The Lost Distilleries : Dalaruan Distillery

Dalaruan Distillery – 1825-1925

Dalaruan Distillery an artists’ impression – By Adrian B McMurchie.

Not many Scotch malt whisky distilleries have a founding myth, although many wish they did. The origins of a modern distillery are often born from conversations on a golf course, in hotel bars or through numerous board meetings. Dalaruan  Distillery, once of Broad Street, Campbeltown, is said to have been conceived in bedroom conversation. A travelling cartwright by trade, Charles Colvill was sharing a hotel bed with an excise supervisor on Islay (a common practise in low-cost accommodation to save money for the traveller – and space for the landlord!) when conversation turned to the island’s famous distilleries. Charles spent the whole night gleaning information from his companion about the Islay distilleries and the business of whisky.
Enthralled, he determined on starting a distillery once he returned to his native Campbeltown.
Rushing back from Islay, Charles Colvill would have already been well aware of the potential for distilling malt whisky in Campbeltown. Distilling had long been a staple of rural life in Kintyre, and the area was a hot-bed of illicit distillation during the 18th century. Many of the families involved in illicit distilling were still involved in the legal whisky trade a century later. Distillation was so common in the region that Thomas Pennant bemoaned in 1772 that the inhabitants of Kintyre were ‘mad enough to convert their bread into poison.’

Campbeltown’s first legal distillery was built in 1817, imaginatively named Campbeltown Distillery. Kinloch and Caledonian quickly followed, before the 1823 Excise Act finally made legal distilling more viable by drastically reducing the cost of a license and introducing modest duties for Highland distilleries. A flood of new distilleries followed, encouraged by Crosshill Loch and the space to expand. Twelve distilleries were built in the next five years, including Dalaruan, and a total of 29 were in operation by 1835.

A major part of the Campbeltown distillers’ success was their early investment in steamboats. The Campbeltown & Glasgow Steam Packet Joint Stock Co. was founded in 1826. For the next 111 years the company was to facilitate the carrying of cargo, passengers and mail to Glasgow, opening up the otherwise isolated Campbeltown to the wider world. In their centenary booklet, the company claims to have never lost a package or parcel, but they would say that! The steamers became synonymous with the town, their black and red funnels a famous sight on the Clyde. Merchants and mariners in Campbeltown had likewise long made use of the outstanding natural harbour, first for herring fishing and later to facilitate the whisky industry. Without the unique features of Campbeltown Loch, it is impossible the Campbeltown whisky industry could have developed to the level it did.

Charles Colvill brought together four men of local repute – John Colvill, maltster and cooper; John’s son, David Colville, a writer (lawyer) and later banker; Daniel Greenlees, merchant and distiller, and Ralph Langlands – and founded Dalaruan Distillery in 1824. The company was named David Colville & Co after the youngest partner. Dalaruan (Da-la-roo-en) earned its moniker Dalruadhain (same pronunciation), the title given to Campbeltown when it was the seat of the Dalridian monarchy. Built on land once occupied by one of Campbeltown’s breweries, Dalaruan was known locally as the ‘Brewaree’ until it finally closed in 1925.

John Colvill, one of the founders, was a wellknown and proficient maltster who kept meticulous accounts of his transactions. These
account books show that not only did John sell malt to illicit distillers, but he subsequently purchased their whisky for his own personal
consumption! Several of John’s account books record in striking detail the process of building Dalaruan and its early business. The first entry for Dalaruan distillery is on 5th February 1825, with construction lasting approximately nine months. Dalaruan was part of an expansion of Campbeltown northwards that also included the construction of Glenside, Kintyre, Dalintober and Scotia (now Glen Scotia) distilleries, along with auxiliary buildings, accommodation for workers and a series of colonial style mansions that stand today in tribute to the great wealth a few in the town once attained.

A payment of £325 is the first recorded in the Dalaruan account book, receipted to Robert Armour. Armour is an important figure in the
history of Campbeltown distilling. A plumber by trade, Armour also had an underground business building and maintaining distilling equipment for use by individuals and groups to produce illicit whisky. His expertise was an open secret, and within two years of the effective legalisation of distilling Armour was tasked with the job of designing and building Dalaruan’s distilling apparatus. The mash-tun, wash-backs, stills and worm-tubs were designed and built by Armour, while ironwork and foundry utensils were ordered from Mose McCulloch & Co, Glasgow. Flagstone was imported from Arran, with shipments of a ‘bagg of hair’ (horse hair, for use as a binder in
plaster), slate and even bottles of ink recorded. Payments were made to local craftsmen for the striking of a well, to carters for carrying in pumps, to Nathaniel McNair for roofing the ‘still-house, fermenting tun-room, spirit cellar and mill/kiln,’ and to James Johnston for painting the buildings.

