For over 40 years, if you wanted a high-quality malt mill for your new whisky distillery then the best thing to do was buy a refurbished old one made by Boby or Porteus, Now for the first time since the 1970s you can buy a brand new one based on the classic old design. Yes, the Boby mill is back!

The distilling industry is never slow to trumpet its latest initiative in sustainability. And quite right too. In an increasingly throwaway world, concern for the environment has grown and the knowledge that, for example, whisky casks can be repeatedly reused for 50 years or more (and then turned into garden furniture) is a comforting thought.

But what about the plant and equipment used to make whisky? Well, you’ll be familiar with the Porteus and Boby mills frequently seen in breweries and distilleries across the world – unsung, understated, and hardworking heroes of the production department, who prize these venerable machines above all others. They’re hard to find and jealously guarded by those fortunate enough to own one.

An old Boby mill

An old Boby mill

Too sturdy

These old mills were so well made that they required relatively little maintenance and with little or no demand for new machines, both firms went out of business many years ago. They were outlived by their equipment and undone by the slump in whisky production of the 1970s and 80s and the ruthless consolidation of the brewing industry, meaning fewer and fewer small independent breweries.  Sadly, quite a few mills will have been scrapped which, until recently, hasn’t been a problem.

Some while back I told the story of a 140-year-old Boby mill undergoing restoration in Chepstow by the family-owned Euro Mechanical Engineering who told me then that, in theory, they could build a brand new Boby-style mill from scratch based on the original blueprints but updated for greater efficiency and cleaner running. 

Hard to find

But why would you, when the originals have a working life of a century or more? Well, basically, they are desperately hard to find and with new distilleries and small breweries being built at an unprecedented pace, there’s a need for equipment of established high quality with a proven heritage. Even the shiniest of new state-of-the-art distilleries may be discreetly supplied by a 50 or 60-year-old machine which, come to think of it, is something quite amazingly heart-warming. But there just aren’t enough to go around.

And so it has come to pass that a new Boby mill has indeed been built and even now sits in a shipping container awaiting the last paperwork to be finalised before heading off to its eventual home in a soon-to-be-opened whisky distillery (which is another story, which we’ll come to in a moment).

Boby mill

The Boby rides again!

The Boby mill is back!

The mill, of 4-5 tons capacity, is the product of 12 months’ work by father and son team Ronnie and Gareth Lee. The original design has been improved, Gareth telling me that while the exterior closely resembles an old-style Boby, the gears have been done away with, the roller bearings switched to a spherical shape and a double-edged synchronized belt fitted. If, like me, that’s double Dutch to you, I’m assured it means cleaner running (no oil), greater energy efficiency, and potentially faster running speeds if desired by the operator. Everything has been built from the ground up with a local foundry providing custom-made castings for the bearings, which were then hand finished by Gareth.

But who has commissioned this work and where is this marvel of skillfully modernized vintage engineering to be found? Let’s hear it for the new owners, the family-owned and independent Ian Macleod Distillers, well-known for their Glengoyne and Tamdhu single malts, the imaginative reopening of Rosebank, and their Edinburgh Gin brand.  They are also partners in the proposed Laggan Bay project which, if everything goes to plan, will be Islay’s twelfth distillery.

Boby mill is back

Ronnie (left) and Gareth Lee with their new mill

Ian Macleod is off to India

So the Boby is destined for a Hebridean home? Well, no. In fact, it will be travelling around 4,000 miles to Una, a town in the southwestern Himachal Pradesh state in northern India where Macleod Distillers are currently building on a greenfield site. The distillery, expected to be operational later this year, is designed to produce around 1.0m litres of spirit annually of Indian whisky.

Beyond that, the Ian Macleod team were tight-lipped though, if you have the time, there’s a 236-page Environmental Impact report available online here from the Himachal Pradesh State Pollution Control Board. From that lengthy document (I’ve read it so you don’t have to) we learn that “The project proposes to produce Malt Spirit, part of it matured for at least 2 years and above years for supplies to IMFL [that’s Indian-Made Foreign Liquor] industry for blending in various proportions and part of the matured malt spirit will be matured for more than 3 years to be called as Whisky under International norms and bottled as Indian Single Malt whisky for the Indian and export market”.

Indian Single Malt Whisky from Ian Macleod Distillers – you read it first here, folks.

According to the report, the total cost is 50.8 Crore of Indian Rupees which, if my sums are correct, is approximately £5m – quite the bargain by UK standards. 

How much is that Boby is the window?

Naturally, I enquired as to the cost of the mill and naturally, and quite correctly, Gareth Lee would not be drawn into the specifics. But he did hint that if you wanted one for your project, you could expect to wait some 12 months or so (they’re busy) and expect to write a cheque for rather more than  £100,000. 

So this is a mill that grinds slowly but is exceeding fine; evidently a labour of love and a source of great pride – and why not, because as Gareth assured me, “it will be working long after I’m in the ground.”  That’s sustainability!