Distillery Focus

Question everything

Annandale is highlighting quality in independent craft distilling
By Gavin D. Smith
Annandale Distillery in Dumfries & Galloway, south-west Scotland, is very different to the plethora of other 21st-century whisky-making ventures that have sprung up around the country. There it was not a case of building a distillery from scratch or even converting existing buildings into a distilling space.

Instead, it involved the rebirth of a distillery, as Annandale dates back to 1836, and was owned by John Walker & Sons Ltd of Kilmarnock from 1895 until its closure in 1918. Some of the buildings were subsequently used for agricultural purposes, while others fell into disrepair.

Then along came Oxfordshire-based, but locally born David Thomson and his wife Teresa Church, who purchased the site in April 2007. In June 2011 work began to return Annandale to the role of a functioning Lowland single malt distillery and create an outstanding visitor experience.

The project cost some £12.5 million, with the emphasis being on extremely high-quality craft workmanship and materials and excellent attention to detail, with Thomson and Church playing a very hands-on role in the whole process.

The first spirit flowed in November 2014, and both peated and unpeated single malt whiskies are produced. The unpeated expression is marketed as Man O’ Words, in tribute to the great bard and one-time local excise officer Robert Burns, while the peated variant is named Man O’ Sword, in commemoration of King Robert the Bruce, seventh Lord of Annandale.

The initial releases of both took place mid-2018, just two months after David Ashton-Hyde was appointed as the first Annandale Distillery general manager. Ashton-Hyde brought a wealth of experience from a variety of ventures to the Annandale team, having latterly worked with high-profile chef and entrepreneur Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck Group in Bray, Berkshire.

“I was born in Ascot, my father had a varied career in hospitality and my wonderful mother was 40 years a nurse,” says Ashton-Hyde. “I started out working in restaurants and hotels, which led me down the spirits and cocktails route. I was guided by my parents, Simon King (Fat Duck and Gordon Ramsay Group), Armand Fasola of the Danesfield House Hotel in Marlow, and my godfathers, Jorge Dominguez of the Lanesborough Hotel London, and Steven Winyard of Stobo Castle. All were old-school hospitality professionals and shrewd business people who helped shape my mentality.”

Ashton-Hyde went on to set up an international tapas bar in Spain, before returning to the UK. He recalls, “I was appointed assistant bar manager for Heston Blumenthal’s Hind’s Head Hotel in Bray 12 years ago. It’s next to his famous Fat Duck. I became bar manager, then general manager, and was proud to be a part of winning a Michelin star – a wonderful career moment. I also helped set up Perfectionist Café at Heathrow Airport T2, then took on Heston’s The Crown Pub as general manager, too.

“I was lucky enough to be part of the Fat Duck Experimental Kitchen working on beverage development for TV shows, Waitrose brands, and restaurant menu development. The first advice Heston gave me in a one-on-one after joining senior management was ‘Question everything, David. Things are only as good as they are because no one has made them better yet. Don’t be afraid to challenge those above you or listen to those around you.’ The fortnightly tastings were amazing. He and his team were like geeky kids in a scientific candy shop. I’ll never forget such infectious energy and passion.

“I spent nine years with Heston, but he became less apparent in the business, and I decided it was time to move on. My mother knew Teresa Church’s mum, Eva, and so I got to try Annandale new make spirit. It was amazing! I’d never had anything like it before, though in Bray we had stunning single malt Scotches and distillates from all over the world.”
Having subsequently met David Thomson and Teresa socially on a number of occasions, Ashton-Hyde was invited to visit the distillery, and he recalls, “I loved the quality and attention to detail in the buildings, it was stunning. The commitment and passion of David and Teresa was infectious, there were casks of whisky maturing away and two brands ready to be launched, and so when I was offered the newly created post of distillery general manager I was genuinely delighted to accept.”

