Despite being Scotland’s oldest grain whisky distillery, founded by one of the industry’s legends in 1824, the biggest producer of grain whisky in Europe and the home of Smirnoff vodka and Gordon’s and Tanqueray gins, Cameronbridge distillery has only come to any sort of...
Despite being Scotland’s oldest grain whisky distillery, founded by one of the industry’s legends in 1824, the biggest producer of grain whisky in Europe and the home of Smirnoff vodka and Gordon’s and Tanqueray gins, Cameronbridge distillery has only come to any sort of recognition in recent times as the source of David Beckham’s whisky. And when we say recognition, we do of course mean that it’s very slightly less obscure than it was before.
Cameronbridge’s numbers are remarkable, from its 750 ton grain silos to its extraordinary output, with most sources quoting the distillery capacity at between 136-150 million litres per annum. Each of Cameronbridge’s three Coffey stills can produce 4000 litres of spirit per hour, which equates to over 2 million litres a week - more than many malt distilleries manage in a year.
But Cameronbridge is much more than vast output and blue perfume bottles. Founded in Fife by John Haig in 1824, the distillery formerly known as Cameron Bridge was also among the first distilleries in Scotland to embrace continuous distillation.
John Haig’s cousin Robert Stein invented continuous distillation at his Kilbagie distillery in 1826-7, and Haig quickly installed a Stein still - a rather primitive arrangement of two consecutive pot stills. When Aeneas Coffey adapted and perfected Stein’s design in 1830, Haig installed a Coffey still at Cameronbridge and soon after released Scotland’s first ever commercial grain whisky.
In 1877, the year before John Haig’s death, Cameronbridge was among the six founding members of the Distillers Company Limited, whose members retained control of their own distilleries but operated as a cartel to set prices for their spirit. DCL took full control of Cameronbridge in 1919 and would later evolve into the Diageo company.
By the time of Alfred Barnard’s visit to Cameronbridge in the 1880s, the distillery was run by John Haig’s son Hugh and was operating two each of Stein’s and Coffey’s stills, plus a pot still making ‘Pot Still Irish’ style single malt - Cameronbridge made both malt and grain whisky until 1929.
Cameronbridge has been augmented and expanded several times since the 1960s, when the current still house was built. These expansions included the addition of a third column still from Carsebridge when the latter closed in 1983. In 1989, Cameronbridge became a dual-purpose facility, producing grain neutral spirit principally for Smirnoff, Gordon’s and Tanqueray as well as the base spirit for Archer’s and Pimm’s.
After the closure of Port Dundas in 2010, Cameronbridge - which had been expanded again in 2007 at a cost of £40m, doubling its capacity - became Diageo’s last wholly-owned operational grain distillery, although they share North British with Edrington.
Cameronbridge’s lowland single grain whisky was sold as Cameron Brig for many years before the arrival of Haig Club in 2014 but as ever the main purpose of its grain whisky is for use in Diageo’s blends. Cameronbridge 12 year old is the main grain whisky component of Johnnie Walker Black Label and the younger spirit is also crucial to Bell’s, J&B, White Horse and, fittingly, the Haig export blends Haig Gold Label and Dimple. With the distillery’s bicentennial year approaching in 2024 we can look forward to a prestige official bottling of Cameronbridge in the near future.
Independent bottlings of Cameronbridge are not rare but until recently were not particularly common either. In the last few years the frequency of independent bottlings of Cameronbridge has increased, which is always good news for adventurous whisky drinkers, especially as the prices, as for old grains in general, simply cannot be beaten for value. The best of these bottlings are long-aged versions from usual suspects Douglas Laing and Signatory, although the standard has been excellent across the board.