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Glenesk was originally a flax spinning mill, where fibres were spun to create a more useable thread. With the advent of the industrial age this practice moved away from local farms and cottage industries and headed into town as its scale was increased. This pattern offers a symmetry with whisky that started in the Glens of Scotland before farm distilleries became legalised and larger distilleries were established.
The mill itself was converted in 1897, by the wonderfully named Septimus Parsonage & Company, who were assisted by James Isles from Dundee. The latter was a local wine merchant and the distillery was initially called Highland Esk. This is as you’ll come to appreciate the first of many name changes during the existence of Glenesk. History suggests that Isles was the original founder and shortly afterwards had to pass on ownership to Septimus after underestimating the financial strain of building a distillery. Unfortunately, Septimus was unable to support such an endeavour and had to sell in 1899. This was a fortunate escape as this was the year of the Pattison Crash and the ramifications would reverberate across the industry for decades to come. Highland Esk’s new owner was J.F. Caille Heddle who seemed to do little with the distillery other than rename it North Esk.
With the advent of the First World War, what production North Esk offered came to a halt and the site was used by the army. Part of the distillery was damaged by a fire during this occupation and once peace had returned to Europe, North Esk was sold to Thomas Bernard & Company who did what every previous owner had done i.e. changed the name. Many of the buildings were primarily used as maltings (ironic given its later fate) and this endeavour operated under the name of the North Esk Maltings. The status quo remained until 1938 when the site was taken over by Associated Scottish Distilleries/Train & MacIntyre who were actively seeking new distilleries in the region and had recently purchased Glenury Royal. This Scottish company were owned by the National Distillers of America, who envisaged the distillery should focused on grain production and set about converting it plus changing the name once more.
Now known as the Montrose distillery, after the nearby town, it was successfully producing grain whisky until the arrival of the Second World War in 1939 that stopped production once more. The army returned, using the site as barracks and the Montrose distillery did not commence production until after 1945. Even then, given the scarce resources and ongoing rationing of the population, whisky production was not a priority. Things changed in 1953 when the distillery was one of several purchased by the growing presence of DCL, who were a forerunner to the Diageo we know today. Production did take place, but not on a massive scale that this corporate giant required and the modest output meant the site was closed down in 1959.
In 1964 a new direction was sought with the transfer of ownership to the subsidiary firm Scottish Malt Distillers, who then removed the grain stills on site. Traditional pot stills were reinstalled and the distillery was renamed Hillside. Then for a period it enjoyed a living as a single malt distillery and this era provides most of the rare bottlings we have seen in recent times. Improvements to the maltings took place in the late 1960’s, before its output was licensed to William Sanderson & Sons who focused output towards their VAT 69 blended Scotch. Just to add more confusion its name was changed to Glenesk in the early 1980’s, which accounts for the different names you may see this distillery bottled under.
The end followed shortly in 1983 when a fall in demand for whisky and overproduction allowed corporations to revisit their aging and old fashioned distilleries. Sadly, for Glenesk it was a prime candidate given its small output, lack of investment and no single malt presence. The distillery license was cancelled in 1992 and the production buildings demolished shortly afterwards. However, the site still retains its maltings which have grown in size and today support many distilleries in the area. Glenesk has been bottled unsurprisingly under a variety of names including a Rare Malts release as Hillside and a 50-year-old expression in 2003, as Glenesk. The whisky itself if you’re fortunate to try an example is quite divisive often dominated by the cask and memorable for sometimes the wrong reasons. It is an experience and one that all enthusiasts must seek out.
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