It is often claimed that Caol Ila has the finest view of any coastal distillery in Scotland, but when it comes to inland distilleries, the newcomer GlenWyvis must surely be among the favourites for that particular accolade.
It is situated 550 feet above sea level on a hillside two miles north-west of the Highland town of Dingwall, in the shadow of Ben Wyvis, with views over Dingwall to the Cromarty Firth, the Cairngorm mountains in one direction and the spa town of Strathpeffer in another. Red kites soar and sweep above the distillery, while rare breeds of sheep graze the adjoining fields. So far so traditional and picturesque.
But GlenWyvis is innovative to say the least, being Scotland’s first community-owned distillery, 100 per cent self-sufficient and operating entirely off-grid. The buildings combine modern architecture with traditional distillery design cues.
GlenWyvis is situated in an area rich in distilling heritage, close to the modern standing stone at the Heights of Brae, which were erected to commemorate author and one-time excise officer Neil M. Gunn. From 1937, the writer (who penned the classic Whisky and Scotland in 1935) lived at Braefarm House after resigning from the excise service, having been based at Glen Mhor Distillery in Inverness. He wrote some of his most celebrated books at Braefarm, including the historical epic The Silver Darlings.
In terms of historic whisky-making in the area, the Forbes family were prolific distillers at Ferintosh, located across the Cromarty Firth from Dingwall on the Black Isle, which is not actually an island but a highly fertile peninsula. Duncan Forbes was allowed to distil whisky on his land without payment of duty from 1690 as compensation for the burning of his existing distillery by Jacobite sympathisers. When ‘The Ferintosh Privilege’ was revoked in 1784, Robert Burns famously wrote, 'Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost! Scotland lament frae coast to coast!'
Almost a century later, in 1879, Ben Wyvis Distillery was established on the outskirts of Dingwall by DG Ross, ironmonger, agricultural merchant and town Baillie – the equivalent of a local council leader.
Ben Wyvis was sold in 1893 to the Ferintosh Distillery Co, a subsidiary of Belfast’s Kirker Greer & Co. Ltd, which renamed it the Ferintosh Distillery in honour of the original across the water.
Ben Wyvis was followed by the creation of Glenskiach Distillery at nearby Evanton in 1896. This was the work of another Ross, in this instance one called John, who attracted support for the venture both locally and also from London wine merchants.
Sadly, both Ben Wyvis and Glenskiach failed to survive the inter-war years of economic and social depression, closing in 1926. Glenskiach was subsequently demolished, but some of the Ben Wyvis warehousing survives, operating as a business centre.
The Ben Wyvis name enjoyed a short-lived secondary existence as the designation of the malt distillery which operated from 1965 to 1976 within Whyte & Mackay’s Invergordon grain distillery complex, which is located some 10 miles along the north-west shores of the Cromarty Firth from Dingwall. Today, Invergordon is still crucial to the Whyte & Mackay operation, while close by lie the modern-day distilleries of Teaninich and Dalmore. Diageo’s Glen Ord distillery and associated maltings are also located just six miles to the south of GlenWyvis.
The new distillery name celebrates the area’s two lost distilleries and the venture is the brainchild of founder and managing director John McKenzie, an ex-Army Air Corps helicopter pilot, farmer and green energy advocate.
"John was not a great whisky drinker but, as a helicopter pilot, latterly he flew private clients to visit distilleries all over Scotland and the idea of adding a new distillery into an area with so much whisky history appealed to him," explains third-generation distillery worker and marketing and tourism strategy officer Mike Fraser. "He was looking to create an environmentally friendly venture that would benefit the local community.”
A crowd-funding campaign was inaugurated in April 2016, which was a phenomenal success. “We were given 77 days to raise £1.5m and actually raised £2.6m in that time. So, we decided to build the distillery a bit bigger than we’d originally planned!" Fraser continues. "60 per cent of the 2,200 members came from the local IV postcode area, and the rest from a total of 31 different countries.”
