By the middle of the 1980s, there was so much excess Scotch whisky sloshing about that distilleries were being closed en masse. As prices plummeted, dire predictions were made of the end of an era. Fast-forward three decades or so, and new distilleries can’t be built quickly enough. But there is one major difference in the type of distillery being built right now and those being shuttered back then.
In the past, distilleries were mostly making whisky for the blended Scotch market. A glut followed, with supply far outstripping demand. This, coupled with the fact that single malt whisky was nowhere near as popular as it is today, meant there was no future for these large distilleries. Ironically, some of the ‘lost’ distilleries of the 1980s have since gained elite followings off the back of their rare stock of single malts. Some are even being rebuilt: Brora has re-started production, Rosebank will follow shortly, and Port Ellen is breaking ground as I write
And with cult status now bestowed upon them, all will focus their efforts on crafting small-scale, high-quality single malts. Similarly, today’s new generation of boutique, artisan distilleries is fast making a name for itself among single-malt aficionados. Rather than anonymous, corporate distilleries churning out whisky for the blended market, these are specialist operations often founded and run by distillers, with creative thinking and budgets for branding. With so many being built, the perceived wisdom is that not all can survive – and only a handful will truly thrive. But several have already garnered a dedicated following among the whisky community, beyond even their own expectations.
One element in particular reflects the spirit of this new generation. Many of Scotland’s old guard of distilleries were built in incredibly inaccessible coastal spots, though with good reason: the route to market was by sea. There is no such rationale behind the fact that all of the distilleries outlined below are found either on islands or close to the coast. Instead, it seems their location is driven largely by where the hearts of the owners lie.
Six artisan Scotch whisky distilleries to know
The name comes from an ancient Gaelic goddess, Neachneohain, who was known as the queen of spirits and a protector of nature. Founder Annabel Thomas, a former management consultant, wanted to build a distillery that had as little impact on the environment as possible. She has succeeded: this is Scotland’s most sustainable distillery, with net-zero carbon emissions, producing fewer emissions from the distilling process than it takes out of the atmosphere.
To achieve this, Nc’nean is part of a sustainable forest-planting project. Its energy is 100% renewable, its stills powered by a biomass boiler, using woodchips from a local forest in which all the trees harvested are replanted. The distillery recycles 99.97% of its waste and bottles its whisky in clear 100% recycled glass bottles.
Does all this make for a great-tasting whisky? So far, so impressive, though the team is clear that it distils and bottles whisky in a batch process, so every batch will have slight differences. As the whiskies age longer in their warehouses, I only expect them to improve further. For now, expect incredibly easy-to-drink whisky with plenty of sweetness, peaches and pears, and a little creamy maltiness. It is a whisky that belies its young age.
In the bottle: Having been created using STR (shaved, toasted, re-charred) red wine and ex-bourbon casks, there is a lot of confected sweetness and honey. The spirit gives a lively citrus note, and honey runs all the way through the palate. It is complex, with nuts and pepper and a little tropical fruit. The citrus continues on the finish, with a little cereal note and maltiness. At 46% and under £50, this is great value and widely available – try Master of Malt or The Whisky Exchange.
Around an hour from Edinburgh, Daftmill is by some distance the most centrally located of the distilleries here. Indeed, it would be ideal for tourism – if it received visitors or had a visitors’ centre. Instead, the distillery is on a working farm owned by Francis Cuthbert and is run in harmony with the farm, which supplies both the barley and the water (from its own well). In return, the waste from the distillery is used on the farm: the protein-rich draff, or spent grain from mashing, is used to feed the cattle; the pot ale from distilling is used to fertilise the fields; and the warm water employed in the cooling processes is stored for the next mashing or piped into the duck pond, preventing it from freezing over in winter.
Daftmill was one of the first of the new breed of distilleries, founded in 2005. There was no marketing budget to speak of, so word of mouth and support from Berry Bros & Rudd – with which it quickly signed a distribution deal – was key to its success. Luckily, the whisky was very good and sold very quickly. And it still does. With a maximum production of only 65,000 litres a year and a seasonal distilling pattern, there isn’t a huge amount to go around. The whisky soon sells out, and there is a wait for the next season. Summer and winter releases reach around 1,700 bottles each; single-cask bottles are also released from time to time.
Cuthbert doesn’t distil all year round – just two months in winter, stopping to put the cattle out to pasture and sow crops in the spring, and again in June and July, when there is a lull in farm work, before halting for harvest.
In the bottle: Berry Bros is the official stockist, and it holds ballots for stock when it comes. A bottle of 2006 Winter Batch 46% shows a nose and palate full of honey and oranges, with a touch of waxy orange peel, a little nuttiness in the background and vanilla, with the oranges continuing right through into the finish. (You’d need to find this at auction or at inflated prices at retailers; bottles on the secondary market start from £299.)
Isle of Raasay
Like many areas of Scotland, the isle of Raasay was home to plenty of illicit stills back in the day. The new eponymous distillery houses the island’s first legal ones. Bill Dobbie and Alasdair Day had a vision of creating a traditional style of single malt but with a modern twist: a lightly peated malt with a rich, fruity base. To do so, they hit on a very modern solution. The spirit itself is distilled in a traditional way, yielding a fruity, lightly peated spirit. It is in the maturation where things take on a more contemporary edge.
Oak is still used, as required by the Scotch Whisky Association, but the type of oak is unorthodox: unpeated and peated spirit goes into Port casks, traditional ex-bourbon casks, and chinkapin casks. Chinkapin oak, or Quercus muehlenbergii, is native to north America, and tends to have a pronounced toffee sweetness. Coupled with ex-Port casks and ex-bourbon casks, it yields a lightly peated, fruity malt – rich and with a great deal of complexity for one that is still very young.
