Few spirits match Scotch whisky’s heritage – distilleries have honed their craft over decades and, in some cases, centuries. Now, new whisky makers are springing up throughout Scotland, with the wee players forging a path that sets them apart from the larger labels.
Inspired by 1990s pioneer Isle of Arran distillery and North America’s craft brewing and craft distilling revolutions in the noughties, British craft distillers started their own movement – but first, they had to campaign for the authorities to issue distillers’ licences for equipment below a capacity of 1,800 litres, a threshold originally implemented in the 19th century to prevent small-batch bootleg production. The first sub-1,800-litre licences were finally granted in 2009. In contrast, British craft brewers got a tax break in 2002, when Gordon Brown was chancellor.
Since then, rising disposable income in China, India and other emerging markets has driven demand for existing whisky brands and created space for newcomers, while the renaissance in traditional markets like the US has also fuelled the thirst for the best whiskies. Closer to home, British consumers interested in the provenance of their food have become equally picky about their drinks.
A newly made spirit must spend three years in casks before it can be called Scotch, with most older distilleries releasing their liquid after 10, 12 or more years. New-wave distillers are using their operation’s size to their advantage, distilling their spirit more slowly to create a dram that can be enjoyed at a younger age. Bigger distilleries, meanwhile, need whisky to be made quickly and in larger quantities, leading to a coarser spirit that requires longer ageing before it’s drinkable.
Low and slow distilling
‘The way people make whisky has moved on in the past couple of decades,’ explains Annabel Thomas, who quit her job as a management consultant in London in 2013 to set up Nc’nean distillery at her family’s farm on the Morvern peninsula on the west coast. She started distilling in 2017 and last year set a record for a maiden single malt when her first bottle sold for £41,004 in a charity auction. Her distillery is named after Neachneohain, the Gaelic queen of spirits.
‘[The late] master distiller Jim Swan helped us create two “recipes” for our whiskies,’ says Thomas. ‘One is for a “young”, lighter and fruiter whisky, and the other is for an “older” whisky, which we’ll age for at least 10 years.’
Nc’nean’s young whisky uses a clearer wort – the sugar-rich liquid made by soaking malted barley in water, which is then fermented and distilled – with its mash sitting for longer to develop more flavour. It uses two yeasts for fermentation to create fruitier flavours, ferments more slowly and for longer, and has a higher cut point during distillation to capture the fruity esters produced during fermentation.
Thomas then selects casks that have been filled fewer times, leaving them with more ‘active’ wood to remove impurities and add flavour. She likes shaved, toasted and re-charred wine casks and ex-bourbon barrels for her young recipe.
Sustainability underpins Thomas’ plan for Nc’Nean’s spirits. ‘Growing barley for whisky has a big environmental impact, so we buy from organic farms,’ she says. ‘It’s up to two times more expensive, but sustainability is important to me, as it is to lots of people who drink our whisky.’
Once he’s in his new distillery, Miller expects output will be some 12 times higher. He also wants to continue experimenting, testing different crystal, chocolate and peated malted barleys for his whiskies.
Eden Mill is part of a Fife revival, alongside Daftmill, Kingsbarns, Inchdairnie and Lindores Abbey – home to the earliest written reference to distilled malt spirit in Scotland, called ‘aqua vitae’, recorded in 1494. Previously, Fife only had Cameronbridge, Scotland’s largest grain distillery, where Diageo makes components for Bell’s, Haig Club and Johnnie Walker.
Sustainability: Turning amber nectar green
Sustainability is also key for Paul Miller, who founded Eden Mill brewery in Fife in 2012, adding a distillery two years later. He’s now preparing to move into his third premises within the University of St Andrews’ Guardbridge campus, a former paper mill powered by solar panels and a biomass boiler. Miller is also investigating heating his whisky still with hydrogen.
