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Blended at first sight

We spoke to Ardnamurchan Distillery’s Connal Mackenzie about an exciting new distillery collaboration
By Beatrix Swanson
Graeme Mackay, Connal Mackenzie, Phil Thompson and Simon Thompson at Ardnamurchan Distillery
Graeme Mackay, Connal Mackenzie, Phil Thompson and Simon Thompson at Ardnamurchan Distillery
“When you’re making whisky, it’s hard to innovate – it’s pretty much barley, water, and yeast. You put it in a decent cask and you say goodbye to it for a while,” Connal Mackenzie, sales director at Ardnamurchan Distillery, tells me. However, the self-described jack of all trades and his friends at Dornoch Distillery had other ideas.

A month ago today, Mackenzie and Ardnamurchan sales executive Graeme Mackay joined Dornoch’s Phil and Simon Thompson to fill the casks for a unique whisky project without direct precedent. “I wish I could take the idea as mine," says Mackenzie, "but it was Phil and Simon’s. Phil and I just got talking, as we do, about random stuff, and he sort of pitched the idea of a blended-at-birth [whisky], really taking it to the nitty-gritty and bringing it literally back to the field.”

Of course, ‘blended-at-birth’ whisky, as the rather unusual blending of new-make spirit before casking (rather than after maturation) is known, has been done before: Ben Nevis and Lochside are famous for each having blended their own grain and malt spirits into what Mackenzie calls some “pretty extraordinary whiskies.” But it seems the collaboration between Ardnamurchan and Dornoch is the first to mix the new make from two different distilleries before separate maturation in each location.
Filling the casks

The first port of call in this grain-to-glass endeavour was the field, so Mackenzie, Phil Thompson, and Ardnamurchan’s managing director Alex Bruce had a chat with Alison Milne from small Fife-based maltster Crafty Maltsters. Although the group aims to experiment with ancient varietals of barley down the line – which would mean contending with far lower-than-average yields – the popular Laureate variety was chosen as the focus for now. Mackenzie says the Thompson brothers have worked extensively with the “wonderful people” at Crafty Maltsters and knew they would be happy to fulfill a relatively small order of barley: in this case, one field’s worth.

Half the malted barley from this field went to each distillery, where it was run through clean stills. Then, 1,000 litres of spirit from each run were vatted together, reduced down to 63.5% ABV, and filled into casks: ex-Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry butts, ex-bourbon casks, and octaves. Half of those will mature on the west coast at Ardnamurchan, Scotland’s western-most distillery located on the peninsula of the same name, and the other half far northeast of there at Dornoch, in Sutherland; in fact, the two distilleries make a near-perfect triangle spanning the main body of Scotland with Crafty Maltsters in Fife.

“[The whiskies] come from the same field, have gone into the same wood, the only difference being where they are matured: they might taste completely the same, but I doubt it,” says Mackenzie, when asked whether he believes the different maturing environments will affect the whiskies’ flavours. The notion of terroir in whisky is a notoriously tricky one, but he muses, “We have a saline quality and texture to our whisky [at Ardnamurchan], and we’re not putting salt in our casks, let’s put it that way . . . The Romantic in me says it’s definitely the environment.” His genuine curiosity about what this project might reveal about environmental and geographical influences is evident: “There’s so many ways this can go, and this is very much just the start of it.”

Ardnamurchan and Dornoch have more than just a propensity to experiment in common. Both are distilleries set up by independent bottlers looking to “ensure their own future”, as Mackenzie puts it (Adelphi and Thompson Bros respectively), and both have joined the Scotch whisky world relatively recently, with Ardnamurchan running spirit from 2014 and Dornoch from 2016.

While Ardnamurchan developed out of the contemporary resurrection of the large 18th-century Adelphi Distillery, however, Dornoch began with the consumption of drams. Phil and Simon Thompson ran the bar at their family’s Dornoch Castle Hotel, curating what Mackenzie calls “the most wonderful whisky list”, before striking out as independent bottlers and then distillers, supported by crowdfunding campaigns.

Mackenzie can’t help rhapsodising over the opportunities that Dornoch’s very small-scale operation provides: “They can use incredibly interesting barley, incredibly interesting yeast, and their whisky has always been wonderful . . . Simon told me once that, most Christmases, they mash in and just leave [the ferments] for two or three weeks!” Ardnamurchan, meanwhile, are aiming to achieve 400,000 litres of alcohol this year.

However, the distilleries clearly share an ethos regardless. “We’ve always been very complimentary towards each other, so it’s been very easy to work with each other and understand that what we’re doing is for the love of doing something different in the whisky industry,” Mackenzie adds.
Phil Thompson, Graeme Mackay, Connal Mackenzie and Simon Thompson at Ardnamurchan Distillery

Now, we have two distilleries maturing the same blended-at-birth whisky, in the same style of wood, in their respective locations. Both parties also ran excess spirit, which they will age separately from the blended casks. When the time comes, the samples will be compared.

Mackenzie enthuses about getting to taste the whiskies side by side, and potentially releasing all four, but emphasises that there are no set plans for the mystery liquid. “We’ll see what happens in five to six years’ time, maybe longer . . . Who knows what the plan is for it,” he quips. “To work with other people, like-minded people like Phil and Simon – it’s about relationships, and about having a bit of fun.”

So whether or not this turns out to be the next big thing, the whisky makers are just keen to try something new. For Mackenzie, at least, it’s all about the journey. “Two independent distilleries working on a project like this I think is very rare in the industry . . . It’s a great experience and I think we’ll see more of it.”

Of course, this is not the first time Ardnamurchan has entered a whisky collaboration: under the Fusion Whiskey brand, Alex Bruce blends international whisk(e)ys with Scotch.

More amusing was a project which came about when the Ardnamurchan team met Kilchoman’s founder and managing director Anthony Wills for dinner at the Whisky Show in London a few years ago. “There was just far too much wine consumed, I think, that evening,” Mackenzie chuckles. The result was Bruce Wills KilchArd – Alex and Anthony’s blend of their two opportunely named whiskies. Like the blended-at-birth project, KilchArd was undertaken “just for a bit of a laugh”. “Thankfully,” says Mackenzie, “the whisky turned out to be very good.”

Whether or not they end up christened with an equally punny name, Mackenzie acknowledges that the new blended-at-birth whiskies will likely remain “something very much for the whisky enthusiast.” Indeed, when Ardnamurchan posted about the filling of this project’s casks on social media, it coincided with a rather more mainstream piece of whisky news – the high-profile sale of The Whisky Exchange to Pernod Ricard.

“We knew we wouldn’t be the main story of the day,” Mackenzie shrugs, “but we also knew that [our project] was something which would be celebrated by the niche whisky market.” His enthusiasm is infectious: “I just think it’s a really cool thing to be involved with, and I’m really chuffed that we managed to get it done, and I look forward to tasting it in years to come.”
Enjoying the view at Ardnamurchan