Distillery Focus

The Cairn Distillery: The 'new school' of Scotch whisky production

Esteemed bottler Gordon & MacPhail is aiming to test the boundaries of Scotch whisky innovation at its new distillery
By Gavin D. Smith
Watching the still at the new Cairn Distillery in Speyside
Watching the still at the new Cairn Distillery in Speyside
The world-famous Elgin firm of Gordon & MacPhail is known for espousing the traditional values of patience, integrity and loyalty. Its prevailing ethos is exemplified in its hands-on, old-school Victorian distillery, Benromach. Now, however, Gordon & MacPhail is looking to the future with a decidedly ‘new-school’ distillery, The Cairn, which can be operated entirely from an iPad.

Having made its name as a pioneering independent bottler, credited as one of the principal guardians of single malts from the 1960s onwards, the family-owned company expanded into distilling after purchasing the silent Benromach distillery at Forres in 1993. Five years later, the re-equipped plant was up and running again and a wide range of expressions has subsequently been released.

With a taste for whisky making and for the benefits of controlling the entire process from malt purchasing to packaging, the company announced in May 2018 that it was to supplement its ownership of Benromach with the construction of a new distillery. The chosen location was Craggan, between the River Spey and the A95 road that links the main north-south A9 route with the heart of Speyside. The site is 1.5 miles from the historic town of Grantown-on-Spey and in the Cairngorms National Park.

Ewan Mackintosh, managing director of Gordon & MacPhail

Gordon & MacPhail managing director Ewen Mackintosh explains the rationale behind building a new distillery that contrasts significantly with Benromach: “Essentially, it’s about the evolution of the business. We never controlled supply. We had casks filled for us by distillers. Space for independent bottlers becomes tighter and tighter. So many distillers are offering lots of expressions of their whiskies that it becomes harder to complement rather than compete.

“Total control comes from owning distilleries, and we wanted a second source of supply as well as Benromach, and a second brand, something complementary to Benromach. Benromach is ‘hand-crafted’ with no automation – a nod back to the days of floor malting with its slight smokiness. It’s an old-fashioned Speyside single malt, created using brewer’s yeast and wooden washbacks. By contrast, The Cairn is about innovation, with heat recovery technology and full automaton. The single malt is going to be a more ‘mainstream’ offering than Benromach.”

There is also a significant contrast in architectural styles: Benromach looks every inch a classic 1890s distillery, while The Cairn is altogether more contemporary. Mackintosh notes, “We’ve taken inspiration from our stunning surroundings to build a home that respects and enhances our natural environment.”

One embodiment of that respect and enhancement is a ‘green’ distillery roof featuring sedum, a plant that is easy to maintain and requires little water and few nutrients. Additionally, a number of environmental projects are in hand, including the creation of a wildlife pond, tree planting and supporting population growth of goldeneye ducks in the Cairngorms National Park.

Mackintosh adds, “The distillery is a horseshoe shape to maximise the views, to celebrate the vistas. However, it’s a courtyard distillery, with the boiler house on one side and everything else around it, so it’s a nod back to where we’ve come from.”

The still room at the brand-new Cairn Distillery in Speyside

Planning approval for the project was received in November 2019 and ground was broken in July 2020, with the venture suffering only a four-month delay due to Covid-19. The first mashing took place at the end of April, with distillation following during the first week in May. Initially, annual output will be around the 1mla mark.

The Cairn has been fully equipped by coppersmithing royalty Forsyths. The person responsible for creating whisky with that equipment is distillery manager Mhairi Winters, a graduate of brewing and distilling at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and former team leader at William Grant & Sons’ Balvenie and Kininvie distilleries.

“You don’t get a new distillery every day,” she says of her decision to take up the new post. “It’s an exciting opportunity. I’ve built a career in the whisky industry and worked in various areas, from visitor centre and brand management to technical support and production. My heart lies in technical and production – I’m a scientist and am fascinated by the blend of art and science involved in the production of Scotch whisky.”
Given the high degree of automation, Winters operates with just two production staff, and a single-shift, five-day-per-week working model is currently in place.