‘We can use an electric still for gin, but we need higher temperatures for whisky,’ he says. ‘We’re looking at hydrogen, and also direct heat from the biomass boiler. We want to get the carbon footprint for our whisky production down to net zero. As a new distillery, it’s important to bring something new to the party.’
From field to glass
While many newer distilleries release young malts, Arbikie has opted for a more traditional route. The distillery made its first spirit in 2014 and doesn’t expect to release its single malt until it’s 18 years old.
Instead, Arbikie has focused on turning potatoes and wheat grown on the Stirling family’s farm near Montrose into gin and vodka, with botanicals including juniper, chilli, lemongrass and honey also nurtured. It’s turned peas into carbon-negative gin and vodka – absorbing more greenhouse gases during growing than are emitted during production – and the family has also revived an older crop, producing Scotland’s first rye whisky for more than a century.
‘We went back to our dad’s old seed diaries and looked at which crops he’d grown,’ says Iain Stirling, one of four brothers running the distillery. ‘Our rye whisky has gone down well in countries like Canada and the US, which are used to drinking rye whiskies, and the Scandinavian markets.’
As his single malt ages, Stirling is returning to his father’s records to experiment with older barley varieties, which could add further points of distinction to his Scotch. Arbikie is also planting oak trees to make its own barrels.
‘I’ll be long gone by the time they’re harvested,’ laughs Stirling. ‘But it’s all part of our plan to build a distillery that will endure for generations.’
Urban Scotch distilleries
Most malt whisky is made in rural locations such as Campbeltown, Islay and Speyside, yet many new-wave distilleries are emerging in Scotland’s cities. Edinburgh is already home to Bonnington and Holyrood, which will soon be joined by Port of Leith – Scotland’s first vertical distillery – while Glasgow has its eponymous distillery and Clydeside on its riverbank.
Distillers pick urban sites due to their love for their hometowns and a desire to revive lost traditions. Scotland’s cities boasted scores of Victorian distilleries before falling demand whittled down their numbers.
‘With Edinburgh’s food and drink culture, it seemed like a massive hole not to have a malt distillery here,’ points out Nick Ravenhall, managing director at Holyrood, which was built in an old railway yard. ‘Edinburgh is a hot spot for tourism, so we can attract a big audience.’
‘There are plenty of distilleries in the Highlands, Speyside and Islay, but we wanted to be a contemporary urban distillery,’ adds Liam Hughes, co-founder of The Glasgow Distillery. ‘We’re proud to be blazing a trail.’
New wave Scotch distilleries: The bottles to try
Arbikie 1794 Highland Rye Single Grain
It’s still Scotch whisky, but made from rye instead of malted barley. Spicy nutmeg, woodsmoke and soda bread on the nose lead into fresh lemon, sweet brown sugar and more nutmeg on the palate. Distinctively spicy. Alc 48%
Eden Mill Hipflask Series No16 Single Malt
Heavy on the lemons and oats on the nose, with subtle woodsmoke lending support from the ex-Islay whisky refill casks. Plenty of warming nutmeg and cinnamon spices play across the tongue, with vanilla wrapping around more of those lemons. Alc 47%
Glasgow 1770 Peated Single Malt
Using peat from the east coast produces sweet and floral aromas, in contrast to Islay’s heavier ‘TCP’ notes. Its rich mahogany tones hint at the redcurrant and cranberry on the complex nose. Impressive integration between the chewy tannins and the rich barbecued meat flavours. Alc 46%
Kingsbarns Dream to Dram Single Malt
Barley from Fife and old wine casks from Portugal come together to produce a Lowland malt that has subtle lemon, honey and porridge oat on the nose and much more depth on the palate. Tropical pineapple, sweet vanilla and a creamy finish. Alc 46%
Nc’Nean Organic Single Malt
Made using organic Scottish barley and aged in old wine casks and bourbon barrels. Light caramel, runny honey and citrus on the nose lead into lemon curd, rich tea biscuits and vanilla on the palate. Light on its feet, yet rich in flavour. Alc 46%