For every high-profile individual in the Scotch whisky industry, there are dozens more figures quietly working away in the background. Even the great Charles Doig, doyen of distillery architects and designers, has only become better known in relatively recent times, so it should come as no surprise that William Delmé-Evans remains a rather obscure figure
WORDS: GAVIN D SMITH
Born in Wales during 1920, the exotic ‘Delmé’ came from a splash of French blood, but the Speyside Grants also figured in his family lineage. Interviewed during 2002, Delmé-Evans recalled that his first acquaintance with alcohol production came when he was aged around seven. “I used to go down to Carmarthenshire for my summer holidays,” he explained. “My aunt used to brew two hogsheads of beer every year, which she plied to the tenants on Quarter Day when they came to pay their rents.”
His first visit to a Scotch whisky distillery also came at a relatively tender age. A fellow student at Wellingborough College in Northamptonshire was the son of an excise officer, and so holiday times from the age of 12 tended to see the young Delmé-Evans exploring Scotland’s distilleries, developing a love for them in the process.
Despite this infatuation, however, Delmé-Evans trained as an agriculturalist and then as a surveyor, going on to purchase a Northamptonshire farm. War service was ruled out by the onset of tuberculosis, and a period of enforced rest allowed him to renew his passion for the whisky industry, studying the science and engineering of distilling.
“The well that they drew the water from was still in existence, and I managed to get a sample and sent it for analysis,” he recalled. “The result came back and I knew the water was almost perfect for distilling. By the end of the week, I had purchased the building.
“With the help of my schoolfriend’s father, who kept me right on the excise requirements, I went ahead and built Tullibardine distillery. In 1949 the distillery was completed and commissioned to production. By 1953, my own health was fading a bit, however, as I had been working too hard. After a while, along came the firm Brodie Hepburn, who were whisky brokers, and I obtained a fair and reasonable price for Tullibardine.”
“There were more than 400 men in total, working on the distillery, building houses and enlarging the nearby hotel … there were some awful fights on Friday and Saturday nights. Jura was an island with no policemen, and the local doctor had to patch men up after encounters in the hotel bar!”
Despite his somewhat fragile health, Delmé-Evans was soon to be called on again by the whisky industry, with Isle of Jura landowners Fletcher and Riley-Smith approaching him to help make their vision of creating local employment by building a new distillery on the island a reality. A distillery had operated at Craighouse from 1810, but by 1901 it had closed and largely been dismantled. Delmé-Evans recalled that: “During 1958 I started designing a distillery which just about trebled the production capacity of the old one.
“Eventually there were more than 400 men in total, working on the distillery, building houses and enlarging the nearby hotel. The builders worked seven days a week, but we had some terrible times at the weekends, as most of them were either Celtic or Rangers fans and there were some awful fights on Friday and Saturday nights. Jura was an island with no policemen, and the local doctor had to patch men up after encounters in the hotel bar!
“By 1963 Jura distillery was commissioned. Although Jura is West Coast, and very close to Islay, the type of malt whisky it produces is completely different and is a fully-flavoured, almost Highland, malt.”
Delmé-Evans may have suffered from bouts of ill-health, but he was nothing if not intrepid, first constructing an airstrip on Jura, before obtaining his pilot’s licence, then buying a Cessna 172, in which he travelled between his Herefordshire home and the island. He acted as distillery manager at Jura until 1975.
“No sooner had I opened Jura than Mackinlay’s wanted to build a Highland, Speyside, distillery.”
Not only was Delmé-Evans busy with Jura from the late 1950s onwards, but in 1960, he was engaged by a consortium of Glasgow-based whisky brokers, including Tullibardine owners Brodie Hepburn Ltd, to create a new distillery just outside the Moray Firth port of Macduff. It was to produce a single malt marketed as Glen Deveron. Part-way through the distillery’s construction, however, allegedly after disagreements with the consortium, Delmé-Evans resigned from his post, and for the rest of his life, never mentioned his involvement with the project.
He was, however, happy to discuss his work on Glenallachie distillery, situated close to Aberlour, noting that: “No sooner had I opened Jura than Mackinlay’s wanted to build a Highland, Speyside, distillery. They were a subsidiary of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries Ltd and I had brought them in through Scottish & Newcastle as an outlet for some of our production, and they owned half the shares in Jura distillery.
“I first of all had to find a site, and then design the distillery and the buildings. It was quite a lot of trouble to find the right water, but I did, and I had it piped down from Benrinnes to a site that I had purchased. This was a big chance to put together all the knowledge I had gained over the past few years. By this time, I had worked out the velocities of the vapours being distilled and was able to design the actual stills, with all this knowledge behind me. I designed all the plant and the layout of the buildings. Glenallachie, as it was named, began production in 1968.”
William Delmé-Evans died at his Herefordshire home in 2003, aged 83, having played an important, and too often overlooked, part in the development of the Scotch whisky industry during the boom years following the Second World War.
Tullibardine’s distinctive gates