Distillery Focus

Claiming the Title

Scotland's northernmost mainland distillery
By Gavin D. Smith
Long, long ago, if you wanted to locate a newly-built distillery in Scotland you just looked around for one or two of Mr Doig's distinctive pagoda-style kiln roofs where there hadn't been any previously.

But times change, and today a distillery doesn't have to look anything like the comfortable, historic structures so beloved by tourist board literature. Take Wolfburn, for example, the latest Scottish distillery to come on stream.

A postcode that leads to a business park on the outskirts of the Caithness town of Thurso, on the northern coastline of mainland Scotland, comes with the advance warning that "There's no signage, just look for the draff truck."

So it is that Wolfburn distillery turns out to be an anonymous, modern, industrial building - an unassuming base for what is now Scotland's northernmost mainland distillery, having taken that mantle away from Pulteney in Wick.

Only the aforementioned farm trailer parked alongside to collect the byproducts of whisky-making gave a clue as to its real function, along with the structure's close proximity to the Wolf Burn, from which 10 cubic metres of process water are taken per day. The same water course also provided water for the long-demolished original Wolfburn distillery, which stood just 350 metres away and was operational between 1821 and the 1850s, being the largest distillery in the County of Caithness in its day.

Once inside the 'new' Wolfburn it becomes clear that this is a no-nonsense whisky-making operation. It is strictly functional and business-like, with not a tour guide in a tartan skirt or an overpriced souvenir miniature of new make spirit in sight.

Presiding over Wolfburn is former Glenfarclas production manager Shane Fraser, whose appointment to the same position here was a significant coup for the fledgling operation. Fraser is assisted by Iain Kerr, formerly of The Glenlivet, so the new distillery is tapping into some rich distilling heritage and know-how.

But what persuaded the main man at Glenfarclas to give up a secure role at such a renowned distillery for the potential lottery that is a new and untried distillery and single malt brand?

"I got free reign to be involved in designing the distillery and determining spirit character, and I loved the idea that it was an open book," he says. "At Glenfarclas I lived on site and was basically always on call, and this is very much a lifestyle change. I work a five day week and have more time to spend with my wife and children. Running the site and also being hands-on making whisky is the best of both worlds."

Wolfburn's creation progressed very much beneath the radar, and press officer David Smith explains that "It's owned by a tight-knit group of ex-pat Caithnessians who had the desire to come home and do something constructive here, while operating successful businesses in South Africa.There are no banks and no external finance involved, and it is set up to make money. Everyone wants to make whisky, but the whole venture fails if it doesn't make money."

Forsyth's of Rothes, whose work is in huge demand all over the world, were responsible for leading the design and construction of the distilling plant, with the project being headed by Richard Forsyth Junior. According to David Smith, "Essentially, we gave him carte blanche within certain parameters, principally relating to cost and time. Shane was involved in the design of the production plant, too."

Construction work began in August of last year, and Forsyth's installed the distilling equipment during November and December. The first spirit ran the following month. "We went to full capacity on day two," declares Smith. "We are getting a yield of 400 litres per tonne of malt at present, and even got 421 litres on our second run, which is hugely positive."

Without distractions such as the presence of visitors, Smith explains: "There is nothing to do for the first few years but make good whisky and fill it into good casks. Then we will stand back and see where we go."

When it comes to the style of that 'good whisky,' Shane Fraser explains that "We didn't want a heavy, sulphury spirit. We wanted something that we could get out on the market in three to four years, all being well. We get very clear wort from the mashtun and our minimum fermentation times are 65 hours, rising to as long as 93 hours. All of which leads to a sweet, fruity character.

"We charge the wash still with 5,000 litres, allowing lots of space for reflux and copper 'conversation,' which gives a lighter spirit, and we heat the low wines to between 20 and 25 degrees, which helps eliminate heavy characteristics. We run the stills slowly, and a 'boil ball' in the spirit still helps lighten it further."

In terms of casks, spirit is being filled into a mixture of second-fill Sherry butts, first-fill Bourbon barrels and quarter casks. David Smith notes: "We used some Sherry butts with the idea of leaving them for maybe 10 years or more and see what happens. The first 15 casks we filled were Spanish oak Sherry butts. Then we did lots of quarter casks, with the intention being to speed up maturation so that we can get something of quality onto the market in four to five years."

Casks are sourced from the Isla Cooperage in Keith on Speyside, and the quarter casks are particularly interesting in that they were formerly hogsheads which held Islay single malt, and were re-made into quarter casks by the Isla Cooperage. "We have got 290 ex- Islay quarter casks which will yield around 80,000 bottles," says Smith.Currently some 30 quarters or 22 ex-Bourbon casks are filled per week, with the projected total output for this calendar year being 115,000 litres of spirit, created from six mashes per week.There are currently two traditional 'dunnage' warehouses on site, with an overall capacity of 5,000 casks, with scope to add two more warehouses in time as space is needed.

David Smith notes: "We are geared to selling the first spirit in 2016. We will do one vatting and fill 500 bottles and put the bottles in nice presentation boxes as a limited release.

"We will then do a general release of the whisky, also in 2016, and the price won't be over the top. We will bottle on site, and you won't find us charging £120 for a five-year-old!

"We will do special releases from time to time, and obviously we have quarter casks, ex-Bourbon casks and Sherry casks to work with. But you won't be seeing a huge range of Wolfburn expressions on the shelf." Alongside all the bespoke, shiny new distilling kit fabricated by Forsyth's are several items that link Wolfburn to an older distilling tradition. Most noticeable is the malt intake apparatus, which is far larger than necessary, but was salvaged from the now demolished Caperdonich distillery in Rothes, the site of which is owned by Forsyth's. Also present are two former Caperdonich stainless steel washbacks, one of which now serves as a water tank, while the other holds effluent prior to disposal.

There is an old tradition that when a new distillery is established, existing whisky-makers donate pieces of kit to the fledgling operation to ensure good fortune. However, in the case of Wolfburn, this seems like one distilling operation that is more than capable of making its own luck.