The distillery, in the renovated Borodale House, is set in a beautiful location, of which Dobbie and Day have taken advantage by developing not only a visitors’ centre but accommodation, too. Indeed, it is the only distillery in Scotland where guests can bed down in the same building as the stills.
In the bottle: The overall Raasay profile is that of a lightly peated single malt with lots of red fruit flavours and honey. The second batch, R-o2 – rich, oily and bottled at 46.4% – is now available via Raasay’s website. Expect a similar style in the future, with the batch process providing small points of difference.
There are now nine distilleries on the famous island of Islay, with two more in the process of being built. Ardnahoe, complete with visitors’ centre, sits in a stunning location on the northeastern coastline; it gets its name from the loch whence it draws its water.
Competing with eight well-established distilleries on the island is quite an ask, but Ardnahoe looks set to give it a good go. The owners, the Laing family, have a long history of bottling whisky from other distilleries. The family business was established in 1948, while Stewart Laing and his sons Andrew and Scott set up Hunter Laing in 2013; this is the first distillery they own.
Islay whisky is, of course, known for its signature peaty tones, and the Laings are not looking to move away from this. So how to make their mark? First, they employ a long fermentation of more than 60 hours, thereby lending plenty of fruity character to the spirit. The stills are relatively large, with very long lyne arms providing plenty of copper contact, further boosting the fruity notes. Then the use of traditional worm tub condensers – the only ones on Islay – lends a viscous texture and plenty of body. Worm tubs are large, round wooden vessels with a snake-like copper tube spiralling through them to condense the vapours back to liquid spirit. This process takes longer in a worm tub than a more modern condenser, which is why they are not used much today, but what the accountants lose, our taste buds gain.
In the bottle: Ardnahoe has yet to announce its first release, but any new distillery on Islay automatically gains profile, and Ardnahoe’s reputation as an independent bottler will give consumers huge confidence. Expect the whisky to sell out quickly when it eventually arrives.
The Ardnamurchan peninsula is the most westerly of the Scottish mainland and is a remote but beautiful part of the country. The distillery itself is owned by independent bottler Adelphi, whose long history dates back to the Adelphi Distillery built by Charles and David Gray in 1826.
At its height in the 19th century, under the ownership of Walker & Co, Adelphi was producing 2.3m litres of whisky a year, but after a gradual decline it ceased production in the early 20th century and was demolished in the 1960s. Three decades later, Jamie Walker, the great-grandson of one of the original owners, created the Adelphi bottling company, which has grown to become one of Scotland’s most respected independent bottlers.
In 2004, the company was taken over by whisky lovers Keith Falconer and Donald Houston, who moved to establish their own distillation facility by building Ardnamurchan. Adelphi’s focus has always been on bottling only the best casks, and it came as no surprise that their own whisky would follow a similar path. Officially opened in 2014 by Princess Anne, its first release came two years later: the Ardnamurchan 2016 AD. A total of 2,500 bottles was produced, and sold out overnight. In 2018, production capacity doubled to 400,000 litres; an initial 5,000-bottle release was created from larger barrels, but since it was not yet three years old it was classified only as ‘spirit’. Since then, a five-year-old whisky has been released and has sold quickly.
In the bottle: Ardnamurchan is the first distillery to use blockchain to give full traceability of production from field to market, found by scanning the code on each bottle. Bottles are produced in a batch process, so a bottle bearing the code AD/07.21:05 was batch five, distilled in July 2021. Ardnamurchan uses a mixture of peated and unpeated malt for a lightly smoked, fruity whisky, with lots of orchard fruits and vanilla fudge. It’s available from specialist retailers such as The Whisky Exchange.
Of all the new distilleries profiled here, Dornoch is probably the quirkiest. It was built by Phil and Simon Thompson in an old fire station at the back of the Dornoch Castle Hotel, which the family also owns. It is tiny. Most small-scale distilleries might produce 100,000 litres of spirit a year, with most traditional distilleries producing more than a million. (The likes of Glenfiddich and Glenlivet can produce over 20 million litres.) Dornoch has an annual capacity of a mere 30,000 litres and produces a minuscule 12,000.
The brothers first gained a reputation as independents, by bottling the very finest single casks, trusting their own taste buds. And while they hope others will enjoy the whisky that they are now distilling, it still feels like they are making it for themselves as much as for anyone else. Harnessing several different heritage strains of barley, the yields are very small. Their first release was made with Plumage Archer and was a single cask of 893 bottles, retailing at £95 each. It was so successful that it has since sold at auction for well over £1,000.
While such demand must have been flattering, the brothers were not thrilled. They are clear in their belief that whisky is for drinking, not investing, and have since introduced an eight-tier ballot system for purchase of both their independent bottlings and future releases. Post an image of an open bottle on social media, and you can expect to move up a tier. If, on the other hand, you are seen to have ‘flipped’ a bottle at auction, expect to descend to the bottom of the pile.
The Thompsons plan to create a little more whisky in the future, and they have bought land on the edge of Dornoch for the development of a 150,000-litre distillery, complete with visitors’ centre and bar. They’re not letting on if they’ll still make whisky at the original distillery, but given that distilling only began there in 2017, it would seem a shame to move on so quickly. Then again, their ambitions only bear witness to the success they’ve enjoyed in a short space of time.
In the bottle: Dornoch has only one independent bottling on sale at the moment, a 27-year-old Auchroisk from 1994 that will have sold out by the time you read this. Its second release is all going to a private cask owner in Tyneside to share among his friends. Thereafter, it will ballot releases, so it is worth getting on the mailing list and also checking the website for well-priced, well-chosen single-cask bottlings from other distilleries.