Reflecting on achievements since his appointment, Ashton-Hyde says, “We have created a core team to deliver the passion that David and Teresa deserve, and I think I’ve brought cohesion and structure and more awareness to our brands, from which sales have been very positive. We now also have five ‘Visit Scotland’ stars and we’ve developed an interactive sensory distillery tour to pull guests in.”

When it comes to the actual whisky, Ashton-Hyde explains that, “Founders’ Selection is our latest range and sells for £85.95 per bottle. Like all our single malts, it’s a single cask bottling, at cask strength. We wanted to dip under the £100 price point to allow for a more open market.

“Our Rare Vintage range which sells for £300 features 2014 Bourbon cask malt, and our Vintage range comprises 2015 Bourbon casks and sherry butts, while the Founders’ Selection bottlings come from a wide range of interesting cask types. These include sherry hogsheads and STRs [shaved, toasted and re-charred] and we’ve also filled Châteauneuf-du-Pape, rum, cognac, port, tequila and other wine casks.

“We also currently have beer from local breweries ageing in casks, and we will then fill them with our spirit. There is a new cask type found every month. We only source casks of proven provenance and we demand quality from those we work with. It’s very exciting. I’d love to get hold of a Noilly Prat cask, but I wouldn’t want tabasco!”

Noting that selling casks is “an important part of our business – expanding the ‘family’ of Annandale”, Ashton-Hyde says, “We offer buyers a very wide range of cask types – currently around 18 in the portfolio. Cask sales have been steadily increasing in my time here, and you can even purchase a mature cask of spirit and have it bottled under your own brand name if you wish, it’s so easy!”

David and the team have also developed a new option for potential cask buyers, who may not wish to commit all the capital required or are daunted by the thought of having a glut of whisky when it matures.

“Welcome to the amazing concept of a Portfolio Purchase,” says Ashton-Hyde. “Buy a 1/15th share in one of our three, 10-cask portfolios (peated, unpeated or a combination of both). Each portfolio comprises 10 carefully selected casks, ranging in age and style. You will be supplied with a share of the bottles from each cask, every year for the next 10 years! Approximately 18 bottles a year, for 10 years, and each release is from a different cask style – Bourbon, rum, tequila, port, sherry and so on.”

He adds, “Both cask and bottle sales were positive during ‘lockdown,’ and we appointed distributors in Holland and Germany during that period, while Scandinavia has become a big market for us. We re-opened our site on 1 August and we’ve been very busy ever since. Our café and tours are open Wednesday to Sunday, and we’ve had some record days.”
With both of the original distillery warehouses now full, a new 20,000-cask warehouse has been built on site, and a bottling hall is to be created within it during the next few months. Having been busy with warehousing duties, the five members of production staff led by head of production Mark Trainor are now working flat out to make spirit and fill casks for the future.

Ashton-Hyde sees part of his role as helping to promote the Dumfries and Galloway region overall, and he notes that, “You couldn’t get a better UK staycation, it’s just stunning here. We’ve also become involved in collaborations with St James Smokehouse smoked salmon cured in our whisky, and Galloway Lodge Preserves, who use it in their marmalade.”
Ashton-Hyde, his wife Samantha and four children live south of the Scottish border in Carlisle, and he declares that “I couldn’t be prouder to have migrated north and be here as distillery general manager of Annandale. Helping Annandale be represented in the Scottish whisky market can merge sunrise and sunset, but is a joy from the start to the of the end. Having the solid support of our head of production and our owners, along with all the individuals who form our teams that help to push forward bold and creative ideas, puts me in a very fortunate position in the industry.

“It’s been a fun challenge to educate the public on our malts, but our journey to highlight the quality of independent craft distilling and single cask single malt whisky in the premium sector of the industry is a passion we all share, and one the public have shown belief in, too, which makes the day-to-day pressures easier to bear. I’m sure the future is to be as bright as the almost 200-year history for Annandale and I look forward to continuing to aid our progression, at the same time helping to promote all that is on offer in Dumfries and Galloway.”