Distillery Focus

Ardnamurchan Distillery

On the road to world-class single malt
By Gavin D. Smith
Rather like Bladnoch or Bunnahabhain, Ardnamurchan Distillery isn't on the road to anywhere. You have to be seriously intent on seeking out what is now Scotland's most westerly mainland distillery. It stands in magnificent scenery on the 50-miles-square Ardnamurchan peninsula in western Argyllshire, about 40 miles south-west of Fort William and approached by single-track roads. Ardnamurchan retains a sense of remoteness almost unique to mainland Scotland.

So why choose this location in which to build a distillery, you might wonder? The answer lies in its ownership, as Ardnamurchan Distillery is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Adelphi Distillery Limited, which in turn belongs to Keith Falconer and Donald Houston.

As board member and managing director Alex Bruce explains, "Much of Ardnamurchan is under the same ownership as the distillery and, despite its remote location, offered an extremely high quality and quantity of water, along with access to peat for future maltings, wood chip for a biomass boiler and renewable energy for power."

The Adelphi company traces its origins back to 1826, and the establishment of Loch Katrine Adelphi Distillery in the heart of Glasgow, though in more recent times it has traded as a highly-regarded independent bottler, specialising in non chill-filtered single cask releases. Owned and operated from 1993 by Jamie Walker, great-grandson of Adelphi Distillery founder Archibald Walker, the Adelphi firm was acquired by Keith Falconer and Donald Houston in 2004.

Alex Bruce describes the rationale behind constructing a new Adephi Distillery, noting that, "Having built a strong reputation and distribution globally for our whiskies, we wanted to augment our position by producing our own single malt; by 2007, we were already very aware that demand was growing and supply restricting, and producing our own would not only provide us with greater volumes in the future, but also potentially allow us to trade casks with other distilleries and brokers.

"The feasibility study began in 2007, followed by design and planning in 2012. Ground works began in February 2013, construction in June 2013 and commissioning in May 2014. The first spirit was filled to cask in July 2014, and the project came in on budget at just over £7 million."

Of that sum, a £1.77 million food processing, marketing and co-operation grant was obtained from the Scottish Government, as well as £625,452 of capital funding from Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The distillery manager is Fraser Hughes, who has 20 years of distilling experience under his belt, having started his career at Bowmore and becoming manager at both Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch.

He says that, "My current role at Ardnamurchan differs in that I am more hands on in dealing with health and safety, environmental issues and Customs and Excise. It is actually back to being very involved in all aspects of distilling traditionally, which is very pleasing. We also use a biomass boiler to run the distillery which is very different form the gas and oil boilers that I have been used to."

He adds, "It is a new distillery and it is very exciting being involved at an early stage. I am here at the 'birth of a distillery', if you like. I'm dealing with people on a daily basis in regards the staff, but also the public when they come to visit us. I really like being able to create our own history from the start, which hopefully people will speak about in the years ahead.

"We are producing a whisky that I know people will love, and there have already been fantastic comments about our 'spirit in progress' bottling. I love walking into the production areas and smelling all the different aromas from the mash getting dropped to the fruity, fermenting wash backs and the new make spirit running into the safe, and going into the warehouse and smelling the maturing spirit. It really is a dream job."

Ardnamurchan is a very remote place in which to live, and as Fraser Hughes notes, "The weekly shop to Fort William is a day trip, but the stunning views across Loch Sunart over to Mull from the distillery more than make up for it. My wife is from Islay so she is quite at home in a rural area. There is also an abundance of wildlife which is very interesting."

The distillery was constructed with ground-breaking environmental friendliness in mind, and Hughes explains, "We use locally sourced woodchip for our boiler, draff is fed to sheep, cattle and deer on the estate and the pot ale is spread on fields to act as a fertiliser. A simple thing like the animals eating the draff cuts down on lorries having to take feedstuff to the estate, so it reduces traffic."

Having commenced operations with one mash per day, producing some 65,000 litres of spirit by the turn of the year, 2015 saw an increase to 113,000LPA, 171,000LPA the following year, and a further increase to 350,000LPA is forecast for 2017.

Alex Bruce notes that, "We have allocated a small number of private casks each year to individuals along with a limited amount of trade fillings. We are making typical Highland whisky - fruity, sweet and spicy. Quality of spirit is a must, and the new make is a lovely full-bodied spirit with lots of flavour; creamy, fruity and a bit peppery. We are splitting production 50:50 between unpeated and peated spirit, and filling into Woodford Reserve barrels, PX and Oloroso Spanish hogsheads and Spanish and American oak sherry butts. We will not do cask finishes."

Regarding the timescale for when the Ardnamurchan spirit will be available for public scrutiny, Alex Bruce notes that, "We had phenomenal demand for our first mature spirit release, the Ardnamurchan 2016 AD, in October 2016, selling out the full allocation of 2400 bottles in less than two hours. We plan to repeat this annually, as 'work in progress', until we have enough quality stock for our first full scale single malt, hopefully in 2020/21.

He concludes, "The opening of the Ardnamurchan Distillery is a major step in Adelphi's development. For the first time in more than 105 years, we now have the ability to produce our own world-class single malt."

Getting Technical

Mashing: semi lauter mash tun, 2 tonnes capacity.
Fermentation: 4 oak washbacks (ex-Cognac) and 3 stainless steel washbacks. Capacity 15,000, filled with 10,000 litres. 4 fermentations at 72 hours, and 1 longer fermentation of 110 hours. Lallemand and Fermentis dried yeasts used.
Distillation: 1 wash still, 10,000 litres charge and 1 spirit still, 6,000 litres.
Distillery capacity: 500,000 litres.