In Scotland two of the most experimental and forward-looking young distilleries making whisky are located within 30 miles of each other in the north-east county of Aberdeenshire. Both Lone Wolf (www.lonewolfspirits.com
) and Twin River (www.deesidebrewery.co.uk
) have grown out of brewing enterprises, and both are already pushing the envelope of what constitutes ‘Scotch whisky.’
Lone Wolf is the spirits division of those nanny state-baiting punk beer entrepreneurs at BrewDog, who have developed an international presence with the likes of Punk IPA and Dead Pony Club. It has become Scotland’s largest independent brewers in no more than a decade, causing outrage and delight in equal measure along the way.
Its two brewhouses, distillery, bottling and head office functions are based on an industrial estate at Ellon, some 16 miles north of Aberdeen, and spending time there you sense that the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) which oversees the industry’s rules and regulations, probably has some headaches in store.
Presiding over Lone Wolf is Steven Kersley, who studied chemistry at Glasgow University, then brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt in Edinburgh. Subsequently, he spent four years managing various Diageo distilleries, before his creative and experimental streak led him to Lone Wolf.
“The name Lone Wolf was chosen because we are looking to carve our own path, not being constrained by rules or regulations – progressive and innovative and experimental,” he says. “Our ambition is to create the same sort of success with spirits that we have with beer.”
“We decided to start distilling because it seemed a natural progression. You’re already half-way there when you have a brewery! BrewDog’s founders Martin [Dickie] and James [Watt] were passionate about making our own whisky, and the distillery was designed with flexibility very much in mind.”
The distilling regime is a thing of wonder, with a remarkably wide range of permutations. German fabricators Arnold Holstein have created a 50-litre pilot still, where experimentation takes place, and a pair of 3,000-litre charge copper pot stills, the first of which boasts what Kersley calls a “triple bubble,” intended to give lots of reflux and copper contact. The second, more conventional, pot still is attached to a complex condensing system, and an eight-plate rectifying column still completes the line-up.
Kersley explains, “We schedule what we need from the brewhouse on a weekly basis, but as we upscale the distilling operation we hope to develop a dedicated brewhouse just for our use. We will use rye, wheat and malted barley mashbills, and crystal, chocolate and roasted malts will not be off limits. We want to capitalise on our brewing expertise with varying malts. During fermentation we can add other variables by playing with yeast strains – using lager or ale yeasts, for example. We are looking to work on adding flavour at every stage of production.”
Lone Wolf produced its first distillate in the summer of 2016, and several months were dedicated to perfecting vodka and gin recipes.
Subsequently turning his attention to whisky, Kersley experimented with double pot still distillation and column still distillation, and he oversaw the distillation of three distinct styles, all made using American pale ale yeast. “We’ve distilled 100 per cent Maris Otter barley, 70 per cent malted rye with 30 per cent Maris Otter barley, and 60 per cent malted wheat with 40 per cent Maris Otter barley,” he notes.
“We did one batch of each, one after the other, filling the spirit into 50-litre virgin American oak casks. We filled around 20 casks in total, and the rest of our whisky strategy is coming on line during the next few months. We plan to focus a lot on grain whisky, using the ‘triple-bubble’ still in conjunction with the rectification column.”
The next few months will be spent tweaking the three styles distilled to date, and Kersley notes, “We have a warehouse with temperature and humidity controls – so we could reproduce a Kentucky-style atmosphere if we wanted! It gives us great flexibility and opportunities to learn about maturation variables.
"I’m interested in using different varieties of oak, too, and looking at optimal charring and toasting levels.
"We will explore global oak varieties and how they impact our spirit.”
Kersley explains, “My interest is in spirits as a whole, not just in whisky, and in terms of whisky my interest is not just in a Scottish style, so this job gives me the chance to do lots of new, interesting and experimental stuff. We’re not trying to be a Scottish distillery – I want it to be creative across a real breadth of spirits.”
When it comes to anticipated clashes with the Scotch Whisky Association, he declares, “The SWA’s understanding is that ‘tradition’ is a guarantee of quality, and that can’t be substantiated. I’ve tasted a lot of bad whisky that’s been made ‘traditionally.’ I drink a lot of whisky, and I very seldom get surprised by Scotch. There will be spirits made all over the world in the next few years that will not be made by the rule book, but by intuition. That’s what’s going to excite whisky fans.”
There will be spirits made all over the world in the next few years that will not be made by the rule book but by intuition
Lone Wolf will also oblige those consumers clamouring for greater transparency regarding the whisky they drink, with Kersley noting, “Transparency will be key to what we do, right down to which cooperage provided the cask, the level of charring or toasting, and the varieties of barley and yeast used during production.”
He expects the distillery’s first ‘whisky’ to be released in a year to 18 months’ time, saying, “We may vat together a few individual casks to produce a release or sell as single cask bottlings, we don’t know yet.
"We may offer different types of grain matured in a variety of cask, and maybe even distilled in different ways, given the great options we have with our distilling regime.”
By contrast with BrewDog’s expansive, modern and functional operation, with its 30,000-litres 2016 brewhouse, Twin River Distillery at Deeside Brewery is currently located in a modest, old stone farm-steading, un-signposted down a single-track road a mile and a half from the centre of the Royal Deeside town of Banchory. The ‘Twin River’ name is inspired by the rivers Don and Dee which flow through the area.
One of the key figures at Twin River is former IT entrepreneur Mike Bain, who bought the silent Deeside brewery in 2012, and proceeded to relocate and revitalise it, winning supermarket supply contracts and expanding the operation before deciding to add spirits into the mix.
Bain says, “In 2016 we decided we wanted to explore whisky, figuring we were already half-way there with the brewery. We started with a 500-litres iStill, but have since invested in a 2,000 version. It’s made in Holland from stainless steel, with the only copper content being a place-mat sized copper ‘waffle’ or sponge.”
Bain explains, “We produce neutral grain spirit to make our own gin from scratch, but whisky is our real passion. We have our own in-house brewing yeast, and we use that along with some distillers’ yeast, with wash from our 80 Shillings recipe for the whisky. Our less hoppy beers allow us to make good whisky. The malt we use is principally pale malt, with some chocolate malt, and we are maturing it in 55-litre and 200-litre virgin American oak casks. The virgin oak seems to work really well with the chocolate malt.”
The first double-distillation run took place on 18 July 2017, and Bain says, “A medium char level on the casks and the use of chocolate malt gives the spirit a nice, smoky note. We will produce more to the same recipe, but will also experiment beyond that – it’s a very exciting time. We will keep sampling it until we think it’s ready, but we’re probably looking at three years.”
There are also plans to produce a rye whisky aged in 200-litre casks which previously held American rye whiskey, using toasted oak segments inside the casks. Award-winning cocktail barman and Twin River’s brand manager Ryan Rhodes explains, “We’re using different maturation techniques so we can release our rye spirit as quickly as possible. There’s a huge interest in rye, but bartenders don’t see the necessity to age it for three years. If we can fast-track a young spirit and make it taste good, we will try.”
Twin River is currently working towards finding a new home, with a two-acre site near the centre of Banchory earmarked for the project. The business is looking to raise between £1 million and £1.5 million through crowd-funding and private equity, and the new development would boast a tap-room and other visitor facilities which are not feasible on the present site.
Mike Bain declares, “We’re happy to take the BrewDog line that it’s all about taste in the final product rather than following rules. Whether or not it’s called Scotch whisky, we hope people will buy it.”
Working the still at Lone Wolf
Production close up through an inspection hatch
Twin River Distillery