Deanston may have been founded as a distillery relatively recently in 1966, but the history of the site and its former use stretches way beyond this date. In fact, Deanston was first established as a cotton mill in 1785 at the dawn of the industrial revolution. Its main emphasis was to produce cotton but the owners created a village community building houses for employees and a school, which all remain today as residential accommodation.
The attraction of the site is the River Teith that runs alongside, offering a fast flowing resource that powered a series of waterwheels that used to exist on site. One of these was christened Hercules and was such a monstrous scale that it was at one stage the second largest in the world. The mill over time could no longer compete with cheaper foreign imports and a journey of decline was endured until its closure in 1965. What to do with such a historic site? Well, a consortium of local businessmen had the inventive idea that this cotton mill could be transformed into a distillery. Thus within a year Deanston was ready to produce, after several floors were removed within the main building and the weaving sheds were converted into warehousing.
For much of its early existence, Deanston just produced content for blended scotches and was not widely regarded. These early bottlings were adorned with a names such as Old Bannockburn and Teith Mill, with a change of ownership in 1971, Invergordon Distillers changed this to Deanston Mill. By nature, these are incredibly youthful bottlings and any momentum the distillery had created was brought to an abrupt end in 1982 with its closure. A worldwide collapse in demand for whisky and a subsequent overproduction meant cutbacks across the industry and for Deanston, being such a relatively unknown example meant it was closed.
The distillery was revived in 1990 when Burns Stewart Distillers purchased the site for £2.1 million and resumed production the following year. This is where the Deanston we know today was created thanks to changes instigated by Burn Stewart’s master blender, Ian MacMillan, who made internal changes and set a new level of consistency by bottling at a higher strength, natural colour and no chill filtration. Whilst these are common sightings now across the industry, Deanston was one of the first to adopt such practices across its range. There are been some excellent bottlings that date back to the beginnings of the distillery itself, namely a 37-year-old Oloroso sherry cask that show it is capable of greatness. The distillery welcomes visitors and in 2012 opened a visitor centre that also includes an excellent café and a well-stocked distillery shop. On offer are the core Deanston expressions but the distillery also regularly bottles exclusive editions only available here and their standard has been excellent, especially the Toasted Oak.
The tour is an informative experience and also captures the previous history of the site. Today, Deanston is Scotland’s only self-sufficient distillery and is able to sell back electricity it generates to the national grid, thanks to the driving force of the River Teith. Internally, little has changed at the distillery since its inception in the 1960’s, the 4 stills remain in use and annually its capacity is around 3 million litres. The historical site also features tales of ghosts and areas where staff refuse to venture late at night. A remarkable aspect are the weaving sheds that date from the 1830’s, featuring ornate ceilings and a dome shape. Unique in Scotland they make for excellent dunnage style warehousing.
Whilst Ian has moved onto a new revival project at Bladnoch distillery, Deanston remains in good hands under new owners, Distell Group, who purchased Burn Stewart Distillers in 2013 for a fee of £160 million, which also included the Bunnahabhain and Tobermory distilleries. Their added financial clout means more investment for all these distilleries and exciting times ahead. For Deanston much of its output goes towards the company blends including Black Bottle and the popular Scottish Leader brand. However, Deanston has an expanding single malt presence and is growing in appreciation.
Today, its core range includes the Virgin Oak, 12 and 18-year-old expressions with the recent addition of a 15-year-old Organic release. These have been supplemented recently with a limited 40-year-old bottling and a 20-year-old; both of a high standard. The whisky itself by nature is adaptable with a variety of cask types being utilised to good effect. It has a strong cereal and farm yard basis with added layers of honey and shortbread, with an herbal layer and decent finish. It’s a whisky for all levels of experience and easily enjoyable.