Up-and-coming Scotch whisky distilleries
A new wave of Scotch whisky distilleries is looking to bring a dose of experimentation to the industry. The Spirits Business looks at some of the exciting newcomers – large and small – and their pioneering plans for the category.
Scotch whisky fans were stopped in their tracks last October when news broke that Diageo intends to resurrect cult whisky distilleries Port Ellen and Brora by 2020.
Each site was mothballed in 1983, and since 2001 both brands have been staples of Diageo’s annual and much-coveted Special Releases series. Diageo’s £35 million (US$46m) investment to breathe new life into the closed distilleries – whose bottles these days sell for big money on auction sites – speaks volumes about the potential that can be seen in Scotch whisky’s future.
But while the big players bring excitement to the category with Scotch whiskies of yore, there’s a new generation of pioneering start-ups determined to put their stamp on the whisky world. And what an incredibly exciting time it is to be a Scotch whisky producer.
In February this year, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) revealed overall Scotch exports grew in both volume and value terms, hitting £4.36 billion (US$6bn) in 2017, according to HMRC data. Global interest in single malts is rocketing, with exports up by 14.2% last year to £1.17bn. A new class of distillers can, surely, only push those figures up. So what can we expect to see in this new age of distilling?
Over the following pages we profile six pioneering Scotch distilleries and their plans for the future.
Lone Wolf Spirits
Leading the pack is Lone Wolf Spirits, which burst onto the scene in 2016 with an aim to challenge tradition and “push the boundaries” of innovation in Scotch. “I guess the first thing I’d say is we’re looking at every part of the process to understand what drives flavour,” explains Steven Kersley, Lone Wolf head distiller.
“There’s a lot of emphasis put on the casks being the place where most of the whisky’s flavour comes from, but I want to know what we can do upfront with raw materials, namely grain, yeast, the fermentation profile, how long we ferment for, what temperature we ferment at, and thereafter do we keep the yeast or filter it out before it goes into the stills?” And that’s the tip of the iceberg of Kersley’s plans for Lone Wolf. He mentions various types of malt he’s itching to start working with, “crystal malts, chocolate malts, roasted pilsner malts that you can use to introduce flavour into the process”.
But what excites Kersley the most is the high-tech warehouse he has to play with. “We have such an awesome toy, a warehouse that is completely temperature and humidity regulated,” he explains. “So what we can do effectively, is play tunes with the environment while the whisky’s maturing, so we can recreate conditions that are more akin to the Caribbean or the Far East, for example. Again, how does that affect the flavour or the development of our whisky? I’m hoping to be able to showcase that sometime towards the end of the year.”
Kersley is keen to get a young spirit – younger than the three years needed to legally be called Scotch – into consumers’ hands. But once his casks pass the three-year mark – and reach his high expectations – will there be a Lone Wolf core range to enjoy?
“There’ll be a mixture of core expressions and more limited-edition, small-batch whiskies,” he says. “We don’t want to fall into a particular style because whisky’s so vast; we want to be able to put our own expression of a rye, Bourbon and Scotch whisky in front of the consumer. There will be a really experimental part of what we offer, things that are just completely off the wall.”
While Kersley leads his crusade on innovating through raw materials and temperature control, other young distilleries are driving the industry forward with their sustainable efforts. Highland distillery Ncn’ean runs entirely on renewable energy, and is in the process of being certified as an organic distillery by the Biodynamic Association (BDA). “Part of the overall ethos of the business is something I believe passionately in,” says Annabel Thomas, Ncn’ean’s CEO. “But it’s also that we’re in a remote, natural and wild place, and it’s just part of the philosophy that we want to keep it as much like that as possible.”
Ncn’ean’s primary energy source is its biomass boiler. It’s powered with wood chips that come from the forest just a mile down the road. It may sound simple enough, but the logistics of obtaining the wood chips take up a huge amount of time. “You have to pay for the timber to be harvested,” explains Thomas. “You have to let it dry for a year, you have to chip it. And a biomass boiler is not the easiest thing to work with, so in terms of maintenance and down time, it’s probably a lot worse to maintain than an oil boiler would be.”
