Dornoch Distillery looks to the future

Dornoch Distillery looks to the future

Driven by a desire to make a style of whisky that has been long neglected, Dornoch Distillery’s Simon and Phil Thompson are planning not just years but generations ahead

Distillery Focus | 17 Jun 2024 | Issue 198 | By Thijs Klaverstijn

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Hopefully they have forgiven me, but I had to ask Phil and Simon Thompson what their favourite whisky is. It’s a horrible question to ask, not just because it is such a cliché but because it is generally impossible for the discerning whisky drinker to answer.


And yet, this question is central to understanding Dornoch Distillery. Founded just over seven years ago, the tiny distillery is a tool in the Thompson brothers’ mission to produce a homage to their favourite single malts. Old-fashioned production principles such as heritage barley varieties and brewer’s yeast are at the core of their philosophy.


The Thompsons did not — or maybe could not — give a clear-cut answer, but it was telling that Phil scurried to grab a bottle of 1920s Dalmore bottled in the late 1960s. It had been opened recently for a tasting. Phil went off on a tangent about old tinctures, oils, tea chests, and “all these beautiful tertiary flavours”. Both Phil and Simon were born in the 1980s, yet this is the kind of unattainable, holy-grail whisky they frequently reach for.


“You can find many distilleries from the 1960s that were doing amazing liquid,” says Phil. “Glen Garioch, when it’s not soapy, is delicious. Obviously old Clynelish. We’ve had great Balblair and Old Pulteney that just have this… They’re a lot more robust and have got so much texture. That’s kind of one of the main things we’re looking for with Dornoch Distillery.”


Ever since stumbling upon a 25-year-old Macallan Anniversary Malt, Simon and Phil have been champions of old-style Scottish single malt from the 1960s, 1950s, and even earlier. They discovered the bottle of Macallan in the gantry of Dornoch Castle Hotel, which their parents bought in June 2000. It only contained about 25 or 30 bottles at the time. Phil recalls, “I had tasted whisky before, but nothing that intrigued me or stuck in my memory. I remember noticing that this was different to the other whiskies on the bar. I could not tell you why at the time, I just knew I liked it.”

Among the casks at Dornoch Distillery

It was the start of an inspiring journey for Simon and Phil, who returned to the family business after their studies. They cultivated the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar into the highly reputable establishment it is today, stocking the shelves with whiskies from bygone eras, bought at auctions or estate sales. Whisky became “a complete obsession” — and opening countless older bottles made them question modern production methods for single malt Scotch whisky. It led to the inception of Thompson Bros, their label of independent bottlings, and of Dornoch Distillery, which opened in 2016 after a successful crowdfunding campaign. The distillery has already gained a cult following. It is thought to be the smallest in Scotland, but expansion is afoot, with planning permission granted for a new state-of-the-art distillery.


The new distillery will be built just south of Dornoch. This coastal town in the northern Scottish Highlands is remote but accessible thanks to nearby Inverness Airport and the ubiquitous A9, the longest road in Scotland that also passes nearby distilleries Dalmore, Balblair, Glenmorangie, Clynelish, and Brora. Tourism is part of the fabric of Dornoch, with large numbers of visitors attracted to the area by the golf courses, magnificent scenery, and invigorating sea air.


Thanks to solar power, a modern energy-efficient design, very high-temperature heat pumps, and thermal batteries, the new distillery is expected to be capable of operating off-grid throughout the year. The facility is designed to produce 200,000 litres of alcohol per annum. “But that’s kind of our conservative number,” says Simon. “We think we’re going to achieve a lot better than that.” It could not be more different to the current distillery. Based in a Victorian fire station on the grounds of Dornoch Castle Hotel, Simon claims it was probably one of the cheapest distilleries to build per litre of alcohol. Producing only up to 12,000 litres a year, it has served the Thompson brothers well and will in time co-exist with the new distillery.

