Distillery Focus

Three guiding principles

Embracing the need to push a few boundaries
By Justine Hazlehurst

These are the three guiding principles of Alex Bruce, managing director of Adelphi Distillery Ltd: the proud parent of Adelphi Selection and its much younger sibling, Ardnamurchan Distillery.

Starting at Adelphi in 2004, under Alex’s management the company has evolved from owning just three casks and a few hundred bottles to becoming one of the most acclaimed independent bottlers in the industry. Not only do these guiding principles remain inextricably linked to each other but, with the recent addition of their own distillery, they apply to both enterprises in equal measure.

“Although it wasn’t that obvious at the time we were building Ardnamurchan,” explains Alex. “It later became blatantly obvious that we were going to become one of many in this new flurry of distilleries being built. We therefore wanted the whisky to have its own identity and be true to that.” Accordingly, the whole process, including maturation, takes place on the Ardnamurchan estate allowing the climate and the environment to underpin that first guiding principle: to develop the whisky’s own unique taste.

Sustainability, however, is key to the whole Ardnamurchan project. “From the use of local renewable resources all the way through to the 100 per cent recyclable packaging, despite huge added costs, I absolutely did not want to compromise on sustainability,” Alex says.

Such a philosophy has undoubtedly evolved over time and been influenced by a number of individuals – individuals who have not only offered Alex constructive criticism and advice but who have also been hugely inspiring. One such is renowned whisky expert Charles Maclean. After Alex came into whisky from the wine industry, Charles not only became a mentor but also a great friend.

There are, however, two others who might not be so well known today. During what Alex describes as the ‘early years’, a certain Frank Clark (once owner of the Cairngorm Whisky Centre in Aviemore) and Hugh Metcalfe (former marketing director at Macallan) afforded him the insight into how to build and promote a brand.

Frank, the father of one of Alex’s best friends, demonstrated the latter to perfection. “Just watching how he worked, taking a bit of Scotland out there, educating and seeing how consumers reacted and to then go on to become whisky drinkers, was a huge inspiration,” Alex explains. The father of another good friend, Hugh Metcalfe, is credited with taking Macallan to a new market in the early 1980s. “The story goes that he was given £500 for the year and he chose Taiwan; the rest is history,” Alex says. He then adds, “For me, the fact that even with only a small amount of change in your pocket, you can actually make something work has been an even greater inspiration.”

One other key inspirational figure for Alex is his father. Instrumental in establishing the Keepers of the Quaich, his father made sure that the objective of thanking all those around the world who had essentially been selling Scotland was met by affording them some “proper Scottish hospitality”. Alex adds that it was “his ability to engage audiences by absorbing facts and anecdotes, assemble them into something vaguely interesting to talk about on a less serious, more jovial side” which has really helped him over the years when talking about whisky and Scotland.

There are, of course, many others who Alex can name. Focusing specifically on the distillery build, he points out that Dr Jim Swan proved to be an inspiration for his “unbelievable skill and determination to make things work”.

With the distillery in mind, the collaborative aspect of the Scotch whisky industry became apparent when Kilchoman’s Anthony and Kathy Wills “opened their distillery doors, account books and pretty much everything else to us and told us what not to do. They’ve continued to be a great support,” explains Alex. This collaborative bond was reinforced with the release of KilchArd: a blended malt using one cask from each of Kilchoman and Ardnamurchan distilleries. “The concept is a bit of a blur,” explains Alex, “but it stems from the fact that Anthony refused to sell us a cask of Kilchoman for Adelphi so this was the next best thing. Then the lightbulb moment of KilchArd came when looking at our surnames: Bruce and Wills.”

And it was with a yippee-ki-yay that whisky enthusiasts greeted the first single malt release from Ardnamurchan Distillery earlier this year. Alex hopes others in the industry would describe him as “honest, fair and not afraid to push a few boundaries, especially when helping to promote transparency”, and it was those qualities which certainly shone through with the inaugural single malt release. Alex explains, “It was simply the beginning of our single malt. Whether it’s the first, third, fifth or 10th bottle, they’re all going to hopefully be more or less the same – we want that consistency – and we were never going to go out and say it’s £100 just because it’s the first time we’ve done it.” Like most whisky makers, Alex believes that the real reason whisky is produced is to be opened and enjoyed.

“We’re very much against flipping”, Alex explains. “We winced every time we saw a bottle of Ardnamurchan go on auction.” But with the first release of Ardnamurchan priced at a reasonable £45, and extending to 16,000 bottles, the hope is that this strategy makes this and subsequent releases far less flippable.

As well as the first release from Ardnamurchan, Alex is particularly proud of certain bottlings in the Adelphi range. “The first of the two 1965 Lochside single blends – in an original Williams and Humbert sherry shipping cask – was stunning,” he says. “Dark like molasses, juicy dried fruits and rancio. That lovely old style I love with extra complexity due to it being a single blend.” Also appealing to Alex’s taste was the most recent Breath of Islay release. “Tropical fruits, savoury snacks, the seaside, soft sooty smoke. Basically umami in a glass.”

Another of Alex’s achievements which he is proud of is Fusion Whisky. “This was a great chance to steer the concept from the point of view of Scotch whisky but also to honour Scots who over the years have helped other countries and to celebrate these unsung heroes. It’s about promoting Scotland and Scots; never about diluting Scotch whisky.”

Looking to the future, both as distiller and independent bottler, Alex explains that there are no plans to change anything drastically about Adelphi. “It’s designed to be a taste-led, honest product,” he says. “Unfortunately we can’t control the pricing side of things but we will certainly stick to our guns of buying only when we like it.” Moving forward, the opportunity to develop Adelphi as “a purveyor of its own sister distillery’s single casks” and build Fusion Whisky by incorporating Ardnamurchan are exciting prospects.

Ardnamurchan itself has only just started its brand journey. Due to the current situation, “the first launch fell short of where I wanted it to be,” Alex explains. “It sounds a little arrogant, but I wanted to see it in a store. We’re really excited about seeing it on shop shelves, bar backs, in restaurants, people’s houses when we visit, even at some point in airports and duty-free stores.” He adds, “I just want to see it being enjoyed and talked about.” And we can all raise a dram to that.