Distillery Focus

From Farm to Bottle

Nestled in the heart of Angus, the Stirling family’s Arbikie Distillery is leading by example
By Christopher Coates
Two of Arbikie's copper pot stills, before the installation of the third.  Photo by Christopher Coates.
Two of Arbikie's copper pot stills, before the installation of the third. Photo by Christopher Coates.
If you’re reading this, you likely don’t need to be told that it’s not just the international whisk(e)y industry that’s booming. Gin is very much the drink of the moment and it seems a day doesn’t pass without a new brand of this juniper-infused drink being launched or a new gin spot opening. But we're also living in a new age of consumer education and this means spirits drinkers are demanding more than ever in terms of transparency, quality, and variety.

Discussions about the effects of terroir, barley variety and provenance; yeast type and fermentation times; and the importance of age versus maturity can now be found in less formal settings than the pages of Scotch Whisky Research Institute papers, niche books and, indeed, Whisky Magazine. Consumers’ curiosity is being fuelled by a wealth of online resources, distrust of large brands, and the scepticism that characterises the zeitgeist of our post-modern society.

This step up in consumer education, along with the demand for new products, has led to calls for greater innovation in the spirits category. In response, a growing number of distillers are beginning to gently test the edges of what can currently be defined as Scotch whisky by experimenting with non-traditional cask types and non-standard (for Scotch) grains such as rye.

Meanwhile, so many players in the gin scene are stretching the definition of the spirit (which is largely unregulated), especially with regard to very mild juniper character, that it has almost become accepted that many gins no longer taste like the very botanical that's supposed to characterise the drink. Furthermore, the debate about whether a gin maker must produce their own base spirit to qualify as 'craft', rather than buying in grain neutral spirit (GNS), also rages alongside an even bigger furore over the allegedly misleading nature of contract-distilled products named after locations to which they have no real ties.

In the midst of this rapidly evolving and ever more confusing spirits landscape, a few of Scotland’s new distilleries are openly declaring where they stand on both the gin and the whisky issues. One such business is the family-owned Arbikie Distillery in Angus.

Founded in 2013 by brothers John, Iain and David Stirling, Arbikie was created with the principles of ‘farm to glass’ distilling and hyperlocal sourcing at its heart. All of the barley, rye, wheat, potatoes (King Edward, Cultra and Maris Piper, to be precise) and blaeberries used to produce the distillery’s whisky, gin and vodka are sourced from the Stirling family’s four farms, which stretch over 2,000 acres of the verdant Angus countryside.

The Stirling brothers grew up on the Arbikie farm (the family home can be seen opposite the distillery, overlooking the 12th-century Red Castle that sits on the nearby coastline) and it’s clear that utilising their farming experience and expertise to serve the distillery was very much the plan from the beginning

An unproductive old dairy became the warehouse, grain store and potato-processing area, while an adjacent zone was fitted out with two pots, four fermenters, a 40-plate column and a demethyliser – all sourced from the respected German still fabricator CARL. This set-up was recently expanded to increase fermenter capacity and an additional pot still was added. There are even nascent plans to bring some malting operations in-house in the future.

There’s no bought-in GNS to be found here, as the base spirits for Arbikie’s two gins are made by further distilling their wheat and potato vodkas. While this does throw up questions regarding the definition of gin and whether it should be made from an entirely neutral spirit, what can’t be questioned is the distillery’s commitment to flavour, provenance and transparency when it comes to what’s going into bottles bearing its name. The team are even trying their hand at growing chillies on the farm (for the spicy vodka), a crop that must stand out somewhat amongst the more traditional cereals and tatties.

In the same vein, any ingredients that aren’t grown on the farm can often be sourced close by. For example, the fruit used in Arbikie’s strawberry vodka comes from an adjacent farm that, incidentally, is owned by another family member. However, perhaps the most laudable and, it must be said, downright intriguing development on the Stirlings’ farms has thus far, as far as I’m aware at least, flown completely under the radar: for the past four years the Arbikie team have quietly been buying up young juniper bushes and planting them on selected plots across the estate. But not just one or two — we’re talking thousands. Their aim? Complete juniper self-sufficiency for the production of their popular gins, which they hope to achieve within four or five years’ time. This flies in the face of the rapid decline of much of the UK’s native juniper, which has been decimated by an infection of the fungus-like pathogen phytophthora austrocedrae. It’s for this reason that almost all of the juniper used for British gin production is bought in from abroad.

Though this all seems very romantic (and it is), don’t fall into the trap of thinking that what’s going on here is rustic, old fashioned farm distilling. Quite on the contrary, operations are being overseen by a skilled young team that includes one of the industry’s most respected rising stars. Distillery manager Kirsty Black is a graduate of the Heriot-Watt University Brewing and Distilling Masters and was recently named Young Scientist of the Year Scotland by the Institute of Food Science and Technology. Currently pursuing a PhD at Abertay University and the James Hutton Institute, she has also been appointed as an examiner at the widely respected Institute of Brewing & Distilling.

