Dhavall Gandhi bounces around his whisky blending studio with the excitement of a golden retriever greeting a hundred new friends at once. Numerous sample bottles filled with golden liquid are pulled from white cabinets and curiously labelled trays, including one marked ‘Special Butts 2016’. His selections appear random and yet Gandhi is methodical and precise – he knows exactly where each of his samples reside.
Using his laboratory-grade pistol syringe he squirts a cinnamon-coloured whisky into our empty awaiting glasses. It’s remarkably fruity and complex with an oily, polished earthiness found in whiskies long-matured in old wine casks.
However, this can’t possibly be whisky from The Lakes, as it tastes at least 15 years old and the distillery, situated close to Bassenthwaite Lake, only began producing spirit at the site in 2014.
“That’s about five years old,” Gandhi grins. “You’re tasting what I call ‘fake rancio’.” The combination of maturation in old American oak solera, refill and first-fill PX casks, plus oxygenation (more on that later) and refilling back into casks in humid, dunnage-style warehouses, has given the whisky spicy, aromatic notes of old wine.
“It tends to bring an ‘old-world’ influence to the whisky,” he explains. “My area of study is sherry casks, I love the depth and the tunes I can play with it. So when I started my time working with The Lakes I wanted to make it a sherry-led distillery.”
Gandhi joined the picturesque Cumbrian distillery as whiskymaker in 2016, after working as a brewmaster for Heineken and whiskymaker for Macallan. Originally from Gujarat, India, he’d started down a career path in corporate finance before discovering a love for whisky and pivoting, obtaining a masters in brewing and distilling from Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University.
“Whisky just fascinated me because of the diversity of flavours and aromas,” he explains enigmatically.
However, upon joining The Lakes Gandhi realised the distillery’s existing spirit style was not compatible with his vision. “The new make spirit was like vodka,” he says. “It was so light that if I put it in even a Spanish oak cask it would drown itself. I wanted to create legacy Macallan flavours, a sweet, elegant, restrained Gran Reserva style. That’s the vision, so I worked backwards and started to make the required changes.”
Taking a holistic approach to the entire whisky making process, Gandhi was given carte blanche to lead the distillery in a new direction. Drawing on his experiences with Heineken and Macallan, and with a laser-sharp focus on defining the whisky’s character as a sherry-led English single malt, he redesigned the distillery’s processes entirely – starting with the imposing task of reracking all the existing stock into sherry casks.
“My first decision was to completely change from 90 per cent Bourbon to 90 per cent first-fill sherry. The bill went from roughly £110,000 to £1.6m a year on casks alone. For a small distillery, that’s insane. I have around 48 variants of sherry cask in our whisky portfolio, the three main types being fino, oloroso and PX, but each has different air seasoning times, toasting levels and is made from either American, French or Spanish oak.”
Already Gandhi’s influence is clear in The Lakes’ entire range, from the annual Whiskymaker’s Reserve releases to the limited-edition Whiskymaker’s Editions and Quatrefoil expressions, even blended whisky The One. But if Gandhi was to realise his vision of a well-aged sherried single malt, the new make spirit also needed a makeover.
Working with whisky analyst Grace Gorton and operations manager Vaibhav Sood, Gandhi spent more than two years experimenting with different strains of yeast to create a fruity, estery and robust spirit with a chewy, waxy mouthfeel. Over 250 different yeast trials were conducted, using "every single yeast available in the market".
“I’m a bit OCD,” he laughs. “We wanted to add more complexity and we kept getting quite close but we never felt we were quite there.” Eventually they settled on a mixture of M strain, French yeast and a heritage yeast found in the AB Mauri archives.
While the distillation process itself is automated – “a lot of people think inconsistency equals craft, I don’t believe that” – the equipment is programmed to produce two styles of spirit: Type A, a light, medium-bodied and fruity spirit; and Type B, a meaty, waxy spirit run through stainless steel condensers. The Lakes also produces a third style, Type AP, which contains a proportion of peated barley. The different spirit styles will also be blended together to create additional complexity, although bear in mind we won’t see any in bottle until at least 2025. “The robustness of the new make will allow it to mature for longer in sherry,” he adds.
But that’s not the end of it. Inspired by wine and Cognac making, Gandhi also installed a 17,000-litre receiver that gives him the ability to blow through food-grade oxygen to mellow the spirit, and slowly reduce it to filling strength over several hours to allow for greater esterification. Further still, Gandhi has also been conducting trials with resting new make spirit in concrete Georgian amphoras to mellow it further.
Does he ever worry the process is too complicated? “No, I feel at home with complexity,” he says. “It’s complex because it’s required. Some other areas are super simple though, like I use only one malted barley: Laureate. I am obsessed about details in my spirit process, but I take a playful and artistic approach from maturation through to blending. The moment I step into my studio, the music goes on and I stay in my own creative zone.”
Gandhi approaches blending like a surgeon prepping for an operation: systematically and with intense focus in an environment that’s free from distractions. His bespoke-designed clinical sample ‘studio’ features mood lighting and a ‘fresh air’ button that injects carbon-filtered air at 19°C to remove any lingering scents. The room even has key-card access so he’s not disturbed while nosing and blending.
For Gandhi, whisky making is an art, a confluence of his past experiences and the personal giving of oneself to the creation of something others will enjoy. “My personal experiences have shaped me as a whisky maker,” he says. “I have used a lot of my financial modelling, Indian inspiration from how my mum and grandma used to cook with spices, my brewing knowledge from Heineken and experience at Macallan. All of that stuff adds up. In a way, I do think the universe was conspiring and wanted me to be here... my only obligation now as a whisky maker is to add something to the world of whisky. I’ll keep on improving; that’s just the way I am.”