It sits on the very edge of the town of Fettercairn to the south of Aberdeen just as the houses dwindle away and the countryside takes over. Across the road rugged Highland fields stretch in to the distance and as you walk up to the distillery the cows follow you.
And on a late Autumn afternoon as watery sun shards slice through broody cloud, the distillery in front of you is impressive and majestic. Today particularly so, because its owners have spruced it up and put up new signage. Fettercairn has a new look, a new image, a new taste and some new expressions, and today selected journalists are here to witness the beginning of the big Fettercairn fightback.
But you can’t help thinking that it will take a darn sight more than a lick of paint to turn this one around.
I can think of no distillery which has been more pilloried than Fettercairn, and to some extent perhaps justifiably so. Its malt has been condemned for a distinctive taste which has been variously described as rubbery, sulphury and metallic. Some writers have been fiercely critical, not least Jim Murray, who has consistently berated it.
When the late Michael Jackson said there was no such thing as a bad single malt, Murray’s riposte was: “has he tried Fettercairn?”
So in these circumstances, is salvation for this god-forsaken place beyond the pale then, and a lost cause?
Owners Whyte & Mackay think not. Having spent some 18 months to two years discussing and debating the distillery with manager David Doig and company’s fine whisky expert David Robertson, and tasting some of the fledgling Fettercairn whisky maturing in its warehouses, neither do I. Here’s why.
First an observation. We journalists can be a cynical bunch. We travel in packs and are often dined and entertained by the bigger whisky companies. It’s quite possible to spend two or three days in the whisky regions of Scotland and not speak to anyone in the local community. As a result I think we sometimes forget that words sloppily fired from our laptops can hurt.
Never more so than in whisky. Distilleries such as Fettercairn have been part of their communities for centuries and they matter to the people who live near them or work in them. It takes years to build and establish distilleries, decades and centuries to gain respect and develop a market place. Of course journalists have the right to criticise if they feel the whisky’s bad but there are means and ways of doing that.
Criticism is one thing, rudeness something else again.
Talk to the people of Fettercairn and the distillery is part of their lives. It’s a loner distillery, set some way from most other distilleries, and it’s given a small community something which sets it apart from many of the small towns and villages in this part of the Highlands. The local folk are too polite to be rude or bitter back, but they’re wary of the likes of us journalists, outsiders, coming to criticise and condemn.
Fair enough, too, because while many would agree that Fettercairn has had its low points, it’s far too simplistic to dismiss the output from here as uniformly bad.
Even Murray recognised that older Fettercairns could be very good indeed.
As it happens, this would seem to be the starting point for Whyte & Mackay. The company has four distilleries and has already successfully rebranded and repositioned two of them, and it’s done so by repositioning them towards the premium end of the whisky spectrum.
Dalmore was the easiest, having already built a reputation and track record at the ultra premium end of the market. Its tactic? A combination of smart new packaging, a range of new expressions and a campaign of releasing special super-malts with price tags into the thousands to reinforce the brand’s premium status, culminating with this Autumn’s publicity coup and the brand took care of itself.
Jura was more problematical, and in many ways, a far better blueprint to work against for the Fettercairn fight back. There are many, this writer included, who never quite got the appeal of Jura, particularly in its younger expressions. But new liquid, an image make-over and the launch of the outstanding peated whisky Prophecy have all combined to give the brand a kick-start, and sales figures show it is flying.
Can the same thing happen for Fettercairn?
The company accepts it has an image problem and it also knows there is no quick fix solution.
But it’s not aiming for one, either. In actual fact the rehabilitation process started some 20 years ago when new wash stills were put in, and followed 15 years ago with the replacement of the stainless steel condensers with copper ones.
“There has been bad Fettercairn whisky in the past,” says distillery manager David Doig. “A combination of problems with the production process and some bad casks meant some of the whisky wasn’t all it could have been.
“The stainless steel condensers in particular would have contributed to a heavier and more sulphury spirit and it meant that the spirit didn’t mature as well as it might. What we’re seeing coming through at 12 years is an altogether better spirit.”
It’s ironic that the stand off between the distillery and certain whisky writers was the result of comments made before the changes, and that the lack of communication now is impairing the distillery’s chances of being judged fairly on its current spirit.
Which brings us to the new whiskies: a standard bearer called Fior, and three new vintages, all smartly packaged and impressive. The look alone was the result of two years research.
“We sent out lots of different designs to people like yourself for comments and then took on board what was said, tweaked the ideas and came up with a design,” says David Robertson.
“The biggest change was to include the unicorn symbol, which refers to the original crest of the Ramsay clan and a reference to the establishment of the distillery here by Sir Alexander Ramsay in 1824.
“The name Fior means ‘pure’ in Gaelic, and reflects that the new whisky is made with the purest of ingredients and the purest water. It also refers to our unique production process where water trickles over the spirit still necks, creating greater reflux and a lighter, purer spirit.”
So to the whisky.
