Distillery Focus

How to Make Whisky in Devon

Dartmoor whisky – the road to production
By Mark Newton
New whisky distilleries are blossoming across the world. Each month it seems a new operation has issued a press release highlighting a determined bunch of individuals realising their dream. It invites the question: just how easy is this? Dartmoor Distillery, a new English operation in Devon, highlights some interesting routes to production. Greg Millar and Simon Crow are well into the process of converting The Old Town Hall in Bovey Tracey, in Devon, into a functioning spirit producing distillery. They've done this by using a mixture of good old-fashioned contacts, local experts and sheer determination into seeing their dream become a reality.

Greg Millar was to blame. He was the one who had an infectious idea after a whisky making trip at Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay several years ago. Greg, Simon, and accountant Andrew Clough, were sitting in a pub whilst discussing how could we make whisky in Devon? The challenges presented were threefold: where do we buy a still, where shall we locate it and how shall we pay for it all?

Luckily they didn't have to join the back of a long queue at the coppersmiths, who are servicing many new operations, in order to get a new still. Greg had soon managed to source one that had been out of use since 1994. It wasn't an ordinary copper still, but an 'Alembic' still - an unusual bit of kit, and one rarely seen in whisky distillation. The shape of the head on the Alembic still is very bulbous, which increases the amount of reflux during distillation. This would help give the spirit the fruitiness that the team required. There is also a 'wash warmer', which sits between the still and the condenser. The following charge of beer wash sits in this vessel whilst the first charge is distilling. Half way through the distillation process a valve is turned sending vapours through a pipe at the base of the wash warmer - preheating the next charge. This saves energy and doubles the time that the wash is in contact with copper.

That all sounded promising, but there was one issue, the still was in France. To get it to England, Greg had to secure all the relevant paperwork through HMR Customs & Excise. But when buying such a piece of kit, he also had to earn the trust of the seller, Miguel D'Anjou, who is now a good friend to the team, and their second master distiller. Miguel himself is a third generation distiller, with his vineyards just outside Pons, Cognac, and it was Miguel's grandfather who originally commissioned the still in 1966. Maintaining good networks and friendships had solved one of the big challenges. But they still had to find somewhere to put the still. Two broad options presented themselves - a new site entirely, or to refurbish an existing one.

"That's when the idea came to us," Greg explains. "We knew our town council had purchased a piece of land to build a new purpose-built civic facility, and our beautiful old town hall was becoming redundant. We approached Bovey Tracey town council in November 2014, and presented our vision for how we could take on the custodianship of our grade two listed town hall, give it a new purpose, and create a visitor attraction to benefit our town. We also realised that the building was ideally suited to be developed as a distillery - the layout was perfect."

Local government, and navigating various rights, being what they are, led to a very long wait of 18 months of back and forth. That lengthy time allowed the Dartmoor team to thoroughly plan the production side of whisky making so they could hit the ground running, including solving the problem of who could steer the whole operation. They approached another contact, Frank McHardy, the 19th person to be inaugurated into Whisky Magazine's Hall of Fame. To their delight, Frank agreed. They employed local architects, Brian Godfrey Associates, to secure the planning application for change of use, and by January 2016 planning was approved. As they weren't building from scratch, the site required extensive renovation inside to turn it into a functioning distillery. Some of the essentials were already there. Neither power sources or plumbing proved to be too much of a problem. The team planned to use natural gas burners, for which there was already a supply - they just had to obtain a bigger meter - whilst the plumbing was a simple logistical challenge.

As with most whisky distilleries throughout history, site location proves to be important for varying reasons, be that tourism, being situated near transportation routes, or simply a good water source. The Dartmoor Whisky Distillery operation has properly exploited the local region. Just a few miles from the distillery site is Tuckers Maltings, who have been malting traditionally since 1836, and who agreed to malt the barley. The team needed to get barley as well, and not just any barley. Propino variety, which is derived from Westminster Barley, was used as its strong straw benefits the crop whilst in the field. The barley required a low nitrogen content, and the team needed to look for a spring - opposed to winter - variety, to avoid the need for additional treatments during the growing season. So they approached Tim Cox at Preston Farm on Dartmoor, who has grown barley for the local Dartmoor Brewery, who was up for the challenge of growing this variety for the distillery.

It was those contacts at Dartmoor Brewery who will also conduct one part of the production process in creating the beer wash. Not only did the team want to take advantage of the local expertise, but it also solved the issue of restricted space within the distillery site. When it comes to cutting their spirit, the water will be pure Dartmoor spring water from Holne. Everything has been drawn from the local environment and economy - not because of branding, but because they needed the local experts and resources.

Naturally, all of this production has cost implications and there was still a lot more to finance. They needed money to keep flowing in for the coming months to hire staff and pay for bills, and to grow the distillery properly. But how much money did they need?

"It's quite a lot," Simon explained. "By the time we have our whisky coming to market there won't be much change from £1 million. But we have been helped by the wonderful support of local people, and strangers from around the world - it really has been quite humbling.

We also qualified for Greater Dartmoor Local Enterprise Action Fund grant that has helped with the refurbishment costs."

A lot of other support came via crowdfunding, with a Kickstarter campaign that raised an additional £30,000 and interestingly there is still a plan to release some equity to whisky enthusiasts, in the form of taking orders for bottles of the first distillations.

A common method of raising capital is to sell things - even if it isn't the whisky that's being produced. Frank McHardy has sourced the team a whisky that emulates the style of whisky they're looking to produce at Dartmoor, and they'll be cutting it with Dartmoor spring water. They are also going to produce gin, fruit liqueurs, and there is also the visitor attraction and merchandise. They will be offering whisky-making courses too - who knows if that would inspire someone else to start their own distillery.