Interview

No dogma allowed: InchDairnie Distillery is taking the road less travelled

We spoke to InchDairnie’s managing director, Ian Palmer, about his pursuit of flavour
By Malcolm Triggs
Ian Palmer, founder of InchDairnie Distillery
Ian Palmer, founder of InchDairnie Distillery
According to Ian Palmer, the floor of his sample room is strewn with shredded dogma – and such is the distiller’s aversion to beliefs held with unquestioned certainty that what I think is a metaphor could well be fact. After all, with more than four decades’ experience in the whisky industry, Ian has come across plenty of the ‘done thing’ – so much so that his latest venture, InchDairnie Distillery in Fife, is a business set on doing the opposite.

Make no mistake, though; InchDairnie is indeed a business, and one built on a centuries-old model once commonplace in the Scotch industry. Set up to supply blenders with new-make spirit, the distillery uses the profits from this enterprise to lay down stock under its own name. And, of course, despite what Ian refers to as his “healthy hatred” of dogma, as a producer of Scotch whisky, he both respects and abides by the rules governing the spirit.

In fact, the starting point of the InchDairnie business plan was the Scotch Whisky Regulations. “When I started the business, it was with a blank sheet of paper,” says Ian. “But we obviously had to start somewhere, and there’s a brilliant line in the legislation which states that Scotch whisky ‘must retain the colour, aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation.’ That was our starting point – and then we asked ourselves how we can build a distillery that allows us to maximise these three elements: materials, method and maturation.” The answer, as it happened, was not the way it’s usually done today.

Counterintuitive though it may sound, InchDairnie’s product development process ends with an analysis of how its products fit into the regulations, not the other way round. “Ultimately, if we can say a product is absolutely great spirit, then let’s put the regulations to one side, let’s try it and let the paperwork catch up later,” says Ian. “We’re not pioneers looking to rewrite the regulations. That would occupy time and effort that we’d rather spend doing something different and demonstrating what’s possible when we do so.”

The distillery’s inaugural release under its own name, RyeLaw, is a case in point. Utilising an unconventional mash bill high in malted rye, and produced and matured in Scotland, it meets the definitions of both a single grain Scotch whisky and also an American (or, more accurately, American-style) rye whisky.
Cleaning the mash filter

The fact is, though, that InchDairnie’s sights are set above nomenclature. Similarly, despite the undoubted and growing popularity of rye whisky on both sides of the Atlantic, Ian is not in the business of merely responding to consumer trends. From grain to glass, InchDairnie’s process is entirely unique in Scotland – this is true of both the stock it’s producing for blenders, and the whisky it’s laying down under its own name – and this is all for the sake of consistency, quality and, above all else, flavour. After all, as Ian candidly admits, “InchDairnie has zero heritage. We will be judged only by the contents of the bottle.”

The distillery team drew inspiration for a trio of production principles from the overarching legislation, starting with materials. Rye has scarcely been used in the production of Scotch whisky since the early 20th century – and even now, only a handful of Scotch producers are trying their hand at it.

Rye is notoriously difficult stuff to work with: it’s prone to creating viscous, gummy mashes that clump and stick, causing foaming in the fermenter (depending on the variety), and abetting ‘stuck’ fermentation. All of which is to say, as a material used in the production of whisky, rye is almost entirely unsuited. Yet, to regard these as reasons to write it off would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The trick with rye, it seems, lies in knowing how to handle it.

And so to InchDairnie’s second production principle: method. “We didn’t just choose to make a rye and that was that,” says Ian. “It doesn’t work like that. We did a huge amount of desktop research and laboratory-scale studies, on our own and with our various partners, before getting to the point where we were ready to run the rye through our pilot still.”
Cleaning the mash filter

During RyeLaw’s development, InchDairnie shipped malted rye from Muntons in England to brewing experts Meura in Belgium, from which it learned how to mash it using a mash filter as opposed to the traditional lauter tun. A sample of the resulting wort was sent to yeast and fermentation specialist AB Biotek, which determined the most suitable yeast with which to ferment it. Both yeast and grain were then sent to the food and drink research and development organisation Camden BRI, which repeated the mashing process InchDairnie had learned in Belgium and fermented the wort. Finally, the resulting wash was filled into 45-gallon drums, loaded onto the back of a truck and sent to InchDairnie for distillation in its pilot still.

Today, RyeLaw is produced four times per year, entirely on site. InchDairnie is one of only two whisky distilleries in Scotland using its own hammer mill, mash conversion vessel and mash filter (the other being Teaninich). Separating conversion and filtration as opposed to combining them in a traditional lauter tun allows for much greater control over the efficiency of the overall mashing process. Crucially, it also gives InchDairnie a means of handling thorny grains like rye, and produces an unusually clear wort which contributes to floral, estery flavours in the spirit coming off the still.
The palletised warehouse at InchDairnie

Like its mashing process, InchDairnie’s distillation process is unique. With RyeLaw, low wines from the wash still are put through a one-of-a-kind Lomond still, comprising a pot bottom and a plated rectification section on top, allowing for manual control over reflux and spirit strength. Whereas spirit coming off a normal spirit still decreases in strength over time, InchDairnie’s Lomond still lets the team maintain a constant strength which they’ve determined yields the most flavoursome spirit.

The final principle in InchDairnie’s production process is maturation – true to form, the team are questioning the norm and experimenting with various wine casks. They source casks seasoned in Spain’s Montilla-Moriles region with amontillado- and oloroso-style wines produced using Pedro Ximénez grapes.
The palletised warehouse at InchDairnie

They’re also working with a French cooperage which runs infrared analysis to determine tannins at the stave level. Responding to a case of what Ian refers to as ‘wrong thinking’, InchDairnie decided to question the common practice of opting for char level three when firing the insides of casks. He is now experimenting with RyeLaw using casks from levels one to five. “So far, yes, three is sensible,” Ian admits, but as the samples have aged, they’ve actually begun to come together, so that the gap between levels one and three isn’t quite as wide as it was.

That Ian, with his four decades’ experience in the industry, should acknowledge not knowing all of the answers is representative of his distillery’s entire philosophy. It is one of enquiry and experimentation, of leaving no stone unturned in the pursuit of great flavours.

RyeLaw is just the beginning. The team at InchDairnie has been sourcing further inspiration and knowledge from outside the Scotch industry, as part of a long line of experimental but meticulously planned development projects pushing the boundaries of the category. This research includes looking at oat and wheat whiskies, and a sour mash single malt. (Some of these experiments may never see the light of day.) The team is also exploring the Canadian tradition of creating single distillery blends, too, by blending its own various single malt and single grain spirits under the name Red Wells.
Sampling from the casks in the distillery’s palletised warehouse

“It might look like we’re a jack of all trades, but we’re not,” says Ian. “Our trade is flavour. Our trade is distilled spirit that’s been matured. That’s a purposefully loose definition because we’re talking about spirit made from malted cereal, whichever way we think it should be made in order to extract the best possible flavour profile… We’re not a distiller that will appeal to the masses – we couldn’t be even if we wanted to, because we couldn’t supply that.

“We have our day job because we have to earn the right to launch off into new areas, so we mustn’t damage the whisky we produce for the blending industry. That’s why we need to be very methodical in our approach.”
Adding the yeast

Methodical, but never hampered by dogma. InchDairnie may be ‘Fife grown, Fife distilled and Fife matured’, as its motto sets out, but its team’s philosophy not only defines who they are as distillers and where they come from; it’s one that could ultimately help to define what Scotch whisky can be.