Tools necessary for whisky production began to arrive; a hydrometer (for measuring the density of liquids) and saccharometer (for estimating sugar content in solutions) were delivered, as did some soap to control frothing in the still. Four hogsheads were ordered at a cost of 1 shilling, while bolls of bere barley reached the distillery from all over the locality. Liquid yeast was delivered in casks from various sources, most notably from the Greenhead Brewery in Glasgow, who sent 16 gallons of brewer’s yeast.

Testing of the equipment and new make was to begin shortly after the purchase of a distillery licence for £10 on 30th June 1825. 48 sample
bottles arrived at Dalaruan in late September, ready to be filled with new make spirit. David Colville, in correspondence with Peter Reid (a
merchant in Glasgow who acted as an agent for Dalaruan) in early 1826, revealed that Dalaruan’s early product was gaining weekly interest from Greenock, Glasgow and Leith. All three were key markets for Campbeltown Malt, the name given to whisky from the area.

No expense had been spared in the building of Dalaruan, a courtyard distillery designed for ease of access by horse and cart. According to John Colvill’s account books, the distillery cost a total of £1,778.10.4, with the brunt of the expense borne by himself and Charles Colvill.<

Dalaruan progressed steadily, despite personal tragedy. A cholera outbreak in 1832 claimed the life of John Colvill. In correspondence with
David Colville, Peter Reid describes a quarantine like environment and an understandable unwillingness to travel. Ralph Langlands was the third founder of Dalaruan to die (Charles Colvill had passed in 1828 aged 54) in 1839, and his share in the company was sold to John McMurchy. The Colvill/Colvilles, along with the Greenlees family (to whom much of their kin were inter-related), had become the premier distilling dynasty in Campbeltown; their family was eventually linked to Dalaruan, Dalintober, Argyll, Burnside, Kinloch and Springside, with the Greenlees linked to several others, including Hazelburn.

Thomas Pacey, an excise man who spent several years working in Campbeltown during the town’s distilling heyday, described Campbeltown Malt as:

‘Somewhat celebrated, and in great request both in the home and in the foreign markets. Distilled in stills of small size, and made from peat-dried malt, there was a flavour about it peculiar to itself, and which was much relished by consumers of that kind of spirit.’

Campbeltown Malt’s most oft-cited description is by the writer George Malcolm Thomson under his pseudonym Aeneas MacDonald. In Whisky (1930), MacDonald describes Campbeltown Malt as:

‘The double basses of the whisky orchestra . . . potent, full-bodied pungent whiskies, with a flavour that is not to the liking of everyone . . . so masterful and assertive are they that the marrying of them to obtain a smooth, evenly matched blend is an extremely difficult business.’

Richard Patterson, when considering Campbeltown whisky many decades later, wrote that ‘these characterful whiskies added genuine body and muscle, imparting almost an oily, pungent influence to the blends.’ A general
consensus emerged that labelled Campbeltown whiskies as strong, pungent whiskies with a tang of salt and a
tell-tale peaty aroma. However, evidence showing the variety of still types used in Campbeltown, and different distillation styles, makes such a judgement premature. Dalaruan, in contrast, had been previously described
somewhat grandiosely as ‘hardly exceeded in the qualities of purity and strength, with an absence of all disagreeable flavour or smell.’ It is a grandiose Victiorian statement, but as Campbeltown Malt was known as a lighter, less peaty type than an Islay, there may be some truth  to it.

When Barnard visited Campbeltown in 1886, nine of the twenty-one distilleries working had three stills installed; one for wash and the others for low wine and feints. These would not produce the same style of whisky as those with two stills, nor of the ‘smuggling tradition.’ Dalaruan had long been an integral part of several well-regarded blends, most notably the Greenlees Brothers’ Lorne Highland Whisky & Old Parr. James Buchanan, founder of Victorian blending giants ‘Buchanan’s’, said that the Greenlees Brothers ‘practically held a monopoly’ on the Scotch market in London. The Greenlees Brothers, Samuel and James, were cousins of Dalaruan’s Managing Director Daniel Colville Greenlees (Son of Daniel Greenlees and Grandson of Charles Colvill) and acted as agents for Dalaruan in London, selling it alongside Hazelburn and Lagavulin. Hazelburn had been founded by Dalaruan partner Daniel Greenlees, and they both shared three stills as a defining feature. Dalintober, built by David Colville and Peter Reid in 1832, used 3-stills.

