Two new distilleries announced in as many months...are we on the brink of a golden time for whisky? Ian Buxton finds out
Things are stirring in the world of Scotch whisky. With growing affluence in the so called BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India and China) the demand for luxury whisky is growing rapidly.Sales of premium blends and malts, both single and blended, are moving ahead rapidly with double-digit growth recorded in many markets.For the first time in years, there’s real pressure on stocks and the forward sales forecasts for some brands have the accountants rubbing their hands with glee. But it’s also causing headaches in the production department. Where is all this whisky to come from?With Scotch on the brink of a new golden age the answer is ‘new distilleries.’ We’re poised at the beginning of what may be the greatest construction boom since the 1890s as distilling capacity is expanded to meet this anticipated demand.Of course, there have been some new distilleries built recently. But these are mainly small farmhouse operations, such as Kilchoman, with boutique ambitions, or relative tiddlers, like Arran, with strictly limited capacity. The last really significant construction was Grant’s Kininvie – a 4.4 million litre plant that dates back to 1990.Things are about to change. First to announce its plans was Diageo, with a stunning multi-million pound investment in warehousing, bottling and distilling in Scotland. There will be an expansion of grain whisky distilling at Cameronbridge and a brand new single malt distillery at Roseisle, with 14 stills.These are substantial operations: capacity at Cameronbridge will be increased by 60 per cent to a staggering 105 million litres of alcohol per year and the new Roseisle distillery will be capable of producing an impressive 10m litres of new spirit annually. It’s a huge step – currently, Diageo having nothing bigger than Dufftown, listed as capable of producing 4m litres. Roseisle is a gigantic project.But why build a new distillery at all? Why not just re-open one of the mothballed ones? The answer is plain – the prohibitive cost of adapting old plants to today’s environmental regulations and the efficiency of the new generation of equipment mean that it’s far more cost-effective to build from scratch and get exactly what you want.The way has already been shown by Chivas Brothers recently remodelled Glenburgie to produce more than 4m litres of single malt annually. Virtually all of that is destined for Ballantine’s as that brand is relaunched to compete with Diageo’s Johnnie Walker and Bacardi’s Dewar’s.Glenburgie, resembling a cross between the Marie Celeste and the starship Enterprise, is operated by just one man and is a cool marvel of technological ingenuity.So, when Diageo’s MD in Scotland Bryan Donaghey explicitly refers to the growth of BRIC markets as the reason behind this development the message is clear: blends are driving this investment.But that’s good news. Some concern had been expressed by anxious bloggers that this could mean the closure of some older and smaller single malt distilleries, but their products are still needed for the complex blend recipes and, anyway, are selling well and profitably in their own right.And, if Diageo didn’t want them, a new generation of whisky entrepreneurs would be happy to take these old gentlemen off its hands. And that can be clearly seen with the second new distillery announcement.Typically, the feisty team at Bruichladdich have to do things their own way.Not for them some brand spanking new equipment. No, in their description of the recreation of Port Charlotte, the stress is on the green aspects of the project. They will be using mainly recycled equipment, salvaged from the old Inverleven distillery at Dumbarton.So the ‘new’ Port Charlotte will see remnants of two distilleries rising from the ashes, on the Port Charlotte site, overlooking Islay’s Lochindaal, equipment from Inverleven will find a new life.And very curious kit it is, for Inverleven employed one of the very few Lomond stills in Scotland (Mosstowie at Miltonduff also had one). A Lomond still is noted for the comparatively heavy and oily whisky it produces due to the short neck and consequent low degree of reflux.Its former owner, Allied Distillers, apparently experimented with the design further, removing condensing plates from the neck. Mark Reynier of Bruichladdich is excited about the challenges this presents: “As far as we are aware it will be the only working example of this hybrid still, a sort of pot still with a mini column still on top; an innovation designed by Allied to make a purer spirit – quicker. We have the chance to re-examine the concept, albeit with an altogether different ethos.” He continues: “To be frank we’re not sure yet how we will use it, if indeed we do at all.You will just have to wait and see. But it’s quite intriguing... it adds all sorts of options.” Hopefully, distilling at Port Charlotte will commence during 2008 which will be the still’s 70th anniversary. This, after all, was an operation that only five years ago the pessimists said was doomed to failure. Well, the sceptics have been proved wrong and, on the back of a rising market, Bruichladdich has turned in an ace performance.But two swallows don’t make a summer. In fact, in defence of the claim that distilling is booming there are strong and persistent rumours of another four projects under active development.Some are well publicised, such as Sir Iain Noble’s farmhouse project at Toravaig on Skye. Here, at least, there is a building, an architect and planning permission. The project isn’t the largest, but it is invested with great passion and charm.Others are being developed under conditions of great secrecy, which leads one to believe that the rumours may well have some substance. The promoters include an Edinburgh-based consortium with strong brewing credentials and an important independent bottler looking to follow in Signatory’s footsteps.But the most significant announcement will come fromWilliam Grant & Sons, owners of Glenfiddich and The Balvenie. It is to reveal a new single malt distillery at Girvan, and a substantial expansion of their grain whisky distilling capacity to boot.We’ve been here before, of course. Scotch whisky has a long history of boom and bust.The glorious expansion of the 1890s was followed by a long period of retrenchment and, more recently, the infamous ‘whisky loch’ led to wholesale and draconian closures in the mid 1980s.You might think these all a poor substitute for the great names lost just 20 years ago but look on the bright side: more and more people are taking to Scotch whisky.
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