My poor blog has been somewhat abandoned over the summer months (what little summer we had anyway) so this week’s news of the release of Wolfburn Aurora gave me the impetus I needed to get back to the keyboard and write my long overdue Wolfburn distillery focus.
I’m really looking forward to hearing what these guys have been up to as I used to work with Shane (Shane Fraser, Production Manager) when we were both at Glenfarclas. I know, I know, another Glenfarclas connection but you know that saying about there being only 6 degrees of separation between anyone on the planet? Well, I think when you’re talking about the Scotch Whisky industry you can probably reduce that to about 2 degrees! Let’s see what Shane has to say for himself anyway;
Q. Can you talk us through the process of setting up your distillery?
The journey started in 2011 – that’s when we put together the outline business plan. Finessing the numbers took a long time because every little input has a knock-on effect. For example, the size of the mash has a direct bearing on the size of the washbacks and the size of the stills – not to mention the amount of malt used per week, which then has an effect on the size of the malt bins, and the weekly running cost. By the end of 2011 we had workable numbers, so we set about buying the land and getting planning consent – both of which happened in June 2012. The civil engineering started shortly afterwards, and we simultaneously finalised our contract with Forsyths – they started installing the plant equipment in November 2012. The build was completed in the new year and we went on spirit on 25 January 2013 – Burns Night! Since then it has been non stop – we mash and distill six times per week, and lay down roughly 1,000 casks per year. Bottling commenced in February 2016 and we have already sold a huge amount more whisky than originally forecast. It’s been quite a ride!
Q. Do you have a specific style of whisky in mind and how are you going to achieve that?
Wolfburn’s whisky is light and smooth – a nicely rounded whisky, which we hope is easy and pleasant to drink. Personally I prefer softer spirits and I’ve crafted Wolfburn so it’s a sweet and fragrant dram. It already has quite a following, which is lovely to see.
Q. What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far in setting up a new distillery? What do you envisage as the biggest challenges going forward?
There are so many challenges, it’s difficult to know when to start! Maybe the biggest is to ensure that quality is maintained as high as possible at all times, even when we are doing something for the first time. Sometimes I wish there were more hours in the day!
Maturation is all on site in our purpose-built warehouses. We hand-select all our casks, which mostly come from Spain or America. And we also bottle on site – Wolfburn is one of only a tiny handful of distilleries where everything happens in one place.
Q. Who do you see as your target market?
Anyone who enjoys fine quality single malt scotch, globally. We have distribution in 21 countries globally.
Q. When do you plan to release your first whisky? Will you be producing any other products in the meantime?
We launched in Feb 2016, and have been selling ever since. We’ll never produce anything other than whisky – it’s our expertise and it’s what defines us as a brand and as a business.
Q. What’s your long term goal? Where do you see yourself and your distillery in 20 years time?
To be honest I am enjoying everything so much on a day-to-day or month-to-month basis that I don’t give much thought to long term plans at the moment! If Wolfburn continues to grow, and we continue to produce such lovely whisky, I shall be very happy.
Sounds like Shane is having a ball up there! Let’s see what the end product tastes like then shall we? The lovely chaps from Wolfburn sent me a 3yo cask sample, matured in a quarter cask (like their Northland single malt). It’s sitting at 60.02% vol, so quite a bit higher than their bottling strength of 46%. I’ve drafted in Mark (my husband) to help with the tasting, which is a terrible chore for him I’m sure. Also, I don’t really go in for very detailed tasting notes - I’m very much a broad brush strokes kinda girl - but Mark’s much better at all the bullsh*t (oops, I mean tasting notes) so he’s written more detailed ones too.
My impressions first; it’s a really well-balanced, drinkable dram. It’s got a lovely mouthfeel that really coats the palate and leaves a wonderful soft smokiness. It doesn’t seem overly young, and certainly tastes older than it’s tender 3 years. I wondered whether the slight peatiness on the palate adds a certain maturity? Overall, I’m really impressed and very much looking forward to trying more expressions from this great Northern distillery.
All in all an excellent dram, although you might not get that impression from some of his tasting notes! He is a bit odd and insists that stale custard creams, sileage, pebbles and pumice stones are all meant in a good way!
