Designs on distilling

Designs on distilling

We meet the man who takes a distillery from paper to reality

People | 25 Jan 2019 | Issue 157 | By Gavin Smith

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The design of whisky distilleries has evolved and changed over the years, from a few vessels in a spare farm building, to the distinctive pagoda-capped maltings of formal Victorian structures created by the likes of the prolific Charles Doig.

Beyond that, increasing demand for Scotch whisky led to the construction and re-construction of many of Scotland’s distilleries during the 1960s and ’70s, often in what might best be termed neo-brutalist style. Today, as the total of whisky distilleries in Scotland reaches record numbers, design is of more importance than ever, with environmental considerations frequently to the fore.

One firm flourishing in the sector is Organic Distilleries Ltd, a sister company to Organic Architects, which was established by Gareth Roberts in 2005. The practice is based in Helensburgh, Argyll and Bute, and operates as a specialist architecture and consultancy group for the worldwide design and delivery of distilleries.

Roberts was born in Cheshire, but brought up in Callander, Perthshire from the age of 12. He worked in the field of urban design and spent time in the United States and in Russia, before striking out on his own. “Initially we were building houses, but very alternative eco-developments that encouraged a sense of community,” he explains. “We first got involved with distilleries three years later.

“‘Organic’ means we’re into the ‘eco’ side of things, including energy efficiency, but there’s also the ‘evolution’ aspect. People come to us with the idea of a building, and we end up giving them the keys. We supply HMRC advice, specialist insurance advice – everything from a client saying ‘I might want a distillery’ through to spirit flowing.”

The company’s first distillery project was to design Ardnamurchan, remotely situated at Glenbeg on the Ardnamurchan peninsula, just north of the Isle of Mull. The distillery was built for independent whisky bottlers, Adelphi Distillery Ltd and is powered by a biomass plant which makes it one of the most low-carbon distilleries in the world.

Gareth Roberts says, “Getting kerosene to such a remote location to fire the boiler was always going to be expensive, and they also wanted to use local fuel sources. They chop local timber and use it for biomass.

"If you can cut production costs per litre then that’s obviously good for business, and biomass is also good for the environment.”

He adds, “We put the stills in the windows at Ardnamurchan. Still necks need replacing quite often, and if you put the stills by windows you can vent beneath them, and take still parts out through the floor. There’s a great aesthetic element to having the stills by windows, too, especially at night. The stills are the stars.”

On the subject of distillery design, Roberts points out that, “You have challenges to deal with such as the fact that a stillhouse is dry and hot, while mashing is a moist process, and both areas of the distillery need to be highly ventilated. You’re constrained by building regulations and planning, health and safety and best practice legislation. We bring all of these factors together and what we create has to fit into the landscape, it’s got to be attractive and look as though it suits the place.

“The distillery is your ‘brand home,’ so you want it to look and feel right. Authenticity is everything in the world we live in. People will soon migrate away from the brand if you’re not authentic. The visitor aspect is very important. When you design from scratch rather than using an existing building you can give the distillery a great flow for visitors.”

Since designing Ardnamurchan, Organic Distilleries has worked on two other now-completed Scottish distillery projects, namely Drimnin and Lindores.

The former is even more remote in location than Ardnamurchan, and is best reached via the Isle of Mull rather than the mainland itself! Like Lindores in Fife, it was based on a former farm steading, and Gareth Roberts notes, “Drimnin works with a biomass boiler, the same as Ardnamurchan. Again, it’s a very remote location with access issues and related high costs to get kerosene in, and again there are lots of local trees.”

Roberts declares, “One of my real interests is in terroir. As far as I’m concerned, the atmosphere in which whisky is matured is key. I think micro-distillers, the guys we work with, should be making more of this aspect. We’ve created traditional ‘dunnage’ warehouses at Ardnamurchan and Drimnin, and a byre conversion at Lindores is a dunnage warehouse. You need thick, heavy walls to help make for only small temperature changes. I like the idea of getting the character of the place into the whisky through dunnage.”

One of Organic Distilleries’ recent projects was to design Princetown Distillery on Dartmoor. The site is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, and Roberts explains that, “It’s a courtyard and a group of buildings, all served from the back, so the front is clear and uncluttered. You have a nice flow right through, from the stillhouse into the two-storey bonded warehouse. Building started in early 2018 and it will be online in a couple of years. We have to get approval from Prince Charles for each stage, and knowing he’s a keen artist we had the initial plans done with watercolours. It worked!

“Most of the people we work with want space to expand – leave room for more washbacks and more stills if necessary in the future. I tend to design ‘courtyard’ distilleries because they are easy to access and easy to expand.”

Roberts explains, “We are now designing and managing a new wave of craft distilleries, spread throughout the UK, from the north of Scotland to the Western Isles, the south of England and overseas.

Also the business is also diversifying the types of drink industry buildings which it is designing, from bottling halls to offices and warehouses.”

He identifies a number of emerging trends regarding these ventures, one of which is the installation of plant that uses low carbon fuel in place of fossil fuel heating, as in the cases of Ardnamurchan and Drimnin. “These businesses recognise that a distillery is a long-term investment. It will probably still be in use when large scale use of fossil fuel has been taxed out of existence,” he says. “These savvy companies understand that being environmentally friendly is part of the corporate social responsibility which buyers will increasingly demand.”

Another trend is for the creation of community-owned distilleries, with Roberts noting that, “A number of community land owners have significant income from renewables projects. They see distilleries, particularly those producing brown spirits, as beneficial for a number of reasons; they put a place on the map, and can link to other more established distilleries, often making places on a whisky trail, and distilleries can be very long-term investments which can still be paying dividends into the community in one hundred or two hundred years. Community businesses are often opting to do things in old-fashioned ways and shun automation because their primary aim is job creation.”

Many of the investors in new distilling ventures have local associations, but moved away to further their careers before returning, while others simply love the area and wish to be involved with it in a tangible way.

The distilleries created with their contributions provide a number of relatively well-paid jobs as well as spin-off benefits in tourism and the wider community. A distillery can also help to reduce the seasonality of tourism in an area.

As Gareth Roberts says, “In many ways, distillery businesses are creating a highly positive social impact. There is virtually no other type of business that can achieve the same benefits for remote communities.”
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