Spirits found

It might not be Howard Carter discovering King Tutankhamun’s tomb – but SMWS ambassador Gregor Haslinger is on a whisky-inspired treasure hunt all of his own


We can never quite predict where our whisky journey will take us, or what we’ve actually embarked on when that first significant dram passes our lips. It could be the beginning of a quest to explore a range of flavour profiles or regions, or a crusade to share your discovery with others. It might well involve a trip to a working distillery To see the whisky-making magic happen for yourself. But for Gregor Haslinger, It has become a mission to track down and record all of Scotland’s lost legal distilleries – and with around a thousand to document, that’s quite an undertaking.

Gregor, a lifelong whisky lover who is now the SMWS ambassador in the German city of Frankfurt, has already tracked down and archived more than 600 of our lost distilleries.

His hunt began with an easy one – the lost distillery of Brora in the north-east of Scotland. “It started by accident, because initially I was trying to visit all the active distilleries in Scotland,” says Gregor. “But I always seemed to find myself in places that also had lost distilleries. For example, if you go to visit Clynelish, of course you will see Brora and gain a little insight into that lost distillery as well. That’s how it started, and I thought it would make an interesting field to get deeper into.

“One aspect is that I’ve always been fascinated by old buildings, ruins and things like that, and it’s almost a romantic feeling for me to see how things were used, and maybe they’ve fallen apart and maybe nature has taken over what’s left.

“It started by accident, because initially I was trying to visit all the active distilleries in Scotland”

Gregor (pictured) inside the Kennetpans distillery

“Another is, of course, the historical aspect. We're talking about a part of Scotland’s history, and I was always amazed that there’s not such a great interest in this part of it. Everybody can tell you some facts like the Whisky Act from 1823 or stuff like that, but what was before that time? How did whisky come to Scotland? And how did distilleries develop from very farm-like businesses to industrial complexes? These aspects are all very interesting to me.”

Gregor has found a couple of kindred spirits in his quest to track down the lost distilleries of Scotland, with the writer who goes by the pen name Margartemarie from the Whisky und Frauen blog and Jens Fahr, who runs the whisky pub Die Altstadtkneipe in Delitzsch, near Leipzig. “We didn’t know each other, but somehow figured out we were all interested in this kind of archaeological research,” says Gregor.

The trio rely on a combination of old school research with cutting edge technology to further their explorations. Along with existing textbooks such as The Making of Scotch Whisky: A History of the Scotch Whisky Distilling Industry by Michael Moss and John Hume or Scotch Missed: The Lost Distilleries of Scotland by Brian Townsend, Gregor also spends time studying historical maps online, as well as being able to use modern tools such as Google Earth and Street View.

“Both of these are very helpful, because you can sit there in front of your computer and see what something looks like,” says Gregor. “Sometimes you find something and think: ‘Oh yeah, this is a good structure – it looks like it could have been a warehouse and maybe that part was a kiln’. But it’s also frustrating because sometimes you then look on Street View and discover that the bulldozers have torn everything down. So many of these distilleries are gone forever, with nothing left – or have a parking lot or a new building standing on top of where the distillery used to be.

“I can’t understand why nobody cares about these precious places. For example, I was at a distillery called Clyth [near Wick], where I saw an old kiln for the first time. In former times it was a standard thing to malt the grain, and to kiln it as well at the same place as the farm. The old kiln at Clyth is the only one I know that is pretty much intact, but it will fall apart in a few years, I’m sure.

It’s kind of a race against time to see and document these places before they’re gone forever.” Gregor’s research has also revealed to him how whisky wasn’t only produced in individual distilleries, but how communities had come together to provide all the essential components to produce whisky.

“A visit to the Cabrach area on Speyside – where the new Cabrach distillery is being planned – was a highlight,” he says. “I was able to see how a distillery was not necessarily one farm or one building, but was a combination of farms and operations working together to distil whisky.

“There was the mill, of course, then there was a farm that specialised in malting, then there was another farm where they did the distilling. Whenever a farmer had a little barley left over, he would have gone to the mill, then maybe he made his wash and then he went on to distil his fermented beer to make whisky.

“Glenesslin [near Dumfries] is another example – if you go there, you can see that there was a distillery, but also some warehouses, maltings, and half a mile away there must have been a kiln or the mill.

“It’s spread out over the area, so these distilleries were more like community operations.”

The treasure hunts have also sometimes come up with surprising finds in the form of historical documents – in one case, willingly handed over during a chance encounter at a former excise man’s house.

“Jens was visiting the Grange distillery in Fife and taking photographs and after a while the people who lived in the former taxman’s house came out and asked him what his interest was,” says Gregor.

“When he told them about exploring these ‘ghost’ distilleries, they went back inside and came out with all of these old books of information, textbooks and maps of the distillery.

“They gave all of this to him as a gift, because they thought it would be better preserved in his hands. So he really got his treasure!”

For Gregor and his fellow distillery hunters, it’s a passion project and although they estimate that they’re already more than halfway through the possible list of distilleries, there could be up to 400 still to track down and document.

He’s still in a ‘collecting and gathering’ phase, but has plans for an online database to publicise the extensive data and photographs gathered so far, or potentially a book with at least an overview of the information.

In the meantime, the satisfaction comes from the unexpected discovery when he is off the beaten track.

“I was in Dumfriesshire looking for a lost distillery called Glencarrick, when I found a hidden structure what was clearly part of the old distillery,” says Gregor. “I even found a metal plate, which made me feel a little like Indiana Jones in amongst these ruins. It looked like the kind of place that no one has paid any attention to for a long time.”