of the Rowan Tree, p. 27.]  For forty years here and in the side glens whisky was illegally made.  Again, the church in the area seemed to see it as a harmless, perhaps even an essential, occupation.   A key ally was the Episcopal minister Peter Jolly, of Lethnot and Glen Esk, had his manse at Stylemou, on the track known as the Whisky Road.  This was almost within 'sniffing distance' on the still on Rowan Hill.  Fraser advises that the ruins of one mountain whisky bothy can be seen high up Glen Effock, beside a burn.  Most of the production from this site ended up in Forfar.  One of the larger operations was hidden among the hills in Glenlee, between Craig Buck and Craig Terran.

    Further tales of smuggling will be related in future posts.

   People in these eastern Angus glens were notably superstitious.  Duncan Fraser notes that, at Burnside, near Arsallary:
in bygone days they used to keep the peat fire burning day and night - for two hundred and fifty years until the 1930s - to prevent ill luck befalling them.  And the odd thing is that near the foot of the glen was another house where they carefully put the fire out each night for the same sensible reason. [Glen of the Rowan Tree, p. 31.]

The Beers and Breweries of Old Angus

   Brewing and selling of beer had an older heritage and a longer life than whisky distilling in the county.  But it was no less under the eye of the authorities.  The records of the Privy Council, for instance, in December 1627, cautioned John Gray, burgess of Dundee, under 500 merks, not to sell any English beer at a higher rate than £6 the tune.  Other Dundonians simultaneously warned were Patrick Baxter, James Small, Patrick Kinloch, James Bowar, and Robert Stirling.  

   Piggott's Commercial Directory for 1825-6 names only two commercial breweries in the burgh - the Pleasance Brewing Company and Thomas Miller, Perth Road.  Arbroath, by contrast, had five named brewers - James Anderson, Robert Gilchrist, John Knight, Robert Lindsay & Son, George SheriffForfar also had five named brewers - Patrick Barry, Skene, Blair & Co, Thomas Morris, William Potter, Alexander StarkMontrose also boasted five - John Alexander, William Black, Henry Farquharson, James Potter, William Ross & Co  (Other brewers listed for Angus included three in Brechin: Alexander & Co, George Reid, David Scott; plus Alex Brown of East Haven and Alex Dean of Broughty Ferry.)

   Currently, Dundee's brewing business is undergoing a bit of a blooming renaissance, and about time too.  There are two wonderful beer making enterprises in the city:  The Law Brewing Co. and 71 BrewingWe wish both these businesses well (along with the micro-brewery Mor Brewing, based in nearby Kellas).  Barring brave, independent beers like the Hawkhill- Ballys venture in the 1980s, there has not been a major brewing operation in Dundee since the demise of Ballingall's, founded near the Lochee Road in 1750 as the Pleasance Brewing Co. and taking over by the Ballingall family a century later.  It survived another century plus before being bought out by Drybroughs and assisted into extinction in 1968. (A Scottish photographer named Oliver Pilcher bought the rights to the brand name Ballingall's in recent years, with the intention to resurrect the brewery, but as yet it remains moribund.)  The heroic Alfred Barnard visited Ballingall's in the late 19th century as part of his monumental odyssey around the breweries of Great Britain and Ireland.

   Ballingall's had originated as The Pleasance Brewing Company around 1750.  William Ballingall took over the business in 1844 and his son Hugh, a prominent local politician, inherited the firm.  He built the new Park Brewery, across the road from the existing Pleasance Brewery (separated by aptly named Hop Street).  Mr Barnard left a very detailed and technical account of the brewing operation here and seemed very impressed by the buildings and the produce:

Ballingall's New Park Brewery, Dundee.

We first sampled the porter and stout (manufactured by the firm for their local trade), which we found quite equal to any we had tasted in Glasgow and Edinburgh; but the firm's reputation is based upon the superior quality of their Scotch pale ales, which are sold all over the North of England and throughout Scotland, depots for supplying the same being established at Newcastle, Liverpool, and other places. The firm's special brand of pale ale, which was exhibited in the Paris Exhibition, is certainly as delicious as any we have tasted. Without being heady it is highly nutritious, bright and sparkling, and tastes well of the hop. Some of the old beers were too strong for a general beverage, and a wine glassful was as much as we dared tackle. It may here be stated that the firm have been awarded medals at the Edinburgh Exhibition of 1886, and the Paris Exhibitions of 1867, 1878 and 1889 (gold and silver). The bottled ales, although of less strength, possess an aromatic flavour, and are most agreeable to the palate...In front of these ancient remains [of the 18th century brewery] there is a plot of ground, through which runs a stream, known from time immemorial as the "Scouring Burn." It formed a part of "The Meadows" referred to by a Dundee historian, as "being drained in the early part of the eighteenth century, and enclosed with stone walls, the grass-land thereon being laid out for the washing and bleaching of the inhabitants, and a road was made through it," which was probably the Lochee Road of the present date. This piece of ground will shortly be covered by the extensive buildings about to be erected by the proprietor, to enlarge the new brewery.

