In the 19th Century there was over 200 working distilleries in Scotland, but fast forward to 2017 and the SWA pegs that number at only 126. Whilst a new generation of sites are being built, many have been lost along the way – especially following the Second World War and during the 1980’s whisky downturn. Some distilleries have passed into near myth, others, like Port Ellen, Brora and Rosebank have become even more famous since they closed (artists can only ever achieve true fame once they’re gone right?), but what of Scotland’s closed grain distilleries?
Grain whisky isn’t anywhere near as sexy as malt, and that’s unlikely to change in the near future. Whilst some grain distilleries have been and gone, their incredibly large production levels has meant that cask availability hasn’t consigned them into the history books quite yet. Six grain distilleries have closed over the past three decades: Strathmore (1980), Carsebridge (1983), Caldedonian (1988), Cambus (1993), Dumbarton (2002) and Port Dundas (2010), and yet you’ll still see new bottlings of most of these appearing from time to time. Being a ‘blend filler’ requires high production levels, but eventually, the supplies of these distilleries will dry up entirely. Then, perhaps might one or two of these become more famous in their death? You only have to look at Japan’s Kawasaki grain distillery which operated from 1935 to 2006 for a case in point. Ichiro Akuto, founder of Venture whisky and owner of Chichibu distillery bought much of the remaining stocks of Kawasaki (as well as of single malt distillery Karuizawa – now just about the most desirable thing in whisky land) and bottled it up under his Ichiro’s Choice label. Long story short, you won’t find any Kawasaki grain for less than hundreds, and in some casks thousands of pounds. Trends are fickle things, so who really knows that history has in store for some of our departed grain distilleries.
Cambus didn’t have the best of times during the 20th Century. A fire razed most of the buildings in 1914, which resulted in a closure of 23 years. Then, when the site finally reopened in 1937 WWII followed quickly after and the doors were shuttered once more. After the war, production continued until 1993 when then owners Diageo closed it permanently as part of a companywide reorganisation. For the next 18 years Cambus was dedicated to warehousing and filling. Then in 2011, the site was repurposed as Diageo’s cooperage. It still adjoins the rather massive Blackgrange Bonded Warehousing site - if you want to see large scale, take a look: https://canmore.org.uk/collection/1344658).
Our bottle was distilled in August of 1991, just two years before the distillery would close. It was matured in a sherry butt (#62930) for 25 years before being bottled in February of 2017 by the ever reliable Whiskybroker. A total of 473 bottles were produced at an ABV of 52.7%.
Nose: Sweet and surprisingly lavish. Coke cola and very pronounced coffee beans intermingle with cherry and berry fruitiness. There’s a wealth of sugars here, but they all come across as if they’ve been either reduced or burnt - honeycomb, caramel, crème brulee topping. Underneath, some aromas of chocolate and of chopped walnuts. Blind, if you told me this was an Armanac, I’d probably believe you. The addition of water adds some creamy fudge notes as well as bringing out both vanilla and a touch of natural earthiness.
Taste: Full, viscous and sweet on arrival. Chocolate and vanilla beans meet a huge wave of coffee – roasted beans, fresh and spent grounds. Viscosity is emphasised further with cough syrup, treacle and molasses. Fruitiness is still playing its part (though is less pronounced than on the nose), cherries and berries sitting with some cake mix – all rather Black Forest Gateaux. In the back palate, black pepper, cinnamon and some oaky bitterness. A few drops of water brings out the woodiness further, tempering sugars and sweetness with increased astringency, as well as adding in some light vanilla pods and nuttiness.
Finish: Medium to long and emphasising coffee and toffee.
This 1991 Cambus is highly successful. 25 years of active sherry cask maturation has resulted in a whisky that has a lovely interplay between sweetness, fruitiness and bitterness – and so much coffee influence that at times you’d not think you were drinking a grain whisky. I believe I paid somewhere in the region of £60 for the bottle – which frankly, in this day and age, is a steal for this level of quality. The lost malt distilleries might have all the limelight, but don’t ignore their grain cousins, there’s excellence to be found…at a fraction of the price.