Scotland’s new distillery boom

Scotch whisky is enjoying a renaissance. To cater for the demand, new distilleries are springing up and old ones are being revived, as Fiona Rintoul discovers.

The Isle of Harris distillery

On leaving the isle of Islay after a summer spent working there a decade ago, I was awarded a farewell dram by the proprietor of the Port Charlotte Hotel: a nip of Port Ellen. Of course. How could it be otherwise? The remaining whisky from the long-lamented Port Ellen distillery, closed in 1983, is the ultimate treat on an island overflowing with special drams.

Now, as that spirit becomes rarer than ever, Diageo is investing £35 million to reopen Port Ellen and sister distillery Brora. If all goes to plan, they will be in production again by 2020, creating “a truly exceptional moment in Scotch whisky”, according to Nick Morgan, Diageo’s head of whisky outreach. It will also be a moment that confirms a trend. Never in the history of Scotch whisky-making have there been as many new, planned and reviving distilleries as now. “There is an unprecedented level of investment in the Scotch Whisky industry by both existing players and new entrants,” says Rosemary Gallagher, from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

Isle of Harris distillery was partly set up to offer employment to young locals like Billy Fraser

Such has been the clamour, that the Isle of Harris distillery, which began production in 2015, became the first Scottish whisky distillery ever to have its stills built outside of Scotland. Because the order books at usual supplier Forsyths of Rothes were full, it sourced its wide-hipped stills from coppersmiths Frilli of Tuscany, which subsequently built stills for the Isle of Raasay distillery too. In all, 15 new distilleries have started production in Scotland since 2013, with a further seven opening this year.

Throughout the country, 40 new distilleries are at various stages of development – many in areas not immediately associated with whisky making, such as Daftmill, Eden Mill, Kingsbarns and Lindores in the Kingdom of Fife, and Clydeside, in the centre of Glasgow. These new distilleries are plugging into a trend that is driving a Scotch whisky renaissance: premiumisation.

Modern whisky drinkers – particularly younger drinkers from the millennial generation – want whiskies that are different, special and authentic. Following in the footsteps of successful operations such as Bruichladdich and Kilchoman on Islay, which emphasise craft and local ingredients, the new distilleries aim to meet this demand.

“Premiumisation has been a trend for a long time,” says Simon Erlanger, managing director of the Isle of Harris distillery and former commercial director at Glenmorangie. “Millennials are looking for authenticity and provenance.” The Isle of Harris distillery, which Erlanger claims will have the softest water of any Scottish distillery, ticks another millennial box too.

Dubbed ‘the social distillery’, it has a purpose beyond profit. Anderson Bakewell set the distillery up with financial input from 17 private-equity investors and Scottish Enterprise, as well as grant funding from the Scottish government and Highlands and Islands Enterprise. His main aim was to create sustainable employment on the island, particularly for young people.

The distillery, which has a capacity of 250,000 litres if run 24/6 – the Sabbath is still observed on the Isle of Harris – won’t release whisky until 2020 at the earliest but it is already a success story. The Isle of Harris gin is flying off the shelves, despite a £37 price tag, generating useful cash flow, while visitor numbers reached 69,000 in 2016 and were 15% up on that by August 2017.

Eden Mill in St Andrews, Scotland’s first single-site distillery and brewery, which started making whisky at the end of 2014, is another new whisky distillery that has made a name for itself – and has brought in some welcome income – with gin.

The gin has become so well known that the whisky has rather faded into the background. That is about to change. In the new year, Eden Mill will release its first three-year-old whisky with three barley variations.

“It’s largely from small casks and will be particularly well developed,” says Paul Miller, the distillery’s founder. At the same time, Eden Mill is building another distillery 150 yards from the former University of St Andrews paper mill that is its current site.

Two new larger stills will increase capacity to 360,000l from its current output of around 50,000l. The new site will be ready by the end of 2018 – it is really an old site because there was a distillery there from 1810 to 1869. Eden Mill will continue its experiments – informed by its brewer’s knowledge of barley – with different mash bills. “One of the most significant differentiators in spirit is the barley you use,” says Miller.

In the new year, the distillery is expanding its Blendworks spirit-blending experience, which currently concentrates on gin, to include whisky, and Miller hopes to reinstate a service that allows drinkers to create their own bespoke casks. This had to be abandoned previously because it proved to be too popular, leaving the distillery with no spirit for itself.

“More and more people want an experience rather than just consumption,” says Miller. The desire for an experience is a theme that recurs. The new Isle of Raasay distillery, run by R&B Distillers, which also plans a Borders distillery, is working with Talisker and the new Torabhaig distillery on Skye to attract people to the area as a whisky destination.

In Glasgow, The Clydeside Distillery on Queen’s Dock, which is owned by Morrison Glasgow Distillers and began production in November 2017, offers an experience of a different sort. Looking down the Clyde at the distillery’s magnificent glass-fronted still room – illuminated at night – is an experience in itself.

