Kilchoman and Daftmill are just two of a new generation of distilleries making waves in the whisky world

  • The Larder
  • 1 May 2009
Cask No 1

The image of whisky is often wrapped in age-old traditions and lore. Now, for the first time in decades, new whiskies from brand new distilleries are beginning to appear. Josie Butchart seeks them out.

Artisan food and drink businesses run by passionate entrepreneurs are springing up all over Scotland. But what if your dream is make your own whisky? After all, small-scale distilling is illegal (the Excise Act of 1823 sets the minimum size of still at 40 gallons). Distilleries don’t come cheap and even if you can afford the price tags you could wait years for one to come on the market.

In recent years a few adventurous souls have decided to build their own distilleries. These ventures are much smaller than the new distilleries planned by the big drinks companies – the most recent small project, Daftmill in Fife, produces just 20,000 litres of spirit a year compared with the 10 million litres that would typically be produced at a large distillery – but they can be many times more interesting for the whisky drinker.

Harold Currie retired from a long career in the whisky industry in 1995 and became the main investor in the first modern distillery to be built on Arran. Over on Islay in 2005, Anthony Wills founded Kilchoman, the first distillery to be built on the island for 124 years. The same year the Cuthbert family, owners of Daftmill farm in Fife, transformed their old mill buildings into a distillery.

Even more distilleries are in the planning stages, including one at Port Charlotte on Islay which is to be built on the site of an abandoned distillery by the privately owned Bruichladdich distillery, and a carbon-neutral venture in Huntly, Aberdeenshire, being proposed by the independent bottler Duncan Taylor & Co.

Anthony Wills, managing director of Kilchoman, explains why so many people are suddenly interested in creating their own whiskies by pointing to the surge in demand for premium and more unusual malts. ‘There are now a huge number of collectors and enthusiasts looking for something a bit different,’ he says.

Francis Cuthbert of Daftmill says distilling is an effective way of turning a low-priced commodity (barley) into something much more profitable. For a barley farmer there is also the opportunity to take whisky back to its traditional roots. That’s because building new means the distillery can be designed to suit modern requirements and, ironically, that can mean a return to a more traditional way of doing things. Both Kilchoman and Daftmill are ‘farm distilleries’ where the barley used by the distillery is grown on site (100 per cent at Daftmill, 30 per cent at Kilchoman).

At Kilchoman they also practice floor malting, the traditional way of malting barley by hand. The distilleries planned at Port Charlotte and Huntly will be as green as possible, with the Huntly distillery using a woodchip-fuelled biomass plant to provide steam for the distilling process and a warehouse with a sedum or ‘living’ roof.

It’s a move even the multinationals are making. Diageo’s massive new distillery at Roseisle by the mouth of the Spey, with 14 stills and a price tag of £40 million, emits just 15 per cent of the carbon dioxide of an existing distillery of the same size, recycling water and generating power by burning its own waste.

There are, however, some disadvantages to starting from scratch. The most important is that whisky takes a long time to mature so it is a long time before money comes back into the business. The new spirit must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years before it can be sold as Scotch whisky and most single malt whisky isn’t released until it is between eight and ten years old.

The Arran distillery released its first ten-year-old malt only in 2006. ‘It was a big step for us to finally put an age statement on our whisky,’ says managing director Euan Mitchell. ‘It said: “We’re here, we’ve arrived and we’re not a baby distillery anymore.”’

Kilchoman is poised to release its first three-year-old spirit in September 2009, but managing director Anthony Wills says he doesn’t expect Kilchoman whisky to reach its peak until it is between seven and ten years old. ‘Our intention is to do regular releases but only because we are targeting connoisseurs and they understand that a three-year-old whisky is not the finished article, that our whisky will get even better,’ he says.

Daftmill, one the other hand, doesn’t intend putting its whisky on sale at all until it is around ten years old. ‘You only get one chance to make a first impression and we want that to be as good as it can be,’ says Cuthbert.

The release of a brand-new whisky creates a buzz quite unlike the now-familiar rebranding and repackaging exercises from the well-known names. When these new whiskies are finally ready they offer the whisky drinker not just the chance to expand their whisky geography, but also taste the spirit of the age: a more traditional, greener, artisan product that harks back to the grassroots of whisky making.