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The Cabrach: Birthplace of malt whisky?

An ambitious project aims to breathe fresh life into a remote part of Scotland by building a community-owned distillery. Peter Ranscombe gets a sneak peek as construction begins.

Driving south from Dufftown, a settlement that sits at the heart of the Speyside whisky region, the road begins to narrow as it climbs higher into the hills. Reaching the crest, the view suddenly opens up to reveal a patchwork of dark heather moors, geometric conifer plantations and rough green fields, with old stone houses and farm steadings dotted around the landscape.

Welcome to the Cabrach. This remote parish straddling the Aberdeenshire and Moray border lays claim to be one of the birthplaces of malt whisky. And a place that, very soon, could once again be filled with the smell of spirit on the breeze.

Wind the clock back to the 1700s and the Cabrach was a hotbed of illegal distilling. Archaeological digs reveal clues to the hidden locations on the hillsides where distillers and smugglers fired-up their stills to turn barley into spirit. One writer claimed he could see 14 illicit stills from his window, while other estimates put the total as high as 100.

The Cabrach gained a stellar reputation for its spirit, with its whiskies mentioned in the same breath as The Glenlivet. Yet the 1823 Excise Act that legalised small-scale distilling in the Highlands also changed the face of the industry, with small smugglers replaced by larger landowners.

Three Cabrach farms gained licences: Tomnaven, Lesmurdie and Blackmiddens, which was renamed The Buck after a local hill. But all fell silent by 1851, overshadowed by the success of neighbouring Speyside. The switch from illegal to legal distilling also cost livelihoods, with illicit distillers leaving the Cabrach in search of jobs elsewhere.

A tractor in the middle of a field

The Cabrach

Links to the land

Today, fewer than 100 people call the Cabrach home. The land once supported more than 1,000 residents, but depopulation accelerated following World War I, when scores of young men were killed by disease in army training camps and enemy fire on the frontlines, leading to the valley being labelled ‘a living war memorial’.

Now, an ambitious community project aims to bring families back to the Cabrach. And whisky sits at the heart of those plans.

Grant Gordon – one of the scions of the William Grant & Sons distilling empire, which makes single malts including The Balvenie and Glenfiddich and blends such as Grants and Monkey Shoulder – founded The Cabrach Trust in 2011. His family’s connections to the Cabrach stretch back for generations, and he’s lived in the area for part of each year since his childhood.

Gordon’s grandfather, Charles, was the Cabrach’s school teacher before marrying William Grant’s daughter and joining the family firm. He packed his suitcase with samples and introduced Glenfiddich to Glasgow and London, New York and Singapore – and is credited with not only building the brand but also globalising Scotch as a drinks category.

‘His family connection to the area is centuries old and there is no more passionate individual about this area than Grant himself,’ explained Jonathan Christie (below), who joined the trust as its chief executive in 2021. ‘He’s seen first-hand the decline across the past 60 years.’

a man in a white shirt standing by a wall

Jonathan Christie, chief executive of The Cabrach Trust

Taking a step back in time

Gordon bought the 68ha Inverharroch Farm in the Lower Cabrach in 2011 and set up the community-run charitable trust to own and develop the property. One old farm building has already been turned into a rural skills hub and the finishing touches are being put to an accessible nature trail.

Construction is now underway on a café and visitor centre – which will tell the story of illicit distilling in the Cabrach – and a craft distillery. It will produce a tiny 150,000 litres of spirit each year, dwarfed by the 21 million litre output from the giant Glenfiddich up the road in Dufftown.

Cabrach’s first spirit is expected to flow through its stills this November, with smaller casks speeding up the ageing process to produce its first bottling after five years. Other brands are donating barrels for a fundraising Speyside blended malt in the meantime.

Whisky distillery buildings

An architect’s impression of The Cabrach Distillery and Heritage Centre

New beginnings

Standing in the former farm steading that’s being converted to house the distillery, Christie points to where the mash tuns, wash backs and other equipment will sit. They will be framed by windows offering views to rival those at Isle of Raasay distillery or the new Cairn distillery near Granton-on-Spey. When it’s finished, the Cabrach will join GlenWyvis near Dingwall as Scotland’s second community-owned distillery.

To bring the project to life, Gordon has teamed up with two other whisky industry legends. Alan Winchester, former Master Distiller at The Glenlivet, will guide the spirit’s initial production. While Richard Forsyth Senior (below) is building the Cabrach’s stills at his family’s legendary coppersmiths’ workshop in nearby Rothes.

‘I got a wee bit hooked on this idea of replicating what would have been there in the Cabrach 150 years ago,’ smiles Forsyth. ‘We’d toyed with the idea of building our own research and development distillery to play around with recipes and to train our customers’ distillers. So we’ll be able to use the Cabrach for a couple of weeks each year to do that, and we might even make a batch of our own whisky using the barley we grow on our estate.’

A man standing by whisky stills in a yard

Richard Forsyth Senior

A taste of the past

Most Scotch whisky plants have sets of two stills – a wash and a spirit still – which work together to provide double distillation. As well as its normal sets of stills, the Cabrach will also include a single standalone still, nicknamed The Buck after that local hill. It will produce a whisky more akin to the illicit spirit made by 18th century smugglers.

Such single stills were banned under previous legislation, but current Scotch whisky regulations now allow for their use once more. As well as creating jobs, the profits from the distillery will be used by the trust to fund other projects, including affordable housing.

But what will its whisky taste like? Many Speyside distilleries stopped using peat to malt their barley in the 1960s to make lighter whiskies for the American market, with The Balvenie and Benriach among only a handful to still produce peated examples. But Winchester (below) thinks it could be an important factor when recreating the taste of older whiskies at the Cabrach.

A man with a glass of whisky

Alan Winchester, former Master Distiller at The Glenlivet

As drams of The Balvenie 14 Year Old The Week of Peat were passed around, Winchester highlighted the mix of sweetness and smoke. ‘Peat is all around Speyside – there’s a peat bog in the Upper Cabrach,’ he added.

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