The Lost Distilleries : Jericho/ Benachie Distillery

Jericho/ Benachie Distillery – 1824 – 1913 

Tucked away in a valley near the town of Insch are the remains of the Jericho Distillery, which lived and thrived for eighty years in a secluded fold in the Aberdeenshire hills. Protected from the harshest Northern Scottish elements, a traveller would be hard pressed to find this sunken, remote distillery hidden in the wild landscape. The famed whisky journalist Alfred Barnard described his journey from Glendronach to Benachie, as Jericho was known after 1884, as ‘one of the most bleak and loneliest we have traversed.’

William Smith established the distillery in 1822, in a location that was perfect for small scale whisky production. The area was famed for barley production and the surrounding hills blessed with copious amounts of peat. The nearby Jordan Burn supplied the distillery with a steady stream of clear water. Its remote location helped the distillery remain concealed and difficult for the excise-men to monitor before distillation became legal. While the accompanying farm provided the main source of income, Smith had everything he needed to develop a successful pre-industrial farm distillery.

This remoteness, however, was not as appealing to the owners of the distillery later in the century. The nearest railway station was at Insch, which was five miles away. Throughout its life, the distillery was associated with a procession of lumbering Clydesdale horses pulling carts to and from the distillery. Later in the 19th century, post-industrial distillery design made the most of the growing railway network to connect with the blending hubs in Leith and Glasgow. Although Jericho was re-named Benachie and successfully modernised, transporting its product remained pre-industrial, and the long-term impracticality of its location continued to be an issue.

Jericho Distillery was founded in 1822 by William Smith, a deeply religious farmer and the brother of a preacher from the nearby Parish of Oyne. Production started quickly, and by November 1824 ‘Whisky from Jericho Distillery’was advertised for sale in Aberdeen.

Jericho Distillery Whisky from Jericho Distillery is to be had in Aberdeen only
at the shop of Will. Milne, 39 Broad street.

Successive owners at the distillery made the most of newspaper advertising, and frequently promoted the whisky in the small ads of the Aberdeen Journal. William Smith, pious as he was, saw no tension between the tenets of his religion and the particulars of the whisky industry. Drawing on biblical associations with Jordan and a touch of irony, he named his new enterprise Jericho Distillery after the burn that flowed through the settlement. Early 19th century Aberdeenshire was infamous for its illicit distilling, and it is a possibility that Smith had been involved in the production of illegal spirit before the Excise Act of 1823 removed the advantages enjoyed by the unlicensed distiller. Many of the distillery’s qualities, particularly in these early years, are reminiscent of illicit farm distilleries whose licensees made the transition from clandestine smuggler to respectable and profitable enterprises.

Production in the early years was on a modest scale. The extremely small stills and rudimentary equipment was further evidence of the recent and short transition from unlicensed to legal distiller. The small still whisky proved popular, and was sold throughout Aberdeenshire. Its reputation and fortunes progressed and the distillery was in good hands when Smith passed on the distillery to his stepson, assistant and heir John Maitland in 1864.

Aberdeen Journal – April 2nd 1864.
William Smith, distiller at Jericho distillery Culsalmond, begs to intimate that he has retired from the business which he has so long carried on, and it is now transferred to Mr John Maitland, who is thoroughly acquainted with it from many years’ experience at the distillery; and whom therefore, he can comfortably recommended to his old customers and dealers in general. He cannot make this intimation without taking the opportunity of offering at the same time, his acknowledgements for the patronage he has uniformly received since he entered the business.
– – – – – – – – – –
John Maitland, distiller at Jericho, with reference to the foregoing intimation begs to assure the old customers of Mr Smith and the public generally, that he will make it his study at all times to serve them with goods of the best quality, on fair terms and with all attention to the orders with which he may be favoured.

