The River Isla passes by several distilleries in Speyside most notably Strathisla and Glen Keith, both situated in the town of Keith itself. However, to the south on the other side of town, a little-known distillery called Strathmill resides and faithfully continues to produce content for Diageo’s blends, content to go about its business without much fanfare.
Established in 1892 on the site of a former mill during the midst of a whisky boom, Strathmill was part of a change locally, as mills closed and alternate industries were required. Whisky was proving increasingly popular, fuelled by consumer demand for approachable blends and the gentle fruity characteristics of Speyside whiskies - rather than oily and sooty counterparts of Campbeltown. The River Isla today provides cooling water during the production process and local springs are harnessed for a more natural supply. Many of the buildings on site predate the distillery itself and hark back to the days of an active mill, which was in place from around the 1820’s onwards, if not before. We’ll never know a great deal about the illicit distilling performed on site prior to the founding of the distillery, which was originally called Glenisla, but its suspected whisky was produced here as early as the 1820’s. Time has shown us that the illicit distillers always picked prime locations with abundant resources and an element of obscurity to engage in their craft. It’s little surprise that these locations in turn would prove popular for any legal enterprise wishing to distil whisky. There is a tale from the 1820’s where an attempt to drown an Excise representative was made beside where Strathmill stands today and its fame as a source of good whisky was well known locally.
It should be highlighted that the Glenisla name has been used since most notably by Glen Keith for a short-lived experiment involving heavily peated water in the 1970’s that produced some unique whiskies. These have been released by Signatory as single cask expressions and are well worth the effort to experience. However, they have no relationship to the Glenisla-Glenlivet that we know today as Strathmill.
In 1895 the distillery was purchased by W & A Gilbey, who had made their fortune producing gin and an initial act was to change the name to Strathmill, which in Gaelic means the mill in the long valley. An apt name and for Gilbey the asking price of £9,500 was a small price to pay to acquire this Speyside distillery. With blends in mind it’s no surprise that it remains relatively unknown despite forming a part of names such as Dunhill, Old Master and more recently J&B. Gilbey remained a solid force in the industry despite periods of consolidation and larger companies forming elsewhere. It held out until 1962 when it merged with United Wine Traders to create International Distillers and Vintners, before being acquired by Grand Metropolitan in 1975. This company was to merge in 1997 with Guinness to create the Diageo that remains a dominant force in the whisky industry today.
The major work on site was carried out circa 1968 when the number of stills was doubled to 4 and production increased to the modest level of 2.6 million litres we see produced today. Traditional floor malting came to an end in 1967 and the building was converted into additional warehousing. Of particular interest for distillation is that Strathmill utilises purifiers on its spirit stills that helps create its lightness as a spirit and removes some of the heavier compounds.
Very little of Strathmill has been released as an official single malt during the modern era. Its debut came as part of the Flora & Fauna range that was established to showcase distilleries such as Strathmill that previously remained out of sight. This 12-year-old is an inoffensive example of a light, delicate Speyside whisky that is still generally available today despite now being discontinued since it’s release in the early 1990’s. Since this bottling, Strathmill has been the very scarce with a limited Centenary staff only release in 1991, a Manager’s Dram in 2000 and also a 25-year-old from the 2014 Special Releases outturn. Even the normally buoyant independent sector offers slim pickings, just underlining how important Strathmill is to blenders.