Some of Scotland's distilleries enjoy beautiful settings. And some of them are simply extremely attractive groups of buildings in their own right. Fettercairn Distillery is both extremely pretty and enjoys a truly magnificent setting. Both can be seen to best effect from Fettercairn itself, from where the distillery's grey roofed and whitewashed buildings stand out strikingly amid the rich farmland of the Howe of the Mearns against the foothills of the Cairngorms, which rise steadily to the north-west.
Standing at the southern end of the most westerly pass over this part of the Cairngorms, the Cairn o' Mount road, Fettercairn saw plenty of illicitly produced and smuggled whisky pass by en route from the stills further north to markets in central Scotland in the years to the early 1800s. In 1823 the Government of the day took steps to eradicate widespread illicit distilling across Scotland by economic means. They introduced a number of taxation and licencing changes that made legitimate distillation a much more attractive proposition than it had been previously. The result was a significant reduction in the number of illicit stills, and a boom in the number of legal distilleries. 1823 can be seen as the year in which the modern Scotch whisky industry was born.
In 1823 Fettercairn formed part of the Fasque estate, and the then laird, Sir Alexander Ramsay, was one of many to take advantage of the new legislation. He converted an existing cornmill at Nethermill on the outskirts of Fettercairn into a distillery, and Fettercairn Distillery opened for business in 1824. The clear water of the Burn of Cauldcots, which hitherto had powered the mill, now provided the main raw material for the whisky, while most of the barley was locally sourced.
The distillery's first tenant was James Stewart. Perhaps illicit distillation hadn't entirely been eradicated by the 1823 legislation, because in 1827 he wrote to the Board of Excise complaining that they were not doing enough to stamp out the competition he was facing from illegal stills continuing to operate. Early in 1828 he himself fell foul of the law when he was convicted for using worts - the liquor from the mashing of the malted barley - which were stronger than legally permitted. He was fined £21 for this irregularity. This may not seem very much, but it was a sum equal to the whole of his annual rent to the Fasque estate. Incidentally, you can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
In 1829 the Fasque estate was sold to Sir John Gladstone, later 1st Baronet of Fasque (and father of six children including future Prime Minister, William Gladstone). He brought in professional management for the distillery and it was significantly expanded over the following 20 years. In 1851 the estate passed to William Gladstone's older brother, Sir Thomas Gladstone, 2nd Baronet of Fasque, and one David Durie took over the lease for the distillery from his father. Within a decade, the distillery employed 16 people.
David Durie retired in 1888 at the age of 58. When he died eleven years later, he left what was, for the time, the considerable fortune of £47,355. Shortly after Durie's departure, a serious fire destroyed a large part of the distillery and much of the whisky stock. It took until 1890 for the distillery to be returned to production. Fettercairn Distillery was sold to Joseph Hobbs in 1938, and later to Moore Medicinal Holdings. In 1966 the distillery was enlarged, with the number of stills doubled from two to four. In 1968 it was purchased by the owners of the Tomintoul Distillery, and in 1973 both Tomintoul and Fettercairn Distilleries were acquired by Whyte & Mackay Distillers Ltd.
Today the distillery's product forms an important component in Whyte & Mackay's blended whisky. It can also be found as the single malt Scotch whisky, "Old Fettercairn".
Visitors to Fettercairn Distillery find a welcome that is as warm as the distillery itself is bright and attractive. You are first guided by signs from the car park along the front of the distillery to the visitor centre at its east end. En route you pass under the enormous "Fettercairn Distillery Co." painted on a south facing wall. This is of a style and size which wouldn't look out of place on one of Islay's coastal distilleries, and certainly adds to the overall attractiveness here.
The distillery itself, though it retains the pagoda roof so associated with Scottish distilleries, does not have the kiln or maltings functionally associated with a pagoda. Instead, in common with most distilleries, the process begins with the receipt of the malted barley from industrial maltings, and proceeds through mashing in the mash tun, fermenting in the washbacks, and distillation. The distillery also stores its product in bonded warehouses on site for the years of the maturation process as it slowly becomes Scotch whisky.
Much of the production process takes place in a large hall home to the stills and the mash tun, and visitors view this from the vantage point of a high gallery. The four stills are in two pairs of two, with each wash still next to its accompanying spirit still.
The sharp eyed might notice the unique feature of the spirit stills at Fettercairn before it is pointed out by your tour guide. The neck of each is cooled by water sprayed onto it by a spray bar that encircles the neck. The cooling water then runs down the outside of the neck of the spirit still before what's not been steamed off en route is collected by a collar at the foot of the neck. The effect of cooling the neck is to cause more of the heavier spirits that would otherwise pass straight into the condenser to recondense inside the still itself and fall back into the pot. This gives the finished product a lighter and more floral finish than would otherwise be the case.