There’s a new distillery in the heart of whisky country but I bet you haven't heard of it. It’s not small either, at 5,220 sq ft this is no garden shed venture. I decided to head to Speyside and find out more.
Driving from Aberdeen airport north and west you pass distilleries we all know and many love: Mortlach, Balvenie, Glenfiddich and finally as the majestic freestanding Ben Rinnes looms large, the beautiful monstrosity that is Allt-a-Bhainne comes into view.
Alex Christou is a busy chap. While we chat he takes calls about labels, bottle designs, freezing distillery pipes and people stuck on the estate in deep snow. At 37 Alex has just built Speyside’s newest distillery, on the family owned Glenrinnes Estate. I hate to break your heart, but it’s not going to make whisky. It’s going to make organic vodka, and gin. Okay, so there’s the rub – this is not a whisky distillery… well, not yet. So what if it’s not? Nothing is binary any more, not gender, not politics and not spirit preferences. As much as I love a whisky, I love a martini, or a bloody mary or a gin and tonic. I argue that this is well worth inclusion in Whisky Magazine.
So are they not making whisky? His response is gentle but frank; “Why compete with our illustrious neighbours when we can do something different and bring something new to the area”. Fair enough, but why site the distillery here at all then?
“We’ve got so much knowledge and expertise in the area that it feels like an incredibly appropriate place to operate a distillery. Our stills were manufactured locally and our other contractors have been able to call on the experiences of the many distilleries they have worked on to help guide us”.
Of course having the 6,000 acre Glenrinnes farming estate in your family doesn’t hurt either, but Alex explained that it’s the provisions of the land that made the decision easier. The quality of the water especially, the key botanicals actually grow here (including the all important juniper), and the fact the estate is organic.
“Organic is hugely important to us. Our estate has been organic accredited since 2001, really guided by my mother’s belief that our food is better off without so many pesticides or blanket use of medicines across herds”.
I’m keen to know how this affects the final spirit.
“From a distilling point of view, not only does it mean that everything that we put into our products is as pure and natural as possible, the systems of accreditation for organic mean that we have this wonderful traceability in our supply chain. If you order a bottle of gin from our website, our stock management systems know exactly what batch of a given botanical it came from, who grew it, where, and when”.
As good as it is to chat to the founder I want to feel the stills throbbing away, for warmth if nothing else.
At the top of a ladder I meet Katrina Stewart, the distiller. Katrina hales for Canada and arrived at Glenrinnes via the famous Brewing and Distilling Masters course at Heriot-Watt University, where she graduated last year. Despite this nascent focus on distilling, she has a deep background in engineering and chemistry, as a qualified engineer in the energy industry. So why the change?
“This idea has always been in the back of my head, I think every chemical engineer has considered it”.
Okay, so what do you say to anyone who questions your relative lack of experience? “How else do you get experience?! The ever-present millennial struggle”, she jokes.
Their pot still (Rebecca) is 1,000 litres, and made by Speyside Copper Works with an external basket allowing for vapour infusion of botanicals (for specialised gin production). The still allows them to make gin and vodka, but also whisky.
They also have two 4.5 metre column stills, each has 10 trays which can be drawn from as the spirit recipe demands. The columns and trays allow for a greater degree of control for alcohol production. Different flavours are also present at the different alcohol percentages so they can tailor a flavour profile for each product.
I can see now, this is just a chemistry set on a bigger scale. Katrina describes their two core products to me, “Our vodka is something special. Not just a vodka for alcohol’s sake. It's a notable and distinguished product. From a taste perspective it's clean with character and body from our fermentation and combination of wheat and barley as source grains.” Said with the pride you’d expect from a distiller! And the gin?
“Can I say that our gin can hold its own against the top gins in the market?” Sure, why not. “It’s a classic London dry style with distinctive nods toward Speyside with our inclusion of native botanicals. Wood sorrel adds a fresh citrus kick that partners well with the lemon and lime peel. Cowberry adds a tangy sweetness which very nicely counters the earthy juniper backbone of this gin”.
I realise that five minutes into meeting Katrina I’m speaking to someone with an appreciation of the art of distilling.
I can tell that Katrina is busy, so I let her go tend to her stills. It’s the first time spirit has run from them after all. Before I put down my pen she jokes that I should remind readers that at just over five foot tall the stills tower over her, and thus extra effort goes into making their spirits. Having seen her shoot up and down ladders all morning I can but agree.
I can’t help prod Alex again about whisky. “We’ve been chatting things through as a team and the wonderful flexibility of our distillery means that we can make whisky if we want to. Everyone involved has an interest in whisky, so we are going to experiment and see what we come up with”.
Seems they may well make some Speyside gold after all.
As I slip and slide down the snowy B9009 road I think with this combination of team, kit and place, the copper is in good hands.
The distillery's Eight Lands organic gin and vodka will be available in shops, and from the distillery website, in the next few months.