By Richard Thomas
As Scotch fans fixate so heavily on age, then Scotch tourism should gravitate squarely to Strathisla, the oldest continuously operating distillery in Scotland. Founded in 1786 and originally known as Milltown, the distillery oozes antiquity and is the “spiritual home” of the Chivas Brothers and a foundation distillery for their blends.
Although situated on the banks of the River Isla in Moray, a setting that combines with the pagoda-style roofing to lend the distillery with so much of its prettiness, Strathisla draws the water for its spirit from Broomhill Spring. Although for nearly a century the place was named Milltown or a derivation therein, the spirit was often named Strathisla for the region around the river, and the switch was made in 1870. As with so many old Scottish distilleries, the property changed hands many times, with Chivas Brothers picking it up at auction in 1950.
Today the facility makes only slight concessions to modernity. Sure, there are some electronics here and there, but it is still the kind of place where most men need to duck under the door frame going from room to room. If the exterior is chocolate box-lovely, the mashing room and still house look like the kind of old fashioned, crafty breweries one sees in episodes of Inspector Morse or older installments of Midsomer Murders.
That old fashioned and the genuinely old buildings upon which it is based lead to one of the minor drawbacks for this distillery from a tourist’s point of view: no pictures. With British Health and Safety standards being as intrusive as they are, and the ventilation in the aged distillery being what it is, cameras and phones must be kept tucked away at all times. The fear is that in the event of a leak, a dropped article of electronics could cause a spark, thus igniting the alcohol vapor.
The old malting floor has been converted into a visitor center, and bottle-hunter will find it well stocked with Strathisla, Chivas Regal, and Chivas Single Cask expressions, as well as the usual gift shop bric a brac.
With several dozen distilleries in the Speyside area, overlooking Strathisla would be easy. It isn’t a big name, either in terms of sales or reputation, and the size of the facility reflects that. Yet fixing on grand labels would be to miss where the charm of a place like Strathisla lies, in its antique modesty.