Alloa's main industries, according to the first Statistical Account of Scotland, published in 1793, were brewing, distilling, glass-making and textiles. They are the same today. The availability of coal for their furnaces, water for processes and power, and a harbour for cheap transport, encouraged the town's early industrial growth. More particularly, the fertile lands of the Carse of Forth and part of Clackmannan supplied the brewers and distillers with their raw material, barley. Much barley was also imported in sloops and other boats through Alloa Harbour and the wharf at the village of Cambus, where by 1815 there was a brewery, mills, and "a large distillery".
Cambus Distillery is said to have been founded in 1806 by John Moubray. The title to the ground, adjoining the River Devon, and formerly occupied by a mill, was acquired in 1823. The distillery produced Lowland malt whisky in pot stills until about 1836, when John Moubray converted it to grain whisky production. His successor, James Moubray, combined distilling with dealing in cattle, of which 450 head were kept at Cambus, growing fat on cereal residues from the process. Robert Moubray carried on the business after his father became financially embarrassed in 1843. He installed new distilling apparatus, "similar to Coffey's", under a licence of 11 March 1851, and greatly increased the scale of operations.
Robert Moubray was one of six firms which combined to form The Distillers Company Limited in 1877. The new owners bought Cambus Old Brewery in 1882 to increase the distillery's malting capacity. Four years later, a visitor wrote that the buildings covered eight acres (3.24 hectares) "everywhere intersected by the railway, with sidings to all the principal warehouses". Most of the supply of grain came in by rail, and the balance by horse and cart from the wharf on the River Forth. The machinery was driven mainly by steam power, supplemented by "a huge water wheel" fed by a lade from the River Devon. The engine house contained "four handsome engines with a combined horse power of 105", and six boilers. There were two stillhouses, each containing a Coffey still. A new stillhouse was being built, four storeys high. Service units comprised "coppersmiths', engineers' and carpenters' shops, a good cooperage, stables for five horses and cart sheds".
These scenes would have been familiar to a young man who joined the excise service in 1886 and worked briefly at Cambus: Philip Snowden. As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the first Labour Government, he became, as he wrote in his autobiography, "the political head of the State Department in which I had served for a time in the humblest position".
Early in the morning of 24 September 1914 fire broke out in the grain store and maltings. Workmen on the night shift made a vigorous attempt to put out the flames, but failed, and the Alloa and Stirling fire brigades were called out. The grain stores, mills, maltings, kilns, grain conveyors, stable and "motor house" were entirely destroyed; and because the flames were fanned by a strong south-west wind, there were fears that the bonded warehouses might be engulfed. This ultimate disaster was not realised; but the distillery had to close. It did not reopen for twenty-four years.
After the end of the Great War, Cambus was used as a bonded warehouse and as a maltings for Carsebridge Distillery. Demand for Scotch whisky revived strongly in 1936, largely as a result of
the reopening of the American market after the repeal of Prohibition. The Distillers Company accordingly decided to rebuild and refit Cambus at an estimated cost of £20. Demolition began on 7 January 1937. The debris, amounting to about 0 tons, was deposited on the foreshore of the Forth, with the aim of preventing floods in time of river spate or high tides. By May, when building began, nothing was left of the old distillery except a part of the stillhouse of 1886. This was incorporated in the new and larger accommodation for the stills and receivers. Production of whisky started early in December, and the distillery was formally reopened on 6 January 1938, with the prospect of employing about 200 men when it became fully operational in March. The Alloa Advertiser reported the event under the banner headline "Prosperity Returns to Cambus".
A scheme to build a mechanised Saladin maltings never got off the ground. Malt for Cambus is now supplied by bulk road transport from a Saladin maltings at Kirkliston, West Lothian. This plant, and Cambus itself, is owned by Scottish Grain Distillers Ltd., a subsidiary of The Distillers Company p. 1. c., of Edinburgh.
When whisky production started up again after the second world war, the buildings at Cambus were still comparatively new, and did not need to be altered or re-equipped to the same extent as those at other grain whisky distilleries. Three new projects, all for ancillary products, were however planned and put into effect in the post-war era.
The first was a rectification plant, commissioned in 1952. It provides a reserve production unit in support of Wandsworth Distillery, London, which makes gin spirit for the gin companies in the Distillers Group.
Recovery of carbon dioxide gas from the fermentation process began in 1953. Substantial quantities of C02 are produced for sale by The Distillers Company (Carbon Dioxide) Ltd. and despatched to customers by rail.
Cambus was the first grain whisky distillery in Scotland to make an economic re-use of the solids left over from the distillation process. A plant was built in 1964 to make "grain distillers' dried solubles", which was marketed under the trade name "Scotaferm" to compounders of animal feedingstuffs. This plant was converted in 1982 to make "dark grains", which combines the residues from the fermentation and distillation processes.
Storage capacity was increased to the equivalent of about 10 butts by the construction of eighteen warehouses in 1955-57. Space for future expansion was secured in 1982 by the purchase of Strathmore Distillery, which had closed two years earlier. These premises, operated as Knox's Brewery until 1957, had been converted to make "silent" malt whisky, and then grain whisky, in continuous stills.
