Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Why Kennetpans Matters

Don't feel too bad if you have never heard of Kennetpans, since it doesn't really feature prominently in many histories of Scotch. But please!, do read on to find out what you should know about it, and why.
Kennetpans Distillery: the mill, engine room, and stillhouse

Along with a colleague I was lucky enough to be invited to visit the ruins of Kennetpans distillery last week. It's in something of a parlous state, with parts of it close to collapse. Considering how central it is to the history of the Scotch whisky industry, that's a crying shame.

That's a fifteen foot diameter flywheel cutout

The Haig and Stein families were the original whisky barons, dominating the nascent industry from the 1750s through to the mid nineteenth century. Kennetpans in its heyday was a huge distillery; the Scotch Whisky Industry Record states that in 1773 it employed over 300 men and produced upwards of 3000 tons of proof spirit (which, cross referencing with government records, implies that it produced a fifth of all the spirit consumed in Great Britain in that year. A fifth.)

Massive stone piers supported the Watt steam engine

The first Watt steam engine in Scotland was built at Kennetpans in 1786. The canal between Kennetpans and its even larger successor, Kilbagie, was one of the earliest in Scotland, and built ten years before the Forth and Clyde canal. The first railway in Scotland ran between the two distilleries.

Part of a millstone. And a rusted fragment of the iron band which held it.

Even more fundamental to the Scotch whisky industry, the Stein Patent Still, forerunner to the Coffey still which continues to be used to this day, was developed at Kilbagie.

Remnants of the pier where ships took on their cargo of whisky.

This last development, the high volume (and low flavour!) continuous still, perhaps points to the reason why Kennetpans has been forgotten. It, along with many of the other Lowland distilleries, spent much of its working life churning out cheap, poor quality spirit which was much more likely to be rectified into gin than to be drunk as whisky. And that side of the whisky business, the vast bulk of cheap blended Scotch, with minimal malt content, is one that the industry just doesn't bother to talk about.
Inside the maltings.

Kilbagie is long gone; demolished, built over, and built over again. But much of the structure of Kennetpans is still standing—just barely—and it's still possible to see evidence of the different activities that went on there. The massive piers which supported the steam engine are incredibly impressive, until you see the size of the maltings, and consider that they were said to be five stories high.

One of the many huge cracks in the structure

Even in its decayed state, Kennetpans still has the power to impress. If it were to be stabilised and made safe, so that people could visit and learn of the earliest days of the Scotch whisky industry, I think that would be a very good thing indeed.

About Kennetpans
As is so often the case with Scottish distilleries, the foundation date for Kennetpans isn't known, but by the 1730s it was was the biggest distillery in Scotland. It was closed by John Stein Jr. in 1825 or '26.

You can learn much more about Kennetpans and the Haig and Stein families at the Kennetpans trust website, where you can also make a donation to support the work of rescuing the structure.

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