Kirsty has overseen the development of all of Arbikie’s spirits, including a range of experimental ryes. Though a number of other distilling companies, including Bruichladdich, Inchdairnie, Lone Wolf and Diageo, have begun producing Scottish rye spirit in recent years, Arbikie is the first to release a rye to consumers. It came in the form of a limited edition bottling of two-year-old spirit that was made using a mash bill of unmalted Arantes rye (52%) and Odyssey malted barley (48%), which had been aged in fresh, charred American oak casks. Just 355 bottles were available for sale, with proceeds going to charity.

Next came a limited-edition bottling of three-year-old spirit that was made using a mash bill of unmalted Arantes rye (52 per cent), unmalted Viscount wheat (33 per cent) and Odyssey malted barley (15 per cent), which had been aged in first-fill American oak casks and finished in ex-Pedro Ximénez sherry casks. Less than 1,000 bottles were produced, but another release is on the horizon and can be expected soon.

Rye has not been grown in any great volume in Scotland for many decades and experimenting with this non-standard grain presented a number of challenges, principally with regard to harvesting. According to John, rye becomes notoriously fickle if grown in too damp an environment and is almost impossible to process with a combine harvester when wet. Thankfully, Angus receives below-average rainfall and the Stirlings have managed to cultivate successful rye crops for the past five years. Further emphasising the distillery’s focus on provenance, these first rye releases included the name of the field in which the constituent grains were grown on the bottle, so that consumers may compare future releases and come to their own conclusions about whether field-specific terroir plays a part in flavour development. This follows on from a similar initiative that named the crop variety and field name on the back label of Arbikie’s Haar (wheat) and Tattie Bogle (potato) vodkas.

However, growing and distilling rye spirit is only half of the challenge

Strict Scotch whisky regulations, as laid out in the UK Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (SWR) and the EU Technical File (TF) for Scotch Whisky make things difficult for producers like the Stirlings, who are looking to create styles of whisky using less commonly utilised grains. While the use of rye in general is not forbidden, the regulations dictate that single malt Scotch whisky must be made with ‘only water and malted barley at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills’, while single grain Scotch whisky must be produced ‘at a single distillery but which, in addition to water and malted barley, may also be produced from whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals’.

This means that production of ‘high rye’ whiskies from mash bills that do not include malted barley (and thus require enzymes to convert the grains’ starches to sugars) cannot be labelled as Scotch whisky and instead have to be labelled as a ‘spirit drink’

Thus, these first rye expressions released by Arbikie may be described as a ‘single grain Scotch whisky’ due to their malted barley content. However, a third style produced at the site is made using rye (75 per cent) and wheat (25 per cent), with an enzyme added during mashing, and thus cannot be labelled as Scotch whisky under current regulation. Nevertheless, the Arbikie team will go ahead with the release of this spirit and they currently plan to label it as something along the lines of ‘Arbikie American-style rye spirit drink’ – a little clunky, but hopefully it won’t dissuade consumers from picking up a bottle and deciding for themselves as to whether it can be classed as Scotch whisky.

With all this talk of vodka, gin, and rye, you may be forgiven for thinking that this Angus distillery isn’t producing good old single malt. Although Arbikie is making its mark on these other spirit categories, for the Stirling brothers, single malt Scotch whisky is at the very heart of the enterprise and the product that is closest to their hearts. For now, however, they are keeping quiet about it as the long-term aim is for an 18-years-old expression to be the core Arbikie whisky product. In fact, it has been suggested that those wondering when we may see Arbikie single malt should look to the ‘Daftmill model’ for clues – that is to say, single malt will not likely be released until it has hit an age in double digits.

Though we have to wait a few more years (perhaps even until 2031) to try Arbikie’s single malt, there’s undoubtedly enough intriguing spirit flowing from the stills to keep us all occupied for now and, if the past five years can give any indication, there will be a few more pleasant surprises coming out of Angus in the years to come.

Getting Technical

Water source: Bore hole.

Malt/Potatoes: Odyssey, Laureate and Golden Promise barley; various varieties of wheat and rye, all grown on the estate. In process of growing heritage barley varieties. Malting by Boortmalt in Montrose (Glenesk). King Edward, Cultra and Maris Piper potatoes, also all grown on the farm and processed at the distillery site. Botanicals, such as strawberries, blaeberries and chillies, for flavoured vodka and gin production are also sourced from the farm or from local suppliers.

Mashing: 750kg semi-lauter mash tun by CARL.

Fermentation: Six 6000l capacity stainless steel wash backs. Four-day fermentation for single malt production, with one dry bagged yeast used.

Distillation: Two steam-heated pot stills fitted with sharply declining lyne arms and purifiers that can be turned on or off. Wash still with 4000l capacity. Spirit still with 2400l capacity. One additional steam-heated pot still (2400l capacity) with ascending lyne arm and botanical basket, with optional 40-plate column - used in the production of gin, vodka and column-distilled whisky. One demethyliser, used solely for removing methanol from potato vodka. All by CARL.

Capacity: 200,000 lpa per annum.
The still house at Arbikie Distillery, before the recent expansion. Photo by Christopher Coates.
The still house at Arbikie Distillery, before the recent expansion. Photo by Christopher Coates.
Casks filled with Arbikie spirit. Photo by Christopher Coates.
Casks filled with Arbikie spirit. Photo by Christopher Coates.