DISTILLERY PROFILE: GLENWYVIS
Spirit of life
Looking west, against a backdrop of rugged hillsides as far as the eye can see, GlenWyvis distillery stands defiant against the wild splendour of the northern Highlands. There is a beauty to the landscape, but its emptiness also reflects a social problem that affects much of rural Scotland. This crowdfunded distillery is determined to help regenerate the local community
WORDS: JULIEN WILLEMS PHOTOS: PETER SANDGROUND
GlenWyvis distillery sits on the edge of Dingwall, which – like so many other towns in the Highlands – has seen much of its youth move away to find opportunities in bigger towns and cities. The desire to help regenerate the area was one of the prime reasons for setting up the distillery in the first place, says manager Matthew Farmer.
“GlenWyvis is first and foremost a social enterprise, created to help support and regenerate the local community and economy,” says Matthew. “What forms these investments should take is still open for debate, but we will be reinvesting the distillery’s profits into the community.”
It all began with an unorthodox idea – crowdfunding a distillery that would be owned by the local community. The GlenWyvis team was founded in 2015, inspired by the region’s long and rich distilling history. Most of us are familiar with the big whisky houses of the northern Highlands, but before them came distilleries now long lost to the whims of time and fate. Names such as Ferintosh, Glenskiach and Ben Wyvis will forever echo in whisky history.
But setting out on a quest to create Scotland’s first community-owned distillery and the first active one in Dingwall for close to a century was not an easy task. The team first had to start building support for the project. About a year later, GlenWyvis announced share opportunities and sold gin distilled in Shetland, aiming to raise £1.5 million. After just 77 days, defying all expectations, the project raised £2.6 million from no less than 2,200 people. Investment opportunities ranged from £250 to a maximum of £100,000 for anyone residing in the local Inverness (IV) postcode area.
Matthew Farmer (left) with Josh Fraser (middle) and distillery operator Craig MacRitchie
GlenWyvis office manager Josh Fraser
“We needed more than half the investment to come from the IV postcode area to earn the community-owned status,” says GlenWyvis office manager Josh Fraser. Limiting the amount any one person could invest was essential as “we wanted as many locals as possible involved in the project,” he says.
“It also makes sense, given the company structure: whether you invest £250 or £100,000, you still only get one vote.” Another unusual feature is that once elected, board members serve in a voluntary capacity, and over the first few years, various specialists in law, accountancy and other professions were elected to the board. In that same year, ground was broken at the distillery site. Construction was completed in November 2017 and production of the first gin and whisky new-make started in 2018 under the management of Duncan Tait, an industry veteran whose distinguished 27-year career took him from his beginnings at Teaninich to master distiller at Mortlach distillery before taking the reins of GlenWyvis. In 2020, Duncan passed the mantle to Matthew.
Meanwhile, from June 2017 until 2019, a second share offer managed to raise an additional £1.1 million, bringing the number of investors in the project to 3,600. All in all, 65 per cent of the investors reside in the IV postcode area. The reputation of GlenWyvis distillery however had already been carried far and wide, with investors from more than 30 countries supporting the endeavour.
The first bottling of GlenWyvis whisky was released in 2021. “It was really satisfying to get the whisky out there and finally put it in the hands of our investors and directors who had been supporting us from day one, for five years,” says Matthew.
FUNKY FRUITINESS AND EXPLORATION
Moving on through the site, Matthew and Josh take us to the production area. After passing a looming 36-tonne capacity malt silo, filled with malted barley, we gather around a half-tonne mash tun. “We get all our malted barley from Bairds in Inverness, just over 15 miles from the distillery,” says Matthew. “They themselves source their barley from local producers.”
As he opens a washback a waft of fruity, smoked beer hits our nostrils. Matthew, who left Scotland for the US at the age of 14 before starting his career in the whisky industry, developed an early interest in the GlenWyvis project and ultimately decided to move back to Scotland to be part of the action.
“This is one of our first runs that uses a heavily peated malt,” he says. “In the US, we didn’t have these aromas in distilleries. Since I’ve been back, it has been amazing to rediscover smells I had not really experienced in 20 years.” GlenWyvis is running a six-day fermentation, says Matthew. “We rely on this long a process to allow for the funkier fruitiness of secondary fermentation. It might sacrifice a small fraction of our yield, but it’s all worth the additional flavours.”
While looking at the washbacks and taking in the smoky and medicinal brewing vapours, we catch sight of distillery operator Craig MacRitchie. Also known as “Employee No. 1”, Craig has been with the company since the very beginning and is a key cog in the machine.
The distillery has been conceived to be run by a single operator working through the whole cycle. If something were to take an unexpected turn at any point, Craig knows it and can adjust the next steps accordingly by himself. Moving into the next room, two copper pot stills dominate the space. With their artisan size capacities of 2,500 litres and 1,700 litres for the low wines and spirit still respectively, these two pots are more sensitive to atmospheric temperature changes than larger ones, which brings in an element of seasonality to their double distillation.
“Employee No. 1” at GlenWyvis, Craig MacRitchie
“In winter, because of changes in pressure, we have to make sure our stills don’t boil over, and in summer we have to make sure we keep our condensers cool enough,” says Matthew.
“The main difficulty is making sure that you do the exact same thing every day, whatever the conditions, to keep the spirit character intact. Because we are crowdfunded, though, we have a lot more freedom to do and create what we like. We have instituted an ‘experimental week’ every year where there is a whole new world for us to explore.” With casks piling up and now requiring new storage, “it is an exciting time where we can start showcasing the stuff our whiskies are made of,” says Matthew.
“We use quite a few refill casks to that effect. I really like refill bourbon casks too, because in the long run they give you much more consistency. And after all, whisky at its core is more than just a big bold cask influence, although we like and have a space for these expressions too.”
“What we’re about is elevating a painstakingly made distillate with just a nudge of oak in the right direction and make an excellent whisky for the good of everyone in our community.”
GlenWyvis also has sustainability in mind. Like many other Scottish distilleries, the draff left over after mashing the malt is used by the local farm to feed cattle, but that’s not all. The distillery is operated using sustainable wind, hydro and biomass sources of energy, making it entirely sustainable.
And this approach is also reflected in the packaging, which avoids plastics, instead opting for cardboard. “Although the choice in packaging caused us a few issues early on, we have managed to overcome them, but I think it was well worth our trouble,” says Josh.
Expect to see more batches of GlenWyvis hit the market on a yearly basis. I know I will be looking forward to it. Leaving the distillery with a sample of their inaugural whisky, I did the only thing that would, in my mind, properly do justice to this special offering from an exceptional new distillery. I made my way to Ben Wyvis, the nearby Munro (Scottish hill over 3,000 feet), and walked to the summit to savour my first sip of GlenWyvis whisky. What a treat that was, and what a view. It seems there are good things on the horizon for GlenWyvis and this dynamic new distillery on the landscape.