What had been established as GlenWyvis Distillery Ltd now became an ‘Industrial and Provident Society (IPS),’ essentially a co-operative. John McKenzie leased the four plots of land required for construction of the distillery at Upper Dochcarty for a nominal rent of £1, and building work commenced in January 2017. All plant was supplied by Forsyths of Rothes – including the smallest mash tun they had ever made – and the Forsyth family were also investors in the project. The distillery was completed by November, and the first spirit flowed in late January of this year.
Mike Fraser adds, “We got permission for a second round of crowd-funding, aiming to raise £750,000, but were granted a target of up to £1m with no limit. The whole venture is entirely crowdfunded, and it’s the first distillery in the world to be 100 per cent community owned. Each share costs £50, with the minimum option of buying five shares.”
Investors will receive a 200ml bottle of GlenWyvis whisky during the third year of production and, in theory, by year eight all investors will have got their money back and received an annual dividend, with some future profits destined to be ploughed back into the local area.
In line with McKenzie’s ambition to create a notably ‘green’ distillery, all electricity is provided by three sources. Namely, a 12kw turbine – owed by McKenzie, who takes draff as payment for its use – a 12kw hydro dam and 46kw of solar panels. A 550kw Binder biomass steam boiler runs on woodchips sourced from local farms. The distillery also owns a Vauxhall electric car and plans to use an electric bus to transport visitors from Dingwall to the distillery when a visitor centre opens next spring.
An important part of the ethos is ‘buying local’ and Mike Fraser explains that they “use Concerto barley from the Highland Grain Co-operative, and many of the farmers who are involved in that are investors here. Bairds Malt in Inverness takes 40 tonnes from them at a time and malts it. We get 28 tonnes back, and it’s guaranteed 100 per cent Highland grain. The barley is mainly grown on the Black Isle.”
GlenWyvis boasts a staff of four, with just one production operative, who also happens to be the distillery manager. Duncan Tait previously worked for Diageo for over 27 years, ultimately managing Knockando and undertaking upgrading and expansion projects at several Speyside distilleries, including Glen Elgin and Benrinnes. He then spent two years at Mortlach in Dufftown, initially with the intention of overseeing the doubling of the distillery's capacity, before that project was shelved.
“I started working at Teaninich in Alness, I’m a local guy,” he says. “And I was an investor in GlenWyvis before I was appointed manager. I liked the community aspect and the renewable energy angle. It takes me back to distilling on a farm 200 years ago, when there would be community involvement.”
He also notes, with a wry smile, that this is the only time in his long career that he's ever been asked ‘What kind of whisky do you want to make?’ As for the style he settled on, Tait explains: “We’re looking for long fermentations of 90-105 hours at GlenWyvis, giving something malty and fruity. We run the stills slowly, but quite hot. There’s lots of copper contact to give a grassy note. I’d like the new-make to be something close to Oban."
“Maturation is American oak-led, though we have some European oak in the warehouse – mainly investor casks – including first-fill Oloroso sherry hogsheads. For ourselves, we tend to use first-fill Jack Daniels casks and refill hogsheads. We will be filling some sherry casks, and probably vatting five to ten per cent of that whisky into our eventual bottlings. We’ve got a dunnage-style warehouse on site and permission for a second one. After that, the plan is to have a warehouse on Dingwall Industrial Estate.”
In terms of when GlenWyvis single malt might be first bottled for general consumption the theory is that ‘it’s ready when it’s ready,’ but Duncan notes, “If I find a few great casks that are ready then I will probably release them quite young as single casks.”
Meanwhile, to help generate income, 1,600 bottles of ‘Highland Inspiration’ have been released. This is a 46% ABV single malt made at an undisclosed Highland distillery, from which the GlenWyvis team purchased five casks.
The author Neil Gunn, who is buried in Dingwall’s Mitchell Hill cemetery, would surely have been an eager supporter of this project to democratise distilling for the good of the community.After all, he once wrote, “We have to combine, certainly, but if we combine to fight on the idea of each man making more money for himself, then we end by fighting one another. And that's the trouble now... human dealings are founded – founded – not on money but on what is fair and just all round.”