SB meets… Andrew Lennie, Whyte & Mackay
Andrew Lennie, international malt whisky specialist at Whyte & Mackay, explains the thinking behind the brand’s Scottish Oak Programme and why home-grown oak is so important for the future and for flavour.
Whyte & Mackay’s Scottish Oak Programme won The Spirits Business Award for innovation in production in 2022. What does the programme entail?
The Scottish Oak Programme was born at Fettercairn Distillery and created by our master whisky maker Gregg Glass. Its purpose is to imagine the possibilities for harnessing local, responsibly sourced Scottish oak for whisky making.
For Stewart Walker (distillery manager), Steven Pearson (chief marketing officer) and the rest of the team, it captured our imagination. We developed the programme for a number of years before it launched in 2022.
As an industry, we are reliant on imports when it comes to barrels and wood for cask making – most come from the US and parts of Europe. The programme will adapt historical sawmill practices and kit – some dating back to the 1930s – and give local businesses the knowledge (and equipment) to process Scottish oak.
Developing career options in whisky is also an important part of the programme, too.
What was the inspiration or motivation behind launching this innovation?
The programme was naturally born here at Fettercairn. When you stand here in Aberdeenshire, we are not short of trees. We saw the possibility in what we had around us.
As whisky makers, ambassadors and storytellers, flavour comes first. The Scottish Oak Programme is a flavour-led initiative. We didn’t know what new flavours would come from it, but we wanted to find out. For example, how will the growing conditions of the trees affect flavour? Can we dry and treat the wood in different ways to build unique flavours? How will barrel sizes affect flavour and what is the best way to char the wood?
The possibilities are so exciting and lots of it is untrodden ground.
Gregg Glass is a hands-on whisky maker – he’s intricately involved in every aspect of whisky making from acorn to glass. His approach is always experimental.
People are an important source of inspiration, too. We are really fortunate to work with nurseries, forestry managers, a sawmill, a cooperage and local farmers, and they all take great care in what they do. There’s a real sense of community and coming together, daring to do something a little different and to see what is possible if we use this natural resource that we have on our doorstep.
What benefits have you seen from using Scottish oak in the finishing of your whiskies?
Fettercairn 18 Year Old is the first single malt whisky to come from the programme.
At its heart, it’s a typical Fettercairn single malt, with the brand’s signature notes of tropical fruit and soft spice. But the Scottish oak, used as a partial finish, has captured some more mature fruit characteristics and a deep, exuberant flavour and texture. It really champions the true nature of Scottish oak with its warming spices and dark berry charm. The spirit and the cask come together in perfect balance.
Fettercairn 18 Year Old is an annual release due to the scarcity of the Scottish oak casks and the rarity of the liquid at this age, but each release will be the same beautiful whisky.
What future releases can we look forward to?
Fettercairn Distillery is situated on the Fasque Estate, and we recently filled casks made from the estate’s oak with barley grown on the estate.
The Fasque Estate team have been a huge part of the programme. For almost 200 years, the land surrounding Fettercairn has played an integral role in shaping the distillery. This beautiful landscape inspires us to create malt with imagination.
I can’t tell you why yet, but our 200th anniversary in 2024 will be quite special.
The programme has involved planting 13,000 oak saplings on land next to the Fettercairn Distillery, called the Fettercairn Forest. What will Whyte & Mackay be doing in the interim while it waits for the forest to mature?
It is quite poetic to imagine that by the time these trees are fully grown, we will be long gone.
It is an investment in the future and a space that we can monitor and nurture as the trees grow. In the meantime, we’re working with a number of foresters around Scotland to access wind-felled trees and trees that have come from managed forests, so that there is a robust promise of replanting.
Do you think other distilleries and producers will follow suit?
Absolutely. The Scottish Oak Programme is not just for us – it’s about creating a circular economy for Scottish producers to better understand and use local raw materials.
We will continue to do our part to ensure a bright future for the growth of Scottish oak across our wonderful industry.