Imperial is a lost Speyside distillery but one that has a growing reputation thanks to a series of solid releases. Thankfully it remains affordable even in today’s climate of investment and speculation. Once opened, the true quality of its whisky becomes apparent and begs the question why it is no more?
The distillery was established in 1897, based on a design from the famous industry architect, Charles Doig, who seemingly designed almost every whisky themed construction during this era. Situated in the heartland of Speyside near the town of Aberlour, the founder was a Thomas MacKenzie. This whisky entrepreneur already owned Talisker and Dailuaine, with the latter being just over a mile away on the other side of the River Spey. Safety seems to have been a consideration with Imperial being constructed initially in an iron beam and pillar framework before being encircled with Aberdeen red brick. This approach was developed by Doig to prevent the considerable damage fires had caused at other distilleries. The distillery was conveniently situated alongside a railway which had become an essential feature and method of transportation for any Speyside producer.
Across several of these distillery outlines available at Abbey Whisky, there are constant links with economic conditions, whether prompted by wars or the infamous Pattison crisis towards the end of 1898. This financial mismanagement affected several distilleries that were sold or closed down. In Imperial’s case it closed in 1898, after less than a year in production, despite being one of the largest and modern facilities in the region. The distillery was acquired by new owners in 1916 in the form of the Distillers Company Limited.
Despite this acquisition, Imperial did not return to production until 1919 and at least remained in operation for longer than a few months, managing until 1925 when the distilling operation on site was closed down. This was partially triggered by DCL moving ownership to its associated firm, Scottish Malt Distillers, who deemed the distillery surplus to requirements. There was activity on site as its maltings remained in use for other nearby distilleries, but no Imperial whisky was produced.
The distillery remained in this neutral position until the mid-1950’s when rationing was ended and distilleries across Scotland sparked into life, eager to satisfy the growing demand for whisky once again. This partially meant hooking Imperial up to the national grid and removing the traditional turbine that provided its electrical requirements from the Ballintom Burn in 1954. The following year more substantial work was undertaken including the removal of a gilt-edged crown that once sat on the roof of the distillery. You can see this feature in old photographs and ironically it gives the site an almost Chivas Regal style. More visual work was done by whitewashing various buildings to give them a more neutral look as Imperial returned to production.
More extensive changes were undertaken from 1964 until the end of the decade with the number of stills doubled to 4 in total. The traditional floor maltings that for so long ensured the site was actually used, were closed in 1967 and replaced with a Saladin malting box that was gaining popularity across the industry. Towards the end of the 1960’s the stills were converted to steam heating and these were capable of producing around 1.6 million litres of alcohol per year. Enhanced by these changes Imperial was about to enter its longest period of operation and was focused primarily on providing content for blended whiskies.
Then beginning of the end arrived in 1985, when faced with a widespread downturn in demand and overproduction, Imperial was one of many distilleries closed. Ownership was passed onto Allied Distillers who then set about preparing the distillery for production once again, which commenced in 1991 and it’s this period that provides almost all of Imperial’s single malt releases today. By November 1998, distillation had once more come to an end with the distillery officially closed in 2000. The site was identified by the local council as offering housing potential and some of the warehouses and outer buildings were demolished. However, in 2005 new owners in the form of Chivas, withdrew the site from sale and reconsidered its options. This sparked much debate, as the distillery was on a prime Speyside location despite the closure of the railway that once formed a vital link. Speculation continued for many years until 2012 when the distillery was levelled and replaced by a modern distillery in the form of Dalmunach that opened in 2015.
Imperial has been widely supported by independent bottlers such as Gordon & MacPhail, and there was a 10-year-old bottled by Allied in 2000. It’s a very approachable and enjoyable Speyside example with plenty of fruits and spices apparent, with some bottlings showing a real flair for sherry casks.