In the Highlands of Aberdeenshire, thousands of oak saplings dance in the wind, moving together in synchrony beneath the rain that falls from the sheet of grey above. Barely up to my shins, the new shoots were acorns just a matter of months ago; now, each stem waves a cluster of oak leaves upwards from a spindly stalk, quivering in the breeze. The 17th-century English poet John Dryden once wrote, “Mighty things from small beginnings grow” – and the same can be said of what’s happening here. Over the next century, these saplings will mature into a woodland of native Scottish oak. This is the Fettercairn Forest: an environmental initiative, planted by the team at Fettercairn Distillery, that’s simultaneously rooted in the past, while facing the future.
Plans for the initiative were seeded by Fettercairn’s whisky maker, Gregg Glass. He says it’s a natural evolution from a decade spent exploring the value and virtues of Scottish oak casks, and more recent trials of the effects of those casks while working under distillery owner Whyte & Mackay. Scottish oak for Scotch whisky seems to make sense, increasingly so as we become ever more aware of the carbon footprint incurred by shipping materials around the world. These days, Scottish oak is largely unused by whisky makers, as it’s deemed too challenging to work with in comparison to the American species Quercus alba – not to mention rarer. Making matters worse, isolated plantings of European Quercus robur and Quercus petraea in Scotland tend to develop awkwardly, as a result of the weather conditions, yielding timber that’s hard to use for coopering.
Examining local oak at the Fasque Estate’s sawmill
Going against the grain, Gregg has spent years getting to know and understand the wood: trialling, experimenting, and finally, he believes, taming the flavour. For him, Scottish oak is worth celebrating as something to work with rather than shy away from.
It’s this commitment that inspired the idea for the forest, planted moments away from the distillery on the grounds of the surrounding Fasque Estate – over 8,000 acres of striking natural beauty, ablaze (even on this dreich day) with the last brilliant flash of autumn, all burnt orange, amber and gold. Whisky-hued leaves tumble to the ground, swooshing around our feet as we walk.
Walking on Fasque Estate
Gregg arrived at Fettercairn in 2016, and, on meeting Stewart Walker, Fettercairn’s distillery manager, the pair’s shared curiosity created a synergy. “I’d been busy going around Scotland, sourcing timber from here and there outside my day job,” says Gregg. “At that same time, Stewart was working with farmers in the area, sourcing local barley and even sending the draff back for the cattle. After the first few trials with Scottish oak we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great if we could source this locally?’”
Gregg and Stewart began sourcing timber from the Fasque Estate, and, when it came to discussing planting, the partnership developed organically, each party mirroring the other’s desire to work more sustainably. Fittingly, the ideal plot just so happened to be right in front of them.
Fettercairn translates roughly as ‘foot of the hill’. The ridges and crests of the hill in question were formed as the result of tectonic plates merging and shifting in past millennia, creating a distinct soil texture. The abundant rich and fertile land that the area is famed for is named locally as the ‘Garden of Scotland’. Sheltered for protection from the winds, yet raised enough to take in enough daylight (“light is life,” as the foresters say), the plot is believed to be the site of an ancient forest that would have existed over 200 years ago. In the centuries since then, native woodlands have been diminished and replaced by faster-growing imported softwood trees. In step with this, the number of sawmills has also declined. A key aim of the Fettercairn Forest initiative is to revive local industries such as these.
The Estate’s own sawmill is a great hanger of a shed, full of industrial life and the sound of machines trimming and planing. Sawdust swirls in the air, and the smell of fresh wood shavings fills our nostrils. A new cask, not yet filled, has heady aromas of bright spice. Stacks of wood are piled high, separated by variety and treatment.
Gregg pulls out different planks to show the various grain densities, explaining which bits are used where and for what, along with suggestions of treatments that might improve any offcuts of the timber.