Maitland was aged just 25 when he took control of the business, and had big ambitions for the distillery. He modernised and expanded it, and recognising the transport question hired William Milne, who bred and trained Clydesdale horses. Milne’s charges made the regular trek down the track pulling carts laden with casks bound for Insch station and the market beyond. Nether Jericho farm was developed into a community centre with a shop and public house. Here Maitland married his sweetheart Isabel Patterson, who gave him five children. Sadly, Jericho’s progress was halted by the untimely and premature death of Maitland in 1879, aged just 40. Jericho was silent for several years, until William Callander and John Graham purchased the lease for the distillery in 1883.

Highland Distillery and Farm to be Let

The Jericho Distillery and Farm on the estate of Shulagreen are to be let on a 19 years lease, with entry at Whitsunday. The distillery is within five miles of Insch railway station on the Great North of Scotland Railway.
The still and other apparatus have all been recently renewed and are in excellent working condition. Five hundred gallons can easily be manufactured per week.

Callander and Graham were both merchants and brothers-in-law, and immediately made several changes. Jericho was renamed Benachie after the nearby mountain, although the whisky was still sold as Jericho for a number of years. The still-house and mill were re-designed to allow capacity to double from 25,000 to 50,000 gallons. New warehousing was constructed and the Benachie brand was developed, taking advantage of the marketing potential afforded by the clever slogan below:

’There’s nae sair heids in Benachie!’

Benachie’s expansion coincided with a significant decade of distillery construction and rapidly increasing production levels in the industry. The last decade of the 19th century created huge profits for both producers and blenders, with Jericho whisky enjoying the fame of an 1890’s music-hall one-liner in the Evening Telegraph.

A: What sort of whisky was that? B: Oh! The Jericho!
A: Is that where it comes from? B: No, that’s where those who drink it go to!

However, the collapse of the Pattison brothers blending enterprise in 1898 created a huge loss of confidence to the industry, and Benachie’s fortunes suffered alongside that of many other distilleries. The distillery traded through the early 20th Century, but upon the retirement of William Callander in 1913 the distillery fell silent. Callander’s son and heir William junior continued to work the farm but due to a lack of finance and poor returns, left the distillery dormant.

The distillery used the natural flow of the Jordan Burn to drive its watermills and power other areas of the distillery. As production increased and machine- driven process introduced, more water was required to support the expanded demand, and water pools were built to increase the power potential of the mill.

Flow from the pools augmented the “natural” supply from the burn, and allowed the water wheel to turn the mill for longer periods of time. The Jordan Burn had long been attributed mystical powers by superstitious locals, and it is hard to understate the value of the swift flow to the quality of the whisky. Filtered by its mountain source, the Jordan Burn eventually becomes a tributary to the River Ure which runs into the sea near Stonehaven. Famously clear, the liquid of the Burn created the smooth, mild taste that the whisky was long remembered for. Such was its importance, when the Benachie Distillery Syndicate attempted to buy the distillery in 1920, the water was particularly noted as an integral part of the deal.

Barley was readily available, and was produced on the farm and in countless other settlements in the area. The distillery mainly used the Bere strain of barley to produce its malt. Although the most popular barley for use in malt whisky, Bere had its limitations. It produced grains of differing sizes, which created problems during malting and mashing. Bere was prone to rot in wet years and therefore distillers paid less for Bere than other barley strains. Bere was occasionally passed off as more expensive strains of barley, causing Maitland to complain in the local press in August 1869.

To the farmers of Aberdeenshire and adjoining counties:

The undersigned GRAIN MERCHANTS and MALTSTERS having of late years suffered serious loss from the prevalent and growing practice of beating bere and barley too close, respectfully request them to DISCONTINUE such practice; and they hereby give notice that in every case where the vegetative power of the Grain appears to be injured by the practice complained of, the undersigned will decline to purchase such injured Grain, or will only buy it as of inferior quality, and at a reduced rate:-
WILLIAM BLACK – Devanha Distillery
HENRY OGG – Strathdee Distillery
JOHN MANSON – Glen Garioch Distillery
JOHN BEGG – Lochnagar Distillery
WALTER SCOTT – Glendronach Distillery
JOHN MAITLAND – Jericho Distillery

