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Thursday, 20 January 2011

Lowlands Trip Day One: Is That A Column Still In Your Pocket Or Are You Just Pleased To See Me?

A while back my housemate returned to London from a trip home to Derbyshire, bringing with him an interesting old box recovered from his Granddads attic. The dusty old container was designed like a jewellery box; gold embossed with fine detail. One almost expected a plastic ballerina to emerge from the top, spinning around to the trill sound of music, when the lid was lifted. Instead, this shiny case contained an old bottle of whisky. Oh, what joy!
The whisky in question is Haig’s Dimple. Not a brand I was overly familiar with, but intriguing none the less. And when a bottle we don’t know a lot about turns up at Caskstrength HQ, we’ll strive to find out about it. Who is this Haig character and where does his whisky come from?
Every day is a school day” as a wise taxi driver once told me, so we decided to take a trip to Scotland to find out more...
Early on Thursday morning we found ourselves waiting for a flight to Edinburgh, our first trip to the Lowlands. The mission was simple; spend just under 48 hours discovering the Eastern side of the Lowlands (this gives us ample excuse for another trip to Glasgow, to discover the Western side of this once busy region), some of its history, something about Haig and, as always, to visit a couple of new distilleries along the way.
Haig, or Haig & Haig as it states on the underside of my bottle are, it turns out, the oldest distillers of Scotch Whisky on record. In 1655 Robert Haig was charged for breaking Sabbath by distilling on a Sunday.
His son Alexander Haig also appeared in Inland Revenue records for distilling. The family Haig became somewhat of a dynasty within distilling, with one member going on to marry John Jameson, the founder of... yes, you guessed it, Jameson Irish Whiskey. This shows the extent to which the Haig family had immersed themselves into the art of making spirit. It seem that they are truly the Founding Family of Scotch whisky.
Nearly 200 year later, in 1824, John Haig opened the Cameron Bridge Distillery. A landmark achievement in its day as it included the first examples of one of the most important inventions in the world of distillation: the column or continuous still.
Invented by Robert Stein, a cousin of John Haig, the design of this inventive and highly efficient method of grain distillation, it was refined by an Irishman, Aeneas Coffey whose name is often associated with this ‘modern’ type of still.
The Column Still has played a vital role in the development of whisky and other spirits. 92% of whisky sales worldwide are blends, the sales of which keep the market as a whole very much alive. These blends rely on the huge quantity of grain spirit produced by column distillation, meaning grain plays a vital and pivotal role in the Scotch Whisky industry, despite having a reputation for being less artisanal and boutique than whisky produced in a pot still from malted barley.
None of this seemed to worry John Haig. Not only were he and his family established Pot Still distillers, but he was now on course to build Scotland’s biggest distillery. By using the new technology, developed with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, Haig was to push the production of whisky to unprecedented new levels which would impact the industry forever.
Given the importance of the development of column distillation and the history of the Haig family, the bottle of whisky found in my housemates Granddad’s attic is starting to look like a real find. Okay, it was probably made and bottled sometime in the 1960’s (answers on a postcard, please) and the market value of the bottle probably isn’t huge (nothing to worry Richard Paterson and the team at Dalmore about) but Haig and his whisky represents a major corner stone in the history of distillation.
Arriving at Cameron Bridge, one thing is for sure: the place is not subtle. Not subtle at all. Most distilleries are hidden away in beautiful, remote, rolling Scottish hillsides having developed from a small pot still in the corner of a farmer’s field, to taking over the premises as a going business concern. But Cameron Bridge was different, producing large quantities of spirit, it was the first of its kind. It was always going to be big, bold and brash and was set up to achieve.
On first sight you’d be forgiven for thinking Cameron Bridge isn’t a distillery. No pretty white-washed walls. No pagodas and not a distillery cat (or dog) in site. Pipes, steam and steel are the order of the day. The site has recently had a facelift. Actually, much more than a facelift... over £105m worth of investment which includes a bio-energy plant that will provide 98% of the power they use. As a whole, the place is producing around 70 million litres of alcohol a year. Phew!
This isn’t all whisky, however. Vodka is made here, as is gin. In fact, the gin is still produced in old pot stills and 100% of the world’s Tanqueray is made at Cameron Bridge. The ‘Tiny 10’ wee pot still, used to distil the botanticals at the heart of Tanq 10 was moved there from Bloomsbury, London after the site it was on was bombed in the Second World War and a dear little thing it is, too.
We were shown around by Catherine Gilbert, who has been overseeing the expansion of the site, owned by Diageo. Cameron Bridge produces 100% grain spirit, with the majority casked, matured and used in blends which appear across the globe. One highlight of our tour was the chance to have a nose of some New Make Grain Whisky and compare it with New Make Malt Whisky:
Grain New Make:
Nose: Thick rubber bands, glue and pineapple chunks.
New Malt Spirit:
Nose: Green Apple peel, clean cereals, hint of malt extract.

Of the massive output, a tiny amount does make it into a Single Grain Bottling, called Cameron Brig:
Cameron Brig – Pure Single Gain Scotch Whisky – 40% Vol
Nose: Buttery, Werthers Original note, with a hint of burnt sugar. There is also a whiff of something slightly smoky and spent fireworks.
Palate: Dark brittle caramel, some sweet grain/cereal notes and a hint of vanilla ice cream.
Finish: Dry notes, but with lingering residue of bonfire toffee and the bitter caramel.
Overall: An unusual flavour, esp. If you're used to your grain whiskies a lot older. It is heavy on the toffee/caramel side, lacking the floral/fruity notes of older bottlings, but is enjoyable nonetheless.

But what of our man John Haig? His legacy has been left; a huge mark on the whisky industry and now gin and vodka to boot. What would he think, if he were to be able to come back and see this factory, this Cathedral to distillation, this space-station of a workhouse?
Personally, I think he would smile. Cameron Bridge was, when established, a fantastic achievement of the modern age, manufacturing huge amounts of spirit and bringing the distillery business in line with the rest of industry during the Industrial Revolution. And look where it is now: Scotland’s biggest distillery. John Haig would surely be proud!
Now to raise a glass to Granddad Windle. Rest In Peace. Thanks for the inspiration for this education and, of course the dram...
Dimple – Old Blended Scotch Whisky – NAS - 70pc Proof – 13 1/3 Fl Oz
Nose: The first impression is of spiced apricots. Almost Bombay Mix but with a tangy, fruity nature behind it. Over ripe banana notes then peek through, which grow over time. It seem to me that there is a decent slug of European Oak in here but there is also some energy from the grain whisky which certainly waves its flag from the medley of different aromas. As the nose dies off it leaves behind some fresh mint and a hint of strawberry travel sweet (the ones covered in dusty sugar).
Palate: Banana hits first with a range of different fruits, from pear drops to red cherry dancing about. But not real flavours, again the sort you find in boiled travel sweets. No bitterness, but a touch of sharp, zesty citrus notes which don’t sit brilliantly with the sweetie notes. However, it makes for a more developing and energetic palate, pulling it away from “too sweet, sickly” just at the right point.
Finish: Short, slightly spiced with the lime zest lingering and a hint of liquorice at the death.
Overall: It doesn’t matter when this blend was put together, it is still a No Age Statement Blended whisky and, without knowing how ‘exclusive’ it was when it came out, I didn’t hold much expectation. This more than delivered with a fantastic nose, a suitable palate which was well balanced if not a little unsubtle in moments and a finish that leaves you able to refill and go again pretty quickly. All-round, drinkable and enjoyable.