In splendid isolation
Ardnamurchan distillery is tucked away at the end of Scotland’s most westerly peninsula, where the natural environment is playing a major role in both fuelling and flavouring the spirit, as Richard Goslan reports
When you have a direct family connection going back to Andrew Usher, the ‘godfather of whisky blending’ who is credited with producing the first blended Scotch whisky in the 1840s, it’s perhaps no surprise that you end up drawn to the same industry.
Alex Bruce (pictured) may have whisky-making in his DNA, but where his relative’s motivation was to create consistency in his blends, as the managing director of independent bottlers Adelphi Alex’s own mission is to pursue variety and difference in its single cask bottlings. But now, with the development of Adelphi’s own distillery at Ardnamurchan, Alex sees his lineage providing a new perspective on the concept of consistency.
“Andrew Usher Senior was my four-times great grandfather, and he’s the guy credited with pioneering branded, blended Scotch whisky,” Alex tells me. “That meant taking whisky from a sort of aqua vita mixed with tonics to a labelled product that could be exported outside of Scotland. His slogan was that you cannot create a brand without consistency. That may seem a bit odd going into an independent bottling company, where consistency is the hardest thing, and it’s probably the opposite of what you want in terms of the actual release. But if you look at quality as consistency, keeping that benchmark, that’s been a very important mantra to me in my career in whisky, and certainly now in terms of what we’re doing at Ardnamurchan.”
Ardnamurchan distillery is tucked away in Glenbeg near the most westerly point of the Scottish mainland
TO THE PENINSULA
Ardnamurchan may well be part of the Scottish mainland, but as its most westerly point, the peninsula feels as remote as any island.
A journey from either Edinburgh or Glasgow will take you close to five hours, involving a short ferry crossing at Corran, negotiating single-track roads and a feeling that you’re venturing not only off the map but back in time.
Adelphi’s decision to build its distillery in such a far-flung place was based more on the fact that one of the company’s owners already owned land on an estate there.
But it also gave access to a water source, suitable space for dunnage warehousing, and a perfect environment not only to produce Scotch but to let it mature. “We had about eight possible sites but went for the one at Glenbeg because of the space and the quantity of water, both from the Glenmore River and also from the spring that comes out of the peat bogs on the hill,” says Alex. “It’s lovely soft peaty water, and this amazing maritime coastal maturation climate has been superb for our warehousing. We all know it’s a bit of a black art when you get to maturation and climate, but we’re only half a mile from the coast here and we definitely have a strong salty element to our whisky, so where else could that be coming from?”
Ardnamurchan has a 10,000 litre wash still and a 6,000 litre spirit still, built by Forsyths
LETTING NATURE TAKE OVER
The distillery style has been dictated by what Alex describes as a traditional West Highland character, peated but not heavily peated.
“One of the points of having a distillery in this location is to allow the environment to help. You might as well use what has been given to you in the local area, maximise the unique flavours of that environment,” says Alex. “For that reason, we wanted to make the best quality we could and then, basically, let nature take over. To maintain flexibility, it made more sense to do both peated and unpeated and then have the blending capacity to reach that consistent level, in terms of whisky in a bottle, much more easily. It also allows for limited runs of just peated or unpeated in terms of future bottlings.
“You also have to remember that our water coming off the hill, which we use to reduce the spirit into cask at its 63.5% abv filling strength, is incredibly peaty, even after it’s been through all the filtration that’s required nowadays. So even our unpeated malt still provides a slightly peaty whisky.”
Maturation takes place on site, with a split-level dunnage warehouse offering a huge contrast in conditions. “The lower level is very damp, beautifully humid and has a constant temperature at 12 degrees year-round,” says Alex. “The water pours off the hill around that building, so there’s massive humidity, and it’s the perfect natural long-term maturation warehouse. Upstairs, however, it’s completely the opposite. It has a concrete floor, it’s much closer to the roof space, so you’re getting a huge fluctuation in heat, from around 2 to 30 degrees in any given year. When you walk into that on a summer’s day, you’re just about knocked out by the alcohol. So that’s accelerated maturation, but it’s been exciting to see the huge difference between the two. Further up the hill, we have three more single level dunnage warehouses, with another two to go in.”
Alex says that 65-70% of Ardnamurchan’s spirit will mature in ex-bourbon casks, with the remainder in ex-sherry as well as some small-batch maturation in casks from different wineries.
Alex’s philosophy has been to ‘maximise the unique flavours of the environment’
A SUSTAINABLE VISION
A start-from-scratch distillery also allows for a blank slate when it comes to technology, and the drive to make Ardnamurchan as energy self-sufficient as possible has been central to Adelphi’s vision. That means using a biomass boiler fuelled by wood chip from local forestry, a first for the Scotch whisky industry. Electricity comes from a hydro-electric generator. Draff goes to local livestock and the pot ale fertilises the area’s fields.
“On the one hand it’s common sense,” says Alex. “In a location like this you need to look at local resources. The local forestry would normally have been carted off to Fort William in heavy haulage, and is now used locally, and you can replant it, so all that forestry regeneration is also helping the area. We’ve also introduced a box from 100 per cent recycled materials, so all these things help to build or retain a low carbon footprint, which is so important for any industry these days.”
One of the benefits of having a biomass boiler is that the distillery has a huge amount of residual heat coming off its cooling grate, with plans in place to use that heat for a malting floor, planned for small batches of barley or experimental heritage crops, as well as for a “smoke box” using locally sourced peat.
MESSAGE IN THE BOTTLES
Technology is also to the fore in the distillery’s embrace of ‘blockchain’ technology to provide a complete overview of every aspect of the supply chain that led to the creation of the whisky. The blockchain gathers information on everything from the farmer who grew the barley, the maltster who malted it, the mashman, the distiller and of course the provenance and history of the casks.
“We’re about 70 per cent complete in terms of where we want it to be, but when it’s finished the project will provide a complete record of the supply and manufacturing chain,” says Alex. “Every cask has a barcode on it with its digital DNA, if you like, and then the consumer can scan a QR code and spend weeks looking at all that information.”
What would Andrew Usher have made of that level of technology and transparency? You can’t help but think that the godfather of blending and the creator of consistency may very well be looking down on Ardnamurchan in admiration.