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North Port is one of the rarest closed distilleries and is often referred to as Brechin or even Townhead. The easterly Highland region was decimated during the widespread cut backs during the early 1980’s that brought its career as a whisky producer to an end in 1983. Its final fate was to be demolished to make way for a supermarket in 1990 in the pursuit of progress while other distilleries such as Glenury Royal, Banff, Lochside and Glenesk met a similar fate. Even Glencadam distillery, which is very close to the original site of North Port, was mothballed for a period towards the turn of the millennium but has managed to survive against all odds.
This was an unfortunate end to the North Port distillery that could trace its roots back to 1820 when it was established under the name of Townhead, by the local Guthrie family. This was an era prior to the introduction of the Excise Act in 1823, when illicit stills and smuggling was commonplace across the land. The Guthrie brothers were from a farming family and their wealth had established the first commercial bank in the town of Brechin. As we’ve seen from these historical distillery accounts at Abbey Whisky, farmers were often part-time distillers as surplus grain could become a more lucrative hobby thanks to distilling rather than just going towards cattle feed.
Newly founded distilleries were often the source of venom from smugglers who relied on the trade throughout this region. The most notable example is famously George Smith of the Glenlivet, who carried a pair of pistols with him for protection. A distillery at Corgarff Castle was raised to the ground and threats were commonplace. For the town of Brechin, it acted as a gateway for the smugglers with historical accounts confirming large shipments into the town. The casks were sold locally and the smugglers were openly visible in their Jacobite uniforms and armed with cudgels. Eventually, facing financial ruin, many moved on when their livelihood came to an end.
Technically as you’ll have spotted, Townhead distillery had a dubious legality prior to 1823 and may have been regarded as an illicit enterprise. With the passing of the Act into the statute book, the Gurthrie’s paid the £10 license fee and any tax applicable on a gallon of spirit thereafter. A coincidence perhaps was the first of several name changes for the distillery. Townhead was no more and the legal distillery was instead called Brechin. Just a couple of years later, the owners name was amended from the Townhead distillery company to the more appropriate Guthrie, Martin & Company. Then in 1839, another name change was warranted with North Port being selected to avoid confusion with the nearby Glencadam distillery that was founded in 1825. Although the specific date of the name change is open to debate as when Alfred Barnard visited in 1887, he referred to the site as Brechin distillery, before relishing in its environment with only the best barley utilised and water being taken from the Grampian Mountains along with peat for drying the malt.
For what it’s worth North Port refers to the close proximity of a former city wall and a gate that has been lost to time. Barnard was impressed by the warehousing on site and the internal distilling equipment that produced around 100,000 gallons per annum. The use of pot stills and worm tubs was also highlighted, helping to produce a distinctive Highland whisky.
Ownership of the distillery did not change until Distillers Company Limited (a forerunner of Diageo) acquired North Port in 1922 along with an English based spirit merchant. By 1928, ownership had been transferred to the subsidiary Scottish Malt Distillers and its output was licensed to a Glasgow blending company. Thereafter North Port experienced a series of stop-start production episodes and did not fully restart distilling until 1948. By the 1970’s some effort was carried out to modernise the distillery, but its pair of stills was never increased. This lack of expansion and sizeable investment meant when the demand for whisky collapsed in the 1980’s, North Port was a prime candidate for closure.
It was on paper a small distillery with a minor production capacity, aging equipment and no room for expansion. Combined with the lack of a single malt identity in the market place, as almost all of its whisky went towards blending, meant the end did come swiftly for North Port. Unsurprisingly, releases are extremely hard to come by with the nearest official release being the Rare Malts 20-year-old from 1999. Very few casks have been bottled lately perhaps hinting the end is nigh even amongst the independent bottlers. The last cask bottled that I can recall came from Cadenhead in 2015, being distilled in 1977 and was a very distinctive whisky experience.
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