The tale of Banff is a unique tale amongst Scottish distilleries as its littered with sadness and a heart breaking ending. The distillery is one of several that were lost in the Eastern Highland region and is rarely bottled nowadays. Whilst we do not know if any casks remain from the distillery, it is likely that one of the major independents, or several, still have casks with Cadenheads and Gordon & MacPhail being responsible for recent releases.
The tale of Banff begins in 1824, when a distillery is established near Colleonard Farm by Major James McKilligan, until 1837 when ownership passes onto Alex Mackay, before moving onto the Simpson family in 1852. The distillery is replaced in 1863 with a new version built by James Simpson at a totally new location to take advantage of a railway line that arrived in 1859. There may have been an existing distillery on this new site, as we do know that Auldtown distillery was also in the Banff region, but its location has been lost to time. This new location not only offered improved transportation links but also a more reliable water source. Alfred Barnard visited this new Banff site as part of his epic voyage and commented that it had a special siding attached to the Great North of Scotland Railway called the Boynide siding.
As was common at the time, the dangers of fire with alcohol and kilns were the curse of the whisky industry. Undeterred, James rebuilds Banff after a devastating fire in 1877 and takes the opportunity do so on a much larger scale than the its 1863 form. This revised Banff with 4 larger stills is capable of producing 200,000 litres annually, an impressive figure for the period with only recent rebuilds at the Bunnahabhain and Nevis distilleries matching its output north of the Lowlands. Due to James’ advancing years, the ownership passes onto his family, with the title being James Simpson & Sons. Perhaps already suspecting the distillery’s tragic nature, a private fire engine is acquired and kept on site.
During the height of the whisky boom Banff becomes a limited company in 1898, which is just on the eve of the Pattison crash, towards the end of that fateful year. The distillery is eventually purchased from the Mile End Distillery Company Limited (a subsidiary of Taylor Walker & Co.) by Scottish Malt Distillers in 1932 and its output licensed to Slater Roger & Co Limited who produced a series of blends. Based in Glasgow, the firm is closely linked with Johnnie Walker but retained its own brands supported by several distilleries including Banff. The distillery was a small producer lacking any recent modernisation or single malt presence. Whilst history has not revealed which blends received Banff stock, Slater’s supplied just over 10 blended Scotches with names such as Begbies, High Life, Huntly, Kylemore, Lairdall, Scots Own and Thistle. Prior to this acquisition, the Mile End company did their bottling and blending in an onsite Banff warehouse although the economic challenges of the 1920’s with the Great Depression and Prohibition meant very little whisky was produced.
During the Second World War the distillery is used as sleeping quarters for the King’s Own Scottish Borders Regiment with production being halted. Tragedy strikes on 16th August 1941 with a stray German Luftwaffe bomb causes widespread damage and the loss of maturating whisky on a significant scale, or 16,000 gallons to be precise. The scene is best summarised by the Banffshire Journal, who reported that thousands of gallons of whisky were lost, either burning or running to waste… and so overpowering were the results that even the farm animals grazing in the neighbourhood became visibly intoxicated.
Production resumes after the war with Banff’s continued support for blended whiskies. Tragedy strikes again in 1959 when a coppersmith whilst making repairs in the still room causes yet another explosion. This causes substantial damage to the still and distillery, resulting in the owners being fined for breaking health and safety regulations. Production resumes once more with the final act being its closure in 1983, as several distilleries across Scotland are closed for good as a result of over-production and a fall in demand.
Banff’s downfall is a combination of its small output come the 1980’s, a lack of modernisation, remoteness and no identifiable single malt presence. If you do have the opportunity to taste a whisky from Banff, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by its characteristics and hint of smoke. Banff is demolished in 1985, with a fire in 1991 destroying the last remaining remnant of this infamous distillery, which now only exists in bottle form.