Auchnagie Distillery – 1812-1911
Auchnagie Distillery existed for almost 100 years, starting work as a remote farmhouse distillery and ending its days as, arguably, the jewel in the crown of a global whisky empire. It had at least seven different owners and was silent for large parts of its life. This was not unusual for small-scale 19th century distilleries, as their precarious existence was often at the mercy of lack of water, lack of money, changes to duty laws and local demand for the product.
Auchnagie Distillery (or Tullymet as it was later known) was located near the hamlet of Tulliemet, approximately 6 miles South East of Pitlochry in Perthshire. The land in this area is rural, a mixture of pasture and rolling hills, with ample supply of water flowing off of the high ground. Local farms in the area (from the 17th century) were built next to the streams, and many generated power by water wheel. Auchnagie Distillery augmented its water supply by constructing a water pool just above the distillery site – the remains of this can be seen to this day.
There were several distilleries in the local area, and at least 3 in the immediate vicinity of Tulliemet. Knowledge of distillation seems to have been handed down through the generations, and several local farming families were involved in illegal distilling. This activity centred on the remote Loch Broom, where water and peat were in ready supply for those who worked the unlicensed “stells.” One local farmer constructed a barley “steep” underground, and covered the workings with wood and soil. Sheep grazed over the construction – this remained undiscovered by “the excise” and continued to provide malted barley well into the 19th century.
The precise location of where Auchnagie Distillery once stood is somewhat confusing, but our own research we believe, has identified the place. Tulliemet boasted three distilleries – Milton of Tulliemet, Braes of Tulliemet and Auchnagie. Alexander Duff, the owner of Milton, also owned a warehouse at Wester Auchnagie farm – which led many previous authors to assume the distillery was located there. In fact it was warehousing only – we believe that Auchnagie Distillery was located half a mile away, at Easter Auchnagie. Just to confuse things further, Auchnagie changed its name in later years – to Tullymet! Still with us?
Auchnagie was reliant on water for both power and production. The water came from Loch Broom and flowed past the distillery via the Auchnagie Burn. The burn itself was deepened, widened and rock-lined for 500 metres above the distillery. The water had a particularly high mineral content, having been filtered through peat moss and granite. It was understood to be particularly good for making malt whisky.
“This distillery is favourably situated, and the water – a very important factor in the manufacture of whisky – is received from the springs of the Braes of Tullymet, and is especially suited for the making of Malt Whisky. The Whisky made here is of the very highest quality, and possesses the soft, mellow flavour now so generally approved of by connoisseurs of fine Scotch Whisky.” Alfred Barnard – Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom.
Auchnagie’s channelled water source drained into a specially constructed pool, with a sluice gate positioned at the bottom to control the flow. This construction helped to prolong the distillation season . The pool is still visible on a modern Google Map. Barnard noted that there was no production when he visited as it was too warm for mashing – this was considered the norm, as Auchnagie, like other water-wheel powered distilleries was entirely at the mercy of rainfall for power supply. Also, with no temperature control on yeast activity, there was always the potential to lead to “blown” or “stuck” fermentation.
Bere barley (also referred to as beer or bygg) was the most common strain used. This was an ancient strain brought to Scotland by the Vikings. Availability of local and surplus barley generally governed the beginning and end of the distilling season. Poor harvests led directly to shorter seasons, or in extreme cases, no production at all. As an ingredient of whisky, its major drawback was inconsistent size of grains. This created unevenly malted barley, leading to partially malted barley being mashed adding a greenish flavour note to the flavour of the whisky.
Commercial yeast was not available until the 1870’s, although its influence in fermentation was understood. Farmhouses could maintain a home-made yeast culture made from potatoes and sugar. Alternatively they could harvest a culture from the remnants of the washback. However this technique was prone to contamination with bacteria, and was not an efficient way to initiate fermentation.
Auchnagie peats were cut from the high ground above the distillery, adjacent to Loch Broom. Each family devoted time to securing their fuel for home and for industry. They were dried on the high ground and carted down to Tulliemet. The major components of the dried peats were heather and moss, which gave off a delicate, perfumed note when tossed on the fire.
The copper mash tun would have been direct-fired by a mixture of coke and dried peat. The tun itself would have been made of wood and in the earlier years probably an oak puncheon. Later on, a purpose built mash tun of around 2000 gallons was installed. There was a resident blacksmith in Tulliemet. Alexander Cameron was particularly skilled at making “vessels for the distillation of spirits,” and was in all likelihood the local purveyor of unlicensed distilling equipment in earlier times. Cameron also transported and sold his whisky to local taverns in Tulliemet and Ballinluig. Once Auchnagie was licenced, Cameron supplemented his income by renting a room in his house to Nicolas Oliver, who was the assistant Exciseman at Auchnagie, and who later moved to work at nearby Ballechin Distillery.