   Dundee's brewing heritage, despite the strange paucity of evidence in the early 19th century, stretches back into medieval times.  The Maltmen were one of the largest incorporated trades in the burgh in the early medieval period.  Dundee's population in the early 17th century may have been around 6,000-8,000, and out of these there were 100 Maltmen.  In the period of 1661 to 1700 there were 240 registered apprentices in the trade in Dundee.  The trade of course flourished because of demand, beer of course being preferable to the frequently disease ridden general water supply.  Following the Reformation the authorities, bolstered by the power of the Kirk, tried to regulate the consumption of alcohol, but it was doubtless a losing battle.  In January 1558 or 1559 the authorities in Dundee ordered a 10 pm curfew and banned 'drinking in any ale house or wine tavern efter ten hours of the nicht, under the pain of forty shillings'.  A few years later 9 pm was the cut off point for 'dancing, drinking, playing or sic vain exercise'.  Brewers' produce was also checked for quality, and in October 1564 the council found that 'the ale brewen be David Spankie's wife be sufficient'.

   Even earlier than this, we can have a peek that lets us know about the availability if not the actual production of spirits locally.  In 1497 King James IV visited the area and the Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer record 'to the barbour that brocht aqua vite to the King in Dunde, be the Kingis  command... xxxi s[hillings].'

   The historian Anthony Cooke has uncovered much of the hidden history of drinking dens in Scotland in the 19th century and in particular the prominent part women played in running unlicensed shebeens in the closes and back-alleys of Dundee and other cities.  In 1861, Cooke tells us, four Dundonian women were jailed for keeping illegal shebeens.  Several years later a woman named either Isabella Forbes or Smith was prosecuted for operating a shebeen/brothel in Couttie's Wynd.  

Montrose and the "Newkie Broon" Urban Legend

   Here's a garbled tall tale for you.  Some years ago I was informed (in a pub, by an unreliable source) that the world famous Newcastle Brown Ale - of which I was once keen - was in fact a Scottish product, a secret Angus beer in fact, which was shipped from Montrose to Newcastle, then bottled and labelled as a local product.  The truth appears to be somewhat different.

   James Deuchar Ltd were a brewing enterprise based in Monwearmouth in the north-east of England.  By the beginning of the twentieth century they acquired the Lochside Brewery in Montrose, formerly owned by William Ross & Co and other concerns in the Newcastle area. 
Brewing was concentrated in Montrose and the Monkwearmouth brewery was used for storage and bottling. In 1957 brewing ceased in Montrose and was moved to the old Robert Deuchar brewery in Duddingston.  When Newcastle Breweries bought James Deuchar in 1959, production ceased.  Meanwhile the actual premises at Montose, which were founded in 1781, were bought by Macnab Distilleries Ltd, producing the Sandy Macnab brand.  The distillery closed in 1992.  So while there was some connection between Newcastle Brown and Montrose, the truth is more concoluted than the legend.  


Barnard, Alfred, The Noted Breweries of Britain and Ireland (4 volumes, London, 1889-1896 [volume 3, 142-67 for Ballingall's.]).
Cooke, Anthony, A History of Drinking:  The Scottish Pub Since 1700 (Edinburgh, 2015).
Cruickshank, Frederick, Navar and Lethnot, The History of a Glen Parish in the North-East of Forfarshire (Brechin, 1899).
Fraser, Duncan, Glen of the Rowan Tree (Montrose, 1973, reprinted 1974).
Fraser, Duncan, The Flower People (Montrose, 1977).
Hume Brown, P. (ed.), The Register of the Privy Council of Scotland (second series, volume 2, Edinburgh, 1900).
Jackson, Michael, Michael Jackson’s Malt Whisky Companion (5th edn., London, 2004).

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