Perthshire's long heritage of small-scale, originally farmbased distilleries continues in the guise of the muchvisited Edradour, near Pitlochry. But now Edradour has a new competitor in the shape of Strathearn distillery, situated between Perth and Crieff. Not only is Strathearn significantly smaller than Edradour - long touted as 'Scotland's smallest distillery' - but it is also based on a working farm.
Strathearn is the creation of David Lang and Tony Reeman-Clark who have sunk their life savings and a bank loan into the venture. Both boast backgrounds in engineering and project management, with Lang having worked for United Distillers & Vintners (UDV), now absorbed into Diageo, while Reeman-Clark was one of the founders of the Border Brewery Company in Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The notion of starting their own distillery was first mooted while the two men were attending Edinburgh's Whisky Fringe a few years ago, and as David Lang explains: "We didn't want an anonymous modern building, but something with history and character.
We discovered Bachilton Farm Steading near Methven in Perthshire while Tony was taking part in an event at the neighbouring Blue Sky Experience, which specialises in team-building events. The buildings were derelict when we first leased them, and we have worked and created three units, the office, a store-cum-bonded warehouse, and the actual stillhouse.
"We began work in late March last year, and spent eight months renovating the buildings and getting the distillery up and running." The first spirit flowed on 18th October 2013, and it flowed from a pair of stills that are quite unlike anything else to be found in the Scotch whisky industry.
Fabricated in Portugal, they are traditional 'alembics' in style, with the wash still charge being just 800 litres, while the spirit still is filled with 450 litres. The optimum amount of spirit that can be produced in a year is 12,000 litres, though there is potential to increase that capacity in future.
"We currently mash once a week, using one of our two washbacks," says Lang, "and we have plans eventually to mash twice, using both backs. There is even space for a third vessel if we ever want it." Like all start-up whisky distilleries, early cashflow is vital, and the team behind Strathearn has produced a trio of gins, the most innovative of which is Oaked Highland Gin (see tasting note), described as 'When whisky meets gin.' It is golden in colour, the result of infusing in oak cask shavings.
The gins have secured a listing in the prestigious Fortnum & Mason store in London, while new-make spirit called Silver Wolf is being sold to a number of Edinburgh cocktail barmen, and spirit will be released under the name 'Ooskie', after nine to 12 months of ageing.
At the moment, the half a tonne of barley used each week is supplied by Munton's, whose malting plants are in East Yorkshire and Suffolk. Barley is sourced from Munton's due to the fact that Scottish-based maltsters are not inclined to deal in such small quantities, but as David Laing notes, "The distillery is on a 1,000 acre farm and we hope to build a maltings plant later this year.
"The farm already cultivates barley, currently the Optic and Concerto varieties, but we have an arrangement for the farmer to grow a quantity of Golden Promise in the future, and we will distil both unpeated and peated versions of our whisky with that." Strathearn is not just farm-based and small in scale, but it really does take whisky-making back towards its roots, with David Lang and Tony Reeman-Clark performing all functions by hand. "It's a manual mash tun, with not even an augur in it," declares Lang. "This is about re-inventing real farm distilling!" In that spirit, draff is taken by a local farmer to feed his cattle.
All of the metal vessels in Strathearn were constructed by Oban Ales Ltd in Argyllshire, to the design of the partners, which explains the craft brewery atmosphere of the production area.
Steam to heat the stills is summoned by turning a handle to open a valve, and all cut points are judged by the operator, using the old-fashioned 'water test' method abandoned by most distillers.
Jugs of new make spirit are collected at crucial times in the distilling cycle and water is added. "If it's cloudy it's not ready to collect as 'hearts'," explains Lang. "We judge the 'heads' one jug at a time, and the same with the 'tails.' We don't have a spirit safe because it turns out that it's not a legal requirement." Spirit strength is measured with a hydrometer where it flows from the base of the condensers, which are of the vertical tube variety, providing lots of copper contact for the spirit. The fact that the stills have been textured with a ball pein hammer also adds to the amount of copper contact. The stills have descending lyne arms, but Strathearn is nothing if not flexible in its approach to whisky-making, and the plant has been designed so that the lynes can be changed from descending to ascending if required, altering the style of spirit in the process.
To date, around 30 casks of spirit have been filled, the first five for the distillery's own use, and subsequently a mix of their own and some for customers. "We are filling principally into virgin oak 50L octaves, both French and American oak, sourced from Portugal," says Lang. "There are three levels of char - 'medium,' 'medium +' and 'char.' Casks will be used twice.
"We are filling at 58% ABV, which is lower than most distilleries, and that's because if the spirit is much stronger, the oakiness of the virgin casks becomes dominant. We anticipate a four or five per cent loss of volume in first year - the virgin oak soaks up so much spirit - and then we think around two per cent thereafter per annum." The sale of casks to customers is an important revenue source at this early stage of the venture, and Lang and Reeman-Clark report an encouraging level of uptake.
"We are filling some sherry, port and merlot casks," notes Lang, "and we will do whatever a customer wants, including the level of toasting on casks, and in future we will distil batches of peated spirit. We will even alter the lyne arm from descending to ascending if that's the style of spirit required." One unique feature about Strathearn is that purchasers of casks can have as few as 10 or 20 bottles filled on the hand-bottling line at any one time, while most distilleries offering casks to the public stipulate that the cask must be bottled in its entirety.
Lang explains that "We have one customer who is really into pre-war whiskies and he provided us with a couple of casks that had been used four times and had contained peated Glenmorangie. We are using them as fermenting vessels with the customer's own yeast, and then we will distil the wash produced." When it comes to offering Strathearn whisky to the public, the first release is anticipated after three to four years, and Lang asserts that "We will always bottle single casks - it's a single malt, single cask distillery! We may bottle at cask strength, too." Although there are no formal facilities at present, paying visitors are welcome by prior appointment, and half or fullday 'Gin Experiences' and one, three and five day 'Whisky Experience' packages are available.
Tony Reeman-Clark declares that "Strathearn is part of a dynamic craft distilling movement in Scotland, and some 20 new Scottish craft distillery ventures will have gained planning consent by the end of this year." Clearly, it is not just the Diageos and Pernod Ricards of this world which are investing in distillery construction; and the increased diversity that operations such as Strathearn bring to the industry are greatly to be welcomed.