The Forsyth's saga

The Forsyth's saga

Tom Bruce-Gardyne visits Speyside still-makers Forsyth's to find out about the leading coppersmiths

Production | 16 May 2002 | Issue 22 | By Tom Bruce-Gardyne

  • Share to:
At the heart of every malt whisky distillery stands the still-room where its glorious diversity of weird shaped stills reside. The fact they are all so different allows each distillery to stamp its own genetic thumb print on its new-make spirit. This adds greatly to the fascination of Scotch whisky, but is also quite strange when you stop and think. Surely someone could have designed a standard pot-still for maximum yield and efficiency, and then sold it to every distillery in Scotland? Being machine-made in a mould on a production line it would be far cheaper than a bespoke still, one laboriously but carefully hammered out by hand. The reason this never happened was because the early distillers were inherently conservative. The original stills would have been chosen to fit the space available, or even bought second-hand – like Glenmorangie’s from a gin distillery – and once a half-decent spirit trickled out the end, there was no incentive to change. Gradually it became apparent that the shape and size of the still does have a serious impact on the character of the whisky produced, though even now the science is not fully understood. Few have been as intimately involved in all this as Forsyth’s in Rothes on Speyside. Now in its third generation, this family firm of coppersmiths has been supplying the Scotch whisky industry for almost 70 years. The original business dates back to the mid-19th century, and according to Richard Forsyth, the current MD, was probably supplying the odd illicit still on the side. The firm was bought in 1882 by Robert Willison in time for the Speyside building boom when 24 new distilleries were built before the turn of the century. Willison was a major player in the world of coppersmiths, with works in Alloa and one in Sunderland to supply the shipbuilding industry. With no sons to take over, the business was sold, with Alloa becoming RJ Abercrombie’s, later gobbled up by DCL, and Rothes bought by Richard’s grandfather, Alexander Forsyth, in 1933. It was not the best year to be starting out with only Glenlivet and Glen Grant producing any malt whisky in the whole of Scotland, with a combined total of just 285,000 gallons – the lowest level for over a century. It was part of a deliberate attempt to turn off the tap and save what was left of the industry in the face of a worldwide recession. But it seems there was just enough repair work to keep Forsyth’s going until the war, at which point it more-or-less shut down.During the war, Alexander Forsyth had been with the Royal Engineers where he had picked up some of the latest welding techniques and was keen to apply them when he returned to Rothes. Yet trying to wean the whisky trade off their beloved rivets and onto welded pot-stills proved almost impossible at first as Richard explains. “The old owners were very
traditional and didn’t want to change a thing. In the end we managed to convince them because some of these distillers were employing engineers who knew about modern methods, but there was often a compromises – ‘OK, we’ll let you weld so long as we can have one ring of rivets’.” At the same time there was the odd modernist around prepared to abandon whisky’s sentimental attachment to copper and try out stills made of stainless steel. Although these would certainly last longer they have an unfortunate side-effect –
without that conversation with copper you get a spirit that is black in colour and pretty undrinkable, I suspect. As Richard says, the fact that the original distillers stumbled on the right metal must have been because it’s so malleable. It is also surprisingly resilient. “If you used steel it would eat through the still in no time at all.”As sales of blended Scotch took off after the war, Forsyth’s clung on as best it could with new distilleries springing up and old ones doubling, or even tripling in size. With almost 60 distilleries on Speyside there was more than enough work on the doorstep, just in terms of repair and maintenance especially with stills being worked flat-out 52 weeks a year. But the question was, for how long? While it lasted there was particularly good business from direct-fired stills whose bottoms tended to burn and buckle through excess work and were always needing their rummagers replaced. In fact knitting these strips of chain mail was Richard’s first job as a teenager. Much of the work then, as now, involves regular trips round the distilleries to check on the stills. Sometimes they get there just a little too late. “Here, take a look at this,” says Richard, passing me a photograph of a deformed, pinched-looking vessel with a piece of copper tube dangling from the top. “That took seconds, just sucks in like a paper bag.” Collapsed stills, caused by a sudden change in temperature that pulls a vacuum, must be one of the weirdest sights in the industry. Imagine coming off the nightshift, shutting down the heat too quickly, and then watching a 15-foot still implode before your eyes. “Normally a still will stand a bit of pressure, but as soon as it goes thin it’s vulnerable. You’ll probably find in that case the anti-collapse valve didn’t work and was choked up with dirt.”The 20 men employed by Forsyth’s in Rothes know exactly where to look when out on their rounds. With the wash still, the heads, necks and condensers wear out every eight to 10 years while the pot itself might last 25 years. With spirit stills it is the exact opposite – the purer spirit vapours being much kinder on the copper than the volatile, abrasive low wines. Checks are made using an ultrasonic meter, though the old method of tapping the copper was just as accurate. “Though if you were really looking for the business,” says Richard, “you’d use a big hammer.” Obviously the life of a still depends on how hard it’s worked and when Bell’s had their foot on the pedal under Raymond Miquel, they were collapsing stills once a year.
Then came the ’80s and a crisis of overproduction which left the industry with the worst hangover since 1899. Having been almost totally reliant on whisky, Forsyth’s had to diversify fast into industries like paper, brewing and North Sea oil, though 40% of the business is still whisky-related. At the same time they have helped build distilleries all round the world from Korea to Kentucky.On a quick tour of the works, I was shown the graveyard where old stills come to die, among them a 30-year-old veteran from Glenfiddich, the copper worn thin as paper. Then inside the workshop, Richard points out a massive still head awaiting shipment to Jamaica as part of a 5,000 gallon pot-still for making rum. Originally, when making a still the design would be chalked on the floor and then transferred to the 4mm copper plates to be cut into large panels. Today the design stage is fully computerised, but everything else is manual. Each panel is carefully hammered into shape by hand before being welded and polished to form the finished still. As Richard himself says – “there’s simply no other way to do it.”
Magazine Archive

From the archive

Select an issue

Subscribe Now

Subscriptions for
Whisky Magazine are available
in print, digital or as a
complete package

The Benefits

8 print editions a year

Enjoy the convenience of home delivery

Full access to every digital edition via desktop, iOS or Android device

Latest Issue Subscribe Now

The Whisky Encyclopedia - Coming Soon 2024

Discover the world of whisky with our comprehensive encyclopedia
Featuring companies, distilleries, brands, glossaries, and cocktails

Join The Community

Sign up to the Whisky Magazine
newsletter letter and get access to the latest
in all things whisky

paragraph publishing ltd.   Copyright © 2024 all rights reserved.   Website by Acora One

Consent Preferences