While Benromach is equipped with larch washbacks, the six vessels at The Cairn are constructed from stainless steel and are also fitted with cooling jackets. Winters explains that they allow greater flexibility in terms of fermentation: “You can start at a higher temperature and the cooling jackets will ensure the yeast doesn’t get stressed. You could also run at a higher gravity if you wanted.” With future expansion in mind, there is space to add another six washbacks. Two wash stills and four spirit stills are in place. Winters notes, “The stills are relatively small to keep copper contact down and they have plain necks and declining lye pipes, so we’re looking for a full-bodied spirit.”

The wash stills utilise thermal vapour recompression (TVR) technology to recycle heat for distillation, and hot water is run off one of the condensers to heat the offices and visitor centre. Wash is pre-heated with pot ale and hot water and the spirit stills are pre-heated with spent lees and hot water.

More than half of the new-make spirit is being filled into a variety of sherry casks, with the rest going into ex-bourbon and wine casks. Mackintosh explains, “We will launch it as a 12-year-old single malt. We don’t need the cash from selling it any younger. But we will also be keeping it for much longer. The spirit is weighty, with estery fruitiness and a malty background. Slightly meaty. It’s designed to take long ageing.
“We’re filling hogsheads for the spirit that might be released at 12 to give it richer sherry notes at that age, and filling first-fill sherry butts for spirit we intend for long-term maturation. ‘Aged and sherried’ is our target.”

CRN57º 18 Years Old blended malt whisky, part of a new range produced for The Cairn Distillery

While producing spirit is the principal aim, Gordon & MacPhail goes so far as to declare that the distillery “has been designed with the customer at the centre of the experience”.

Mackintosh points out that The Cairn is “at the gateway to Speyside”, and one advantage of a location in the Cairngorms is that it is a year-round destination, rather than just supporting seasonal tourism. “You’re in a national park, and celebrating the explorer spirit, the outdoors,” says Mackintosh, “and that will resonate with consumers.”

The man charged with delivering visitor experiences is Andy Kitchin, formerly part of the team managing the Falkirk Wheel in Central Scotland, prior to which he spent 10 years at sea, managing visitor events teams on board P&O cruise liners. “We’re keen to make the most of the outdoor space, fronting the River Spey, with the Cairngorms in the background,” he explains, adding that the team are considering conducting outdoor tastings and offering picnic hampers, as well as nature talks and walks with local providers, ending up at the distillery for a dram.

“We’re aiming for a five-star visitor experience in a relaxed way, with very friendly service. We have an ex-head chef and ex-distillery managers coming to work here part-time, and nearly all our staff are local,” he says.

A soft launch of the visitor facilities was planned for September, and pre-booking is highly advisable due to the anticipated level of public interest and a maximum of 10 people per tour. According to Kitchin, there will be three tour options. The entry-level offering will provide a production tour and two drams, the second-level tour will include three drams and locally sourced food to accompany them, while the third-level option will offer six drams plus exclusive use of the Discovery Tasting Room. There will also be a retail area and The Gathering bistro, offering high-end Scandi-style food.

One attraction for visitors is sure to be a blended malt produced exclusively for The Cairn. Named CRN57º after the latitude of the distillery, it will be available in six expressions ranging from a 12-year-old to a 70-year-old, highlighting Gordon & MacPhail’s particular facility with veteran whiskies. It may well be the oldest blended malt ever offered for sale and could hint at an aspiration for a 70-year-old bottling of The Cairn one day. Kitchin says, “It will be 12 years before The Cairn single malt will be on the market, so we need something exclusive to offer visitors in the meantime.”

Mackintosh notes that one of Gordon & MacPhail’s core values is to work closely with local communities. “We’ve been adopted into Forres with Benromach and the same in Grantown-on-Spey. It’s not an outpost. We want to be part of the community and we’ve been made very welcome.”
Currently, the business is led by third- and fourth-generation members of the Urquhart family. With long-term objectives being at the heart of Gordon & MacPhail’s undertakings, Mackintosh declares, “The Cairn is where we see the business for the fifth, sixth and seventh generations of the family.”