The traditional capital of the Highlands, Inverness once played host to a trio of distilleries that were closed during the 1980’s downturn. Of this threesome only Millburn still stands today albeit in new role as a hotel and restaurant. Set alongside a busy road into the city, it represented an ideal location for re-development that also brought to an end the existence of Glen Albyn and Glen Mhor.
In terms of the other distilleries within Inverness, Millburn is the oldest with records suggesting it was established in the early 1800’s around 1805. Whilst details are vague this was pre-Excise Act of 1823 that prompted a new generation of distilleries to be established, or more illicit enterprises in remote regions and on farms to become more visible. Millburn was a farm distillery and likely prior to this an illegal enterprise suggesting that distilling may have taken place for much longer than we can reasonably pinpoint today.
Illicit distillers across Scotland were often farmers with a surplus crop that was far more profitable distilled into whisky. They were also savvy, selecting the best sites based on local knowledge of a nearby water source and accessibility. It’s hard to imagine Millburn as a remote distillery today given the sheer expansion of Inverness that has expanded dramatically in recent times. Founded by a Mr Welsh in 1805, it wasn’t until a change in ownership in 1825 that distilling was recorded at the site. It was a short-term period of operation as within 5 years the company was liquidated. Thereafter and until 1853, activities at Millburn have been lost to time.
Initially known as the Inverness distillery, what we now believe is until the mid-1870 that Millburn was principally used as a local mill and given the nearby burn water source inspired a new name for the distillery. The owner during this period was a local grain merchant called David Rose, but it was his son George who unlocked its potential as a distillery in 1881 after extensive renovations in 1876 that endure to this day. Its success prompted Andrew Haig to acquire the distillery in 1892 and at the turn of the century establishing the new distillery name as Millburn. The distillery continued in production despite a fire in 1922 that was an unfortunate fate given the new owners of Booth’s Distillers Limited had only taken it over the previous year. Rebuilt almost immediately, the owners merged with another firm before becoming part of the Distillers Company Limited in 1937. This would prompt its chain of ownership towards a forerunner of Diageo.
Millburn remained a small distillery with direct firing of its stills coming to an end in 1966 and a Saladin box replacing traditional malting shortly prior to this. The confines of the site and the rising demand for any land in and around Inverness not only limited expansion potential but eventually brought about its decline. Faced with the fall in whisky demand and subsequent overproduction, many historical distilleries were closed across Scotland and Millburn was deemed a suitable candidate in 1985.
In 1990 the site was purchased by Whitbread and converted into a Beefeater restaurant with some outbuildings being demolished. Today, whilst names for the hotel and restaurant have changed, it is still possible to imagine the distinctive main building’s original purpose and consider why such a major location as Inverness no longer has a distillery of its own. The burn itself has vanished from view as Inverness continued to expand into the 1990’s and the road was improved, but has simply gone underground.
Millburn is one of the rarer whiskies from the lost distilleries realm, as it lacked a single malt presence and its small output limited any potential. Diageo did release a trio of expressions as part of its Rare Malts series as an 18, 25 and 35-year-old bottlings. Independent bottlings have been very scarce with nil of note in recent times. Chances are there casks of Millburn still out there but very soon we’ll only be left with existing releases and the remaining buildings in Inverness.