The first time I see Gregg, he’s just parked outside Jura Distillery and is manhandling a cask from the boot of his car. Inside, I can see all manner of whisky-related paraphernalia – a bung flogger, a valinch, a pile of staves, some hoops, a crate of sample bottles – and a few more unusual items – heavy duty gloves; small bags marked ‘Voges’, ‘Limousin’ and ‘Tronçais’; a copy of The Hidden Life of Trees
(Wohlleben, 2015); protective goggles and… is that a blowtorch? Already, I have a feeling that we’re going to have a lot to talk about.
Gregg has worked in the whisky industry for 20 years, having started as a tour guide at Glen Ord. This led him to Compass Box, where he joined as sales, marketing and business assistant in 2005 before climbing to the rank of whisky maker. He joined Whyte & Mackay in late 2016 and was named as Richard Paterson’s deputy.
A few months after our meeting on Jura, I drop by the Whyte & Mackay offices in Glasgow to meet with Gregg again, this time to discuss the launch of a new project called Whisky Works – an innovation wing that will release waves of small batch, experimental whiskies into the wild and also bottle some of the more weird and wonderful casks (many from non-W&M distilleries) lurking in the company’s warehouses.
Whisky Works is the result of what Gregg describes as his ‘Saturday afternoon garden-shed projects’ and, in my mind, this conjures up images of an overalls-and-goggles-wearing blender engaged in suburban guerrilla whisky making. As it turns out, I’m not too far from the mark.
“I was reading this article [‘Out of the Woods’, Wallpaper, Reid, January 2012]
one day about J.B. Blunk. He was a famous sculptor that worked with oak and other wood. As a hobby, I like to do woodwork and this particular quote – ‘Word got around about the chainsaw-wielding craftsman up on the hill’ – captured my imagination,” Gregg explains enthusiastically.
“Blunk was creating these amazing sculptures in Inverness, California. I’m from the Black Isle and I thought that perhaps this was the universe trying to tell me something! He created a workspace for not only his own projects, but a hub for teaching others. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”
Gregg goes on to tell me that Whisky Works is the amalgamation of a number of ideas he’s been developing since his days with Compass Box, though he’d always imagined they’d only come to fruition if he started his own company. But, after hearing the proposal, his new W&M colleagues were eager to help make his vision a reality. The name, Gregg explains, was inspired by the ‘works teams’ seen in motorsports, which have complete creative and technical control of their vehicles. Like those works teams, Gregg wants to push boundaries through innovation.
Whisky Works, which had its global debut at Whisky Live London, will release four products each year – two expressions defined as ‘Modern’ and two more described as ‘Classic’. All will be bottled without caramel colouring or chill filtering. The initial ‘Classic’ release is a single grain called 29 Year Old Glaswegian (54.2% ABV, 1642 bottles), distilled at a now-silent grain distillery that ‘Once stood at the heart of Scotland’s waterways’.
The first ‘Modern’ whisky, King of Trees (46.5% ABV, 2157 bottles), saw its origins in a trip Gregg and his grandfather took to a Black Isle sawmill back in 2006. This visit led to experiments with toasting and charring of native Scottish oak chips, to understand how that process would impact the imparted wood character. Of course, using offcuts to flavour spirit is one thing; building a cask from the stuff is a little trickier. Scottish oak, which may be Quercus Robur, Quercus Petraea or a hybrid of the two, is notoriously difficult to deal with because the growing environment tends to encourage the trees to spread wide and each branch creates a knot. These sections can’t be used for staves as the knots are, simply put, “leaky”.
There’s also the matter of scarcity. Thousands of years ago, native oak woodland was not uncommon in Scotland and it was particularly predominant on the west coast, where the wet and humid environment could be described as ‘temperate rainforest’. However, deforestation has taken place for centuries, increasing in intensity as the industrial revolution ran its course, and only a few pockets remain.
Today, the felling of Scottish oak trees is not very common, but after 150-180 years they do become more prone to damage, disease and wind-felling. Of those that are cut down, almost all end up as firewood. Gregg feels this state of affairs is unacceptable and is in the early stages of building a network of Scottish landowners, forestry workers, and sawmills that will be able to flag up when Scottish oak has been or is about to be felled and direct this timber to cooperages and furniture makers.
“I want to be clear: I’m not encouraging the felling of ancient Scottish oak trees!” Gregg says adamantly. “For every tree I use, I want to be planting six or more, even if the one I used was wind-felled. Ultimately, I want to create a means to sustainably source Scottish oak in a way that will benefit the whole whisky industry.”
A Highland blended malt, King of Trees is not the first general-release Scotch whisky to utilise Scottish oak casks and only a small proportion (13.8 per cent) of the spirit in the blend has been finished in a single virgin Scottish oak barrel. The cask itself was made up of timber selected from two trees from the Highlands, which came down in high winds. The timber was then cut into planks and air dried for three years.
Building the cask was a painstaking four-day job, undertaken by Speyside Cooperage, that culminated with toasting and charring over a traditional wood-fuel brazier. The end result was a medium-heavy char that, combined with the relatively porous nature of Scottish oak, made the cask very active during maturation. In fact, six months was long enough and, as Gregg intended, the proportion aged in native oak significantly altered the blend.
Though not the first over the line, Gregg’s aim is to do more than produce unusual whiskies. In partnership with Speyside Cooperage, he is also creating a training program that will teach Scottish coopers how to build casks from start to finish – a rare skill in UK cooperages. When realised, this will open new avenues for producing native and non-native oak casks from scratch on home turf, re-establishing a craft and leaving a lasting legacy for industry.
Coopering the native Scottish oak cask.