But the distillery, which cost £10.5m to build and is unusual because of its city-centre location, also offers an interactive whisky tour that transports visitors back to late 19th-century Glasgow, when Queen’s Dock was at the centre of Glasgow’s shipping industry, and uncovers the city’s relationship with whisky.

For Tim Morrison, chairman of The Clydeside Distillery, the journey back in time is personal. After purchasing The Pumphouse on Queen’s Dock for the distillery site, Morrison, who had already bought the copper for the stills and had initially looked for a site in the east of Scotland, discovered that it was built by his great-grandfather, John Morrison of Morrison and Mason.

“I was very surprised,” he says. The Pumphouse controlled the entry gate to the Queen’s Dock, when whisky was once exported all over the world. The exhibition charts this trade and perhaps lesser-known aspects of whisky history, such as the Glaswegian grocer-blenders who first concocted the nation’s great blends. It’s a good moment to remember them.

While Scotland’s new distilleries mainly concentrate on producing single malt, the craft of blending is enjoying a revival too. The Isle of Raasay distillery has blended two expressions from one distillery to create Will We Wait, a proxy for its spirit that fills the gap until its own whisky is released in 2020.

That’s still a single malt, of course, but Eden Mill is engaged in blending proper, and has released a range of small-batch blended whiskies, branded separately as Art of the Blend because of SWA regulations. “Blended whisky is the bastard child no one wants to talk about,” says Miller. “But there’s an art and craft to blending too.”

Another strand to the story of whisky is teased out by Tim Morrison’s ambition to install a Clyde puffer ship on the quayside at The Clydeside Distillery. As a former director of Morrison Bowmore Distillers, Morrison knows all about the links between Glasgow and the Isle of Islay, and the role the Clyde puffer played in industrialising and internationalising whisky making on the island.

Glasgow blender and bottler Hunter Laing & Company is reinforcing those links in the present day with its new distillery situated between Caol Ila and Bunnahabhain at Ardnahoe on Islay’s northeast coast. Due to open in May 2018, Ardnahoe, which has a capacity of 500,000l, will produced both a traditional heavily peated Islay malt in the 40-50 parts per million range and an unpeated spirit.

Its lantern stills, which were manufactured at Speyside Copper Works, will be the first on the island to have worm-tub condensers and will be in the über-capable hands of Jim McEwan, formerly of Bruichladdich and Bowmore, who has come out of retirement for a second time to serve as Ardnahoe’s master distiller.

Like The Clydeside Distillery, Ardnahoe has not been tempted to produce a cashflow-generating gin. Unlike Clydeside, it is going to sell private casks. “We looked hard at whether to do it,” says Andrew Laing, export director at Hunter Laing.

“In the end, we decided to do it on a limited basis to bring people with us on the journey.” Laing hopes to have spirit to bottle in four to five years’ time. But it’s very much a question of suck it and see. “We’ll be led by the quality,” he says. “We do bottle five-year-olds from other distilleries.” During the long wait, the visitor centre, which aims to offer an illuminating experience, will be an important income generator.

Though it is ‘relatively manual’, the distillery has new equipment – apart from the 80 year-old Boby Mill – and aims to meet modern standards. “There are no steps, so people with restricted mobility have the same access as everyone else,” says Laing. It’s all part of a new wave of whisky-making in Scotland that prizes craft and provenance and aims to interact with whisky drinkers in new and more meaningful ways. “It’s super cheesy, but we want to share our passion,” says Eden Mill’s Miller.

Total number of whisky distilleries in Scotland: 126

Distilleries opened 2013 to present

Annandale, Arbikie, Ardnamurchan, Ballindalloch, Bladnoch (re-opened), Clydeside, Dalmunach, Dornoch, Eden Mill, Glasgow, Inchdairnie, Isle of Harris, Isle of Raasay, Kingsbarns, Lindores Abbey, Lone Wolf, Ncn’ean, Strathearn, Torabhaig (Isle of Skye), Twin River, Wolfburn

Distilleries expected to open by the end of 2018

Ardnahoe, Borders (Hawick), Govan, Toulvaddie

Other planned distilleries

Borders (Peebles), Brora (re-opening), Holyrood Park, Isle of Arran (second distillery at Lagg), Port Ellen (re-opening), Port of Leith

Sources: Scotch Whisky Association and the drinks business

2 Responses to “Scotland’s new distillery boom”

  1. John lamond says:

    Isle of Harris wasn’t the first to use stills from outwith Scotland, Strathearn (who were in production in 2013) bought their stills from Portugal. Also – and I am uncertain about this – I think that Abhainn Dearg’s also came from outwith Scotland.
    In the past (19th century), several distiileries bought stills from coppersmiths such as Haslam in Derby

  2. Peter Kunz says:

    You´ve missed the Glen Wyvis distillery in Dingwall, the first community owned distillery in Scotland…..

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