The village of Fettercairn is situated in the fertile Howe of Mearns at the foot of the Grampian Mountains. It is easy to see why the area was popular with illicit distillers and smugglers. The land provided the barley and water and the mountains the hiding places to avoid the Excise Officers. Land owners turned a blind eye to the illegal distilling as the practice provided an outlet for the barley grown on their estates and so in turn paid their rent.
The history of Fettercairn Distillery mirrors the up and down fortunes of the whisky industry. Initially it was run as a farm distillery by tenants of the Fasque estate, then by limited companies before being incorporated into Distillers Company Limited and then Whyte & Mackay in 1973.
When the Excise Act was passed in 1823, it was the second distillery to be licensed. The owner of the Fasque estate, Sir Alexander Ramsey wasted no time in converting a cornmill into a distillery and it was in production by 1825. However within 5 years Ramsey was in financial trouble and he sold Fasque House and estate for 80,000 to John Gladstone. Gladstone, a Scotsman, had become one of the wealthiest merchants of his era.
The distillery prospered and when John Gladstone died in 1851, his eldest son, Thomas, succeeded to the Fasque Estate. Thomas' younger brother William followed a political career and was elected Prime Minister three times. William was also instrumental in passing legislation to alleviate taxes on the 'angel's share'.
In 1887 the tenant, David Durie, approached Gladstone about a renewal of the lease and the building of additional warehousing. His reply was not favourable and indeed the Laird wished to increase the rent. With the whisky market crashing, Durie did not renew the lease and the distillery was advertised for rent along with the farm. Shortly after Durie left, things went from bad to worse as half of the distillery was destroyed by fire.
For two years the distillery lay silent until Thomas Gladstone died and his son Sir John Robert Gladstone became laird. John Gladstone was prepared to help a new tenant by investing a considerable sum on rebuilding the necessary buildings. However, it was decided that the way forward was by the formation of a company to take over the distillery.
In 1890, Fettercairn Distillery Co. was created by a group of local farmers and London merchants. The rebuilding was completed and Fettercairn was back in production. Again it prospered and found favour with many of the blenders.
Yet again the prosperity was short lived - licence and duty increases in the 1909 budget hit the distilleries hard. In 1912 the investors wanted to cut their losses and so the company was placed into liquidation. John Gladstone bought the distillery and began looking for new investors. This did not take long and by the end of the same year a new company was formed.
After the end of the First World War prohibition and temperance hit whisky sales both home and abroad. By 1923 the new Fettercairn Distillery Company was in liquidation. Although the distillery was leased again in 1924, production was limited and the company had folded by 1927. During this time John Gladstone had died and James Mann had become the factor of the Estate.
Over the next 10 years the outlook for the distillery was bleak. Mann had canvassed several possible purchasers - including Arthur Bell & Sons and Scottish Malt Distillers, but nothing came of discussions. The decision was taken to dismantle the distillery and Mann began looking for a buyer for the machinery.
There was a glimmer of hope, with the abolition of prohibition, Mann was approached by Joseph Hobbs, a Canadian Scot who had been in the bootleg trade. Under Train & McIntyre, he had purchased Glenury Royal distillery at Stonehaven and was looking to buy several more. Initially deterred by the high asking price, he did finally purchase the distillery for 5,000 in January 1938. Train & McIntyre were acquired by DCL in 1953.