Distilling on the edge of Scotland at 8 Doors

Distilling on the edge of Scotland at 8 Doors

In the northernmost reaches of the Scottish mainland, a new distillery is leaning into the area’s storied heritage in a quest to make whisky that reflects both its homeland and the ideals of its founders

Distillery Focus | 24 Jul 2023 | Issue 192 | By Gavin Smith

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Almost all Scotch whisky distilleries are named after their locations, with the occasional exception, such as Pulteney in Wick. However, one of Scotland’s newest distilleries has gone down a different route, requiring a bit of back story to decode its name.

 

The distillery in question, located in the popular visitor destination of John O’Groats on the north coast of Caithness, is called 8 Doors. It is now the most northerly on the Scottish mainland and takes its unusual name from the legend of Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who is believed to have operated a ferry service from what is now John O’Groats across the Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands during the late 15th or early 16th centuries.

With echoes of King Arthur and the Round Table, de Groot built an octagonal house with eight doors and an eight-sided table to avoid arguments over precedence between himself and his seven sons. Hence, 8 Doors Distillery.

 

John O’Groats is a scattered village comprising a couple of hotels, a caravan site, holiday lodges, and numerous tourist shops, not to mention a microbrewery. The small harbour is home to a passenger ferry that plies its trade to Orkney, much as in de Groot’s day.

 

John O’Groats is, of course, pitched as the northernmost point of mainland Scotland, and the starting or finishing line for thousands of charity walks, cycle rides, pram pushes, and so on between there and the southernmost extremity of Land’s End, 874 miles away. In fact, the most northerly point is Dunnet Head, some 15 miles to the west, but nobody lets that stand in the way of the long-established John O’Groats–Land’s End story.

The stills at 8 Doors Distillery. Credit: 8 Doors

8 Doors Distillery is the brainchild of husband and wife Derek and Kerry Campbell, both of whom are local to this part of Caithness. According to Kerry, “We love where we live – but I was working for BT [British Telecom] and travelling from Thurso to London twice a month, and really wanted something more local. We got the idea of starting a microdistillery and thought, why not? We were determined to employ local people – that was a great motivation.”

 

The specific location for the distillery was chosen because foundations for a building were already in place (construction started in the 1980s, but it was never finished). It is perfectly positioned next to the main John O’Groats car park to attract many of the thousands of visitors who make a pilgrimage to the village each year.

Derek is an accountant by profession, which has doubtless come in handy when keeping finances in check during the construction and equipping of the new venture. According to his calculations, 96 per cent of all work was carried out by local contractors.

 

One of the satisfactions for Derek and Kerry is that a number of Caithness exiles have been tempted home by the development of 8 Doors – most notably distillery manager Ryan Sutherland, who hails from Halkirk to the south-west of John O’Groats. Sutherland trained as an electrician, serving an apprenticeship with Rolls-Royce before gaining a master’s degree in electrical and electronic engineering from Heriot-Watt University. He went on to work for William Grant & Sons as a project engineer, based at the company’s Bellshill processing and administration centre near Glasgow.

 

Two figures with a great deal of experience in the whisky industry have also been on hand to advise on the genesis of 8 Doors, namely Ian Evans and John Ramsay. Evans is a distilling consultant with more than 40 years of experience in the drinks industry, including 15 years as operations development and quality director and distilleries strategic development manager for William Grant & Sons. Ramsay also boasts in excess of 40 years’ whisky experience, having latterly spent 17 years as master blender for Edrington, developing The Macallan’s Fine Oak range along the way. He has also been responsible for creating bespoke whiskies for 8 Doors to retail while the distillery waits for its own spirit to come of age.

 

According to Kerry, “John has a huge legacy in Scotch whisky and a great nose, and we’re delighted to be working with and learning from such an expert to produce the first whisky from 8 Doors Distillery. The idea of working with a small, independent distillery that’s focusing on maturation as much as distillation really appealed to John and he’s sharing his wealth of knowledge with us.”

Co-founders Kerry and Derek Campbell in the 8 Doors tasting room. Credit: 8 Doors

The pair of stills in use at 8 Doors Distillery (a 1,700-litre wash still and 1,300-litre spirit still) were fabricated on Speyside, while the mashing and fermenting kit was sourced from an Edinburgh brewery that was being converted into a garden centre. According to Sutherland, “We have opted for longer fermentations to create fruitiness, and low and slow distillation… We get one hogshead-worth per distillation, and because we are right by the sea, we’re expecting a maritime influence from maturation.”

 

Sutherland explains that, being ex-brewery kit, the mashing set-up actually includes a mash conversion vessel rather than a mash tun, opening a door for the distillery to use grains other than barley in the future. That said, he adds that the team would love to grow their own Bere barley – a six-rowed spring barley variety which dates back to the eighth century and is likely to have been introduced by Norse settlers – and have it ground at the local community-owned mill.

 

First, however, it is a case of laying down some core stock – in a mix of first-fill American oak and European oak octaves, quarter casks, and hogsheads – in order to keep the accountant in Derek happy. And Sutherland’s point about the influence of the nearby sea on maturation is being kept firmly in mind. Kerry details plans to buy in whisky and finish it in 8 Doors’ warehouse to track the influence of the maritime atmosphere, as well as releasing independent bottlings.

 

She adds, “Some of the 8 Doors spirit being filled into octaves may mature quite early and could be ready after five years, but we won’t do anything too early. We have other income streams which should be sufficient to ensure there is no pressure to release our own whisky too soon.”

Casks in the warehouse. Credit: 8 Doors

Those income streams include a range of third-party whiskies, with hand-bottling of some products being undertaken on site. The first release was the eight-year-old Seven Sons blended Scotch, which contains 40 per cent malt matured in first-fill sherry-seasoned European oak casks, and an eight-year-old blended malt, aged in one first-fill sherry-seasoned European oak hogshead and limited to just 461 bottles (unsurprisingly, it sold out rapidly). Subsequently, there have been small-batch releases of Seven Sons 10 Years Old Aultmore and Seven Sons 8 Years Old Ruadh Maor (peated Glenturret,) while Five Ways Liqueur combines Scotch whisky with orange, ginger, honey, and spice.

 

These bottlings take pride of place in the enticing visitor centre and shop adjacent to the production area, where stunning views over the Pentland Firth to Orkney encourage visitors to settle down and enjoy a dram or two in the Whisky Lounge, which is open seven days a week during most of the year.

 

Tours of the distillery and tastings are available, while the Whisky Lounge boasts a wood-burning stove, a well-equipped whisky bar, and a selection of fine coffees, local traybakes, and cocktails, as well as the chance to sample a Seven Sons whisky coffee.

 

Then there’s the 874 Club. It was launched by 8 Doors to offer 250 casks of newly distilled 8 Doors spirit, which sold out in a matter of days. However, it is still possible to get involved with the distillery in its early days; core membership of the 874 Club is available to 1,250 people, who will receive one 70cl bottle of its inaugural release in due course, along with three bottles of Highland single malt whisky, selected and matured in first-fill European oak casks with bespoke seasoning under the expert eye of Ramsay.

 

The couple certainly seem to have the passion required for such a project. “We love whisky and we love where we live,” Kerry says. “It’s a very special corner of Scotland with endless skies and miles of breathtaking coastline. Now, we’re making our dream a reality.” 

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