Craft whisky: artisan micro-distillers making Scotch single malts
40 small malt whisky distillers setting up in Scottish towns and cities, as well as outer islands, in trend that mirrors rise of craft beer brewing, with eye to growing market for handcrafted spirits
A new wave of Scottish whisky distilleries are hoping to cash in on the surge in interest in artisan, handcrafted whiskies that has conquered cities across America.
In a deliberate shift from their traditional ties to the Scottish Highlands and Hebridean islands off the country’s west coast, malt whisky distilleries are now opening for the first time in a century in cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, to target younger, urban audiences and connoisseurs who search out locally produced, artisan spirits.
The Scotch Whisky Association estimates that more than 40 small new distilleries are setting up across Scotland, in a trend mirroring the rapid rise of craft brewing that has reinvigorated the UK’s beer industry, and in handcrafted, flavoured gins .
Liam Hughes, the co-founder of the Glasgow Distillery, which borrows its name from the city’s last-surviving distillery that closed in 1902, said his company had seen the sudden success of micro-distilling in New York’s Brooklyn borough, which is now home to at least eight craft distilleries.
“It’s all very much about bringing malt whisky back to the city,” he said. “Watching what was happening in the United States and Tasmania, Australia, there was a real upsurge in craft whisky that links backwards to the ‘think local’, ‘think provenance’ trend in food manufacturing.
“People are fed up with major multinational brands and looking for something with some provenance, that can connect with local people. We want to bring metropolitan distilling back to Glasgow.”
William Wemyss, a specialist whisky bottler and exporter whose family – one of Scotland’s oldest aristocratic families – is opening one of two new distilleries close to St Andrews at Kingsbarns, in eastern Scotland, said whisky drinkers in the UK and overseas are now far more demanding.
“It’s all farm to table, it’s all craft,” he said. “The traceability and provenance of a small distillery [is what customers want]. There’s no growth left in the big, heavily marketed makes.” His distillery will build its provenance by using local Fife-grown barley, partly sourced from his family farms nearby.
In the US, the number of craft distilleries has grown from about 60 a decade ago to an estimated 600 or more making whiskies, bourbons, vodka, gin, rum and more exotic spirits such as absinthe, producing one-off batches and “expressions” with unusual barrels and carefully sourced grains and flavourings.
Scotland’s distillers will also be taking barrels from across the world: port, rum and sherry casks, sauternes or muscatel wine barrels, virgin white oak and bourbon casks. The Glasgow Distillery’s appeal will be based largely on using water from the vast Loch Katrine, which has supplied the city’s population since 1859.
There are plans for a second new distillery and visitor centre in Glasgow near Riverside Museum on the Clyde, which was designed by architect Zaha Hadid. Urban micro-distilleries are also springing up on Hebridean islands, most of which don’t have commercial distilleries, and in Orkney and Shetland off the north coast of the Scottish mainland.
The surge in new distilleries is driven by the global success for Scotch whisky of all types: it is now the UK’s single largest food and drink export. Sales fell last year, but the overall trend has seen single malt export values nearly triple in the past decade, from £352 million in 2004 to £915 million last year.
Despite the growth in distilleries, some of the new generation may not survive. Distillers have to invest upfront for their equipment and, unlike cheaper, grain-based, blended whiskies, many prefer their malt whisky to age for at least seven years in wood barrels – without earning a penny.
With this in mind, micro-distilleries bring in immediate cash by building visitor centres with viewing windows on to the distillery, selling “new make” spirit – the high-strength, unaged whisky spirit straight from the stills – or distilling and flavouring their own-label gin, which can be made quickly and cheaply in weeks.
Some are bottling malt whiskies using outside suppliers, others are drawing in wealthier whisky enthusiasts by selling them entire barrels of unaged whisky as an investment or, like Kingsbarns, offering them exclusive rights to the first bottles.
The Glasgow Distillery’s first malt will not be on sale until September 2018 at the earliest; it is marketing its gin to to the city’s theatres and five-star hotels, along with a high-strength, heavily aged malt whisky blend it calls Prometheus.
Stuart Nickerson, a businessman hoping to open Scotland’s most northerly whisky distillery at the former Royal Air Force radar base at Saxa Vord in Shetland – the first legal distillery on the islands – is selling gins flavoured with locally grown apple mint and then seaweed. He wants to source local barley with Shetland’s agricultural college.
David Robertson is looking to launch Edinburgh’s first urban whisky distillery in more than 90 years close to Holyrood Park, near the site of the city’s last single malt distillery, which closed down in 1925. Robertson was until recently the master distiller for The Macallan, one of the best-known malt whisky brands, and he is looking forward to creating one-off batches.
“I’m much more excited about being a bit more experimental,” Robertson said. “It will be alchemy rather than science. Part of the reason I’m so excited about putting a distillery in an urban environment is to showcase the distillery to visitors from overseas, from Edinburgh, further afield in Scotland or parts of the UK.”