We tend to set less store by Scotch whisky making 'regions' than we used to, and judge whiskies on their own merits rather than trying to find stylistic similarities with others produced in the same area.
But if we are going to talk of traditional regions, nowhere has fared worse in relatively recent times than the Eastern Highlands in terms of distillery losses. Until the 1980s, the area boasted Glenury Royal at Stonehaven, Lochside and Hillside / Glen Esk at Montrose, North Port and Glencadam in Brechin, as well as Fettercairn and Royal Lochnagar. Of those, only Glencadam, Fettercairn and Royal Lochnagar - all dating back to the 1820s - survived, but since 2014 the provision of Eastern Highland distilleries has increased by 25 per cent, with the establishment of Arbikie Highland Estate Distillery.
Arbikie is located near the village of Inverkeilor, overlooking Lunan Bay, between the historic North Sea ports of Arbroath and Montrose in the county of Angus. According to the team at Arbikie, "This is an estate profoundly shaped by its environment: the red sandstone-tinted soil, the powerful sea and the turbulent weather give Arbikie a character found nowhere else. And here, situated where land meets sea, sits our distillery… this place has all the ingredients required to produce spirits of the highest quality."
The 2,100 acre estate is owned by the Stirling family, which can trace its agricultural roots back as far as 1600 on the west coast of Scotland. Bill Stirling moved across the country to Arbikie during the 1920s, and today members of the fourth generation of the Stirlings at Arbikie head up the enterprise.
They are John, David and Iain, and of the three, Commercial Director John is farm-based and specialises in the financial side of the business. As he explains, "Iain is in Edinburgh and covers sales and marketing, while David, also involved in sales and marketing, lives in New York. I have a politics and economics degree and was a chartered accountant with KPMG. We had a marketing company in Edinburgh and did work for several distillers and other drinks companies. Then I came back from that to run the farm and one night in the pub we came up with idea of creating a distillery."
He adds that, "We wanted a farm produce distillery. We wanted to utilise what we grew on the farm. If it's called Scotch whisky we like the idea that it's made from Scottish barley, not barley brought in from abroad by ship! We grow potatoes, wheat, malting barley and oilseed rape."
The Stirling brothers applied for planning permission to develop their distillery in a redundant dairy unit just before Christmas 2013, and a key appointment was made the following January when Kirsty Black Joined the team.
Originating from near Glen Ord distillery in Inverness-shire, Black worked as a quality engineer in England and Switzerland, before earning a Master's Degree in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh. She gained experience in Edinburgh's Caledonian and Barney's breweries, as well as in a gin distillery before joining Arbikie as Master Distiller. "I was involved in the design of the kit and it was great to see the whole thing take shape as the equipment arrived and to have all that freedom from the start," she says.
The equipment - including a column still and a pair of pot stills - was sourced from the German artisan distillation specialists Carl of Stuttgart, and John Stirling explains that, "We built it with our own on-farm blacksmiths and local tradesmen. Our principal is always to go local first."
The plant boasts a daily potential output of 560 litres of alcohol, and with it up and running Arbikie launched Scotland's first potato vodka in November 2014, followed by Kirsty's Gin in July 2015. Subsequently, Arbikie Chilli Vodka has hit the shelves, made using chipotle chillis grown by Scotland's first chilli farm, Chillilicious.
"The fundamental aim of the project was to create a whisky distillery," says John Stirling, "and we wanted to be able to keep the whisky for maybe 14 years before release if necessary. So making gin and vodka produces a revenue stream in the meantime. 14 years is a long time to wait with no money coming in!"
If waiting for up to 14 years to release its single malt makes Arbikie sound uber-traditional in its approach, this is certainly not the case. "We will be highly experimental," declares Stirling. "We've been growing rye and have made some rye whisky, which we hope to bottle at three or four years of age. Nobody else in the UK is making rye whisky. We may do some peated whisky in time, too.
"We are planning to have floor maltings within a year - hopefully to provide 100 per cent of all malt requirements. We already have a bottling line that can handle 3,500 bottles a day, so with our own maltings everything from growing the barley to bottling the whisky will take place on Arbikie Highland Estate."
The first whisky was filled to cask in September 2015, and the maturation regime includes a 50/50 split between former Bourbon and ex-Oloroso sherry casks. The aim is to produce around 100,000 litres of whisky per year, and in terms of style, Stirling says that, "We're aiming for a Highland and coastal style of spirit. Something robust enough to stand up to long sherry-cask fermentation. The wind comes off the sea, you can smell it in the air here, and metal rusts quickly. There will definitely be a coastal element to the whisky. We will not chill-filter to maintain the flavours and textures produced during fermentation."
The Arbikie Distillery actually constitutes the resurrection of whisky making on the farm, as there are records of an Arbikie distillery in 1794. Accordingly, the distillery's whisky cask purchase offer is named '1794 Founder's,' and involves making 300 casks available for personal purchase.
Anyone expecting a series of regular 'work in progress' whisky releases from Arbikie during the next 14 years is likely to be disappointed, though John Stirling notes that there may be the occasional taster along the way, but in the meantime there is that Scottish rye to look forward to, and a possible visitor centre a couple of years down the line.
Given more than 2,000 acres of prime agricultural land, you might expect Arbikie to be home to livestock as well as crops, but this is not the case. John Stirling says that, "Our only stock is three Aberdeen Angus cattle, and they're just here to eat the draff!"
Sampling the Spirit
New-make spirit, 63.5% ABV
(First release, bottled 2015)
Ripe apples, bananas, almonds and digestive biscuits on the soft, pleasing nose. Full-bodied on the palate, smooth and lacking ferocity, even at 63.5% ABV. Very fruity, with nutty spice and none of the metallic notes often found in new-make. This could be quite a dram in 2029!
Malt: unpeated - Concerto variety
Mashing: Semi-lauter mash tun - ¾ tonne mash per week mashtun, as at Glenlivet - 12 tonnes mash
Fermentation: 4 stainless steel washbacks - 2 x 9,000 litre capacity, 2 x 4,400 litre capacity - average six-day fermentations
Distillation: 1 wash still (4,000 litres capacity) - 1 spirit still (2,400 litres capacity) 1 column still - 40 plates, 560,000 lpa
Distillery output (whisky): 100,000 lpa