The use of three stills might just have been for convenience, but it is more likely that the distillers at Dalaruan practised triple-distillation, along with other Campbeltown distilleries. Dalaruan featured three pot-stills in the 1880s; a 2,750-gallon wash still, and two others with a capacity of 1,886 and 850 gallons respectively. Frustratingly little is mentioned about the practise, although the distillation expert Joseph Alfred Nettleton describes triple-distillation in relatively matter-of-fact terms, and the appeal of using full triple or partial-triple distillation (like Springbank) to produce a lighter spirit is understandable. 

Triple-distillation would increase the reflux during the total distillation regime, and reduce the amount of less volatile constituents reaching the completed spirit. The technique would ensure a lighter final spirit with a higher alcoholic strength than normal double-distilled batch spirit. It is not dissimilar to the distilling practise in Ireland, and the proximity and shared history of Kintyre and Ireland could have encouraged a shared distilling legacy. The recycling of the various fractions, and the deliberate extraction of strong feints from the second still, would affect the bouquet and strength of the final spirit; a higher alcohol content than the norm would be created, raising
the number of complex flavour congeners in the final spirit. Triple-distillation was expensive and time-consuming, so its usage at Dalaruan was a choice of style and flavour over efficiency. Worm-tubs were also situated outside of the Still House, parallel to a lade which ensured a steady stream of chilled water to condense the fresh distillate. This flow of cold water coupled with the frigid Campbeltown climate would result in quicker condensation of the spirit within the copper worm, helping to create a lighterbodied whisky.

How long Dalaruan had been practising triple distillation is unclear, but it is unlikely that Robert Armour would have installed three stills during the initial building of the distillery. Dalaruan was expanded and modernised at several points in its history, and Alfred Barnard visited Dalaruan in 1887 after it had recently constructed additional  warehousing in its three-acre site. Barnard was introduced to Dalaruan by Charles Colville Greenlees in his office above the entrance archway, presumably with a welcoming dram!

Dalaruan Distillery an artists’ impression – By Adrian B McMurchie.

Malting was performed on-site, with barley steeped in water from Crosshill Loch before being spread across one of Dalaruan’s four malt-barns. Distillers and brewers had begun to use the Chevalier strain of barley in the late
Victorian period, a two-rowed strain of barley as opposed to the four-row Bere favoured earlier at Dalaruan. Chevalier was more consistent and less volatile than Bere, resulting in mashes less prone to spoiling. Chevalier needed to be imported, but the sheer demand for barley from the Campbeltown distillers overwhelmed local
producers; the 10,000 bags of barley that landed by steamer in 1869 for the distilling season were the norm, not the exception. Chevalier was known for its relative resistance to disease, and recent experiments with Chevalier indicate it added malty notes when used.

Germinating barley was then malted over peat fires in one of Dalaruan’s two capital kilns, each approximately 33 feet in diameter and floored with Bridgewater tiles. Made of clay, Bridgewater tiles were known for their xceptional heat conduction. Local peat was available, but the supply was regularly superseded by shipments of peat from the Hebrides and Ireland. John McKay, Campbeltown’s last peat cutter, did not rate the Irish peat, which he described as turf! Moss peats were the best in his opinion, for they could still dry in even the worst conditions. These peats
would contain less wood (measured in lignin levels) and more sphagnum moss, adding a spicy, bracken-esque element to the Dalaruan whisky

The kilns would be the centre-piece of  Dalaruan’s most dramatic episode. In July 1896 at approximately 1am, a fire broke out in the Eastern kiln, and soon it and the adjoining stables were in flames. The fire soon spread to the granaries and  malt barns, and threatened to engulf the complex. Two watchmen on patrol sounded the alarm, but the fire would have been overwhelming had the lookout of a moored warship, the HMS Northampton, not noticed the blaze. Over 50 Blue Jackets (slang for British sailors) and their commanding officers were sent to tackle the
inferno. They ‘set to work with a will and vigour like only trained men can’ and managed with some difficulty to put out the blaze. The granaries, stores, lofts and kilns were gutted, but the major distilling equipment survived – as did the whisky.