Like others of its era, the distillery would have utilised a combination of wild yeast and home-made cultures in the early years. Wild yeasts were air-borne and notoriously unpredictable, and did not tolerate low ambient temperatures. Home-made cultures from potatoes and sugar were prone to creating off notes, and were frequently full of bacteria and other contaminants. These pre-industrial elements made distilling a precarious and nervous practise for many years. Progress in yeast technology came in 1881, when chemist Dr Andrew Squires approached Distiller’s Company Limited to develop with them his Vienna method, a technique to create dry yeast through deliberate manipulation of the mashing process. The result was a lighter and transportable product that was free of contaminants. This revolutionised the distilling process in Scotland. Dried yeast offered far greater reliability than wild yeast, and allowed the newly modernised Benachie to produce wash of consistent gravity. The quality and flavour of whisky was significantly improved as a result.

Peat was readily available in the Aberdeenshire area where Jericho resided; indeed, it was noted as a selling point of the distillery when it was put up for sale in 1883. Derived from decomposed moss, shrub, leaf mush and heather, the peat would have added an earthy, woody note to the whisky. Used extensively by farm distilleries like Jericho in the distillation process, including to fire the stills, peat was still utilised by the modernised Benachie as the sole fuel to dry the barley, leaving an indelible mark on the character of the spirit. This was in part to preserve the taste of the whisky that had served the distillery so well, but also for practical purposes. No other fuel source was available locally, and the lack of industrial transport meant that the distillery remained shackled to peat as its primary fuel source.

The distillery’s original mash tun was a small, hand- turned wooden vessel. Operating this primitive apparatus was a tiresome task, and the resulting mash was frequently lumpy with sugars poorly extracted. When John Maitland instigated his renovation and modernisation of Jericho in the late 1860s, an easily- cleanable iron tun was installed, measuring twelve feet in diameter and four feet in depth. The new tun had a mill-driven mechanical arm with revolving stirring gear attached. The rakes turned the mash, an automated process that offered better extraction of sugars and more consistent wort.

In 1830, the distillery had six wooden washbacks, each averaging 880 gallons. These would have been difficult to keep clean, particularly after fermentation using yeast cultures that were potentially contaminated. Yeast activity was largely temperature driven, which meant that fermentation times in the washbacks could vary, and the strength of the wash was never consistent. Jericho probably aimed to run off a wash six days per week, although in earlier years at least, the volatility of primitive yeasts ensured that completing all six was never guaranteed. There were four washbacks in the Benachie era, each with the capacity of 3000 gallons. Therefore the volume of wash at the distillery was more than doubled:

6 × 880 = 5,280 gallons wash capacity
4 × 3000 – 12,000 gallons wash capacity

Both Jericho and, in later years, Benachie specialised in small still whisky distillation, a continuation of techniques originating from the unlicensed pre- 1823 era. A comparison of still capacity shows the progression made by the distillery:

1830 Jericho:
Wash Still 244 gallons Spirit Still 67.5 gallon

These stills would have produced an extremely heavy and oily spirit. When the still house was re-designed in the early 1880’s, Callander and Graham installed new stills:

1884 Benachie:
Wash Still 1400 gallons Spirit Still 706 gallons

Therefore wash still capacity was increased fivefold, and spirit still capacity tenfold. The new spirit still of 1884 was characteristically squat in shape but with a taller neck, meaning the Benachie spirit would have been slighly lighter than that of Jericho.

In the earlier years, whisky from Jericho would not have been aged, and it was primarily sold in the local area. A debter’s notice from 1830 stated that the spirit was of “…acknowledged superiority” and for the whisky there was “…always a ready market.”

However an advert in the Aberdeen Journal of 1849 showed that there was a taste for aged whisky for those who desired it:

THE SUBSCRIBER respectfully intimates that in addition to his select and varied stock of wines, he continues to hold in bond and duty paid, a stock of the very finest HIGHLAND WHISKY, lightly matured in Madeira and Sherry casks, for which TODDY cannot be surpassed. For the convenience of parties sending into England, has always in bond, ready for immediate shipment, casks containing around 20 GALLONS each.
William Walker Wine Merchant, Tea Dealer and General Importer, 59 Union Street Aberdeen.

