Distillery Focus

Back to the Borders

Scotch whisky distilling has returned to the Scottish Borders
By Christopher Coates
The Borders Distillery's two pairs of copper pot stills
The Borders Distillery's two pairs of copper pot stills
The sleepy Borders town of Hawick has a long history of manufacturing and was once one of the United Kingdom’s most productive textile towns. In fact, by 1870 more than one million pounds of wool was being brought to the town from the surrounding pastoral landscape to be transformed into hosiery, tweed cloth and more. This raw material was worked by the numerous mills located along the banks of the River Teviot, which provided the valuable resources of power and process water.

As arguably the first manufacturing town in the South of Scotland, Hawick came to be at the heart of the wider textiles industry for which the Scottish Borders became famous. The legacy of that industry, though diminished since those halcyon years came to an end in the latter part of the 20th century, is still visible today in the form of various mill buildings, some of which are open to the public. The history of Scotch whisky in the region, however, is much less storied.

Relatively few records remain relating to Borders whisky production and the last Borders single malt distillery, which was located in the nearby town of Kelso, closed in 1837.

The notable absence of distilleries in the Scottish Borders, though part of a general modern-day scarcity of distilleries south of the Forth, has drawn the attention of a number of entrepreneurs and whisky companies, for example R&B Distillers and the Marussia Beverages owned whisky company Mossburn Distillers. However, in the race to found the first Borders distillery in more than 180 years a new contender crossed the line first.

Enter: the Three Stills Company. Founded in 2013 by John Fordyce, Tim Carton, Tony Roberts, and George Tait, the company began by launching Clan Fraser (a blended Scotch) and Lower East Side (a blended malt) to pave the way for a future single malt brand. Fundraising for a new distillery took place between 2013–2015, with the build beginning November 2016 and production starting in March 2018.

George Tait was a lawyer who went on to become the company secretary of William Grant & Sons and was later one of the founder-directors of Innis & Gunn beer. Tim Carton started off with Hennessey, then moved to International Distillers & Vintners, then William Grant & Sons, before ending up in the supply side of the industry, based in England. Tony Roberts started off at Rémy Cointreau, then moved to William Grant & Sons, then Whyte & Mackay, and laterally held the role of managing director (international) for Stock Spirits Group. “We were all basically in sales or regional roles,” explains John Fordyce, who started his career at J&P Coats Paisley, selling sewing thread, before moving to William Grant & Sons.

“We identified that the whisky industry was doing well so we thought ‘well let’s join in and build a distillery’,” states John in a matter-of-fact way. The choice of the Borders, and specifically Hawick, as the location of their new distillery was also based on assessment of the existing whisky industry landscape. “Rather than be number 70 on Speyside, we thought it would be better to be number one in the Scottish Borders,” explains John. “We started looking around the Borders and settled on Hawick because it once had 69 mills here. I started my careers in textiles and knew that if there were a lot of mills, there would be a lot of water.” He continues: “What you’re worried about with water if you’re a distiller is manganese, iron and nitrates. None of those things could’ve been present in high concentrations or the knitwear industry wouldn’t have been here.”

Of course, water is just one part of the problem. Building a distillery requires a space that’s suitable for industrial use and connected to a road network that can cope with the traffic associated with both tourism and logistics.

Unfortunately (but luckily for the Three Stills team), since the decline of the textile industry the town had plenty of former industrial sites available. Thus, an impressive plot on Commercial Road was chosen.

The site has had a colourful history. The buildings now housing the production area were originally constructed in 1888 and the structure that now houses the visitor centre was erected later, in 1903, by the Hawick Urban Electric Company. An account from 1912 explains that the power station located here provided energy to ‘a number of hosiery factories and several tweed and spinning mills’, while also lighting ‘the streets and many shops, mills and houses’.

In the decades that followed, the site became a bakery and also a sweet factory, which was famous for producing the ‘Hawick balls’ popularised by rugby commentator Bill McLaren. In 1973, the buildings came under the ownership of Turnbull & Scott Engineers Ltd and remained in their keeping until they vacated the property in 2011.

