The Unsolved Mysteries of Donald Johnston and Grace Gow

Exploring the unsolved accidents or maybe crimes that occurred at Laphroaig and Glenturret Distilleries.

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Show Notes

With Special Guest Lucy Armstrong of Glenturret Distillery

This week I look at two mysterious tragedies in the history of scotch whisky. One takes place at the Laphroaig Distillery on Islay and the other at Glenturret Distillery.

I also provide details about several steps in the process of making scotch whisky.

Join me and Lucy Armstrong, Development Manager and unofficial historian for Glenturret Distillery and we learn of the tragic story of Grace Gow and find a silver lining in an otherwise sad tale.

Listen to the full episode with the player above or find it on your favorite podcast app under "Whiskey Lore." The full transcript is available on the tab above.


Picture an inlet, with its peaceful waters rippling, and the smell of ocean salt in the air. Hear the sea birds and watch as the swans drift over the reflection of the whitewashed building, adorned with big black letters, spelling out Laphroaig.

It’s not known when the bay gathered its name Laphroaig. The name doesn’t reveal itself on maps until 1800. An oddly spelled word, it is thought to derive from both Scots Gaelic and Norse Viking traditions. The bay itself sits on the southern shore of Islay, a little scotch whisky paradise that is well-known today for its peaty, medicinal whiskies. 

Standing on the shore, looking across the bay, on a clear day you can see clear to the shores of Northern Ireland. Amazing to think, this is the same sight that the brothers Donald and Alexander Johnston would have been enjoying when they first leased this land back in May of 1825. 

The only difference between what they saw and what we now see, is the reflection of the whitewashed building. Back then, the reflection most likely was only dancing in Donald’s imagination. It wouldn’t be until the following year that he officially turned from being a farmer into a fully licensed distiller.

But if you look at a bottle of Laphroaig today, it shows D. Johnston & Co being established in 1815 not 1826. So what was the company doing before moving to Laphroaig Bay? The Johnston’s were farmers with roots in the area going back to at least 1776 when their father Alexander first leased land from the local lairds. When did distilling start? It is hard to say. But it is likely it was occurring well before Donald became licensed.

Over the next decade, the distillery grew under Donald’s care, but his younger brother Alexander never developed a passion for making whisky. He had just asked Flora McTaggert for her hand in marriage, Alexander decided his new family needed to find their fortune far away in Australia. He told his brother he wanted to sell his part of the business. But Donald was worried about losing control of his distillery to outside investors, so offered his brother 350£ (the equivalent of 34,000£ today) to become the sole owner of D. Johnston & Co. and the Laphroaig Distillery. 

But things were all that easy in the days following his brother's departure. After much protest from Donald, two partners James and Andrew Gairdner secured a lease from Donald’s landlords in 1835 and built a distillery only 200 yards away from the Laphroaig Distillery. Donald wanted to protect his distillery and this was too close for comfort. For the next ten years, there would be various disputes over land rights and water rights. 

Then the worst thing imaginable happened.

When making scotch whisky, grain is first cooked and soaked in a mash tun, similar to how you might conceive oatmeal being made on a large scale. The liquid (often referred to as wort) is then drained off and cooled down while being transferred to wooden or stainless steel tubs called wash backs. The wash back is where yeast is added to the mixture. The idea is to get the yeast to feed on the sugars to create small amounts of alcohol. This is called fermentation. After fermentation is complete, the wort is then sent over to a pot or column still for it’s first distillation. Liquid is then boiled to a temperature between the boiling point of water and the boiling point of alcohol. The steam that escapes through the stem at the top of the still is cooled and becomes low wine. Low wine is around 25% alcohol, so it requires a run through a second still to finish the process. 

The other byproduct of the first distillation is called pot ale or burnt ale. This is everything that wasn’t able to steam its way out of the top of the still. With its golden yellow color, you might mistake it for some relative of beer, if it weren’t for the other floating bits of matter in it, including barley husks that somehow made their way all the way from the mash tun to the stills. When this liquid is drained, it is upwards of 210 degrees fahrenheit, or almost 100 degrees celsius.

On this particular morning in 1847, Donald Johnston was making what was likely a normal check on the distilling process when suddenly he found himself submerged in a vat of boiling hot pot ale! 

Imagine the intense and unbearable scalding heat. How he avoided going into shock immediately and drowning is beyond comprehension. 

Struggling for his life in that fiery inferno he was able to reach his hand out. And a worker pulled him from certain death onto the floor below. 

But the damage was too great. Donald held on as long as he could, but succumbed to his injuries two days later. 

How did it happen? How could someone with that much distillery experience suddenly find himself caught in a vat of boiling pot ale? Did he slip? Or was he pushed? Sadly we may never know.

