Distillery Focus

Glasgow Distillery has put the River City back on the Scotch whisky map

Taking a look behind the scenes at the Glasgow Distillery Company
By Patrick Connelli
Glasgow Distillery’s signature range is now presented in 70cl bottles.
Glasgow Distillery’s signature range is now presented in 70cl bottles.
It’s incredible to think that, up until 2018, there hadn’t been a single malt whisky officially bottled in Scotland’s biggest city since the turn of the previous century.

In fact, though Glasgow had once been a hub of whisky distilling with more than 30 working sites when the original Glasgow Distillery (also known as Dundashill) closed in 1902, it would be well over a century before a new independent single malt distillery would be launched in the city. (Kinclaith, the name given to pot stills added to the Strathclyde grain distillery complex in 1957, was not officially released as a single malt and did not operate as a standalone production site. It closed in 1975.)

It was with much excitement, then, that the inaugural release from the Glasgow Distillery Company (GDC) became the first of a new wave of single malts that would once again put Glasgow firmly back on the global whisky map.
“We named our single malt Glasgow 1770,” explains marketing manager Sebastian Bunford-Jones, “the date the first Glasgow Distillery was founded, as a nod to the city’s distilling heritage and history. “It closed in 1902, and between that date and when we launched, there wasn’t a new single malt distillery opened anywhere in the city.”

Founded in December 2012, the GDC was the brainchild of three friends who realised the potential in having a single malt whisky with the city’s name upon it. Industry veterans Liam Hughes, Mike Hayward and Ian MacDougall set up shop in an unassuming bonded location in Hillington Park, in the city’s Southside, with plans to not only produce single malt whisky but also a portfolio of spirits that would include a rum, a blended malt, a vodka and a gin. In January 2015, their first two copper pot stills were installed – the wash still named Tara and the spirit still Mhairi, after two of the founders’ daughters – and the first cask was laid down in March 2015.

Sebastian Bunford-Jones, Glasgow Distillery’s marketing manager

This was the beginning of a journey that would culminate in the release of the first 5,000-bottle batch of Glasgow 1770 single malt whisky, which would go on to sell out in just 48 hours. From there, two other whiskies would be added to what would become known as the distillery’s Signature Range: the Glasgow 1770 Peated and the Glasgow 1770 Triple Distilled. As Bunford-Jones succinctly points out, “Why do one whisky style when you can have three?”

“We aren’t your typical Lowland distillery, and from the very beginning, we wanted to have three very different styles of single malt whisky,” continues Bunford-Jones. “Our triple distilled is really light and vibrant, with lots of vanilla and light citrus notes, while our peated has a Pedro Ximénez finish and is at the other end of the scale – really rich and smoky. In the middle sits the original, which has our core DNA and showcases what the distillery can do.”

Today, production of the three different distillation styles is how the GDC team split their yearly spirit production, with half the year given over to the production of the unpeated make, 30 per cent to the peated (which comes in at 50ppm) and, finally, 20 per cent to the triple distilled.

The city that the distillery calls home features heavily in not just the industrial nature of the distillery’s location, but also in its packaging: the small flame under the pot still logo on the label represents the act of re-igniting Glasgow whisky production. The bottle has also been designed to reflect the Art Deco architecture that’s prevalent around the city, by exhibiting strong lines and a tall, angular shape. What’s more, in 2019, when the team added two new stills (exact replicas of the original pair) to double the distillery’s maximum capacity to 360,000 litres of pure alcohol per annum, the stills were named Frances and Margaret in honour of the MacDonald sisters, two of Glasgow’s most influential designers.

View of the distillery’s still room.

The GDC team seek to emulate the namesake city and feel that their innovative, accessible and transparent approach to making whisky is a testament to this. In an industry where yield is considered king, it’s refreshing to find independent distillers doing some things differently.

“Inevitably, producing three different house styles creates more work for us,” adds Bunford-Jones. “We know this is not the most efficient way of creating spirit... but this gives us the best-quality whisky we can produce at the end of the day. It’s quality first, [and] we are in this game for the long term. The packaging and the story can make a person buy a whisky once, but it’s the quality and flavour of the liquid that will keep them buying it again and again.”

