Few drinks scream tradition like Scotch whisky. From its rich history stretching back more than 500 years through to the rules and regulations surrounding its production, Scotch could be seen as a drink that’s frozen in time.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Today’s distillers have been breathing fresh life into the industry, with some reaching far back into the Scotch mists of time to reclaim old ideas from before the days of corporate ownership, and others charting a fresh course by borrowing ideas from the brewing sector.
The wave of craft distilling (generally speaking, smaller operators making whisky in smaller quantities) has created opportunities for fresh faces to enter the industry with new ideas and a lack of preconceptions. When mixed with the explosion in the popularity of gin, Scotland provides fertile ground for young gun distillers to strut their stuff.
Iona Macphie – Torabhaig
Perched on the coast of the Isle of Skye, Torabhaig is a distillery with a difference. Instead of hiring a big-name distiller in the run-up to the site opening in 2017, owner Mossburn Distillers chose to recruit a team of nine local people to make its whisky.
Among that team was Iona Macphie, now 26, who fell in love with the whisky industry while working as a tour guide at Talisker, the island’s only other Scotch distillery. ‘We get on really well as a team at Torabhaig – it’s like working with all your mates,’ she explains.
‘A lot of the jobs on Skye are seasonal, so working in a year-round job has given me security and enabled me to buy a house. It’s also given me opportunities that I just wouldn’t have otherwise had.’
The team at Torabhaig all muck in to do the various jobs involved in the whisky production process. Macphie’s favourite task is ‘mashing’ – one of the earlier steps, in which the milled malt or ‘grist’ is soaked in water in a mash tun to help convert the starch into sugar for fermentation.
As well as producing its main single malt, Torabhaig has also allowed each of its distillers to create their own Speciality Journeyman’s Drams, coming up with their own recipe. After ageing for five years, the first are due to go on sale in 2024.
For her release, Macphie chose to use the chocolate malt variety. ‘We were visiting Portgordon Maltings to see how our peated malt was made and they had some brewers’ malts lying around that we could try,’ she remembers.
‘It was the chocolate malt that I had in my pocket and that I was munching on while we walked around. I knew that was the one I wanted to use for my dram.’
Torabhaig Allt Gleann Single Malt Scotch
Available through Amazon UK
Bottled in batches made from no more than 30 casks, Torabhaig’s Allt Gleann boasts of ‘well-tempered peat’ – and it delivers. The lemon aromas aren’t masked by the woodsmoke and TCP from the peat, while honey, vanilla and roast meat join on the palate. Alcohol 46%
Matthew Farmer – GlenWyvis
Joining the team at GlenWyvis distillery near Dingwall in the Highlands marked a return home to Scotland for Matthew Farmer. After emigrating to the west coast of the US with his family at the age of 14, he went on to cut his teeth in the whiskey industry at craft distilleries in Seattle.
‘I learned my trade making bourbon and rye whiskeys,’ explains Farmer, now 35. He returned to Scotland in 2020 to become the distillery manager at GlenWyvis, which was founded in 2015 and made history the following year by becoming the first community-owned Scotch whisky distillery, thanks to a crowdfunding campaign supported by more than 3,000 people – with Farmer’s mum buying him shares as a present.
‘The distillery at which I worked in Seattle was bought by a larger company – that came with some good things, but it did feel a little different at that point,’ says Farmer. ‘I liked the idea that GlenWyvis was owned by the community and that any profits would be going back into that community, rather than into the coffers of some big company.’ As well as its unique ownership model, GlenWyvis has also adopted a distinctive approach to its whisky. The distillery aims to release an annual batch each year, demonstrating how its casks are developing and giving the community an insight into the ageing process.
‘It’s a bit like releasing a vintage wine each year,’ says Farmer. ‘It gives people a reason to continue with their investment – it’s an ongoing process, not just setting up the distillery as a one-off event.’
Working at GlenWyvis has also given Farmer an insight into the popularity of craft gin in Scotland and the UK as a whole. ‘We’re a small team of five people, so each of us touches every part of the production process,’ he adds.
