Distillery Focus

Distillery focus: Ardross Distillery is not just another Highlander

Founded in 2019, Ardross Distillery, located in the Scottish Highlands, is already standing out from the crowd
By Gavin D. Smith
Ardross distillery manager Sandy Jamieson
Ardross distillery manager Sandy Jamieson
For lovers of the turf, the name ‘Ardross’ is likely to bring to mind one of the great staying thoroughbreds of the early 1980s, trained by the incomparable Sir Henry Cecil. Ardross was named after a small community in the Averon valley, north of Inverness, which in 2019 became home to a new Highland distillery.

Ardross Distillery is owned by a trust that has gained a reputation for working with creative companies to reinvigorate historical structures. Its property portfolio includes landmark buildings such as the Ned Hotel in the City of London (a Sydell Group-Soho House joint venture), Les Ambassadeurs Casino in Mayfair, 157-161 Piccadilly, and KOKO in Camden – a cultural powerhouse in music and the arts.

The Ardross still room

The Ardross operation is headed up by Greenwood Spirits Limited CEO and master blender Andrew Rankin, formerly of Chivas Brothers and chief blender and operations director at Morrison Bowmore Distillers for the best part of 25 years. Rankin’s association with Greenwood dates back to 2015, when he was charged with either finding an existing Scottish distillery to buy or a suitable site on which to construct one.

Early the following year, while scouting for locations, he stumbled across the semi-derelict steading of Ardross Mains Farm, which came complete with its very own distilling water source in the shape of nearby Loch Dubh. By coincidence, the farm is located close to Ardross Castle, once home to Alexander Matheson, who established nearby Dalmore Distillery in 1839.

he site, and construction – and reconstruction – work began to create a whisky and gin distillery in 2017, reusing as much of the original stone and slate as possible. Having admired their work in creating Dalmunach Distillery on Speyside for Chivas Brothers, Rankin engaged the architectural firm NORR.

Casks in the warehouse

When it came to equipping the new distillery, Forsyths created a gin facility designed to operate with infusion through a botanicals basket, with both a pot still and also a column to give the gin – named Theodore – more strength if required. A rotary evaporator, allowing lower-temperature distillations and therefore the ability to work with more fragile botanicals, completed the installation.

In terms of whisky making, a set-up designed to produce an ‘old-school’ Highland malt could reasonably have been anticipated, but Rankin had other ideas. “I didn’t want another Highland-style whisky,” he declares. “I had a great affinity with Auchentoshan when I was with Morrison Bowmore Distillers, and that influenced me, although I didn’t want our spirit to be too light... Going back to my days with Chivas, I’ve always liked Glen Grant, which was part of Chivas at the time, so we went for a similar style of still. The wash and spirit stills are the same shape and are fitted with purifiers like Glen Grant, though we haven’t used them yet.”

Rankin explains that the team achieved about “98 per cent” of what he wanted on the very first spirit run, which he describes as a “real achievement” for distillery manager Sandy Jamieson and the Ardross production team.
Jamieson began his career at Portgordon Maltings on the Moray Firth coast in 1979, before transferring to what was then J&B Scotland Ltd at Glen Spey Distillery in Rothes. The creation of Diageo in 1997 led him to work stints at Benrinnes, Dailuaine, Cardhu, Cragganmore and Knockando, before taking on the role of Speyside Distillery manager in 2013.

Adored distillery

“It was on my bucket list to style a new whisky, and Ardross cropped up,” Jamieson says of his latest appointment. “It’s a very exclusive club, being the first manager at a new distillery. Now it’s my job to keep the spirit constant.”
The tall stills, which have bulges and slightly inclined lyne arms, were designed by Rankin to deliver lots of reflux, and from the very beginning he had a clear idea of the style he wanted to create at Ardross. This meant the Ardross team didn’t even try shorter fermentations, as Rankin liked the idea of aiming for 120 hours. After the first run, Jamieson and his team took a sample from the first run to Rankin and, subsequently, all that was changed about the process was a slight alteration to the cut points. “I’d describe the new-make spirit as sweet, with summer fruits, floral and light, with a hint of green apples,” Jamieson adds.