The Maitland era marked a time when sherry casks became increasingly popular in the whisky industry – evolving from a means of transporting spirit, towards a technique of maturing whisky for those who could afford to buy it. In 1870 sherry matured whisky from Jericho was advertised as a drink for the discerning gentleman traveller. The Steam Yacht Hotel was situated on Porca Quay in Aberdeen.

STEAM YACHT HOTEL New Pier, 13th June 1870.
Alexander Ross, new tenant of this hotel, has the pleasure in intimating to the general public that he has now got his house in first rate order, with new bed and table linen and bedrooms comfortably furnished. A.R. would especially call the attention of Visitors to his present Stock of very fine Jericho Whisky, matured in Sherry casks: the flavour and mildness of which are really superior. All other liquors of first quality.

In 1886 Benachie participated in a “National Exhibit” in Edinburgh “The pure product of 100 distilleries of Scotland – in wood and fully matured.” It is clear that whisky matured in sherry casks was becoming increasingly popular, although because of cost there remained a taste for new spirit. The spirit vat at the redesigned Benachie had a capacity of 1100 gallons, which in modern terms would fill around 18 sherry hogsheads. Warehousing at Benachie was expanded and the distillery had capacity to store and mature 400 casks. If we assume a full distilling season of 40 weeks, then average annual output, was approximately 44,000 gallons which filled 733 hogsheads. Production remained far higher than warehousing capacity, which tells us that even in the last decade of the 19th century, a significant percentage of Benachie was sold and consumed as unaged spirit.

The remoteness and secluded setting that made Jericho such an appealing prospect in the 1820s had by the turn of the century become Benachie’s major challenge. Set against a backdrop of industrial distillery construction, the expansion of the railways and the evolution from peat to coal as fuel source, Benachie was poorly placed to develop in the 20th century. Despite having modern plant and stills, Benachie remained reliant on peat for fuel, on horse- power to transport spirit and almost entirely on the local market to sell its product. The train station at Insch was expanded in the 1880’s but there is no evidence of plans to construct a branch line to the distillery.

Casks of Jericho’s sherry-matured Scotch whisky were taken by Clydesdale horse to Insch railway station for onward transport to Aberdeen. By Adrian B McMurchie.

Benachie Distillery remained independently owned during a period of industry consolidation leaving independent distillers with a trading disadvantage for their more expensive product. There still remained the lucrative and rapidly expanding market for blended Scotch. The “Pattison Crash” of 1898 ended an era of great prosperity within Scotch whisky, and created another wave of industry consolidation as many smaller and independent distilleries fell away. Benachie spirit was not used in blended Scotch – the distillery’s sales were primarily in Aberdeenshire only – a marketplace that became increasingly crowded by cheaper whiskies. The final years of Benachie were marked by declining sales, loss of market and compressed profit margins. In 1909 duty on whisky was increased from 8 to 11 shillings a gallon. Successive duty increases over the next decade meant that by 1920, duty reached 72 shillings per gallon. The duty increase had the inevitable impact on Benachie’s competitiveness and pricing, and when William Callander retired in 1913, his son and heir felt there was little point in continuing.

In 1920 Lawrence McDonald Chalmers attempted to purchase the farm, distillery and distillery license on behalf of the Benachie Distillery Syndicate (BDS), who intended to re-start production at Benachie. William Callander junior sold the farm and distillery but not the license, leaving the BDS fighting in the Court of Session to determine who owned the place. The court found in favour of Callander junior against the BDS. Benachie remained silent, and would never produce again.

As the Second World War dawned, a dance was held to celebrate a wedding in the old malt barns of Benachie. An old cask of Benachie was pulled out, probably the last in existence. The wedding guests danced the night away, emptying the cask in the process. It was assumed that they would be the last people to taste the delicious, sherry-matured whisky that made first Jericho then later Benachie so famous.

Until now.

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Jericho/ Benachie

– Reborn MMXIV –

Please be aware that the remains of Jericho Distillery are situated on private land, and we ask that you fully respect the owner’s privacy.