S.G.D. also owns some 125 acres of grazing land adjoining the River Forth. As the riparian proprietor, it exercises its right to net fish from just upstream of the mouth of the Devon down to Alloa. This operation is directed from the former distillery jetty, locally known as "The Pow". Salmon, sea trout and some flounders are taken. The river is tidal at this point.
The Company owns nineteen houses in the village of Cambus for occupation by employees. A row of cottages, previously occupied by employees, was demolished, together with Cambus House, the former home of the Moubrays, to make room for the dried solubles plant. The distillery has its own football team and pitch, and helps to maintain the village bowling club.
Process water for the distillery comes from Lossburn Reservoir in the Ochil Hills and water for reducing spirit from Loch Turret.
Once a jewel in DCL’s grain distillery crown, Cambus now exists as Diageo’s cooperage hub in Alloa.
In its heyday Cambus’s whisky was highly regarded by blenders. The advertisement placed by DCL in The Daily Mail in 1906, described Cambus Pure Grain Whisky as ‘the whisky with an individuality – notably different to all others in peculiar delicacy and charm of flavour – mild and mellow. Not a headache in a gallon.’
Aside from this one-off official bottling, Cambus has appeared as a 13-year-old, 15-year-old and a no-age-statement, and most recently as a 40-year-old in Diageo’s 2016 Special Releases. It also regularly appears under independent labels.
Cambus was another of the Lowland grain distilleries that formed the basis of DCL in the late 19th century, and played a starring role in the establishment of grain spirit as ‘whisky’, though it actually started out distilling malt.
In 1806 John Moubray converted a disused mill in Alloa, situated on the banks of the River Deveron close to where it meets the Forth, into a malt distillery. It operated as a small plant until 1836 when Moubray took a change of direction, installing two Stein patent stills to distil grain whisky instead.
Cambus was run as a family business for most of the 19th century, passing down to John’s son (James) and grandson (Robert), who installed a Coffey still in 1851. The expansion cemented Cambus as one of the largest grain distilleries in Scotland; its buildings were spread over eight acres and railway sidings were built up to each warehouse.
In 1856, to safeguard future operations during a period of fluctuating demand for grain whisky, six of the largest grain distillers in the Lowlands agreed to divide up the market between them for a year, with Cambus allocated 10.5%. Cambus also entered into a similar agreement in 1865, this time with the addition of Adelphi, Yoker, Cameronbridge and Port Dundas distilleries.
In 1877 it became one of the founding companies of DCL, which went on to acquire the adjacent Cambus Old Brewery in 1882 to allow Cambus to expand further.
During the ‘What is Whisky?’ trials at the turn of the century, when malt distillers began an uprising against the use of the term ‘whisky’ to describe grain spirit, DCL – which operated several grain distilleries – used Cambus to sway public opinion in their favour. In 1906 it placed a front-page advertisement for Cambus Pure Grain Whisky, which had been aged for around seven years, in The Daily Mail to ‘give the public the opportunity of judging for themselves what a pure patent-still grain whisky was like’. It was an obvious publicity ploy to sway the public, and the deciding courts. The malt distillers lost, and after the ruling had been announced in the 1908 Royal Commission, the advertising was quietly withdrawn.
Following its moment in the limelight, Cambus fell on hard times when a fire destroyed most of the distillery in 1914, rendering the site shut for the next 23 years.
It eventually reopened in 1937, but shut again during WWII. Finally, at the end of the war, DCL began a period of investment in the site. A gin rectification plant was installed in 1952, while a CO2 processing plant went in the following year. In 1964 Cambus became the first distillery to have a by-products plant – this was later expanded into a full dark grains plant in 1982 after DCL acquired the closed North of Scotland grain distillery next door.
Cambus eventually closed in 1993 as part of Diageo’s £100m production reorganisation. Its plant was removed and the site transformed into a cask filling operation and warehouses.
In 2011 it began a new lease of life, as Diageo built a new £9m cooperage on-site, transferring the coopering operations from nearby Carsebridge and Dundashill in Glasgow. It now adjoins the giant Blackgrange warehousing complex.
John Moubray builds Cambus distillery on the site of a former mill in Alloa
Cambus is converted from malt to grain output with the addition of Stein stills
James Moubray, John's son, takes over the business
The distillery is passed on to Robert Moubray, John's grandson
Robert modernises the distillery with addition of a Coffey still
Robert Moubray agrees to share the grain whisky market with five other grain distillers, taking a 10.5% share for Cambus
Robert once again enters a trade agreement to share the market with other grain distillers
Cambus becomes part of the newly-formed DCL
DCL acquires the adjacent Old Cambus Brewery and expands the distillery
Cambus appears in an advertisement on the front page of The Daily Mail
Fire ravages the distillery, forcing its closure
Cambus reopens for the first time since fire of 1914, but ceases at start of WWII
Cambus is reopened and begins distilling once more
Cambus becomes the first distillery to have a by-products processing plant on-site
The distillery is closed amid a mass reorganisation of Diageo's business
The coopering operations from Dundashill and Carsebridge are moved to Cambus, as a £9m cooperage opens on-site