There was a time when Stromness had a distillery. In fact for a short time it had two but the one that lasted the longest, till its closure in 1928 was known as the Stromness Distillery.
It changed its name and its owners a few times over its short operational span being also known as the ‘Man O Hoy Distillery’.
The date it was established is said to be either 1817 or 1828. Whichever year is accepted it was one of the smallest – if not the smallest whisky distilleries in Scotland with an output of 7,000 gallons. When work was being done on the premises in 1928/29 old tools were discovered including a cask scriber dated 1784.
It was founded by John Crookshanks but then seems to be under the ownership of Hector Munro from 1821 who had returned from serving in the Napoleonic Wars. Other owners include : William Cruikshank and John Sinclair snr. It was taken over by MacPherson Brothers Distilleries and Dealers in the later half of the 19th Century and John Sinclair jnr. J.J. McConnell acquiring the business in 1903.
Stromness was a boom town in the 19th Century, a centre of trade exporting goods to Europe and across the Atlantic. It was also the last watering spot for ships bound for the north and the Atlantic.
Water, as it is now, was extremely important, and it was a row over water rates that brought Stromness Town Council almost to blows. This was a time when Stromness had its own council as opposed to what we have now with the local authority covering all the islands of Orkney based in Kirkwall.
It will come as no surprise that the largest ingredient of whisky is of course water. Huge amounts of water is used in the distilling process.
In 1906 Stromness Distillery used 4,423,720 gallons (20, 110,629.25 litres) of water for a period of 47 weeks. For which they paid £59 2s 11d
In 1907 they used 3,552,620 gallons (16150530.26 litres) of water for a period of only 30 weeks but were charged £88.16s
The water rates were paid to Stromness Town Council with the local councillors setting the rates. Obviously this was a good money earner but you can imagine how such a steep rise in the cost of water was objected to by the Distillery owners.
It should also be remembered that there were many other users of fresh water in Stromness, not just householders, but other businesses and of course, shipping.
The Stromness Distillery also failed in their claim to register ‘Old Orkney’ as a trademark (1908) for which they wished to have exclusive use of in connection with bottled whisky. Their claim had been challenged by others who also used the term Old Orkney to describe the whisky they were selling: Wm Teacher & Sons, J.T. Townsend & Co both of Glasgow and the Cursiter Brothers of Kirkwall.
During that claim the Stromness Distillery was accused by the objectors of shipping in whisky from Belfast to be used in the Stromness operation.
The Stromness Distillery continued to struggle with mounting costs on such a small operation. They tried to recoup some of these costs by selling off the ‘draff’ – spent grain left in the mushtun – on Saturdays at 4d per bushel ( 8 gallons/36.5 litres.)
By 1909 it was pleading with Stromness Town Council again over its water rates. The council had offered them a charge of £45 and the distillers had demanded that this be reduced to £35. There was quite a commotion caused at the council meeting over the affair but interestingly in those days it was reported locally exactly how each councillor voted and precisely what they said. Anyway the Stromness Distillery successfully argued their case. At that time they were said to be using 116,000 gallons (527,346.44 litres) a day.
In 1910 the distillery solution to the water supply problem was to install a pipe from the premises to a burn. The pipe ran up along the ‘south end burn, across the rocket house park, through the meadow beyond, and up past the farm house of Croval to the large burn running from Mr Brown’s property at the Braehead’ (Orkney Herald 13th April 1910).
The buildings which once housed the Stromness Distillery are no more, having been demolished in the mid 20th Century to make way for local housing.
In 2019 a miniature bottle of ‘Old Orkney’ whisky bottled by McConnell’s Distillery Limited, Proprietor Stromness Distillery, Orkney, Scotland (1920/30) sold at an online auction for £4,000.