Incidentally Mark visited Wolfburn in 2013, shortly after they started production, as part of his stag do celebrations. He even managed to take 2 photos while he was there (pretty impressive for a stag do I feel) which I have included in this article.
Happily, all our fears were unfounded. We had a good turnout of around 60 people - some whisky enthusiasts, some novices and some that didn’t even like whisky but had come along because Rhona asked them to and it was for a good cause - We even managed to convert one of our non-whisky drinking friends! (Yes, we do have some!) The joint tasting thing seemed to go okay too, at least after the first dram or two, and, between ticket sales and the raffle, we raised a fantastic £1640 for Macmillan. All in all, a pretty successful evening.
We had a pretty good tasting line up too thanks to Mark’s current employer, Cadenheads, and my previous employers, Springbank and Glenfarclas, who very generously donated all of the whisky for the event.
Huge thanks to everyone that provided whisky, raffle prizes and came along to support the event. Who knows, we may even do more joint tastings in the future!
I have just discovered that, unbeknownst to me, my husband has recently been buying lots of random old bottles at auction. The most recent purchase being a bottle of Bell’s from the 80s.
What’s a wife to do?… Suggest a comparative taste test, naturally!
I was very excited to discover that not only has he been buying whisky from the 80s but also other spirits, including a bottle of Ricard from the 80s that he picked up for the bargain price of £4. Now I must confess, I have a huge soft spot for pastis, Ricard in particular, after spending a year living in Aix-en-Provence when I was a student. I felt terribly sophisticated, at age 19, sitting sipping (ok, slugging) Ricard and chain smoking Gauloises in the pavement cafés of Aix, instead of necking pints and shots in the student pubs of Sauchiehall Street. Nearly 20 years on (eeek!) I am still very partial to a wee glass or two of Ricard as an aperitif, even in the depths of Scottish winter (although it does taste much better on a sunny terrace in the South of France)
Anyway, enough nostalgia. Back to the matter in hand, the comparative taste test, which was now to include the1980s Ricard vs the current Ricard as well as the 1980s 12yo Bell’s vs the current NAS Bell’s. After a quick trip to Tesco to pick up a bottle of Bell’s (since we didn’t have any in the house) and a detour via Mark’s office to pick up the 1980s Ricard that he had secreted there (doubtless along with a few other bottles he hopes to sneak into the house at a later date) we were good to go.
We started with the Ricard since it is traditionally an aperitif. In the interests of fairness, we decided to do the tasting blind so I would pour Mark’s drinks while he was out the room and vice versa. Our efforts were thwarted though when the current Ricard turned out to be much darker than the 80s one, so it was immediately obvious which was which. No matter, we pressed on regardless.
So, on to the whiskies. Bell’s bottled c.1980s vs Bell’s bottled c.2015. Around a 30 year age difference in terms of bottling date. In terms of actual declared age, our 1980s bottle carries a 12yo age statement, whereas today’s one, as with many whiskies, is NAS (Bell’s having dropped their most recent 8yo age statement a number of years ago). This one was better suited to a blind tasting as the colour is more or less identical. That said, it was immediately obvious to us both which was the old bottling and which the current one. We both preferred the old one. The current one, to me, seemed much more one dimensional, although to be honest, it was still much better than I expected!
Conclusions then. The generally held belief is that, unlike wines, spirits do not mature/change once bottled and yet in this taste test both the pastis and the whisky are markedly different. Why is that? I’ve always been very sceptical about the so-called ‘old bottle effect’ in older (as in bottled a long time ago rather than matured for longer) whiskies, but this may have changed my mind. However Mark (who has tried many more old bottlings than I have) doesn’t find it in all old bottlings so maybe it is down to changes in production or maturation rather than the whisky/spirit continuing to evolve in the bottle? Or maybe it is a case of evolution, as in, there are tiny, imperceptible changes in character/flavour each year; when you compare this years bottling against last years they are virtually indistinguishable but if you compare this years bottling against one that was bottled 10, 20 or 30 years ago then the differences are much more marked.
I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ll definitely be seeking out more old £4 bottles of Ricard at auction - much cheaper and just as drinkable, if not more so, than the current offering. Not so bothered about the Bell’s, past or present, though!
Whisky Impressions is run by Kate Watt. Previously at Springbank and then Glenfarclas, I now design some whisky related stuff and write about it, and anything else that takes my fancy, on this blog.