A drink with… James Wright, Aber FallsBy Owen Bellwood
The managing director of Wales’s Aber Falls discusses building a distillery from scratch and the importance of sustainability in the industry.
How did you get involved in the drinks industry?
I got involved in the drinks industry working to launch Red Bull in the UK.
How did you progress from Red Bull to Aber Falls?
Once you’re in the drinks industry, it’s very difficult to get out. I’ve come quite an interesting route, from Red Bull to working with Tiger Beer in the UK before I was head-hunted to work with Modelo.
After that, I took a very short career break and went travelling through India and Nepal.
When I came back I worked for Walkabout pubs, and I gained some operational experience. Then I moved to Halewood International. All of this has led me here to Aber Falls.
Was it exciting to become involved in a brand new distillery?
I have always been a lover of whisky; I did an interview with The Spirits Business about three years ago and my first line was: “I’m quite intrigued by whisky.” And it’s great because I’ve ended up setting up and building a whisky distillery from scratch.
We really are brand new; we have only just done our first mash. It is very exciting. But what is great is that we’ve been able to get involved with the local community and with the Welsh people.
What are you producing?
We are going to be making a 100% Welsh whisky, so I am in the process of working with local farmers and the Bangor University grain research team to make sure that we are only using Welsh malted barley. However, our un-aged release will be in three years and our whiskies won’t be released until 2025 and 2028, so in the meantime we need some cash flow.
Our extended portfolio has just launched, with two flavoured gins as well as three liqueurs.
In March, we’ll be releasing three more gins in special bottles that we’re designing now, and we’re hoping these will give us a ‘good, better, best’ portfolio. So there’ll be a Welsh dry, a mid-range gin that will focus on local botanicals, and a distiller’s cut, which gives the distillery team flexibility to do limited releases.
How important is it for you to celebrate Welsh produce?
It’s very important. With the whisky, it’s all about using the best Welsh malt and using our natural resources effectively. For our gins, it’s all about working with botanicals from the area.
We have been very lucky to work with Bangor University, which has a botanical garden near our site; they’ve been looking at unique botanicals that we can use.
I can’t see any reason why the Welsh whisky category can’t grow. When you look at the natural resources that we have in Wales, and some of the historic alcohol production that took place where we are, it makes total sense.
The fact that we’ve got these natural resources on our doorstep and our ability to grow our barley locally, power the distillery from our waterfall and take our water from that same waterfall is all great, and something we’re very proud of.
Should the drinks industry be more open to sustainability?
When there is an opportunity, we should always be looking to embrace sustainability. Any business should think about how it can minimise its footprint on the environment. For me, things like using a hydroelectric power plant seemed like a natural route to take.
What will 2018 hold for Aber Falls?
This year we’ll find our feet; everything in the distillery will have been commissioned and we will be fully operational. We will be busy filling whisky casks and making sure that we produce the best new-make spirit that we can. As all this is happening, we will further develop our gin portfolio and our liqueur offering. Finally, towards the end of the year, our visitor centre will be opening, and, hopefully, we will become a key attraction in North Wales.
Was opening a distillery something you always wanted to do?
I never thought I would be building one from scratch because it’s so rare; the fact that I’ve had this opportunity is second to none. I am totally embracing every moment and I’m looking forward to all of the unique things that we can develop.