A Distillery in Brewers Clothing

First Society bottling in 1991.

Lochside was established in 1781 as a brewery; and much of the distillery, rebuilt in the late nineteenth century, reflects a Victorian stability and sturdiness.

There is still a dignity about the place, but the once bright yellow paint has faded to a cream, and the field opposite, which once was the site of an active bottling plant and well-stocked warehouses, now supports long grasses and wild flowers. Only the piers to the distillery gates with the place name 'McNab Avenue' mark what was once there.

The distillery still stands on the opposite side of the road, but not for long. Lochside Distillery may be scheduled for demolition. On one of Scotland's soft days in July, as the Open began in eastern Scotland, I drove along a country road leading towards Carnoustie. But I turned north, away from the legendary golf course, to visit two hallmarks in their own right, the Lochside Distillery and Charlie Sharpe, the retired General Manager. After completing his national service in the Navy, Mr Sharpe joined Lochside in 1958, the year following its conversion from a brewery to a distillery. He oversaw the making of whisky during the forty years it operated as a distillery. And he now stands as her final caretaker while decisions about her future use are determined.

It seems fitting that the man who witnessed the distillery's entry into the whisky world should also be her guardian as she leaves it. We sat in the former boardroom of the distillery at a solid old desk with remembrances all around us of the whisky distilled at Lochside. It was the perfect place to hear Charlie Sharpe recreate the life at Lochside during the last half of the twentieth century.

When Lochside began its life as a brewery in the late eighteenth century, the locale was known as Clayshades, referring to the clay area to the south and west of the present distillery. Sometime during its early life, the name was changed because title deeds in 1830 refer to the brewery as Lochside, coming from 'Mary's Loch' situated in the nearby region. James Deuchar acquired the brewery in 1833 and later embarked upon expanding the water supply and rebuilding the brewery which stands on the site today.

Charles Doig, the architect responsible for designing several of the distilleries in the Elgin area, constructed the new buildings to reflect the Bauhaus design used in Germany and Belgium. The tall sturdy tower, resembling a castle keep, housed the equipment which began the brewing process with hot and cold water on the highest floor and finished with beer on the lowest floor. Waiting transport could then quickly cart the final product away to local pubs and Tyneside markets in Newcastle.

Interestingly, for the first half of this century the brewery transported beer by ship from the Montrose dockside to the Newcastle dockside on vessels called 'Beeries'. This practice continued until 1956 when Scottish & Newcastle Breweries bought Lochside and promptly closed it and moved all its operations to Edinburgh. Shortly afterward, in 1957, Lochside was purchased by McNab Distilleries Ltd., a registered company owned by several investors including Joseph Hobbs.

Hobbs was already known in the whisky industry because of his associations with the grain distillery at Hillside as well as several other distilleries, including Ben Nevis in Fort William. His interest in Lochside was in its potential to produce grain whisky, its sole product until 1961.

In the early 1960's, larger grain distilleries were built, most notably at Invergordon, which were capable of producing greater quantities of grain whisky more economically. Hobbs, sensing what was to come, had some of the brewing equipment converted into pot stills. He distilled both grain and malt whisky at Lochside and used it in blending, which was done at the distillery. This was in keeping with Hobb's idea of 'blending at birth' which combined both grain and malt whisky as soon as they were distilled. Many of these practices ended after Joseph Hobb's death in 1964 and eventually, the distillery itself closed in 1971.

Lochside remained closed for only two years when Destilerias Y Crianza Del Whisky, abbreviated to DYC, acquired the distillery in order to improve the quality of the Spanish blends by using Scottish malt whisky. Most of the whisky produced at Lochside was shipped to Spain until 1996 when the last of the mature whisky left the distillery warehouse. But parallel to the production of single malt for DYC in Segovia, a blended Scotch whisky was also bottled on the site of the Lochside Distillery.

Later, in 1987, the owners decided to bottle their single malt as well. They released a ten year old Lochside single malt, which had a subtle and delicate nose with a hint of peat. The flavours included a vanilla sweetness with echoes of the peat, initially found in the nosing. The whisky sales for DYC in Spain were so significant that, consequently, the company became part of Allied Distillers in 1992.

Production of Lochside single malt ended in June of the same year, and the remaining cases of whisky were then sold until all stocks were depleted in 1996. At that time the distillery was closed and the remaining staff were made redundant. Today, most of the distillery equipment remains in place. Even though DYC never used the grain stills at Lochside, they still sit in the distillery as do the cast iron mash tun and the nine stainless steel washbacks.

Both the mash tun and wash-backs have no covers; and when they were filled, they stood open, releasing their aromas of cooking mash and sweet 'cider-like' fermentation into the tun room. The still room boasts four stills, each very similarly designed with lyne arms that have a slight downward angle, and somewhat tall thin necks that form the traditional onion shape where it joins the shoulders of the stills.

The spirit was then aged in bourbon casks in warehouses that no longer exist. Portions of the old distillery may follow the fate of the old bottling plant and warehouses to make room for a supermarket, as happened to the old North Port Brechin Distillery. And some of the remaining buildings may be converted into flats.

Many people in the area feel strongly that, at least, the old Bauhaus tower should be left standing as a respected local landmark. During most of its two hundred year life, Lochside wore the clothing of a brewer, and only dressed as a distiller for its last forty years. Yet, Lochside seems to have worn every coat in the distillers closet during its last half century. The distillery produced both grain and single malt, then warehoused the whisky, and finally blended it and bottled it. And because the single malt was sold for fewer than ten years, it may join the distillery as only a memory.

Only the bottle on the collector's shelf and the landmark tower in Montrose will mark the whisky and the place. Soon the solid stone of the distillery, the old customs and excise office, and the copper stills may fall to the wrecking ball. And Charles Doig's architecture, the whisky, and the distillery, having weathered all the vagaries of the twentieth century, will be gone.