Meanwhile, the electricity needed to run the distillery is sourced from renewable energy providers. “We also recycle the byproducts from distillation,” adds Thomas. “The draff [spent grain] goes to the cattle that are wandering around the estate, so literally just out the door, and we also spread the pot ale on the fields as fertiliser.”
Thomas and her team started filling casks a year ago, using ex-Bourbon, ex-Sherry and ex-Spanish red wine casks. The distillery worked closely with the late Dr Jim Swan for four years, tweaking recipes and designing the “light, fresh, fruity” whisky style it hopes to produce. “We benefitted a huge amount from Jim’s absolutely massive knowledge,” says Thomas. “We don’t know where our experimentation will lead at the moment, but I guess the point of experimentation is you don’t know what will happen to it.”
Details are being closely guarded, but Thomas does confirm a young spirit release will be coming later this year. However, it will be several years before we see anything resembling a core whisky from the distillery, which will likely be in the form of two age-stated whiskies: one between three- and five-years-old; the second around the 10 to 12-year-old mark.
Though Ncn’ean is far from the only distillery with an impressive sustainability story. Chivas Brothers-owned Dalmunach in Speyside also boasts noteworthy green credentials. Built in 2014, the £25m building was once home to the Imperial Distillery, which was torn down in 2013. Dalmunach’s main purpose was to increase Chivas Brothers’ malt whisky production capacity by 17%.
“By combining original features from the previous distillery with the latest environmental expertise, such as heat-recovery technology, our Dalmunach distillery is capable of producing up to 10 million litres of high-quality Speyside spirit each year,” says Gordon Buist, production director, Chivas Brothers.
“This helps to support global demand for our best-selling blended whisky brands, including Chivas Regal, Ballantine’s and Royal Salute.” The distillery prides itself in its energy-efficient wash and spirit stills, which have enabled the company to cut its energy usage by 40%. Furthermore, Dalmunach was part of a £4m project in 2016 to reduce the carbon footprints of Speyside distilleries owned by Diageo, Chivas Brothers and Ian Macleod Distillers.
As a result, Dalmunach benefits from a ‘seasonal gas supply’, allowing the building to move away from a heavy reliance on oil as its main fuel source.
“By connecting part of the distillery to a natural gas supply we achieved a 1,766tonne saving on carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent to the amount of carbon absorbed by 2,080 acres of forest in a year,” Buist adds.
Highland-based Ardnamurchan, located at Glenbeg, Lochaber, on the Ardnamurchan Estate, was one of the first Scotch whisky distilleries to boldly take on the sustainable challenge when it opened in 2014. Like Ncn’ean, this facility is wholly reliant on renewable energy. The fuel needed to power the distillery is sourced entirely from local suppliers, the hydro-generated electricity comes from a hydro-electricity generator in the river, while heat energy is generated from the biomass boiler.
But Ardnamurchan’s green endeavour is not its only significant point of difference. The distillery also boasts its own floor maltings, not commonly seen in distilleries these days. What’s also exciting about Ardnamurchan’s story is its efforts to create transparency and security around its brand. Last September, the Highland distillery revealed a partnership with digital tech firm ArcNet to launch a scannable, anti-counterfeit QR code for its bottles, which was trialled on the Ardnamurchan 2017AD expression.
“The anti-counterfeit bit wasn’t the most important to us at this stage,” confesses Alex Bruce, managing director of Ardnamurchan, despite the media interest that followed its release. “We actually launched primarily to give consumers transparency and to interact with our customer base. All the manufacturing data goes up into this blockchain cloud, and once it’s in there it cannot be corrupted. It stays as you put it in. We opened that window for consumers to see the barley varietal, field name, through to the bottling. We just have to be careful about being too transparent in terms of European law.”