The washback would have been of wooden construction and in early years at least, unlikely to be purpose built. Early distilleries on this scale would have used a puncheon, or other portable vessel. The main problem would have been keeping the vessel free of yeast bacteria from previous batches of wash. Yeast works best in ambient temperatures and in the absence of any impurities. A build-up of bacteria would contaminate the wash with pungent farmyard off-notes. If this was in sufficient concentration it could halt yeast activity altogether, with potential loss of the entire batch.
In pre-industrialised times the size of the still dimensions and capacity were purpose-built to fit the space where they worked. In many instances they were similar to other stills in the area. A fair comparison can be made with Edradour Distillery, and with Grandtully. Stills were constructed inside existing farm buildings, which generally restricted their height and capacity. Whisky from Highland distilleries was considered particularly desirable because unlike Lowland Distillers, they used much smaller stills. It was long understood that whisky from the “sma” stills was far superior. While this may be true, it may also have been a reflection on the quality of Lowland Whiskies in the 19th century.
Legislation on still size changed several times between 1780 and 1823. For highland distillers from 1823, they were permitted to use a still of “not less than 40 gallons,” (the spirit still) providing they also operated a still of 500 gallons – no doubt the wash still. Therefore it’s fair to assume that stills were generally just over minimum size permitted, and this only changed when purpose-built still rooms appeared as demand for whisky increased.
From this chart we can deduce that there is no correlation between still size and production of spirit.
Output depended to a larger extent on how many months per year the distilleries operated, as they were highly dependent on local barley, and more importantly, local water supply. If Auchnagie was producing 19000 gallons in 1887 and had a capacity of 24000, then we can assume the distillery worked around 9 months, September to May. These figures equate to 2111 gallons per month or in modern measurement, to 9288 litres, which would today fill around 77 ex-bourbon barrels per month.
￼￼Successive owners improved Auchnagie’s capacity, not by adding bigger stills but more likely they developed techniques to lengthen the season, such as adding the water pool, or providing consistent supply of barley.
Whisky distilled in the early 19th century was generally not aged. Duty was paid on proof gallons produced – there was no incentive to watch it mature and evaporate. Whisky was stored in cask as it was a means of transporting the goods to market. Cask size was usually octave or firkin. In the second half of the 19th century, hogsheads and butts appeared in greater number. Whisky in the earlier 19th century was generally all sold locally, and in cask. Retailers would dispense from the cask, customers would arrive with a receptacle which would be filled accordingly. Commercially made bottles were not available until the late 1880’s – their appearance, plus the invention of cork stoppers transformed the industry, and its means of shipping the product.
Industrialisation and completion of the Highland Railway in 1863 created the means of transporting greater quantities of produce to a much wider area, including the wholesale markets in Edinburgh and Perth.
Aside from whisky, these merchants traded in wine, rum, sherry and madeira, and were the source of different types of cask bought, sold and refilled with Scotch whisky. The railway construction boom of the mid-19th century connected Perth with Inverness, with a station opening at Ballinluig in 1865. The main line followed the Spey River for much of its length, and several branch lines were built through communities now famous for whisky production. The proposed branch line from Tulliemet down to Ballinluig was never built, which meant transportation of bulk whisky down to the railway continued on horseback until the distillery ceased production in 1910.
There is evidence from Auchnagie’s later history, that some whisky was matured for a number of years. Local retailers sold whisky at “Never less than five years old,” and John Dewar and Sons offered a facility for storing privately purchased casks for a minimum of four years. If there was a taste for older whisky in the late 19th century, then eight years old was considered extremely mature spirit.
Compulsory bonding of two years was not brought into practice until 1915, later expended to three years in 1916. This was a compromise negotiated by the Wine and Spirit Brand Association (which became the Scotch Whisky Association in 1940) with Lloyd George, who deplored alcohol consumption, particularly in the workplace and especially in wartime industries.
Key individuals in Auchnagie History
The Dick family
The Dicks, Captain and Dr, were the land-owners of Wester and Easter Auchnagie, and thus the likely landlords of the Auchnagie Distillery. A descendent of the Dick family was known to enter the warehouses and tap casks for his personal supply. He was rumoured to hide bottles of whisky around the estate – some of which may still be waiting to be re-discovered in the hills above Tulliemet.
James Duff is attributed as the first owner from 1827 to 1933, he is understood to have built the licensed Tullymet (Auchnagie) distillery on his land.
Forbes operated a distillery at_ Milton of Tulliemet_ from 1825 to 1837, and owned a warehouse at Wester Auchnagie Farm._Forbes was later instrumental in licensing_ Edradour Distillery_. His brother James Forbes was involved with Grandtully Distillery.
Operated the distillery from 1860 to 1862, and was probably responsible for the construction of the water pool at Easter Auchnagie. Scott was sequestrated in 1862, and the distillery then had an additional 4 tenant distillers over the next 25 years.
Dawson owned the distillery for one year – 1887 to 1888. Dawson was a well-known whisky merchant and something of a showman. He made headlines by bottling the largest vatting of whisky then recorded – some 23,000 gallons for his own brand – Peter Dawson Blended Scotch. A blend of “Titanic proportions” according to a publication of the time.
