Opinion: You've got to admire the independent whisky makers who follow their instincts

Opinion: You've got to admire the independent whisky makers who follow their instincts

From Angus to Oregon, I've been blown away by the independent spirits who follow their gut.

Thoughts from... | 25 Nov 2022 | Issue 187 | By Christopher Coates

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I’m fascinated by independent players in the industry, both individuals and organisations, and how they are able to not only survive in the ‘sink-or-swim’ environment of the international whisky market but often thrive and innovate. (And I mean create things that are genuinely new and revolutionary, not just slap a new label on what’s essentially an old product.) Recently, I’ve been inspired by a number of independent outfits, but two, in particular, have stuck in my mind.

The first is Arbikie Distillery in Angus, Scotland. Led by the Stirling brothers and distillery manager Dr Kirsty Black, the team earned respect for its demonstrably carbon-negative, or, as they call it, 'climate positive' gin called Nàdar (the neutral base spirit is made with peas) and ‘first of the modern era’ Highland Rye single grain Scotch whisky.

The Arbikie Distillery Gates.

Having already implemented solar power and various green farming practices at its Highland estate, Arbikie recently announced plans to switch the distillery’s production energy source to green hydrogen, which uses renewable energy – in this case, a one-megawatt wind turbine – to power electrolysis and create the hydrogen to be burned in a specialised boiler.

It’s important to note that green hydrogen differs from the more common blue hydrogen, which is derived from natural gas and requires the capture and underground storage of carbon dioxide, a waste product from its production. Green hydrogen, on the other hand, does not directly generate carbon dioxide. Regardless of how it was created and the colour used to describe it, the waste product from burning hydrogen is plain old water.

The cutting-edge electrolysis and hydrogen boiler technology is as yet untried in whisky, and it is often disregarded as unfeasible for use at distilleries — the same is true of many other industries. However, Iain Stirling says that there was no question about embracing hydrogen when it became clear that being the industry guinea pig was a possibility. For the family and wider Arbikie team, it “just made sense”.

The Arbikie Distillery visitor centre.

If this story of a small, independent Scotch whisky distillery shunning traditional fossil fuel boilers in favour of a greener alternative provokes some déjà vu, it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The last time this happened was the 2017 unveiling of Nc’Nean Distillery, which from the outset generated 100 per cent of its production energy using a biomass (wood chip) boiler. Just a few years later, it became the UK's first net-zero distillery. Credit where it's due, Nc'nean followed the successful implementation of a similar biomass boiler at Tomatin Distillery (which is managed from Scotland but owned by Japanese conglomerate Takara Shuzo Co.) a few years earlier.

Nc"nean founder Annabel Thomas in the still house at her distillery.

On the other side of the world, I found myself inspired for completely different reasons during a recent visit to the progressive American single malt whisky makers at Westward Distillery in Portland, Oregon. Founded back in 2004 by Christian Krogstad (who recently stepped down from his operational role in the business after nearly 20 years) as House of Spirits Distillery, Westward was an early bloomer in the context of the current global boom of whisky distilleries and production increases, yet, nearly two decades later, it seems the business has lost none of the fun in its culture nor its appetite for experimentation. Though small by Scottish standards, producing less than 200,000lpa per annum, it’s considered one of the bigger and more ‘battle-hardened’ American craft whiskey distilleries.

Westward head distiller Miles Munroe.

On my visit, I was frequently lost for words at what I was seeing, hearing and tasting. The team’s approach to mashing (worts are pasteurised and made crystal clear using whirlpool dynamics) and fermentation (yeast is sourced from local breweries and recycled multiple times after each fermentation, with regular health checks at the in-house lab) are more reminiscent of modern beer producers than the Scotch whisky distilleries I’m used to, while Westward’s still set-up and the way it’s run created the opposite spirit style from what I was expecting. Boldly declaring that its team “ferments like microbrewers, distils like Scotch whisky, and ages like bourbon”, Westward both subverted and exceeded my expectations at every turn, defying any guess.

An aerial view of Westward Whiskey distillery.

When I asked head distiller Miles Munroe why certain decisions were made, I noticed a common theme emerging in his responses: broadly, he said these decisions just seemed like the right things to do. Whether it’s pioneering new green energy solutions or an entirely new style of American whiskey, I can only hope that entrepreneurs and distillers like those at Arbikie and Westward keep following their instincts.
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