What leads someone to decide to build a whisky distillery? For me, it was a sailing trip around the west coast of Scotland and a serious illness. My sailing companions convinced me to make a small investment in a new distillery in St Andrews – an investment which paid off when it was sold a year later. The fire of whisky exploration was lit and after recovering from kidney cancer, which had forced me to take time off from a career in renewable energy, I decided to take a serious look at a brand-new career in whisky.
My business partner Alan Baker and I settled on a west-coast location near Inverkip. Once at the heart of Scotland’s thriving shipbuilding industry, the area has spent decades recovering from the loss of that sector. A new distillery will provide local employment and the tourism income the area desperately needs. We established a location at Bankfoot Farm on the Ardgowan Estate, close to the mouth of the Clyde River in a small valley downhill from the beautiful Clyde Muirshiel Regional Park.
It started well: we secured access to the land and shook hands on a deal with a London-based investor. However, with the ousting of Theresa May in 2019 and the threat of a no-deal Brexit (the European Union at the time represented almost 38 per cent of the Scotch whisky market), our investor feared his involvement was too great a risk and abandoned our project.
This was a devastating blow. We danced a merry jig with other investors from India, Russia, and China but all fell by the wayside. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, making it increasingly difficult to conduct business. The whole venture was about to collapse, but at the start of 2021 we were thrown a lifeline. We were introduced to Roland Grain, an Austrian information technology entrepreneur, through a mutual acquaintance in Edinburgh. Finally, we had the basis for the funding we needed for the project.
Two years later, we are about to break ground on a truly spectacular building. It will rise from the south-west banks of the Kip River, symbolising resurrection of the original Ardgowan Distillery Company which was bombed out during the war, and is based on the concept of a Scandinavian longhouse – a place for the global whisky clan, a refuge for visitors, and a haven of hospitality and protection.
Nothing about this building is simple. Internally there will be the latest heat recovery, insulation, and carbon capture technology. We have collaborated with Briggs of Burton and Heriot-Watt University’s School of Brewing and Distilling to support several masters projects exploring new carbon reduction technologies to repurpose biogenic CO2 produced during the fermentation process.
Once operational, we will be producing nearly 800 tonnes of CO2 per annum and the projects provided a high-level review of a number of ways to use it, including reducing energy usage during distillation by injecting low-pressure CO2 into the pot stills. Not all low-carbon technologies are fully mature, so we needed to future-proof our design to allow for newer technologies to be swapped in over time. The outputs from the projects also gave us important information on the feasibility of different technologies and avenues for further innovation.
Architecturally, the tip height of the roof trusses drops from a maximum of 25 metres at the front of the building to approximately 9 metres at the rear with a constant shoulder height. This geometry creates an engineering challenge, a roof with a double curvature, meaning every single bracket in the roofing system needs to be individually laser cut. When we achieve our vision, it will create a softer, more organic feel.
Then there are the challenges created by the site itself. We are building Scotland’s most sustainable distillery on the site of one of the earliest ‘town’ gas generators – used to create town gas to supply the Ardgowan Estate house. ‘Town gas’, as it was called, was made by passing steam over hot coals, with the resulting gas mixture consisting of methane, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen. It is also the site of a timber yard and joiner’s workshop where creosote was used as a wood preservative.
The local council were rightly concerned with the potential for hazardous materials remaining in the soil from both of these operations. After 21 trial pits, eight soil boreholes, the installation of 15 panda probes, and two infiltration tests, not to mention a regulation change halfway through, we have satisfied building regulations with a 512-page report proving whatever residues resulted from these operations have long since disappeared.
It’s been almost seven years in the planning, spanning Brexit, a global pandemic, and five prime ministers. We have had weeks of delay costing tens of thousands of pounds. We are also the proud owners of a salvaged band saw, planer, and some of the other timber yard equipment. But now, finally, we have started construction.