GlenWyvis GoodWill Scottish Gin
Available through Amazon UK
Made from nine botanicals, including local hawthorn berries. Fresh citrus and warmer pine and black pepper on the nose give way to an expressive palate full of juicy orange, spicy clove and sweeter cinnamon notes. Smooth enough to enjoy without a mixer. Alc 40%
Kirsty Black – Arbikie
For Kirsty Black, it all starts with plants. ‘Understanding what’s going on inside a plant and how you can get the flavours out of it – I find that very nerdy and exciting,’ admits the distiller at Arbikie distillery in Angus on the east coast.
After studying plant science at university, Black worked in the medical devices sector. But brewing beer at home led her to take a career break and enrol on the famous brewing and distilling master’s course at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. ‘Learning about the raw materials and the botanicals for gin really got me hooked on distilling,’ she explains.
Through Heriot-Watt, she met Iain Stirling – one of the three brothers who founded Arbikie distillery – and the rest, as they say, is history. Black developed gin recipes for Arbikie as her master’s project and joined the company in 2013 to build its distillery on the family’s farm.
One of the distillery’s first spirits was Kirsty’s Gin. ‘I find that really embarrassing,’ laughs Black, 41. ‘They didn’t tell me that my name was going on the label.’ Yet it’s another gin, Nàdar, which attracted even more attention. Both the gin and its vodka sibling are made from peas, with the combined growing and production process saving more carbon emissions than it generates, making the spirits climate positive, and earning Black her doctorate to boot.
Arbikie also revived Scotland’s tradition of making rye whisky, while it’s been laying down single malt since 2015, experimenting with vintage barley varieties along the way. Next on Black’s to-do list is cutting the distillery’s carbon footprint even further, with a pilot project to install a wind turbine that will power an electrolyser to split hydrogen from water to power its stills.
Arbikie Kirsty’s Gin
Available through Amazon UK
Named after Master Distiller Kirsty Black and made with local botanicals, including kelp, carline thistle and blaeberries. Its creamy texture is balanced by fresh citrus and mint notes, along with a savoury backbone that makes it a classic match for tonic. Alc 43%
Simon Thompson – Dornoch
‘The distillery was born of a hobby that got out of control,’ laughs Simon Thompson as he remembers the early days of setting up Dornoch Distillery in the Highlands. Simon and his brother Phil Thompson cut their teeth in the whisky business by collecting rare and exciting bottles for the bar in their family’s Dornoch Castle Hotel.
The pair became more and more interested in the ways that older-style whiskies tasted different to modern Scotch. They traced those differences back to the strains of yeast and varieties of barley that were used in the past to add more character and flavour to the spirit, before commercial yeasts and barleys became the norm.
‘I wouldn’t say old-style whisky is better than modern whisky or vice-versa, but as you go further back in time, there was greater variation between distilleries, and the palette of flavours that could occur in the whiskies was much wider,’ explains Simon, 38. That interest in the way production techniques affect flavour led the brothers to open their distillery in 2016, and start laying down their casks of whisky the following summer.
They initially made waves with a single malt gin – made from scratch, rather than redistilling a neutral grain spirit – and have continued to win awards for their Organic Mediterranean Gin. Having their own bottling line has also enabled them to become independent bottlers, removing any financial pressure from the business.
Having bottled their first cask and some smaller octave casks for their crowdfunding supporters, the Thompsons are now waiting patiently for their single malt in larger casks to age. They’re also continuing to experiment with yeasts and barleys. ‘We make our cut points by smelling and tasting the spirit, so we don’t include any vegetal notes, for example,’ Simon explains.
Dornoch Distillery Single Malt Scotch
A sneaky peek at how cask number four of Dornoch Distillery’s whisky is developing after five years in wood (no release date yet). Its nose is subtle, with aromas of apricot and spun sugar, yet the volume’s turned up on the palate, with rich fudge, sweet cinnamon, juicy raisins, vanilla ice cream and thick heather honey. Alc 59.6%