There's something about a distillery. They come in many different shapes, sizes and enjoy a variety of settings, but most people who have visited a few would probably claim they could recognise one if they saw one. Deanston Distillery is just a little bit different. It was established in 1966 in a complex of buildings that until the previous year had housed a cotton mill and which, at one time, had employed over 1,000 workers. As a result it would be easy to drive past without realising what it is unless you notice the signs.
Although Deanston Distillery has been in production for most of the last half century, it has only had a visitor centre and conducted tours in quite recent times. Because of this it is less well known than it should be. That will doubtless change. The distillery is a fascinating place to visit and has some unique features inherited from its past life as a mill. And once owners Burn Stewart decided to open the doors to visitors, they did so with considerable commitment and enthusiasm. This shows in the high quality of the visitor facilities and in the efforts that have been made to overcome the accessibility issues inherent in most old buildings, and certainly in most old buildings housing distilleries. This is looked at in more detail on the distillery's own website: see the links above right.
Deanston's major selling point as a visitor attraction comes, however, from its location. The A84 from Stirling up through Doune to Callander and beyond is one of the major routes taken by visitors travelling to and from the Highlands, and Deanston Distillery lies less than half a mile from it. We can see the distillery becoming a fixture on tours of the Highlands: just as we can see its excellent "Coffee Bothy" cafe becoming a stopping off point in its own right for those travelling up and down the A84.
To get to Deanston Distillery, assuming you are travelling north-west along the A84, you take a left just before the narrow bridge over the River Teith at the south end of Doune. You then take a right turn to follow alongside the river, and the distillery is on your left, beside the road looking across it to the river. There is a visitors' parking area at the near end of the range of buildings, and disabled parking spaces outside the entrance to the visitor centre, which is at the far end of the lower part of the complex of buildings. Beyond the distillery is the planned village of Deanston, built to house workers employed in the cotton mill.
The visitor centre itself comprises a well stocked shop and reception area, with, next door, the Coffee Bothy. There is also a very nicely set up sampling room, and areas with information about the history of the distillery and the whisky it produces. Deanston Distillery offers its visitors a choice of tours, tailored to different levels of interest, enthusiasm and availability of time. They range from a 50 minute tour that gives an overview of the different stages in the process, plus a dram: to a weekly 90 minute tour with a four dram tasting at the end. The longer tours need to be pre-booked.
Our own tour started with a visit to a feature that is unique in a Scottish distillery: the water powered turbine that provides all the electricity for the plant. This may be a far cry from the days when Deanston was home to four 11m water wheels powered by the largest mill lade in Scotland, but it is fascinating to find that in an age when environmental concerns have brought us full circle in our view of water power, the River Teith now provides power for the complex.
Like the large majority of Scotch whisky distilleries, Deanston buys in its malted barley from industrial maltings, so your tour picks up the process at the milling stage, where a fine red Porteus mill that probably dates back to the mid 1960s does its business. As an aside, although Deanston does not have a traditional floor maltings it's impossible not to wonder whether the upper, apparently disused, floors of the five story building at the far end of the complex provide the scope for one to be added at some point in the future. Probably not, but it would certainly add to the profile of the product and bring another unusual element to the tours.
Back in the real world, you move on to the area housing the mash tun. Mash tuns range from stainless steel imitations of UFOs right through to something altogether more traditional. What you find at Deanston is truly traditional in form, looking as if it was made with offcuts from the Forth Rail Bridge bolted together, open topped, and with an old-style agitator circling the interior of the tun like a piece of agricultural machinery. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
The mash room at Deanston is home to a series of large washbacks, apparently made from steel. The floor of the room is made of a fairly wide steel mesh, and this allows you, unusually, to easily appreciate the full height of the washbacks: like an iceberg, the bulk of a washback is usually hidden out of sight. The tours then move on to the still room. Two pairs of stills are arrayed in a single line and they are beautifully burnished to a deep copper glow. It might seem an odd way to talk about what is essentially an industrial process, but the still room at Deanston is simply magnificent. All four stills have enlarged "onions" at the base of their necks, and the lyne arms travel almost horizontally to condensers set within the front wall of the room.
At Deanston the filling and storing of casks is all done within the same set of buildings as the rest of the process. The bonded warehouses use what was once the vaulted weaving shed, and this vaulting, complete with the familiar smell of the angels getting their share, brings real atmosphere. The output of Burn Stewart's Tobermory Distillery on Mull, which does not have its own warehousing, is also brought to Deanston to mature.
What was at the time known as the Adelphi Mill was built in 1785 to a designed by Richard Arkwright for the Buchanan brothers. In 1799 Deanston was described by a visitor as: "a village inhabited chiefly by the labouring people belonging to the Adelphi cotton-work, where upwards of nine hundred persons are employed." After a serious fire, the mill was rebuilt on an even more ambitious scale during the 1820s, employing well over 1000 adults and children. The older buildings you see today date back to this time.
The mill wheels at the Adelphi Mill continued to turn until 1949. Redevelopment and expansion of the mill in 1950 meant that other forms of power came into use but despite this - or perhaps because of it - the mill closed in 1965. Uniquely in Scotland, it was then converted into a distillery. Deanston Distillery closed in 1982, but was purchased and reopened in 1990 by Burn Stewart, and has been in operation since then.