The Craigellachie Distillery Co. was born of a collaboration between blenders and merchants led by Alexander Edward (who also built the Craigellachie Hotel) and Sir Peter Mackie. The two were whisky legends of their time, both with solid experience in establishing and running distilleries and building brands.
Craigellachie was one of Edward’s first ventures away from his family who had a long tradition of distilling in Banffshire, with Benrinnes under the control of his father since 1864.
Mackie, of Lagavulin fame, also came from a distilling family: his father was a farmer, grain merchant and distiller while his uncle, James Logan Mackie, co-owned the Lagavulin Distillery in Islay, which is where Peter Mackie found himself working in 1878. Just twelve years later – a year before his collaboration with Edward – Mackie would help his uncle’s company set up its own blend, called White Horse, to which Craigellachie’s fortunes would be tied over the coming decades.
The original Craigellachie Distillery was designed by Charles Doig of Elgin and sported one of his iconic pagoda-style roofed chimneys, which to this day protrudes proudly above the surrounding buildings. As one of his earlier designs, it’s an example of his classic E-shape pagodas, if somewhat compressed. Surrounding the distillery were warehouses – these can be dated to pre-1902, represented on maps produced that year, and having been mentioned in a local newspaper advert seeking tenders to build a duty-free warehouse.
Two years after being founded Craigellachie was incorporated as a limited company and in 1896 it was reconstructed as Craigellachie-Glenlivet Distillery Ltd. The year before, following James Logan Mackie’s death, Peter Mackie had become chairman of his uncle’s company, in charge of its White Horse blend.
Despite this activity, some sources have suggested not a drop of whisky was produced before 1898. To the contrary, tasting notes from Alfred Barnard, who visited Craigellachie in 1893/94, suggest at least some whisky was being produced. He stated that 2,000 quarters of barley were waiting to be steeped, and noted “the chief characteristic of the Craigellachie brand is the pineapple flavour it develops with age”. However, 1898 was the year the whisky boom died and the bottom fell out of the industry with the Pattison Crisis – a period when whisky was overproduced after the Pattison brothers, owners of multiple distilleries, had artificially inflated prices and caused a crash.
Craigellachie was left largely unscathed by this, despite Alexander Edward being caught up in the drama and forced to temporarily close some of his distilleries which had supplied the Pattisons. But as the market was flooded with too much whisky, leaping from an annual output of two billion gallons to 13 billion, Craigellachie’s first few years were slow ones.
That the distillery survived was perhaps something to do with the conservative Peter Mackie who remained organisationally cautious. His entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography described his business sense as one that favoured independent status, personal authority and familial recruitment. He believed traditionalism and predictability were just as important as sales.
In 1900, Edward withdrew from the partnership, leaving Mackie and the remaining blenders and merchants to carry on Craigellachie’s production. The early years of the new century were quiet but the distillery underwent its first reconstruction when a reservoir and filter beds were added in 1902 – designed to put an end to periods of short-term closure due to draught.
Mackie was always known for being a dedicated Tory and he took a keen interest in any changes the government of the day was making and how they would affect his business. In 1909, he rounded on Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George’s move to raise duty on spirits in his so-called ‘People’s Budget’. It saw reforms for the poor financed through a 30% increase on spirit duty - though not on beer or wine duties. “What can one expect of a Welsh country solicitor being placed, without any commercial training, as Chancellor in a large country like this?” raged Mackie.
Craigellachie staff in 1920
By the time war came, Peter Mackie’s company had total control of Craigellachie, which was forced to close due to barley shortages, reopening in 1919 - the same year Peter Mackie was given a baronetcy. Before his death, in 1924, he spent time trying to organise the company to unite with Buchanan-Dewar, and while this was something that never came to fruition, he finally decided to take the company public as White Horse Distillers Ltd.
Sir Peter died at Corraith in South Ayrshire on 22nd September 1924 after a lengthy illness. The London Evening News described him as a tall, squarely built man, favouring highland dress at home and a monocle. Robert Bruce Lockhart described him as a mix of genius, megalomania, and eccentricity. By his own testimony, ‘efficiency’ was his motto, ‘grit’ his favourite word and ‘hard and long work’ his explanation for White Horse's success.
While the death of the patriarch was felt in the newly reborn company, life continued for the workers at Craigellachie. A small hamlet of 17 houses had built up near the distillery and during the 1920s there were annual prizes for the best-kept gardens.
Change was coming and in 1925 the big three whisky companies – John Walker & Co., James Buchanan & Co., and John Dewar & Sons – united to form Distillers Company Ltd. Two years later DCL bought White Horse Distillers. In 1930, the whisky distilleries from all four companies where transferred to a subsidiary of DCL, known as Scottish Malt Distillers.
Craigellachie, like all Scottish distilleries, was most likely forced to close during World War II due to barley shortages, although this isn’t recorded anywhere. Two years after the war ended, in 1947, the Speyside Cooperage was established on the south side of the distillery and remained there until 1992 when it moved further down the road due to the need for expansion.
Craigellachie cask stencil
The 1950s were another quiet decade for whisky production, especially at Craigellachie where not much changed. It was during the 1960s, however, that the whole distillery was overhauled: from 1964 to ‘65 many of the original buildings were torn down and rebuilt, leaving only Doig’s floor maltings, kiln and the pagoda roof.
A second pair of stills were also installed in 1965, doubling the capacity for distillation. However, it was also during the 1960s when the branch line through Craigellachie town was scrapped under the Beeching rail reforms, leaving a picturesque walking track today known as the Speyside Way.
Craigellachie continued its production under Scottish Malt Distillers throughout the 1970s and managed once again to escape unscathed by the bust in the market during the 1980s. Many other distilleries were forced to close, some never to reopen.
In 1987, DCL merged with Arthur Bell & Sons, both owned by Guinness, to become United Distillers & Vintners. Ten years later United merged with Grand Metropolitan to form what we know today as Diageo. Deemed to hold too great a monopoly on the whisky industry the company was forced to sell Dewar’s whisky company, including Craigallechie alongside John Dewar and Son’s, Aberfeldy Distillery, Aultmore Distillery and Royal Brackla Distillery. The package, plus Bombay Sapphire Gin, was snatched up by Bacardi for a cool £1.15 billion.
For much of its history, Craigellachie supplied most of its production to the White Horse blend, but as part of the John Dewar & Sons group of distilleries (incidentally a move Sir Peter Mackie had tried to engineer back in the 1920s), Craigellachie is available as a single malt. The first official single malt expression from the distillery was released in 2004 as a 14-year-old, and now Craigellachie is a respected single malt in its own right, as well a component in the Dewar’s blend.
Craigellachie circa 1890s