Small is beautiful
Peter Ranscombe explores some of Scotland’s smallest distilleries and finds out how their size affects the taste of the whisky they produce.
After a career that reads like a Who’s Who of the whisky world – including spells as distillery manager at The Macallan and innovation director at Whyte & Mackay – David Robertson could have been forgiven for hanging up his work boots and easing his way into retirement with a series of cushy consultancy gigs. But the man who was once Scotland’s youngest distillery boss had other ideas.
This spring, Robertson and his team will throw open the doors at Holyrood distillery in Edinburgh, the latest in a series of small distilleries that have popped up throughout Scotland. The new addition will be housed in a B-listed, 180-year-old engine shed that formed part of Edinburgh’s first railway line, just a short walk from the Scottish capital’s Royal Mile, which connects the castle to the Queen’s official residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.
Opening the first malt whisky distillery in Edinburgh since Glen Sciennes closed in the 1920s hasn’t been without its challenges – not least of which were passing through the planning process and securing the £5.8 million of investment needed to launch the project. Having experimented with gin recipes for their maiden spirits at a nearby facility, Robertson and distillery manager Jack Mayo are now getting ready to fire up their own stills.
“We don’t want to make the same stuff day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out – we want to experiment,” explains Robertson. “Part of what we’ll be doing is looking at raw materials, and obviously malt comes into that – through the inclusion of specialities such as roasted, caramel, chocolate or crystal – but we also believe yeast has a role to play. After that, we’ll be looking at factors like flow rate and spirit cut point, even before we put it into wood.”
“Fundamentally, we’re trying to create a sweet, a spicy, a smoky, a fruity and a floral predominant character. Each of those five characters will be driven by either the raw material, mash bill or yeast that we use and how we process through the stills and how we choose to mature the spirit.”
“Small might mean different but it doesn’t necessarily mean better,” adds Robertson, who also helped to set up the Glasgow distillery with Mayo. “I’m certainly not here to say that what we’re going to be doing will be better than a Macallan or a Glenlivet; it’s going to be different and it’s hopefully going to be interesting, but ultimately the consumer will judge whether it will be better or not.”
That desire to experiment and be creative also appealed to Tony Reeman-Clark, who founded Strathearn distillery in Perthshire in 2013. A civil engineer by training, he worked in the software industry before falling in love with “the myth and the romance” of whisky, and his distillery now produces gin, rum and even tequila alongside its Scotch.
“We innovate to be traditional,” Reeman-Clark says. “But that’s a very tricky word, because the big guys say they do it traditionally as well.”
“We use an old-style brewer’s malt because it’s all about the flavour in the wash. We ferment slowly and at a lower temperature, again because that would have been traditional. Then we also distil it very slowly and all the cut points are done by taste.”
Reeman-Clark points to many of the accepted norms within the industry – such as using bourbon barrels and ageing spirit in oak for a minimum of three years – as being introduced relatively recently, with his own production methods harking back to the days of whisky being made to drink straight away. He believes the pressures at bigger distilleries highlight how whisky has changed over the years.
“The big guys mass produce spirit and as a result it does – in my opinion – tend to be harsh and they rely upon the barrel to fix it,” he suggests. “They’ll push the cut points out as far as they can because they want to run the minimum number of distillations. Spirit produced now in the big distilleries tends to be harsh and needs to sit in something to fix it – they reckon that 80 to 90 per cent of the flavour now comes from the wood, but in our case it’s probably closer to 55 or 60 per cent.
“Big distillers do a tremendous job, don’t get me wrong, and they have a different marketplace, a different goal; they have to produce the same thing every year and have it taste exactly the same around the world. And, as a result – dare I say it – it’s a bit bland.”
Having more control over the production process at a local level also appeals to James MacTaggart, manager and master blender at Isle of Arran distillery, which opened in 1995. During his 45 years in the whisky industry, he’s worked at both large and small distilleries, including 31 years at Bowmore on Islay.
“At Bowmore, there was a wee bit of freedom for the managers there, not like it is today,” he remembers. “Today, the big companies don’t give their distillery managers any freedom at all – they’re basically site operations managers.”
“They don’t have the freedom to do what they think is the best thing, and many of them don’t have the experience anyway. Working for a small, independent company means you’re given the freedom to produce the spirit the way you think it should be produced, not the way the laboratory in the head office tells you how it should be produced.”
That freedom to make decisions was part of the attraction for MacTaggart of moving to Arran in 2007. He quickly joined the board of directors and has been able to shape both the expansion of the original distillery at Lochranza – doubling the number of stills to four and adding extra washbacks – and the construction of a second distillery on the island at Lagg, which will be run by his nephew, Graham Omand.
While Lochranza and Lagg may be smaller sites, MacTaggart isn’t opposed to using modern technology.
“Automation has its place – I’m not one of these people who don’t move on or think it’s the devil itself,” he says. “It provides consistency to your product. “But, at the same time, you’re feeding the figures in there, so it’s you who’s deciding where the cut is and everything. It’s only doing what it’s been told to do, so there’s still very much a craft experience there.” The speed of the distillation is one of the factors that separates the larger and smaller distilleries. “Basically, it’s to do with how quickly you run your stills and the copper contact,” explains MacTaggart. “That’s where smaller distilleries probably have a bit more control over the rate at which they’re running their stills because they’re not under the same production pressure. The bigger companies are under more pressure because they have to produce X amount per week.”
Arran’s size was unusual when it was founded in the 1990s but, since the turn of the century, Scotland has seen an explosion in the number of small distilleries being set up. From Eden Mill, Kingsbarns and Lindores Abbey in Fife, to Arbikie, Raasay and Brewdog’s Lone Wolf, smaller sites have sprung up all over the country.
“It’s the real ale revolution all over again,” says Ree-man-Clark. “People want provenance, they want something local, they want something a little bit different.”
While Gordon Brown may have introduced small brewers’ tax relief while he was Chancellor of the Exchequer – stimulating the explosion in the number of microbreweries across the UK – no such tax break exists for small distillers. Instead, the pioneers were left to wrangle with HM Revenue & Customs over its definition for the minimum size of a still.
The early days also brought challenges in sourcing malted barley, although suppliers soon realised that smaller distilleries could provide a useful form of diversification alongside microbreweries. Small players still struggle sometimes to source wooden casks, although large companies also report similar issues, especially when it comes to sherry barrels.
Even for small distilleries, innovation is sometimes limited by legislation. Reeman-Clark wants to age spirit in chestnut and mulberry as opposed to the regulation oak and would like to see definitions drawn up for younger spirits aged in different woods, which would sit alongside the legislation for Scotch whisky. “We put our spirit in some chestnut casks and it’s a marriage made in heaven,” he says. “But it can’t be called Scotch. That’s one of the biggest challenges in Scotland – I understand and appreciate the Scotch Whisky Association and that we need a strict set of rules in order to be able to defend Scotch, but we should also use those sets of rules to define what isn’t Scotch and give it a name because the rest of the world is stealing a march on Scotland by putting their spirit into different woods and doing things in different ways and they can legally do it and we can’t. We’re losing out on a big segment of the market.”