Cameronbridge forms the backbone of Diageo’s blended Scotches. Established in 1824 near the village of Windygates in Fife, it was an ideal setting for a grain distillery being in the heartland of a farming community. The central location offers strong transportation links and today immediate access for Diageo, as their major bottling, warehousing and distribution plant is just a couple of miles up the road at Leven. This facility stepped a little closer to Cameronbridge in 2010, following an investment of £86 million in the Leven plant, which effectively created a new building alongside the existing old premises. It’s an impressive silhouette to drive alongside that seemingly goes on for miles, with a series of warehouses on the hillside behind.
Cameronbridge today represents the largest distillery in Europe capable of producing over 120 million litres annually; no other distillery comes close. It is also the oldest grain distillery in Europe. Not only does it content itself with producing content for Johnnie Walker, J&B and the Bells’ whiskies, but also the Gordon and Tanqueray brands. These gins are growing in popularity and also Smirnoff vodka which is another recipient of the distillery along with Pimm’s and Archers. Following an investment of £65 million in 2013, Cameronbridge became the first distillery in the world to combine biomass combustion with water recovery and anaerobic digestion. These improvements will pay for themselves and more besides, with the potential water saving reclaiming 30% of water used in distillation and reducing the annual amount of waste water. The biomass plant will provide almost 95% of the energy requirements on site and that’s an impressive feat given the sheer scale involved. A sizeable amount of carbon heat will also be saved due to these improvements, enough to heat the surrounding settlements if it was required.
The origins of Cameronbridge go back to the famous Haig dynasty and in particular John Haig, who built it with the intension of producing malt whisky. Following the invention of the first continuous still by a family relative, the distillery began producing grain whisky in 1830, but soon moved onto the improved still design from Aeneas Coffey. This endured until 1929 when the last of the single malt pot stills ceased production and the site exclusively focused on grain output.
In total there are 3 stills on site and 2 of these stills date back to the 1960’s with the third coming via the Carsebridge distillery in 1983, which was closed as part of the cutbacks during this period. In recent decades there has been shrinkage in the number of grain distilleries across Scotland, as those picked to survive become larger and more centralised. In 1989, Cameronbridge also became responsible for producing a neutral grain spirit, taking over from a London site and explaining the sheer variety of alcoholic drinks it now supports. A further expansion was instigated in 2007, following another sizeable investment of £40 million. In 2012, Diageo closed its Johnnie Walker plant in Kilmarnock in favour of switching responsibility to its Fife plant.
The popularity of blended Scotch market has kept Cameronbridge consistently in production except during the Second World War, when it only reopened in 1947. Recently, distilling had stopped on the site for a few months due to a decline in demand globally for several products but has since resumed. Today, David Beckham may have resurrected the Haig name via the Club bottling launched in 2014 and Clubman in 2016, but back in the 1820’s it was the Haig Gold Blend that proved popular. Ownership of Cameronbridge changed in 1877 following a multi-company merger to form a new Distillers Company Limited (DCL), which was a forerunner to the Diageo we know today. John Haig remained involved as a director before DCL purchased what remained of the Haig Company in 1919.
Cameronbridge is unusual amongst grain distilleries, as it has received an official bottling of its own well before the current focus on this type of whisky. You may come across a Cameron Brig release labelled Pure Single Grain and it’s an incredibly light, honeyed dram with caramel and apple peel notes. If you haven’t tried a grain whisky from Cameronbridge, but do enjoy other spirit based alcohol drinks, then the chances are very high that you will have tasted something from this distillery without even realising it.