Dawson was given a platform by of all organisations, the Temperance Association! Dawson noted that there was no point in attempting to cure the drunkard from the purely religious or moral sides. “…his emotional power is impaired, his will power weakened. He must be dealt with from the physical side.”
“Let temperance reformers turn their attention to… villainous decoctions which, sold under the honourable designation of Scotch whisky, constitute what Carlyle has designated the “insidious brain stealer and soul paralyser.” And focus on… The influence of purely-blended and well-matured Scotch whisky, such as Mr Dawson stands sponsor for. Dawson is working as earnestly in the temperance cause as the most rabid lecturer of the Temperance League. These men have failed with religious appeals, moral suasion, and pledges to reduce drunkenness. The latest returns show that the evil is on the increase. »
Dawson further noted… “I believe that public taste is tending towards blends rather than to single whiskies, and that skilfully blended liquor of ascertained and undoubted maturity would speedily displace those immature inferior, and un-wholesome spirits which are frequently put on the market.
I am working in the cause of temperance, because if men and women must have whisky, then, I say, let them have it pure and the best that can be manufactured. It is the immature and drugged whiskies that do the harm, steal away men’s brains, and create appetites and quenchless cravings. »
Douglas was “The Exciseman” residing in what is now Woodside Cottage at Easter Auchnagie. Barnard noted an idyllic picture of Douglas’s life in 1887 when he tells us that the Exciseman “informed us that he leads quite a pastoral life here, and spends his summer days in his garden and little farmyard”.
Tommy Dewar (Whisky Tom)
The final owners of Auchnagie Distillery (now renamed Tullymet) were the Perth -based whisky merchants, John Dewar and Sons. Tommy Dewar (youngest son of John Dewar senior) lived in London from 1885 and within two years, had established Dewar’s Whisky as one of the top-selling brands in the capital. Based on this success, Dewar’s purchased Auchnagie Distillery, thus adding “distillers” alongside “blenders and bottlers” to their business.
In 1892 Tommy Dewarembarked on a World tour, aimed at promoting Dewar’s Whiskyin the emerging markets of North America, Europe and Asia. Dewar visited 26 countries in two years, and returned with 32 importer agreements, plus a Royal Warrant to supply Queen Victoria. Dewar’s was now a global brand – a tremendous success for Tommy Dewar. The distillery had its own brand called “Old Tullymet,” which gave it identity in an increasingly crowded whisky market. However it was clear that the ambitions of_John Dewar and Sons_ were higher than ever – what did “Whisky Tom’s” achievements overseas mean for their distillery at Auchnagie?
Demand for Dewar’s growing array of whisky brands was such that one small distillery could never produce enough whisky to supply demand. In 1894, Soon after Tommy Dewar’s return, distillery architects Charles Doig and Co were commissioned to build a distillery at Aberfeldy. This effectively meant the end of the road for the distillery at Auchnagie. Aberfeldy Distillery opened in 1896 and production ceased at Auchnagie for good in late 1910, and the building noted as “vacant” the following year. In 1912 the equipment and machinery were removed, thus ending over a century or legal distilling history in the hamlet of Tulliemet.
Auchnagie Distillery enjoyed the best and worst of times – it survived for almost 100 years and was witness to tremendous change in the whisky industry. Railway construction, advances in steam motive power, development of the column or “Coffey” still, advances in yeast technology, and the expansion of the industry from domestic products to global brands to name but a few. The number of different owners illustrate how precarious a distillers’ lot could be – several were declared bankrupt, or simply gave up the tenancy due to lack of money, barley or water. The turnover of tenants had one additional consequence – none of them possessed the finance to upgrade or modernise the distillery.
Auchnagie’s location was far from ideal, but that was not the principal reason for its eventual closure. From a post-industrial perspective, Auchnagie was old, small and inefficient, particularly compared with the modern industrial distilleries constructed by Charles Doig. Transport links were poor and outdated.
Tommy Dewar’s achievements seemed to guarantee security – although reality was somewhat different. Demand for Dewar’s whiskies outstripped the capacity of Auchnagie, and when compared with their new distillery in Aberfeldy, the asset in Tulliemet appeared an expensive liability.
Today, the water pool remains and can be inspected as it is on Atholl Estates land, but it is an overgrown weed bed. The old water course is stone-lined for quite a distance upstream, creating a deep channel for funnelling water down to the distillery. The pool itself is pear-shaped, approximately 25 metres long, and 15 metres at its widest. There are the remains of a concrete sluice gate at the bottom.
Woodside Cottage remains and is occupied – the garden gives amazing views and one can imagine John Douglas spending his summer tending his vegetables during the silent season. A bonded warehouse remains intact, opposite Woodside Cottage, and is currently used as a garage.
Aside from some old stone walls, there is little evidence of the old distillery itself, or the renowned whisky it produced.
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