There are numerous financial risks involved in establishing a new malt whisky distillery. But how do you make sure the whisky you produce is any good? Richard Jones reports
It’s not the most expensive mistake you could make in life, but it certainly doesn’t come cheap.The economics of setting up a new malt whisky distillery alone are pretty terrifying.About £800,000 for a small distillery of reasonable quality according to Dr Harry Riffkin, managing director of consultant chemists to the whisky industry Tatlock and Thomson.However that figure fails to include the costs of stock and running costs: all that malted barley, all those barrels, all the other countless associated running costs before you begin to see a return on your investment. A minimum of three years legally in Scotland, approaching eight years if you plan to make a single malt of real quality. Building a malt whisky distillery from scratch is certainly no ‘get rich quick’ scheme.But putting finances to one side (admittedly not that easy when it’s your money), how do you know if your new whisky will be any good?You’ve spent all that money on mashtuns, washbacks, stills and the like, but when the green light is finally turned on, can you be sure that the new make spirit that emerges at the other end is decent? And is it possible to project what will happen to this spirit three, eight or 15 years down the line?“If the owner can identify what spirit they are looking for, you can nowadays go a long way towards creating that,” begins Dr Jim Swan, drinks consultant and the man who has worked on numerous new distillery openings in recent years.“If someone comes along and says ‘I want to build a distillery and I want the spirit to be really light, delicate and fruity.’ You can do that. But if they start to say ‘I want it to have a hint of kiwi fruit in it’, you have to say, ‘Well, hold on!’ You can’t be that exact.“There is still an element of unknown to the process. However the days of saying ‘It might just be an absolutely horrible distillate, there’s no point running the place,’ have gone.” At the new Kilchoman Distillery on Islay, managing director Anthony Wills had a clear idea of the whisky he required.“We wanted to create a peaty spirit with a fruity, floral style,” he explains. “The malt had to mature younger rather than 20 years down the line, which is why we went for exbourbon barrels.” Jim Swan, employed as production consultant at Kilchoman, takes up the story: “Anthony Wills was able to clearly define what he was looking for and it was then up to the distillery consulting engineer, myself and the distillation unit builders to make that happen in practice.” Every new distillery presents its own unique challenges and one of the first issues Jim Swan and the team had to face at Kilchoman was malting. The distillery was planning to run its own floor maltings using locally grown Islay barley.“A floor maltings isn’t such an exact science as a commercial operation,” notes Anthony Wills. “And with the climate on Islay we knew we were never going to get the same yields as mainland, east coast barley. However in terms of taste and quality, there isn’t any difference in the end spirit.” The economies of a floor maltings meant that peating levels at Kilchoman could never be as high as a distillery such as Ardbeg (50ppm) as it couldn’t staff the site for 24 hours around the clock, so it settled for around 20-25ppm. Recently Anthony Wills has also made the decision to use Port Ellen maltings for part of their malt requirements, but that’s a different story.The still size at Kilchoman was, by necessity, on the small side.“A distillery is driven by the capacity and number of its stills,” explains Harry Riffkin of Tatlock and Thomson. “You work out how much spirit you want to produce a year, which then governs the size of the mash tun and number of washbacks.” Jim Swan goes on: “Tiny stills are more of pain to run because they’re less efficient, but the copper contact they provide is highly desirable.” At Kilchoman Jim Swan opted for stills that were taller and narrower than originally planned, however he believes the shape itself is relatively unimportant. “I think the shape of a still is overrated,” argues Jim Swan. “It does affect flavour but not hugely. The old stories about distilleries putting a dent back into a new still so that it matches the one it replaced are nonsense. My favourite type is a boil ball still, but it doesn’t really matter if someone wants an onion-shaped one.” However at Penderyn Distillery in Wales, Jim Swan was faced with a truly unique still shape.“Because we were producing a whisky in Wales, we wanted to differentiate it from Scotch and Irish,” remarks Brian Morgan, chairman of Penderyn Distillery. “So we decided to go for a different way of distilling, a more modern way of distilling and a more environmentally friendly way of distilling.” What that meant in practice was a copper pot still working in conjunction with a fractionation column. The still was designed by Dr David Faraday, formerly a senior lecturer at the University of Surrey.“What we were doing was basically separating the low wines in space rather than time,” he explains. “The physical plates in the column separate out different components in the whisky and we then redissolve the flavours that we want back into the alcohol.” Penderyn is also unusual in that its wash is made at Brains Brewery in Cardiff.“It’s a bit of a no brainer (no pun, intended), but if you can start with a wonderfully flavoured ‘beer’ you are probably onto a winner,” Jim Swan observes. “Brewers are experts at making beer because they have to sell the stuff. Penderyn gets a beautifully fruity beer in to the product.” Penderyn continues to differentiate itself in its approach to maturation.“Maturation plays a big part in fruit characters,” explains Jim Swan. “Certain fruit characters are always increased during maturation, some casks will destroy fruit and others will protect it.” In Wales the distillery found that Madeira (Malmsey) cask finishing worked particularly well with its unique spirit.As a general point, Jim Swan believes we will see much younger malt whiskies in the future.“I’m absolutely positive that we are going to find the average age of whiskies falling because we now have the skills not to wait for them to come around and hope for the best.“We’ve got so many poor quality casks in the system, but the difference with these new single malt distilleries is that every cask has to be a winner. Unlike existing distilleries where a high percentage of their production goes for blending. As a result whiskies will be exceedingly good at younger ages.” Of course you don’t need to hire consultants such as Jim Swan or Harry Riffkin to produce your new whisky.As you might expect, Springbank Distillery in Campbeltown takes a rather more informal approach to the process.“The original Glengyle Distillery buildings came up for sale in 2000 and our chairman walked past them one day and decided to buy the site,” explains Frank McHardy, distillery manager at Springbank and now Glengyle.“Six months later the chairman decided to put a distillery there. ‘It used to be a distillery, Frank, see what you can do to get the place up and running. Nothing too big or too small, an average size.” The stills for Glengyle Distillery came second-hand from Invergordon Distillers and, according to Frank McHardy, they weren’t the most attractive in the world. “They were shaped almost like tin cans, the old cans that you would put on your fire to make tea,” he notes. “So we got Forsyths to give them some curves and make them look more like stills.“What we’re trying to do at Glengyle is produce a two distillation spirit made from lightly peated malted barley. And we’ll make it extremely slowly in the good old fashioned Springbank way.” Whatever approach you take to the process, the day of the first spirit run must be pretty nerve-racking, mustn’t it?“We had no doubts when we were putting the design and simulations together that we would be able to produce a drinkable whisky,” remarks David Faraday. “But when it comes to the question of ‘How good would it be?’ then you’re in an area where you’re moving from science to art.” Jim Swan agrees.“Atiny difference in the balance of flavour congeners in whiskies makes a huge difference. When the first spirit was taken off Kilchoman I nosed and tasted it for the product notes. And then I sat back and drank it. It was the best new make spirit I have ever come across. Clean and very peaty with a beautiful malty/butterscotch aromas that we could not have predicted.” Glengyle is also happy.“At the end of the day the spirit we’re getting off the stills is the spirit I’m looking for.We didn’t follow a pattern, for example, when we changed the shape of the stills. But I’ve been in the industry for 43 years and our chairman has been there for more than 50.“So he knows what he’s about and I have a general idea!”
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