Let’s be frank, Fior isn’t an easy entry level whisky. In fact Fior isn’t an easy whisky at all. At 42% and with big bold flavours, it’s a savoury ‘olive style’ whisky, distinctively Highland. It’s challenging but no more so than, say, an Ardmore or some of the Benromach range.
I took it to various tastings and it split the people who tried it. A few fell in love with it, a few weren’t impressed. Most, though, weren’t sure what to make of it. This, though, is a good thing because it’s a grower.
But it’s unusual and interesting, a mix of young and old Fettercairn malt with lots going on to hold the attention. Certainly it’s no me-too malt, and it’s most certainly worthy of investigation.
The three other new whiskies are vintages – a 24 Years Old, a 40 Years Old, and pick of the bunch, a Years Old. Each contains malt from before the changes. But with the exception of the 24 Years Old, which needs time to settle, there are no obvious off notes in any of them, reinforcing the view that Fettercairn ages well.
So if the whisky looks and tastes good, can it bounce off the ropes and come out punching.
I hope so. As a distillery it’s got it all – fabulous Highland location, great staff, a unique production process to keep the anorak brigade happy, and a great story to tell.
Fettercairn was at one time owned by John Gladstone whose younger brother William was to become one of the country’s greatest politicians.
“And through the connection he made an important contribution to the whisky industry,” says Robertson. “It was William Gladstone who in the 1850s succeeded in abolishing the tax charged on the part of the spirit, the angels’ share, making many distilleries economically viable.
“It was under Gladstone that the law was changed to allow the sale of whisky in bottles, and in 1860 he passed a law recognising the off licence business.
“We have a lot to be grateful to this distillery for.”
Our trip to Fettercairn includes dinner at the distillery, and it’s a moving feast.
We eat the first course first in the old malting room, main course in the still room and finally dessert in one of the warehouses. It’s a special night, one of good food, good company and fine whisky. Certainly the new malts win over this gathering. Now it’s time to take the message elsewhere.
“When all’s said and done some people have dismissed this distillery but they are wrong to do so,” says Robertson earlier in the day.
“This is a hidden gem. It’s like finding a classic car under a tarpaulin at the back of the garage. We’ve forgotten how good this whisky can be, and we’re only just starting to realise how beautiful and valuable it is.”
Yes scrubs up well does Fettercairn. And not just the distillery buildings either.
A rustic and grungy smokiness early on suggests this is a big boy whisky, but it’s followed by bitter orange, cocoa, walnut whip and burnt treacle. Different and intriguing.Palate:
Full, rich and savoury with a toasty, oaky and a savoury heart. There’s some distinctive citrus here, dominated by orange but with some peach, and traces of dark mint chocolate.Finish:
Medium long, with some citrus fruit, treacle toffee, salt and spice.
Fettercairn24 Years Old 44.4%Nose:
Early on a mix of grape, barley and hot buttered doughball, but with time the heart of the malt is made up of soft pear and sweet lime, offset by Thai spices.Palate:
Surprisingly elegant and dignified, with a clean and fresh fruit bowl of flavours over a peaty carpet. Green apple and pear are in the mix.Finish:
Medium long, with savoury notes, spices and fruit - but not necessarily in that order.
Fettercairn30 Years Old 43.3%Nose:
Delightful, complex and evolving – rich and plumy, orange rind marmalade, ripe apricot and a smorgasbord of kitchen pantry spices. There’s a touch of sweet melon and pineapple there, too.Palate:
Crystallised pineapple, some grapefruit and melon, and there’s a delightful liquorice flourish, all over a gentle and controlled pepper and peat base.Finish:
Savoury, but with plenty of fruit, especially lime and yellow citrus fruits.
Fettercairn40 Years Old 40%Nose:
A classic rich sherry nose, with orange, stewed red berries and nutmeg. Soft, sweet and rounded. Palate:
A gentle old man but with plenty of evidence of a feistiness at its heart. Nor particularly full in the mouth, and there’s degree of frailty to it, but it’s mix of grapefruit, mandarin, ginger, raisins and milk chocolate is charming and irresistible.Finish:
Medium, fresh, clean, with grapefruit marmalade on crispy toast. Very morish.
Fettercairn Est. 1824Area:
Highlands (eastern).Production capacity:
1,500,00 litres a year.Water source:
two springs in the Cairngorm Mountains.Mashing and fermentation:
Cast iron lauter tun with copper canopy, 4.6 tonnes of grist per mash. Eight Orgegon washbacks, 26,000 litres each. Fermentation is around 48 to 54 hours.Distillation:
Two wash stills, normal necks, one with steam pans and the other with steam coils, 13,000 litres charge.
Two spirit stills, with a water cooler jacket and steam coils, 13,500 and 11,500 litres charge.Maturation:
Fifteen dunnage warehouses. Bourbon, sherry and refill casks used with four per cent going for single malt bottling.
Whyte & MackayAddress:
Distillery Road, Fettercairn, Aberdeenshire. AB30 1YBTel:
+44 (0) 1561 340205Website: www.whyteandmackay.comTours:
May to September 10am to 16:30 Monday to Saturday. Last tour at 16:00. Admission free including a dram