One of the Scottish distilleries that featured in Ken Loach’s new hit film The Angels’ Share has plenty to celebrate itself, discovers Brian Ferguson
IT became a centre of excellence for industrial and mechanical engineering in 19th century Scotland. Despite being hidden away on the banks of the River Teith, Deanston, in Perthshire, is still seen as one of Scotland’s finest mill villages. These days, the place where sheets and towels were produced for Cunard liners, the workers had their own currency and was home to Europe’s largest water wheel, is home to what is proudly promoted as the country’s “greenest distillery.”
However, despite a unique claim as the only whisky distillery in Scotland to be converted from a previous industrial use, Deanston’s managers admit it still feels like the industry’s “hidden secret.”
Now it is set to cash in on Scotland’s growing whisky boom – and the distillery’s own new-found fame after featuring in Ken Loach’s hit new comedy-drama, The Angels’ Share – by converting disused spaces into its first visitor centre and cafe. The distillery runs on what is reputed to be Scotland’s purest river water, shuns modern technology to produce its amber nectar, with no computer technology to be seen anywhere in the production process, and can create enough of its own electricity to power the whole village.
The neat little rows of former cotton mill workers’ homes, known as divisions, have hardly changed since they helped house the 1500 workers who would have worked in one of the biggest local employers of the day.
These days, the building, converted into a distillery in 1966, has a workforce of just a dozen, who handfill the bottles themselves.
The Burns Stewart Group, which bought Deanston in 1990, has ploughed £600,000 into the creation of the distillery’s first visitor facilities, which are predicted to attract 15,0000 visitors a year. They are the latest signs of growth in an industry already thought to be worth £30 million to tourism alone, thanks to around 1.3 million visits to distilleries and whisky centres last year.
As with most distilleries, it is the unique selling points of Deanston that its staff are keen to point out. Distillery manager Callum Fraser said: “Most whisky distilleries were purpose-built over the years and a lot are much older than Deanston. However we are very unusual in that the building had a previous industrial use, but is still very much intact.
“The techniques and production methods we use are pretty much as they were. They are very traditional and we don’t use any computer technology anywhere in the process. We’re one of the few distilleries in Scotland to use all-Scottish ingredients, including our barley, and obviously still use the water from the River Teith, which powers the whole distillery. We produce enough electricity here to supply the whole village.”
Central to the new drive to promote Deanston is an attempt to revive interest in its history as a forerunner in the industrial revolution in Scotland. It was run by famous entrepreneurs like James Finlay, who transformed it into the leading cotton mill of early 19th century Scotland, and manager James Smith, who built the rows of neatly-designed accommodation down the river for the workforce.
Many original features of the building have remained intact while old photographs and grainy film footage provides a glimpse of what life was like for the workers crammed into the building. A highlight of the distillery tour is the atmospheric main warehouse, where hundreds of barrels are now matured, but which was once the main weaving shed for the mill, with 300 looms in action at peak production times.
Mr Fraser added: “It’s the industrial history of the building that makes it so special here, but it is also the care and attention that goes into the production process that the staff have so much pride in.”
Andrew Mitchell, chairman of Burn Stewart Distillers, added: “The distillery and the former cotton mill at Deanston tell such a riveting and important story about the handcrafted production of whisky, the heritage of this stunning building and its place within the community and Scottish history.
“From the unique open air mash tun and vaulted maturation warehouse to the solid granite staircase, visitors will feel a real sense of the tradition, the sense of community, the hand-crafted whisky process and the proud self-sufficiency of the distillery here.”
Deanston was lucky enough to be one of three distilleries chosen to be featured in Ken Loach’s hit new film The Angels’ Share. An award-winner at the Cannes Film Festival last month, the film tells of a group of troubled youngsters from Glasgow who hatch a plan to steal a rare cask after a visit to a distillery – with the latter scenes shot at Deanston.
One of its stars, Jasmin Riggins, returned to the distillery to help launch the new visitor facilities, where a poster signed by the cast has pride of place in the new shop. Mr Fraser said: “It’s quite a dark film in places, but it can only be good for the industry if it persuades more people to try whisky for the first time, and it’s been very good for us so far.”
Although the film is not benefiting from the kind of marketing muscle VisitScotland is throwing behind Disney-Pixar film Brave, chairman Mike Cantlay postponed his trip to the US for its world premiere to drop into Deanston yesterday.
He said: “Scotland is the home of whisky and, with whisky distilleries and visitor centres adding some £30million to the Scottish economy each year, they have a vital role to play in bolstering the country’s tourism offering and ensuring a truly memorable visitor experience.
“With this in mind, I am delighted to see such an innovative and important development here at Deanston –- adding to what is already a very impressive distillery.”
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