Barnard noted the seven towering wash-backs as he made his way through Dalaruan. These wash-backs contained wash that had been previously mashed in Dalaruan’s cast-iron, two-thousand gallon mash-tun, and fermented  using brewer’s yeast. In its early years Dalaruan  used brewer’s yeast from Greenhead Brewery in Glasgow, along with casks of yeast sourced from Ayrshire of unknown heritage. Brewer’s yeast is of the same species as baking yeast, but generally of a different strain. Brewer’s  yeast produces few off-flavours and can tolerate higher alcohol concentrations, delivering more sulphuric compounds to the wash depending on the original culture. Work within the distillery could be highly dangerous. A worker at Dalaruan, Lachlan McLachlan, was killed at the distillery in
1873 after his cravat was caught on a fan-shaft and he was pulled inside the machinery, crushing him to death.

Dalaruan received its mains water from Crosshill Loch, as did the other Campbeltown distilleries. The loch was built by the Duke of Argyll explicitly to encourage the founding of distilleries by offering a clean and consistent
water supply. Crosshill Loch is filled with spring  water from further up Beinn Ghuilean, which flows over limestone before settling in the loch. Limestone adds minerals like calcium and filters out impurities. The area’s high volume of rainfall ensured the distillers were never lacking for water. Dalaruan was supplemented by two private 9-feet wells on its grounds which Alfred Barnard assured his readers in 1887 contained natural springs of the highest  quality, principally  for reducing the alcoholic strength of the whisky before it was put into casks for maturation.

Kintyre was known for the breadth of its smuggling activity, with cargoes of casks containing rum, sherry and wine hidden on outlying islands before being taken inland. Although primarily used as storage vessels, knowledge of the effect on whisky when stored in casks was known, hence this request from David Colville in 1827: 

‘Please send for my Mother ‘John Colvill’ the fill of the accompanying painted small cask of best Jamaica rum by the turn of the dutie (sic). If I had thought of it sooner I could have filled it with Dalaruan; but it is now rather late.’

Dalaruan in its early years would have been filled into rum, sherry, beer, wine, fresh oak casks whatever the distillers or their customers could lay their hands on. It was customary for clients to return their casks to the distillery once used, where they would be filled again. Although it was not a legal requirement to age whisky until 1916, it was understood that some aging was required to improve the youthful spirit. The use of a rum cask by David Colville would impart hints of tropical fruit and caramel upon the light Dalaruan whisky contained within.

Hogsheads, puncheons, quarts and octaves of Dalaruan would slumber in earthen-floored warehouses, draughty buildings lined with black fungus. Light seeped through louvered windows deliberately designed to encourage airflow. Located less than a mile from open water, the damp atmosphere of the warehouses encouraged slower maturation, resulting in smoother, saltier spirit than a drier, warmer environment would have developed. Dalaruan was aged for as much as 27 years before being sold. Casks of mature Dalaruan would be put onto carts to join the great procession down to the quay, where men and their horses would wait patiently to load cargo onto the steamers. This was a daily occurrence of Campbeltown life for over a century.

Dalaruan’s Managing Director Charles Colville Greenlees died aged 78 in 1908, followed closely by his long-time Distillery Manager and Secretary Neil Conley at the more sobering age of 59. In the last years of their lives these two experienced men of whisky would have seen the great boom of the 1890s followed by the desperate collapse
of the industry after. The result was a glut of whisky, and by 1912 production of Campbeltown Malt had reduced to half its 1904 level. A 1907 Royal Commission colloquially known as the ‘What is Whisky?’ debate caused further
consternation. The findings of the commission, that patent-still grain spirit was as much a whisky as that produced from pot-stills, was a desperate blow for the Campbeltown distillers, all of whom produced in pot-stills and felt deeply threatened by the grain distillers.

This set-back was compounded by the 1909 ‘People’s Budget’ which raised the duty on spirits by almost a third. The duty rise could not be passed on to consumers, and so firms had to take the brunt of an increase that saw whisky taxed seven times more than beer. Already battered by a change of taste that popularised milder (and cheaper) blends with high grain content, the Campbeltown malts were becoming as isolated as their geographical location. Conflict in Europe halted pot-still distillation from 1917 until 1919. An attempt was made to restart Dalaruan in 1919, but how long they worked the stills, or indeed why, is unclear. It operated in an economic environment
that had severely altered post-war; an empty cask in 1920 cost more than a full cask in bond did pre-war, while the local coalmine was about to close. Not only were the plants silent, but the workforce had been decimated by war and famine, and basic resources were in desperately short supply.

