Distilleries have been created in some strange buildings. In Northern Sweden, Box was developed in a former power station, Pearse Lyons in Dublin was formerly a church, and Pickering’s Edinburgh gin distillery was once the dog kennels of a veterinary hospital.
For cramped quirkiness, however, it would be hard to beat Dornoch in the Scottish Highlands, formed within the redundant private fire station of Dornoch Castle. Here, brothers Philip and Simon Thompson are doing something rather special, namely trying to make malt whisky the way it used to be, back in the days before yield was king and character sometimes a secondary consideration.
The Thompson brothers arrived in Dornoch, Sutherland as teenagers in 2000, when their parents Colin and Ros bought historic Dornoch Castle, which had been operating as a hotel since 1947. The hotel began to develop a reputation for the selection of whiskies it offered, and the younger Thompsons were eager to learn about Scotch and to develop the whisky side of the business, both gaining a passion for the subject in the process.
Their particular interest was in older whiskies, distilled during the 1960s and ’70s, and they hatched a plan to create their own distillery and try to make whiskies that harked back to the best qualities of those old-style drams.
They began a crowd-funding venture in March 2016, with the 19th century stone-built fire station as their intended premises. 250 investors were attracted, with each destined to receive a reward of whisky three years down the line.
The distillery cost between £250,000 and £350,000 to set up, and along with monies raised from crowd-funding, the Thompson brothers demonstrated their commitment to the venture by selling their homes to provide additional finance.
The first spirit flowed in December of that year, with the initial cask of single malt whisky being filled the following February. The distillery operates with just four people, namely Vhari, who handles administration, Philip Thompson who tends to split his time 50:50 between back of house and production, plus Simon Thompson and Heriot Watt Brewing & Distilling graduate Jacob Crisp, who concentrate on whisky and gin-making.
According to Philip Thompson, “We take our inspiration from bottles of whisky produced during the 1960s and ’70s, and essentially, we have tried to reverse-engineer old bottles of whisky and find out how they did it.
“Scotch whisky tasted notably different in the 1960s and earlier, before mass modernisation of the equipment and ingredients. The demand for this older style, more focused on distillate character, mouthfeel and tropical fruits, is massive these days.
"Whisky-making is an inefficient process, but the inefficiencies are what lead to flavour creation.”
Explaining their production process, Thompson says that “We use Plumage Archer organic barley, floor-malted for us by Warminster Maltings in Wiltshire. For me, barley and yeast are the two most important factors in whisky production. Brewers love Plumage Archer for its mineral and acidic qualities, and it has a high protein content. This gives more potential for flavour creation, but at the expense of yield. Basically, we’re getting 1950s/’60s yields, using 1950s/’60s barley types.
“When it comes to yeast, most people want flavour and yield, but yield isn’t important to us. It’s all about flavour.
Barley variety – principally Plumage Archer (floor-malted).Mashing:
Semi lauter mashtun - 3 mashes per week. 325kg per mash.Fermentation:
Six European oak washbacks – 1,200 litres capacity, fermentation times of 7-10 days.Distillation:
Two I-Stills, one with column head, and two alembic pot stills. Wash still charge – 1,000 litres, spirit still charge – 400 litres.Annual capacity:
0.2 million litres.
Sampling the Spirit
New Make 50.0% ABVNose:
Ripe melon and hot buttered toast. Richer fruit notes in time.Palate:
Buttery, with lots of mouth presence. Tinned pineapple.Finish:
Quite lengthy, with persistent fruitiness.Comments:
Has all the makings of something special, given time.
We’ve used dozens of varieties of brewers’ yeast, with a view to looking at what flavour profile each one gives. We’ve done this with the crowd-funders’ casks, using old Scotch ale-style yeast, and lots of others. All our yeast is propagated in house.”
Due to the ‘cosy’ nature of the building, four of the six European oak washbacks are located on the upper floor and two on the ground. Lengthy fermentation times have become de rigueur with ‘craft’ distillers, but the Thompsons take this to a whole new level with fermentation which last for seven to 10 days. “We get a decent yield, but such lengthy fermentations are great for flavour,” confirms Philip Thompson.
When it comes to distillation, only one of the two Hoga-built alembic stills are currently in use, serving as a spirit still, and being heated directly by a gas-fired flame. The second alembic remains silent. As Philip Thompson explains, “We have an I-Still [hybrid distilling apparatus made in The Netherlands] which we use as a hot liquor tank, and a second I-Still with a column head. We use that to make our Thompson Brothers Organic Highland Gin and we also use it as a wash still. It gets the wash running pretty quickly. With direct firing it takes too long to heat 1,000 litres of wash, so we currently use the I-Still which is much quicker, rather than the alembic.”
He adds that “All our cut points are judged by nose and taste. The cut points depend on how we feel the batch is going rather than pre-determined figures. We are looking for a heavy distillate, oily, an old Highland style if you like. A bit like the oily and waxy Broras you get from the 1970s, but without the peat.”
All casks used at Dornoch are organic, and Thompson says that “We’ve filled 130 casks so far – including 100 50-litre octaves for the crowd-funders, plus butts, hogsheads and Koval casks, sourced from Koval organic distillery in Chicago. Our present warehouse is a converted refrigerated road transport trailer, with an ambient temperature.”
The early stages of the Thompson brothers’ distilling venture has been so successful that they are already planning to expand, with the intention of moving to a former slater’s yard not far from Dornoch Castle.
A second round of crowd-funding is now under way, with the aim of raising in the region of £650,000, to purchase and redevelop the new site, expanding production capacity and creating a retail space and tasting room.
According to Philip Thompson, “For £2,000 investors get a 50-litre octave ex-Bourbon cask, or for £4,000 a 100-litre Bourbon cask, while the octave American oak oloroso-seasoned casks option has already sold out.
“When we move, we will transfer our existing kit and add new receivers and ways of making it easier for us to carry out the procedures, without in any way changing them. However, with direct-firing, the pre-heating times are really too long, and we will probably opt for hot oil heating on our new site. If we do that, then we will operate two alembic wash stills and one alembic spirit still. We’ll also build a bespoke steel warehouse, with the ability to create an ambient temperature, as in our existing one.”
Work on the new distillery site is expected to begin before the end of this year, and Thompson says that “We’ll spend the next eight or nine months filling oloroso and Pedro Ximinez Montilla sherry butts for our own stock, and then at the new site we’ll fill 1:1 for crowd-funders and ourselves.
“We’ve promised a three-year-old release for 100 people in crowd-funding, and when that appears we will probably offer some single cask bottlings of our own stock. We see our bottlings as being all single cask exclusives. We will also be selling some new-make spirit.”
Dornoch’s ethos of experimentation combined with the embrace of tradition is well summed up by Philip Thomson when he says that “One of the really interesting things we’ve done is that Jacob sourced local barley from Dunrobin Castle, and had it ground on a traditional stone mill, powered by a water wheel, and kilned using local peat at Golspie, just 10 miles away. We then distilled it. That’s the sort of thing we’d really like to take forward. I think it’s very exciting.”