That is definitely not the way you want to see your distillery’s founder go out of this world - nor anyone for that matter. But accidents at distilleries weren’t uncommon in those days.

In fact, just one year later, at nearby Port Ellen Distillery, the government Excise man, who in those days lived on the premises, also somehow ended up in a vat of what was referred to as boiling spent wash, most likely pot ale. He apparently died very quickly after the incident.

If you get a chance to take a tour of Laphroaig, when you get to the outside portion, see if you can spot the drain pipe that feeds from the building into the bay. Don’t worry, this doesn’t pump out pollution, instead, it is where the warm water from spent pot ale runs back out into the bay - its alcohol content is negligible, at around one tenth of one percent. 

On cool days, you’ll see the swans gathering nearby to capture the warmth. 

When I see that pipe, I pause for a moment and I remember Donald Johnston’s tragic and mysterious end. An end that occurred not far from that very spot. But rather than feeling sadness, instead I send out gratitude to all of the people who fostered Donald’s dream over the last 170 years, and made it possible for me to taste the fruits of his labor, this wonderfully unique dram we call Laphroaig. 

Grace Gow

Now as you’ll recall, last October, I made my way to the Glenturret Distillery in Crieff, Scotland to have a chat with the staff about Towser, their fearless feline that holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for mouse kills. 

After talking with Sheenagh and doing the tour with Sue, I was introduced to Lucy Armstrong. Lucy is the distillery’s Development Manager and resident historian. She had been digging through the archives in both Edinburgh and through several area newspapers when she stumbled on a story from January 7th, 1870. It was a story about Grace Gow. Grace was a significant find because this story would provide the first documentation of a female worker at Glenturret. Quite a find. Just in finding this name, she was able to do research on the woman and fill in several details about her life - remarkable for a woman of that time period.

But unfortunately, newspaper stories aren’t always written about incredibly positive events and this one would have its share of sorrow. I’ll let Lucy divulge some of what she discovered about Grace:

Lucy: So she lived quite a hard life bless her. She had gone from basically being brought up in Creiff, the town that is near the distillery, so she’d been brought up here. She’d been a house servant in several different areas of Creif where she’d grown up. And she had two children, she was never married and she eventually went on to be a farm laborer. So really hard graft, hard work. And the farm that she worked at was just the farm at the back of the distillery. 

3:00 So often what people would do is that they would run the farm in peak times and then in quieter times during the farm they would then use obviously the barleys and the cereals to make whisky. So that was absolutely true of Glenturret, being essentially something that was close to local agriculture and again it was essentially a farm distillery in the early days. So, she eventually went on to work, we don’t have an exact date but looking through the records and the archives...such as Scotland’s people we can actually trace people back and this is where we found that she was using this alternative surname Grace Alexander and there it revealed a bit more about her. So sometimes she would use her mother’s name Gow and sometimes her father’s name Alexander. It appears her parents were also not married. 

4:07 So, she from about 1861 began working alongside the farm here at the distillery and when you read some of the newspaper articles it becomes quite clear that one her key rooms in the distillery that she worked in was the tun room. And the tun room is where we basically go through fermentation, so a similar process in beer making, although we’re not using hops and things.  But the tun room can be quite dangerous - as some of the rooms in the distillery can be. So when you’ve got like alcohol vapors and things as well. So very much back in the day you’d find that you’d get reports of fires and things at distilleries because you’re working with very high grade spirit. 

4:57 But in the tun room, dangers there is that when you’re fermenting your sugary water, what we call wort, when it goes in with the yeast, basically what happens is the yeast will attack all of the lovely oxygen that’s already alongside, if you know what I mean, in the atmosphere. And once it has eaten up all of that oxygen, it will start attacking the sugars in the wort. 

So during that process it creates alcohol, but it creates carbon dioxide as one of the byproducts as well as the alcohol.  

5:45 So what happens in the tun room is that, usually what we do now is we make sure that there is like a lower room where the CO2 can fall down into so nobody usually goes in there. It’s not used very often. But if you can imagine back in the 1800s they probably would have had open vats, so when the CO2 is produced often it produces a froth called barm and its where the expression barmy mad if you go ahead to that. 

In fact, when you go on a distillery tour, your tour guide may give you an opportunity to stick your head over the fermenters or wash backs to get a whiff of the fermentation process. But they will likely warn you not to stick your head too far down inside the tub or take too big a snootful or you may end up lightheaded, or worse, you may pass out. This is the carbon dioxide the yeast is expelling and it is so thick that there is literally little to no oxygen in that cylinder. 

