Distillery bosses resurrect 130-year-old still

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Jim McEwan is preparing to create new blends with the experimental stills

By Cara Sulieman

WHEN a tiny Hebridean distillery needed to bring in more equipment to meet rising demand, they ditched plans to buy new state of the art machinery and decided to resurrect a 130-year-old still, thought to be the oldest in the world.

Islay distillers Bruichladdich are almost ready to begin conjuring new whiskies with the still used when the original factory opened in 1881.

The company have also brought in a second still – dubbed Ugly Betty by staff – that they rescued from the closed-down Allied Distillers, near Dumbarton.

Distillery boss Mark Reynier said that they were both unique and would allow them to “play” with their spirits.

Increasing demand

Both are now in place whilst the finishing touches are put on.

They are resting on temporary girders three feet in the air whilst stone walls are built underneath to keep them in place.

Mr Reynier said: “We had planned to bring in new state of the art stills to try and meet demand for Bruichladdich which has seen us already increasing production eight fold since reopening the distillery 10 years ago.

“But our master distiller Jim McEwan refused to part company with the existing still which should be well past its prime.

“We brought in the only company in Britain capable of refurbishing the still, Forsyth’s from Rothes on Speyside and now it should be good for another number of years.

“The fact that it’s still going is more unusual. Most distilling groups would have chucked it out a long time ago but we want to keep it for as long as we can as it gives the spirit an authentic flavour.

“Stills usually only last about 40 years or so; any longer than that and they risk imploding because of the pressure.

“But this one was made with thicker copper walls to withstand a coal fire underneath.

“And because of various problems in the first few decades of the business, they weren’t used as much as they should’ve been.

“So the combination of the design and the usage means that this one is still able to be used.”

“Cocked up”

But it is the Lomond Still – nicknamed Ugly Betty thanks to its unsightly appearance – that created the most excitement, and problems, for the company.

It was bought as scrap from Allied Distillers when they were closing down their site and was sailed down the Clyde on a barge to reach Bruichladdich.

But when they got it to the distillery, they realised that they hadn’t taken their measurements correctly.

Mr Reynier said: “We cocked up and when we tried to get the Lomond still inside we realised it wouldn’t fit.

“So we had to cut it in half and weld it back together once it was in place.”

Despite the problems, Master distiller Jim McEwan insists it was quite a find for the small whisky company.

“Alchemist”

Mr McEwan said: “Allied sold us the scrap from their distillery for a knock down price and I don’t think they realised that the still was still in perfectly good condition under the layers of oxide and dust that had built up as it lay forgotten.”

And the firm has big plans for their new kit.

Mr Reynier added: “It was designed specifically for one particular Glasgow distillery and was an experimental still.

“We’ve adapted it even further using our own skills and ideas and are waiting to see what clever little things it can do.

“It is an unusual piece of kit and we are going to use it for some unusual things. We have got some ideas but will have to wait and see.

“Jim McEwan is our in-house alchemist – it will be interesting to see what tunes he can play with it.”

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