Phil Thompson

Without shareholders to answer to, and because of the success of their independent bottling business, Simon and Phil could go full Willy Wonka in the original Dornoch Distillery. From the start, the plan was to recreate an extinct style of whisky, as Simon explains, “The idea was to reverse engineer a lot of the principles of old-style production and then implement them, not to attempt to clone things but to make some of these principles our own.” Easier said than done.


At Dornoch, it all begins with heritage varieties of barley — floor malted, of course. The distillery’s house variety is Plumage Archer, one of the most common barley varieties grown in the 1920s and 1930s in the UK. Chevalier (1819), Scotch Annat (1850s), Hana (1840s), and the ancient Bere barley have also been used, among others.


Heritage barley carries a cost premium and generates a lower yield. There are fewer carbohydrates, fewer sugars, and therefore less alcohol. But there is just a bit more of everything else — more oils, more protein, and more potential for flavour creation. “We distilled one cask with a modern barley variety,” says Simon. “The biggest difference we found was in terms of texture and mouthfeel. It was much thinner than in most of our whisky. A good mouthfeel acts as a carrier for other flavours and extends the finish by keeping it clinging to the inside of your mouth… There are probably a few levers you can pull to increase mouthfeel in a modern production. But for me, barley variety seems to be the swing factor for getting a really good mouthfeel on the go.”


Fermentation is the other big focal point. They run for an average of 168 hours, far longer than the industry standard, and Dornoch Distillery also has a large back catalogue of interesting brewing yeasts to play with. Its wooden washbacks are open topped and are cleaned only with hot water to ensure native bacteria survive. The ghost of every yeast variety that has ever been in those washbacks is still clinging on somewhere. Improved plant cleaning did not truly catch on until the 1960s in distilleries, as it was less important than in brewing. Simon says, “More biological complexity in your washbacks will lead to more complexity of your spirit at the back end as well. Certain types of fermenting bacteria produce certain acids and byproducts, which are the building blocks for certain types of fruity esters. There’s an intensity of fruity esters that you just no longer find, especially when you start going into the tropical realm.”

Simon Thompson

The original Dornoch Distillery served as a place of experimentation, and it will continue to be a no-holds-barred operation to make this more “extreme style” of whisky. It was a place for Simon, Phil, and the distillery staff to hone their skills, but given the size of the operation, expansion at some point was inevitable. Now they are going to take the lessons from those first seven years and apply them at the new distillery. The objective is to find points of balance — the ‘sweet spots’ — to get the best possible whisky without taking production to the limits that they do now. They do not yet know exactly what that looks like. The production process is mapped out, but the end result remains an uncertainty until the spirit flows. If all goes smoothly, building works will start in September 2024.


The goal is not to make as much alcohol as possible, but to produce some of the best whisky in Scotland and do so in a sustainable way. Carbon neutrality for plant and process is their seemingly realistic goal. The latest generation of heat pumps allows for a large reduction in energy requirements, which will permit production to run from on-site renewables. Thermal batteries will provide a buffer between solar supply and distillery demand. “The equipment is oversized for the capacity to make off-grid production work,” says Simon. “During peak
energy production in summer, we can run a double shift full-size production for three, four months a year. And then that drops off until you’re doing single-shift small batches in November and December.”


It is not just environmental sustainability that matters here. The Thompson family has now been part of the Dornoch community for nearly 25 years and it is hoped that the distillery will extend that involvement, potentially by centuries. Simon and Phil want the town to benefit, cementing Dornoch as a
world-class destination with a distillery visitor centre and tasting room. Seven people are currently working full-time in the distillery and independent bottling arm. Once the new distillery is operational that number could double, and it will grow even more when the whisky is ready. Also, one cask per year will be donated to (eventually) be sold to raise funds for community projects. “We are very much aiming for the long term,” Phil stresses. “Sustainability is key, both in our work practices but also in the environmental aspects of what we are trying to do here in Dornoch. We are thinking in generations, not years.”

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