And so, Dalaruan Distillery was put up for auction and sold on April 8th 1925, along with 22,000 gallons of matured whisky distilled at Dalaruan and Glengyle. A further 46,000 gallons of stock, owned by customers, was available with the distillery, and the auction had a total upset price of £15,000. The Dalaruan whisky inside these
casks would be of light body due to the use of triple-distillation, with heather and smoke on the nose from the moss peat and malt from the Chevalier grain. The use of rum and sherry casks would add flavours of tropical fruits and raisins, while the unique Campbeltown climate would add a dry saltiness on the tongue – a taste the town’s whisky is still known for.

‘DALARUAN DISTILLERY, CAMPBELTOWN, The property of DAVID COLVILLE & CO, LTD, with frontages to BROAD STREET and MILL STREET and extending to three acres or thereby. The buildings, which are stone-built, include two kilns with maltings, a mash tun of about 14 feet in diameter, a still-house with a wash still with a capacity of 4,027 gallons (including the head) and two other stills. There are also capital duty-free warehouses and appropriate offices, stores and other appurtances of a Distillery and Malting.’ (The Scotsman, March 26th 1925).
The description of Dalaruan is one of a capable, workable distillery, although potential buyers would have had no intention of restarting the distillery. Aged stocks of whisky were the selling point, not the business in its centenary year. Dalaruan was sold, separated from its stock and within five years demolished and replaced by a municipal housing estate called Parliament Place. Parliament Place today has the exact  same boundary as Dalaruan, and a walk around the estate shows the scale of the distillery, long forgotten. Until Now.

In Dalaruan’s first full year of distillation, between 1826 and 1827, the distillery ground 7,553 bushels of malt, resulting in 67,646 imperial gallons of wash. This produced roughly 10,232 gallons of Dalaruan, an amount of spirit which could fill 189 hogshead barrels to be laid down for aging in the damp warehouses whipped by the incessant
coastal wind. Dalaruan’s one-year old whisky was valued at 8/ per gallon in late 1827, and the distillery’s stock of spirits sat at 578.82 gallons at proof and 503.6 gallons at 13 over proof.
Dalaruan’s production was to increase to 14,295 gallons of spirit from 144,270 gallons of wash in 1828. The quantity of proof spirit produced by the Campbeltown distilleries in 1835 was 1,934,856 gallons, contributing nearly a million pounds in duty to the exchequer. A comparative look at Dalaruan compared to other Campbeltown
distilleries between 1831-33 shows a distillery of medium output for the area: Between September 1879 and August 1880, Dalaruan shipped 73,380 gallons of whisky out of  Campbeltown, to Glasgow and beyond. Campbeltown’s population rose from 4,597 to 9,539 between 1775 and 1841 as people sought work in this new industrial centre. The importance of the whisky industry to employment in the area cannot be over-stated; 250 men out of the 9,749 people recorded in the 1881 census were registered as working at distilleries. This means that 2.6% of  Campbeltown’s population was directly employed by distilleries, a figure does not include auxiliary industries like carters, cartwrights, coopers, maltsters, millers, engineers, clerks and the many other professions dependent on whisky.

1. Stills          
The use of three stills and practise of triple-distillation was a key factor in Dalaruan’s flavour                                      profile. It would create a lighter-bodied spirit with a higher alcohol content than usual.
2. Worm Tubs
Placed outside the distillery in the cold Campbeltown air, the copper worms were engulfed by a constant flow of chilled water. The coolness of this flow would result in a quicker condensation of the alcohol vapour back into spirit, adding to the lightness of the spirit.
3. Campbeltown
The unique climate and geography of Campbeltown effected the spirit in different ways. Close to open water, the cold, damp climate of Dalaruan’s warehousing ensured a smoother, saltier whisky with a slower rate of maturation. The natural brilliance of Campbeltown Loch ensured steamers containing Dalaruan whisky could leave the peninsula quickly to be sold to a wider market.
4. Water
Dalaruan like the other Campbeltown distilleries used mains water from Crosshill Loch, but was also supplemented by two private wells. Fresh springs sent water filtered through limestone to Crosshill Loch, which added mineral elements such as calcium.
5. Peat
Local peat was cut from mossy moorland, and thus had less woody elements and smells of bracken and heather when burned.  

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– Reborn MMXV