Whilst the Tormore is one of Scotland’s most iconic distillery designs, it’s another Speyside producer that offers a picture-perfect image of the traditional style for visitors. Strathisla distillery is situated in the town of Keith and can trace its roots back to 1786 when it was established under the name of Milltown.
Such a date makes the distillery one of Scotland’s oldest and a testament to its longevity with many rival distilleries passing into the history books, it is the oldest Highland distillery if not Scotland’s although Bowmore may dispute such a claim if it was made. The name of Milltown comes from a nearby castle and has been interchanged with Strathisla on many occasions along with Milton until 1951, when the owners settled on Strathisla once and for all. The Strathisla name itself comes from the River Isla that runs behind the distillery, with its water source coming from the Broomhill spring.
The first distilling on the site was as part of a brewery to keep a nearby monastery satisfied before attentions turned towards whisky in 1786. The date itself is significant as Milltown was a legal business as opposed to many rivals who existed as farm distilleries and sought to avoid excise duties imposed by the government. Illicit distilling was rampant and it wasn’t until the introduction of the Excise Act in 1823 that many these illegal enterprises such as Cardhu became accepted by the state. The distillery had to be rebuilt in 1876 following a significant fire – a common distilling hazard of the era and a stroke of misfortune that was repeated shortly afterwards in 1879. Thereafter it enjoyed a considerable presence being marketed and bottled as a single malt. This was unlike many of its rivals which existed to support the popular blends of the period, whereas Strathisla was bottled regularly on its own merits.
Strathisla’s popularity did not endure as tastes changed and competitors released their own single malts. By the 1930’s it required investment to stop its decline and recapture its glory years. A colourful chapter in Strathisla’s history was the arrival of George Pomeroy who acquired the rundown distillery and its existing inventory in 1940 when he took control of its parent company. As an owner he had no understanding or interest in whisky; only that this was a good investment to make a decent profit without putting much cash into the business itself. Shortly after acquiring the distillery, Chivas made an approach but the price Pomeroy quoted was so high that it scared off the prospective suitor. Sadly, for George, in 1949 he was jailed for tax evasion and Strathisla shortly afterwards went bankrupt. The distillery was then subsequently purchased by Chivas at auction in 1950 for £71,000. In today’s monetary terms accounting for inflation that’s just over £2.2 million for the purchase of an iconic distillery.
After acquiring the distillery, a period of refurbishment was required throughout the 1950’s, followed by its expansion in 1965 with the set of stills being doubled in number. The distillery remains with Chivas today who are now owned by Pernod Ricard. Strathisla has become the iconic visual exterior that most distilleries are judged by and this has been harnessed by Chivas who have made the distillery the spiritual home of its world-famous Chivas Regal blend. Given the modest confines of the site and its history, further expansion is difficult and Strathisla’s annual capacity is a modest 2.4 million litres. Internally space is at a premium, including the still room itself that plays host to inventive use of the lyne arms. This space premium means that most of Strathisla is matured elsewhere on Speyside, with just a couple of warehouses now utilised including a dunnage style on display for the constant tours that run throughout the day. The spirit produced at Strathisla is piped along the River Isla to the nearby sister distillery of Glen Keith, which offers more room and access for tankers to take its produce elsewhere to be filled into casks.
The distillery has been widely supported by the independent bottlers over the years but in recent times the staple source of releases has been Gordon & MacPhail, as stock dried up. What little of Strathisla that doesn’t head towards the Chivas Regal range is kept for its modest single malt presence today, meaning there is very little left to pass onto other bottlers. Today’s range includes a solid if unspectacular 12-year-old and a couple of cask strength inclusions in the exclusive Distillery Reserve Collection that is sold in Chivas distillery shops. Visitors to the distillery also have the option to bottle their own Strathisla from an exclusive cask which given its scarcity outside of the 12-year-old expression is well worth considering.