“The kind of knowledge that was once rich in Scotland...” he says, “in France and the USA, they have this expertise to hand. But Scotland’s been de-skilled.” It’s a fact that visibly frustrates, or even angers, Gregg. “We’ve lost the ability to grow trees, to mill them down. In other countries, right from growing the wood to processing it, they just have those skills,” he continues, explaining how what was once a thriving industry has been chipped away over the years.
Working closely with the sawmill has been advantageous for both parties: Gregg is on hand to advise the team on technical aspects of wood destined for casks, while proximity to the site gives Gregg the opportunity to get closer and to experiment with cuts that would otherwise be discarded and sent for firewood, moving towards something of a zero-waste ethos. Offcuts that can’t be used for casks can go to furniture workshops, and bark goes to the leather tannery. “Part of the overall initiative is keeping things in the local economy,” Gregg adds. “It’s about putting the right people in contact.”
Another fading industry Gregg is keen to support is being revived in partnership with Speyside Cooperage. Within the existing apprenticeship scheme, a rigorous four-year undertaking, the company has created a training programme teaching young coopers to build casks from scratch – something of a lost art in the UK.
Whisky maker Gregg Glass explores Fasque Estate with a member of the Estate team
As work is transferred from forest to sawmill, sawmill to cooperage, cooperage to distillery, and, eventually, back to the cooperage again, something of a circular economy is formed, helping build a more economically sustainable future. The effects of these partnerships are real and tangible, going beyond marketing or virtue signalling. The Fasque Sawmill opened to handle wood from the Estate and is growing steadily, now taking in wood from other regions and increasing local employment. “The whole point was to spread it across the industry,” says Gregg. “The vision was that one day every malt distillery might consider using their own local timber, their own sawmill and possibly even their own coopers at some point... and to think about their overall footprint.”
There is, of course, an environmental benefit that comes with the planting of the forest. Whisky makers and agricultural industries are seeing the shift and urgency in relation to rising temperatures, and Fettercairn worked with both the Forestry Commission and rewilding charity Trees for Life on the ambitious project.
The forest will help to balance the monoculture of imported softwood trees, boosting biodiversity and the population of indigenous oaks, as well as working towards carbon capture goals. There’s grass around the saplings now, but one day there will be wildflowers and clover, another good way to sequester carbon dioxide. Thankfully, Gregg explains, the land has always been free from chemicals: “It’s that mix of nature and nurture that comes together; it means we’ve got a blank canvas to create the perfect cask.”
Though socially and environmentally conscious, Gregg says flavour is central to the project. “This year, every single Whyte & Mackay malt distillery will touch Scottish oak in some way. Some for bench trials, to continue examining the effect of charring, oxygen levels, and so on, and some for release, as a new generation of whiskies. For something like Fettercairn, it’s just part of the lifeblood of the place to be doing this kind of work.”
Though excited by the possibilities this project will open up, for Gregg, this isn’t a scheme aimed at making Scottish oak the norm. Instead, it’s about safeguarding heritage through innovation. “It’s never been about overtaking American oak, for instance. It’s provenance that makes it exciting,” he says. “If you look at Japanese oak and how prized that is, Scottish oak is rarer, with more diversity of flavour... We often talk about the water source having significance… it’s a nice idea,
but how much detectable difference is there in the end dram? Whereas here there really is. Now we’ve got that additional 50 to 80 per cent of the character coming from Scotland. Why wouldn’t you?”
As Whyte & Mackay’s head of communications, Kieran Healey-Ryder, says, “It’s supporting the community, it’s supporting the Estate, the Estate’s then looking after the land, and the land’s looking after us. That kind of feels like the future to me.”
The oldest trees in the area are more than 200 years old and have been standing since the days when Robert Burns was penning his most famous works. They’ve lived through two world wars, Prohibition, periods of whisky boom and whisky lochs. As we move through the digital age and navigate tricky political and environmental times, it’s hard to imagine what these saplings will live through. Perhaps, in some way, Gregg and his team are partnering with the whisky makers of the future, too.