Flora Hayes, a distiller for the GDC and part of its small team, agrees that the end result is worth the extra effort. “Whilst these days do add up, they contribute towards the overall quality of the spirit and that is key to what we do. We’re encouraged to ensure that quality takes precedence over simple yield and the quantity we can make,” says Hayes. “That ethos and philosophy are evident throughout the production process: our fermentations are long and slow, a minimum of 72 hours, and our distillations themselves are very slow to ensure as much copper contact as possible [takes place].”
According to Hayes, when collecting the heart of the run, the spirit comes off the stills at under three litres per minute. “The result is great quality new-make spirit which is fruity and soft in style and eminently drinkable at 63.5%,” she concludes.

Though GDC doesn’t have a head distiller, Bunford-Jones states that the company creates “whisky by democracy”, with everyone in the small team (from Shug McMurray, the on-site cooper, to their distillers Flora, Alex and Paddy) having a say in what the distillery produces. This is especially important as everyone works within the same building, meaning there is a lot of overlap in what they do.

This ‘whisky by committee’ approach is what led the GDC to invite people from around Glasgow to help the team create the first-ever tasting notes for their inaugural whisky, with Bunford-Jones adding that the notes can still be seen on the neck label of every bottle.

This ongoing discussion with supporters of the distillery also led to tweaks in the Signature Range, such as improving the triple-distilled – by moving it from a full new-oak maturation to a predominately bourbon-cask ageing programme with a touch of new-oak influence – and also the recent decision to change from 50cl bottles to 70cl. This is something that Bunford-Jones says fans of GDC have wanted for a while and the team now feel comfortable doing. Originally, the team made the decision to produce the 50cl bottles because it offered a way for them to cap their pricing at under £50 a bottle without reducing the quality of their whisky or compromising the business’s ability to grow.  

Outside view of the Glasgow Distillery

“People said they love our whisky but that there is not enough of it. I like to think that if the worst thing customers are saying is that there is not enough whisky, then we must be doing something right,” he concludes, adding that this move is not the only change on the horizon. The team are eyeing up new markets, with their first foray into North America, beginning with California, set to take place this year.

There’s also talk of further expansion in the works, with hopes that the successful purchase of some of the surrounding buildings will give GDC a chance to not only expand its physical footprint but also allow for a small visitor centre or on-site shop. “Currently, we are not open to members of the public, with that decision really one of necessity. For us, it was all about investing into the spirit from day one... We wanted to be creating the best spirit possible, and with limited resources, you can’t do everything well. It was very much a case of any money that was generated or raised going into production and, as a consequence, we didn’t originally build a visitor centre.”

Other distilleries around Glasgow offer excellent tourism experiences, which the GDC team (as whisky geeks) love to visit themselves, but Bunford-Jones admits that the capacity for the team to follow suit isn’t in place just yet. “We get inundated with requests to come and visit,” says Bunford-Jones. “And it is hard for us to say no, because we want to welcome people. Perhaps, when we expand our site, we would be able to consider some type of visitor centre or shop, but we are not going to do it unless we can do it well.”

For now, whisky fans will have to settle for trying GDC spirits in one of the city’s famous whisky bars, such as the Pot Still on Hope Street, where owner Frank Murphy proudly offers GDC’s Signature Range behind his bar. “We’ve claimed Auchentoshan and Glengoyne as ‘Glasgow’ malts for as long as I’ve been in the trade,” says Murphy. “Even though, as my Clydebank GM points out, they’re closer to the Erskine Bridge than the Kingston.

“To get a distillery within the city limits was a boon,” Murphy continues, remarking that GDC’s triple-distilled and peated expressions had an impact. “Now, any allusions to the Lowland style could be put to bed. The regular unpeated expression is what we sell the most of, but the peated is the more significant in expanding the conversation.”

Neill Murphy, whisky reviewer and co-founder of the Glasgow Whisky Facebook group, agrees: “The opening of the Glasgow Distillery gave us Glaswegians a product we could call our own... Glasgow is a totally unique city, full of character and diversity. It’s great to have a whisky that reflects that. “The distillery team have been able to offer us a whole array of different styles. There’s something for every occasion and every palate and it’s a total joy to offer visitors a wee taste of the city.”

Thus, Glaswegians once again have a single malt to call their very own, and, this time, the future looks bright.