Another key factor in choosing Hawick was access to an adept and hard-working local population: “We needed access to a workforce that’s comfortable with shifts, factories, industrial production; and the culture in Hawick is industrial production. There’s a skilled workforce here so we knew we’d be in good hands in the town,” adds John proudly. In fact, nurturing a skilled workforce is a key concern of the business. John explains that everyone employed by the distillery, even those in roles in the office or visitor centre, will be trained to operate the production equipment. The view being that the knowledge of how to run a distillery is a valuable, life-long skill that will only help to develop that person’s career in the wider drinks industry — whether they see themselves entering a full-time production role or not.

That respect for the local population also made preserving the building’s history an integral part of the founders’ vision for the distillery, as all were set on creating something the town could be proud of.

As a result, conservation of the buildings was a key concern and this included the delicate work of removing asbestos, re-pointing all of the brickwork, securing the foundations, repairing the lead-welded windows and even restoring a crane (which can be seen in the tun room) that dates back to the 1930s. Inside and out, the rubble walls have been left exposed and the original metal battens spanning the tun room and still room remain in situ, creating a striking atmosphere that sympathetically blends the old with the new. What’s more, stone removed to make way for new floor-to-ceiling windows, slate from replaced sections of roof and other materials were retained and incorporated into other renovations on the site.

Once the building was restored, the production equipment layout was designed to fit without compromising the historic fabric of the site and, despite the impressive amount of kit installed at the Borders Distillery, the overall effect is of big, bright open space. This is due in part to the distillery’s attractive glass roof and abundance of windows, which, in addition to being aesthetically pleasing, actually helps the team limit their electricity use as artificial lighting is only required at night. In fact, clever energy-saving design has been incorporated throughout the production area, from louvre ventilation apparatus that guarantees six complete air changes per hour, to a raft of heat-retention systems that will help minimise the energy used to produce each litre of alcohol.

Also worth noting is that, in addition to eight washbacks, a mash tun and two pairs of copper pot stills, The Borders Distillery is also equipped with a Carter Head, a type of still that’s used for rectifying spirit for the production of gin or vodka. Developed in the 19th century by the Carter brothers, who had previously worked under the famous continuous-distillation pioneer Aeneas Coffey, the Carter Head isn’t commonly seen in the UK but is famously used to produce both Bombay Sapphire and Hendrick’s gins. Spirit vapour passes up the long neck through many perforated copper plates, before exiting to the condenser via a botanical basket. Like the rest of the kit at this Hawick site, it was fabricated by Forsyths. The set-up at the Borders Distillery allows single malt spirit from the spirit receiver to be passed directly into the Carter Head, from which the distillery's recently launched William Kerr’s gin emerges.

So, with three brands (two whisky, one gin) on the shelves and production in hand for single malt too, surely it’s time for the team at the Three Stills Company to sit back and congratulate themselves for a job well done? John laughs off the suggestion.
“You’re never quite there in the Scotch whisky industry. But we’re definitely on our way.”

Getting Technical

Malt variety: Borders malt from Simpsons, stored off-site in Duns.
Water source: Production water from two bore holes, one at 16m and another (currently redundant) at 22m. Cooling water from the River Teviot.
Mashing: Semi-lauter tun operating a five-tonne mash.
Fermentation: 66-68 hours fermentation with distillers yeast. Eight stainless steel washbacks (fitted with semi-auto CIP) with 25,000 litre capacity.
Distillation: Two wash stills, charged with 12,500 litres. Two spirit stills, charged with 7,400 litres. One Carter Head still with botanical basket for producing other spirits.
Capacity: Two million lpa per annum. Run rate at 1.6 million lpa per annum.
One of the new stills
One of the new stills
The spirit safe
The spirit safe
Stainless steel washbacks
Stainless steel washbacks
The new still house with the Carter Head still on the left
The new still house with the Carter Head still on the left