One of the trends in the whisky world over the past couple of years has been the frequent announcements of new distilleries being built or opening across the UK and in Ireland.
Of late, that’s included the Kingsbarns Distillery, owned by Wemyss Malts, which will be constructed in Fife, the Adelphi distillery being built in Ardnamurchan in the Highlands, the Dingle Distillery on the west coast of Ireland, which has now opened, and the in-progress Lakes Distillery in Cumbria, to name just a few.
Another recent addition to the fold is Wolfburn, which is located in Thurso at the tip-top northeast of Scotland. The distillery is slightly ahead of the curve, however, as its first spirit flowed from the stills in January after construction throughout 2011 and 2012.
According to Daniel Smith, the distillery’s business development manager, the distillery came about due to an acknowledgement by the team of both the rise in interest in whisky globally and because of the site’s history.
“We knew some of the story of the old Wolfburn distillery, and when we looked into it, it became apparent that we could build a new distillery drawing water from the same burn – the Wolf Burn – as the old one. It meant we had a history – perhaps not a direct line to the old Wolfburn, but we share the spirit of the old place.
“The new site isn’t quite where the old distillery was located – it’s about 300 metres away. You can just make out the ruins of the old Wolfburn distillery from the site of the new one – the buildings are all gone, but the foundation stones remain, and the weir in the burn is still clearly visible.
“Additionally, global demand for Scotch whisky is at a high – and particularly good single malts. We set out to build a truly first class distillery – nothing left to chance and all the equipment and ingredients as high quality as possible,” explained Daniel.
To help achieve this, the distillery poached Shane Fraser, formerly the manager of Glenfarclas, to come and run Wolfburn.
“He has a fantastic reputation in the industry and is an absolute perfectionist. Shane has set out to make the best possible whisky, and so far he has got it right every step of the way,” added Daniel.
It has brought in the wash and spirit stills from Forsyth in Rothes, the former of which has a 5,500 litre capacity, and the latter of which has a 3,600 litre capacity and a bulge in the neck for additional reflux.
“The stills are run concurrently and from end to end a distillation takes up to four hours. We could do it quicker, but this timing allows for a gentle distillation with plenty of copper contact – all of which helps make our new spirit very smooth in taste. We get some lovely barley flavours coming through too,” said Daniel.
Outside of the stills, the distillery has three stainless steel washbacks, which can each do a 5,500 litre fermentation using dried yeast. The maturation, meanwhile, is being done in a mix of ex-bourbon American oak casks and ex-sherry casks.
“We have not yet made any firm decisions but it’s likely that we’ll do some limited editions that have matured exclusively in sherry wood,” said Daniel.
The plan is to release the first whisky in January 2016 after three years in barrels. This will be limited to 500-600 bottles, many of which have – according to Daniel – already been sold to private collectors and investors. In future, there will be around 70 – 80,000 bottles released per year – or around one quarter of the distillery’s annual production capacity – while the rest will go on to mature for 10 to 12 years.
This latter fact has, said Daniel, been one of the most difficult parts of the distillery founding process.
“The biggest challenge is to be patient – Wolfburn is a truly first class distillery and the construction and fabrication phase was completed by the end of 2012. Now we have a lengthy wait until the first whisky is released in 2016 – patience has never been my strong point!”
And what do the locals think?
“I think many people see the positives of having a distillery in the area, and of course the construction and installation has brought new investment to the town. Wolfburn will continue to create employment long into the future, so we’re sure the local population will remain supportive,” he said.
Positive it all is, indeed. If anything can be gleaned from the fact that so many other distilleries are following in Wolfburn’s footsteps, it’s that the whisky industry is a positive, growing space to be in for the coming years. Something all whisky enthusiasts should be excited about.