Imperial Distillery. Gone but not forgotten.

Whilst in Edinburgh I had the great opportunity to taste a whisky from a long lost distillery. Those detectives amongst you from my previous blog would have worked out that this distillery was Imperial.

Imperial distillery was founded in Speyside in 1897 by Thomas Mackenzie, this guy had mega-money. He owned the distilleries neighbour Dailuiane and two years after founding Imperial he bought Talisker distillery on Islay. When Imperial was constructed it was a bit of a case of right place wrong time. The temperance movement had begun to gather pace in the UK after many column inches in the national papers were being dedicated to court reports of drunkeness. To be fair this didn’t have too much of an effect on production in any of MacKenzies distilleries, a slight downturn in the industry occurred which was to be expected. But unfortunately due to the unscrupulous acts of two brothers in Leith, the whisky industry boom was going to come back down to earth with a bang.

The Pattison Brothers were wholesalers who had seen the emerging market of blended scotch whisky start to take off and decided to get in on the action. Within two years of producing their first blended whisky they floated their company on the stock exchange to the tune of a profit of £100,000. Their best way to increase sales and investors was to advertise excessively.

Probably their best-known ploy was to have 500 African Grey parrots trained to repeat phrases such as ‘Buy Pattisons’ Whisky!’, before giving the birds away to publicans all over the country.

Gavin D. Smith ( 2015)

These guys were excessive and flamboyant, they had several country houses throughout Scotland and a marble-clad office in Leith, they liked to live like rock-stars before rock and roll had even been invented. Throwing gramophones out of a hotel windows and driving horse and carriages into swimming pools. I have no evidence that they did this but they might have been long lost relatives of Keith Moon, who knows?

I digress. In order to sustain this extravagant lifestyle and to pay to remove horses from swimming pools (possibly) the brothers decided it would be a good idea to over-value their houses and whisky stocks to keep themselves living the high life. They paid their investors dividends with the business capital to keep them thinking all was well. It wasn’t. The slight downturn in the market I mentioned earlier was enough to crumble their empire. After some investigation their was found to be half a million pounds unaccounted for. And their physical assets added up to less than half of that. Both were jailed for fraud but the impact that this collapse had was felt throughout the industry. Because of their over-valuation of stock the whisky industry suddenly had a ridiculous surplus of product once the crash hit; and as a result a surplus of distilleries too.

Imperial was closed just 3 years after it was opened. An innocent victim really of an industry opinion that the good times would never end. It was to stay closed for nearly 20 years thanks to the arrival of the first world war and finally re-opened in 1919 but was now owned by the DCL. The DCL (Distillers Company Limited) was founded by several distilleries and blenders who were determined that the crash of 1899 would never happen again and that production could be controlled so that prices could be kept at a steady rate. This didn’t help Imperial’s fortunes either and with the DCL owning so many distilleries it was deemed surplus to requirements and was closed in 1925 for another 3 decades.

In the boom times of the 60’s the distillery was very much in full swing and had two new stills added to increase its production volume. But then we have the ‘whisky lochs’ of the 80’s which was down to again the ignorance of the producers thinking the good times would never end. They never saw the clear spirit revolution coming. Vodka took over and scotch became your Grandad’s drink and wasn’t cool; and as a result? Yeah you guessed it. Imperial was closed yet again in 1985 and sold to Allied Distillers in 1989. They re-opened it again in 1991, but closed it once again in 1998. This time it would be for the last time. The brand was sold on again before the site was demolished in 2013 to make way for a new distillery by the name of Dalmunach.

To me it’s kind of like a against the odds story without the happy ending. It just kept fighting through when no-one seemed to really be bothered if it was there or not. Which is kind of sad for me. I really believe that the quality of a whisky also comes down to the love and care that the people who made it have for it. Yes you need good water and casks and stills but without the passion of the people making the stuff it has no soul. This stuff really does have soul, as you’ll see in my review of it further down. It was neglected by its industry and parent company big-wigs and now we will never know what it really could have been.

However. Thankfully we have independent bottlers like Gordon and MacPhail who bought up much of Imperial’s stock and have done an exceptional job of maturing it and releasing it so us lucky folk can taste this lost Speyside spirit. And in my case this was in the Ensigne Ewart Pub on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. Around 4pm in the afternoon. The bottle was a 20 year old distilled in 1997.

On the nose we’ve got sweet sherry, over-ripe fruits vanilla toffee caramel, with a whiff of french polish. First taste you get that sherry sweetness and that vanilla toffee has turned to treacle toffee with the addition of a few drops of water. On its way down I’m getting rhubarb and custard boiled sweets and a sugary cereal note. It’s got a hint of Glenfarclas about it but a lighter experience overall than that. Lovely stuff. Really lovely stuff. If you can find it. Try it.

For Drinkers. For Thinkers. For Fun.

All views are my own.

Dram was bought for £8.50 at the Ensigne Ewart Pub Edinburgh.

Credit and thanks to and for the extra information for this article.

Further recommended reading Sir Robert Bruce Lockharts Scotch : The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story.

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