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Issue 85 - Caithness giant

Whisky Magazine Issue 85
January 2010

 

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Caithness giant

Gavin D. Smith heads up the North East coast in search of Gerston.

Today, Scotland's northernmost county of Caithness boasts an internationally-known distillery in the shape of Pulteney, situated in the county town of Wick. Less wellknown, however, is the fact that for all but a decade from 1796 to 1911, Caithness was also home to a second, large-scale whisky-making enterprise. It went by the name of Gerston, and was located close to the village of Halkirk, seven miles south of Thurso.

In the late 18th century, the parish of Halkirk was home to some 15 illicit distilleries, but the first licensed distillery in the area was established in 1796 by Francis Swanson, using water from the Thurso River. No doubt encouraged by the provisions of the liberalising Excise act of 1823, Swanson's sons, James and John, decided to expand the business and sell the Gerston ‘make' to a wider public. Ultimately, it achieved considerable acclaim in London during the 1840s, where it became popular with a number of leading political figures, including the Prime Minister, Robert Peel.

Despite such endorsement, the fortunes of Gerston seem to have been variable, and in 1872 the Swanson family sold their distillery.

The identity of the new owners is not recorded, but they failed to make a success of the venture, and shut it down in 1875.

The distillery was demolished in 1882, and today only some piles of stones and a stretch of wall mark its site, close to the Thurso River and around 200 yards from Gerston Farm.

It has been suggested that one reason for the cl...

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