Whisky enthusiasts could be forgiven for thinking that with the proliferation of whisky-making ventures in recent years every Scottish island must boast a distillery, but Shetland has somehow missed out until now. There is already a gin distillery on Unst, the northernmost inhabited island in the Shetland archipelago, but the new venture in the islands’ capital of Lerwick will be the first to produce whisky when it is fired up this spring.
The master distiller for the project is high-profile industry figure Ian Millar, associated with Glenfiddich for much of his professional career, latterly serving as global brand ambassador. Given Millar’s visibility and depth of experience, he has inevitably been asked to have an involvement in numerous start-up distilling ventures, but has chosen Shetland.
“I have turned down a couple due to their location outside of Europe,” he says. “I’m too bloody old for working away outside of Scotland. Shetland was an attractive concept, and once I had spoken to the three directors, I was kind of hooked, more so as it allowed me to work on the project from home initially, with minimum impact on my golfing diary.”
The team behind Lerwick Distillery is headed by born-and-bred Shetlanders Martin Watt and Calum Miller, along with Caroline MacIntyre, who went to school with Watt. He explains, “It was Caroline, through a mutual connection, who hooked us up with Ian, and I am pretty sure that he never imagined he would get so involved in the project!”
Watt is a chartered accountant by profession, and some 16 years ago he was approached to become finance manager for a group of individuals who were hoping to build Shetland’s first whisky distillery. Having perused their financial projections, he arrived at the conclusion that the venture would not be viable.
“It was far too big, and with Shetland not having as much footfall is it does now, I just couldn’t see it being a success and I passed on the opportunity,” he explains. “They went bust less than a year later. Fast forward all these years and whisky as an investment has stabilised with global demand also soaring. With a less volatile outlook on the sector, the time was right to further explore opening a distillery in Shetland, particularly as visitor numbers had soared to around 150,000 per annum — mainly on cruise ships.”
The chosen site — in Whisky Lane, close to Lerwick town centre — has been occupied for more than 200 years, serving as stables, a soda factory, and a joinery business. The team have looked outside of Scotland to equip the site, as Millar explains, “We’ve been working with ABT [Allied Beverage Tanks] in Chicago who are sourcing from Boben Distillers in China. It was pretty much down to who could turn around the distilling equipment within acceptable timeframes.
“The three directors were very homed in on the importance of spirit quality, so we will go for long fermentations and slow distillations. The spirit still is the same size as the wash still, in order to provide more copper surface for reflux. Beyond that, it’s down to the choice of casks to provide us with a variety of maturation options.”
Millar says the spirit style will a twist on a “typical Speyside malt”, with both American and European oak casks used. “Speaking to the directors, their favourite whiskies were very much down the Christmas-cake route, so warm, rounded, sweet, and fruity.”
The projected date for the stills to be fired up for the first time is April or May 2024. The intention is to produce about 250,000 litres of spirit per year initially, but sufficient capacity has been built into the set-up to produce at least a third more than that figure.
Maturation will take place at Scalloway, some seven miles from the distillery, where Bond No.1 with a capacity of roughly 2,500 casks has already been constructed and a planning application to build a further four has been submitted.
Asked whether the Shetland location — 60° north, 105 miles from mainland Scotland, and 135 miles west of Norway — would have a significant effect on spirit maturation, Millar says, “Given the low temperatures, I would expect slightly lower than usual evaporation losses, but I’m not sure if that’s going to slow down maturation. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Work-in-progress releases will appear while the spirit matures, but in line with the intention to create a premium whisky that is ‘high in demand but short in supply’, availability of those bottlings will be limited to people who physically visit the distillery or buy a Lerwick Distillery Fellowship, an eight-year membership that will see participants receive a bottling every six months along with other benefits. These work-in-progress bottlings will be sold under the name Haad Still, which roughly translates from Shetland dialect as ‘hold on’.
All 88 available founders’ casks sold in less than two weeks, and Watt says he has also asked Millar to endorse the Ian Millar Legacy Cask Series, “giving him free rein to do what he wants with our new kit.”
Millar says his input has only been via video calls so far. “But the next few months will see our production equipment arriving, and once it’s all built, I expect to be on Shetland for as long as it takes to get the distillery running,” he says. “Beyond that I envisage a couple of visits per year, when necessary, as it’s easy enough to send spirit samples to me at home in Pitlochry, so it’s going to be a mixture of local and remote support.”