Lucy: So you stick your face in that and you get a big whaft of CO2 bubbles it will knock you sideways. It's like a fizzy drink going up your nose but quite intense. So you can imagine with the open vat it would have been spilling over so you would have quite a lot of bubbles going over the side, so not like we have it all controlled nowadays, but also the open vats as well, there would have been a bit of hazard of people falling in them. 

And just like Donald Johnston, somehow this long time veteran of distillery work, Grace Gow somehow ended up in one of these wooden fermentation tanks. Having taken in just a small breath of that CO2 during several distillery tours, I can’t imagine how someone inside one of those deep vats could have any chance of survival. But how did she get in there in the first place? And what happened after she fell in?

Lucy: So we don’t know how Grace very sadly came to falling in one of the vats. Now either when she’s fallin’ in, she’s either sadly drowned in the liquid or it’s highly likely because if you were to fall in there, there wouldn’t be any oxygen at all, there would just be CO2, so she would have been sadly suffocated from the lack of oxygen. And the overspilling vat alerted one of the other, her other colleagues and they found her sadly in the vat.  

7:21 Interestingly in the report, I mean, between the death certificate which we were able to find the original source of that, but also between all the reports and the different census records as well, all give different ages, so some reports say she was a young woman, some reports perhaps hint that she was a more mature woman, so we have an age range for when she died. So we believe she either kind of mid-40s or mid-50s thereabouts. So she wasn’t young young, but she certainly wasn’t very very mature so she was still in her prime. So it was very very sad to read that she ended her life here.

8:06 What was interesting of course is that at that time, typically you wouldn’t off...and this sounds terrible but you wouldn’t of necessarily seen the death of a female worker reported in such an important manner. And the fact that the report talks about there being a sadness around the area. So she was obviously well liked and had a lot of friends and family within the area, so it was certainly a very sad recording and certainly something you wouldn’t see every other day (certainly wouldn’t have a recording of death at that time for a female worker). So definitely was unusual. Not to say she was the only worker in a scotch whisky distillery, but there’s not many of them recorded at that time, so very significant and special for us.

9:10 Absolutely, we feel it’s only right that we should mark this great discovery in our heritage and actually have a cask named after her to really celebrate not just a past very important figure, but also especially now you see such great women working in whisky, so it seems absolutely fantastic that we can celebrate a great part of our heritage who just happens to be a female worker but we can also look to the future and all the bright talent and wealth of women in the industry that are making a huge difference to it even now and hopefully still in the future. So it’s a nice note. 

Grace’s importance to both the distillery and the community ends as a positive footnote on an otherwise tragic story. And her unique position in the distillery during that era can’t be understated. 

We can look back at Laphroaig for an example. When Donald Johnston passed away in 1847, he had a wife, five daughters and two sons. Rather than seeing the distillery passed on to Donald’s wife Alice, or his two eldest daughters, the distillery was put into a Trust for his eleven year old son Dugald. And as nervous as Donald was about losing control of the distillery, he put his brother in charge of it with the head distiller of Lagavulin installed at head distiller of Laphroaig, until his son came of age. As for the sisters, several attempts to gain some form of ownership, all failed. 

But things would change in Laphroaig’s case. In 1934, Miss Bessie Williamson would take her degree from the University of Glasgow and move into a part-time position as a secretary at the distillery. In 1951, the distillery’s managing director Ian Hunter promoted Bessie to secretary and director. When he unexpectedly died in 1954, he bequeathed total ownership to Bessie and she became the first female owner and manager of a scotch distillery and the only one in the 20th century. And his faith was well placed. Under her steady hand, business continued to grow, even through the hard times of the so-called whisky depression of the 60s and 70s. 

However, she did end up selling off her stake in the company during her last few years and today, Laphroaig is under the ownership of Beam Suntory, but Donald’s name hasn’t gone away.

Next time you head to your cabinet and pull down that bottle of Laphroaig, or if you’re standing in a whisky shop or bar, look at the bottom of the package and you’ll still see the name of D. Johnston & Co.

And if you’re in Crieff visiting the Towser statue and my friends over at Glenturret Distillery, when you finish your tour, raise a glass to the memory of Grace Gow and all of the great people who do so much to bring us the finest whisky’s in the world.  

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life

Research, stories and production by Drew Hannush

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A big thanks to Lucy at Glenturret for spending some time chatting with me on the record. We actually had a bit more of a conversation beyond that and make sure you’re subscribed to the podcast on your favorite podcast app, so you don’t miss this subscriber’s exclusive. Well go a bit deeper into how Lucy does her research and find out more about Glenturret’s storied history.

Meanwhile, out my bourbon travels on my Facebook and Instagram pages.

And until next time cheers and slainte mhath.