The anti-counterfeiting side was an added bonus. Each bottle is digitally encrypted, then when the code is scanned, the blockchain receives the details that it has been bought and scanned. “It’s the beginning of the consumer story,” says Bruce. “If you find one at auction, you can see what’s happened to that bottle in the past.”
And there’s more to come. Eventually, bottles will be fitted with chips that will transmit information to the same blockchain technology recording if a bottle has been opened. “It should be foolproof because you’ll know the entire history of the bottle,” he adds.
While Bruce and his colleagues bring Scotch into the digital era, Fife’s InchDairnie is looking to the past for inspiration. In December 2017, the distillery unveiled what will become its first expression – a rye whisky called Ryelaw that marked the return of the grain to Scotch production for the first time in more than 100 years. “We’re all about producing whisky with a distinctive flavour. Rye was obvious,” says Ian Palmer, who opened InchDairnie Distillery in 2016.
Palmer admits the distillery is taking an experimental approach, but is reluctant to divulge details of his future plans. “We prefer to talk about what we have done as opposed to what we are going to do,” he says. “We do a lot of development work and some products simply won’t make it. We’ve got lots going through the process at the moment; different types of barley, maltings, different grains. Some will travel faster through that process, some will take years.”
It’s hardly surprising to hear Palmer’s workforce is so active behind the scenes. The distillery was created with an aim of focusing on technology, innovation and energy efficiency, and to represent a “forward-thinking approach to producing malt Scotch whisky” – and on a large scale, too. The site, based on the outskirts of Kinglassie, has the capacity to produce 2m litres of whisky annually, bucking the trend for smaller microdistilleries.
“We started with a blank sheet of paper,” recalls Palmer. “That isn’t always the case. We basically wrote down the definition of Scotch, then said: ‘Here’s how you would do it automatically, but do we have to do it that way?’ We questioned every step of the process and asked: ‘What does that restrict us from doing?’ We were very critical of every step, constantly saying: ‘Why? Why? Why?’”
Palmer reels off some examples, including replacing the lauter tun in favour of a mash-conversion filter to permit the use of more finely milled grain. “It also allowed us to work with totally different temperature profiles to manage the conversion of cereal,” he says.
Rye is clearly a grain that is slowly making a comeback in Scotch. Established whisky makers, including Islay’s Bruichladdich and Diageo, have already turned their hand to experimenting with the base material. Also entering the realms of rye distillation is family-owned Highland distillery Arbikie.
When Arbikie opened in 2014, it quickly made a name for itself as Scotland’s first ‘farm-to-bottle’ distillery, fermenting, distilling, bottling, labelling and maturing everything on site – with all spirits made using estate-grown ingredients. But Scotch whisky is the distillery’s ultimate goal. Just before Christmas 2017, Arbikie released charity bottling Highland Rye, a limited-edition, rye-based spirit aged for just two years. But that was just the beginning of Arbikie’s plans.
“The main release of the product will be towards the tail end of this year,” says Adam Hunter, Arbikie’s commercial manager. That will be when the whisky has reached the minimum age for Scotch. “We’ll be releasing two styles: one we’ll call Arbikie Highland Rye Whisky. And a really interesting one we’re doing, something never done before, is we’ll release an American-style rye, but at a later date. We’ll never be able to call it Scotch, as we’re basically following the exact process the Americans do in terms of making rye whiskey.”
And what about its single malts? Well, Arbikie is demonstrating massive amounts of patience, and intends to wait at least 14 years for its inaugural release to mature, currently pencilled in for 2029. There will be two styles released, one that’s been matured in Bourbon barrels, the other in Sherry casks – and there’ll be myriad small-batch experiments with cask finishes, unusual distillation methods and single-barrel bottlings.
There is no denying these new producers are proving that innovation abounds in Scotch. And while we will have to wait to see whether quality lives up to expectations, Hunter accurately sums up the new era of Scotch whisky distilling: “It’s an exciting time; the beginning of disruption in the Scotch whisky category. The whisky market is in for a very innovative and disruptive period.”