According to Jamieson, Ardross is operating one shift per day with four staff and currently making 350,000 litres of pure alcohol (lpa) per annum, but, on account of the 120-hour fermentations, washbacks are the pinch point in the system at present. To address this issue, the site’s six washbacks are about to be augmented by another four, meaning that the distillery has capacity to increase to two working shifts and make up to 700,000 lpa per annum without stylistic impact.

“I don’t want lots of expressions, just a couple of core expressions, so that we could let the wood define the different releases in due course,” says Rankin, explaining that Ardross is also producing heavily peated spirit for one month of each year. “Overall, we are laying down the pieces of the jigsaw for the future.”

Ardross distillery

A small quantity of spirit is filled to cask on-site and stored there, but the bulk is transported by road tanker for casking and subsequent maturation at the Greenwood Bond, located on an anonymous industrial estate near Cumbernauld in the Central Belt. The site has space for 25,000 casks and storage of dry goods, along with cased goods and preparation areas, with a single-cask bottling line installed recently, too. For Rankin, the existence of Greenwood Bond is crucial to the success of the Ardross venture going forward. “You need the supply chain in place in order not to [be] beholden to anybody,” he declares. “The more you can do in-house, the better.”

When it comes to choosing wood for the Ardross spirit, Rankin explains that the distillery’s bourbon casks are all first-fill, the sherry casks are seasoned for three years (instead of the minimum of one year) and, unusually, some mizunara casks have also been filled. This rare boon came about by virtue of a “modest” annual allowance from a Japanese cooperage, of around 20 casks per year. “The wood supply isn’t there to do it on a large scale and mizunara is very difficult to work with,” Rankin says of the coveted Japanese oak. “I think those casks will need longer maturation than the others, and we’ll hopefully be thinking about single-cask releases from them in future.”

“Being a nice, light spirit, Ardross should be really good in bourbon wood,” adds Jamieson. “It allows the distillery character to come through more than any other type of casks. It showcases our handiwork, if you like.” Though there are plans to release a “very limited quantity” of three-year-old whisky, if the quality is up to the Ardross team’s standards, Rankin feels it will probably be best at 10 to 12 years old. He also emphasises that all single malt spirit produced at Ardross will be for the company’s own use, or for its cask society members, and nothing is being sold or traded to third parties.

Two of the wooden washbacks at Ardross

The next stage of the Ardross story will see an imposing stone building that stands to the rear of the distillery site converted into a fitting home for the Ardross Single Cask Society (ASCS). Company director Barth Brosseau explains that ASCS members have each invested in casks of the Ardross Distillery spirit and benefit from a Founders Programme that includes discounts and early access to special editions. The ASCS building will also house the Ardross Small Batch Distillery, which is due to be up and running later this year. The distillery will produce a maximum of 250 casks per year and has a capacity of 30,000 litres. Fitted with stills of various shapes and sizes, the Small Batch Distillery will offer “complete versatility” in the creation of unique and personalised Ardross whiskies – something the Ardross team claim to be a first for the Scotch whisky industry.

Rankin explains that the team will likely experiment with making grain spirit and rye, and that the Small Batch Distillery will be able to process any type of cereal. The team are also working with a cooperage in Kentucky to develop a bespoke cask type which will be unique to Ardross. Though there will be an executive-style lounge on the mezzanine level, so members can watch the processes of distillation, there are no plans to create an Ardross visitor centre at present. However, Rankin insists that members of the public who call ahead to make an appointment will be accommodated if at all possible.

With a talented, experienced team, first-class facilities and promising maturing spirit already in cask, Ardross looks to be a sure-fire stayer, just like its illustrious equine namesake.