Kythe: proving a point
A new distillery in Perthshire plans to recreate the spirit of the 1960s, with two-week fermentations, a wood-fired wash still and worm tub condensers. Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan caught up with two out of the three co-founders, Angus MacRaild and Jonny McMillan, to find out more about Kythe distillery
ABOVE: Jonny McMillan, Aaron Chan and Angus MacRaild, c0-founders of Kythe distillery
RG: What does the name mean and where did it come from?
JM: We liked the idea of something that was focused on the project, the whisky we’re trying to make. I started looking at Scots words, and there was word featured in Robert Burns’ poem Halloween, ‘kythe’. I had an old Scots dictionary so I looked up this word and it means ‘to prove a point or to become known’, which I guess speaks to what we’re trying to do.
AM: A lot of it is more conceptual and ideological. We’re trying to prove a point and put our money where our mouth is. We’ve been talking about old-style methods and flavours for a number of years now.
RG: Yeah, it does seem to have an ideological focus. This is a real mission that you guys are on.
AM: Yeah, absolutely. It’s pretty ruthless, and a strong conceptual project, because both of us love old style whisky. We love that flavour profile which is essentially tropical fruit, waxiness of flavour, waxiness of texture, fatness, full-bodied which are very distillate-driven whiskies - whiskies that are so much about the distillate and the soul, not just the wood.
We were looking around at contemporary production and never really found something that fully expressed that style or ticked all those boxes. We kept coming back to the conclusion that we fancied having a crack at doing it ourselves and trying to recreate that character or that style again. And, yeah, here we are 10 years later!
RG: I was going to ask where the journey started?
JM: Yeah, I think it was 2014, we were driving back from Tim Forbes’ birthday party in London, it was a long drive. And I think Angus said in a fairly offhand way, "Have you ever thought about having your own distillery?", which was something I had given some thought to. We threw some ideas about how it would work. But we had no idea what a structural engineer was, or a quantity surveyor. I had absolutely no idea how to finance that kind of thing. And really, the learning curve has been steep, and a lot of fun, but I don’t think we had any idea how much effort it would take.
AM: The thing that sets us and this project apart in many ways is that we didn’t have backers with deep pockets to start with. We didn’t have land. We didn’t have our own money or very long illustrious careers in the whisky industry behind us. We had quite a particular area of experience and passion for old style historic flavours of whisky. And we had quite a clear vision. And we’ve ended up with the project finally coming to reality with it being backed not by venture capital, not by a bunch of big, quite faceless corporate investors – it’s all whisky lovers, a group of people that share the vision and that same bug of geekery and enthusiasm.
RG: Where are you in terms of actually making this distillery work?
JM: At the site itself, there are already two barns there with good steel frames. The slightly smaller one will be the distillery and the larger one will be the warehouse. So hopefully we can start by summer. The stills have been ordered – that was a very exciting day, going shopping for pot stills. The plant has been a challenging part, getting that to work within budget. As Angus says, the whole point in this project is to make incredible whisky, as good as we possibly can. And you can’t really cut corners on a lot of the plant. We need good Scottish-built pot stills. And as you know, we’re going to direct fire so that that takes quite a lot of engineering work, which is expensive. That’s been a challenge, but we’re confident we can come in on budget. Hopefully the build will be finished this year and then the kit will go in and be commissioned next year. We’re hopeful of being in production next summer.
RG: How do you go about designing a distillery to create this style of whisky that you’re in search of, this old Highland style?
AM: It’s like retro engineering, from taking the liquid in the glass of the most inspirational whiskies to us. The number of times sitting with drams of liquid – 1960s Bowmore is the one we always tend to go to, the three of us in the project probably idolise the most. And thinking about it, talking about it, understanding it, reading about what was going on, then talking to anyone who had any connection to what was going on in production in those days. But the thing about Scotch whisky is that the actual process of making it is straightforward. The equipment used to make it hasn’t changed dramatically. And there’s plenty of evidence about what equipment was being used and the differences between then and now in the era we are looking at in the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘40s, that time period. It’s not, for most of it, a huge change from what other distilleries are presently using, except in areas of distillation where there was quite a lot of complex engineering work around things such as a direct wood-fired wash still.
But it’s box checking, you’re saying: ‘Right, with mashing, we want a clear wort, so we want to do a one-tonne mash and we want to do a very slow mash, we want to have rakes just do one turn.’ You’re going through ticking boxes and saying: ‘Alright, that’s our process for mashing. For fermentation, we want to achieve as standard a certain amount of time, so we need a certain volume of wooden washbacks. And then distillation, we know we want to direct fire, we know we want to condense through worms.’ Then it becomes more about, ‘Well, how do we achieve that with things like cooling and looking at the site and what the site can deliver for you in terms of how much water have we got?’ So much of it is an engineering solution to deliver your simple but very deliberate choices about production. It’s really about choices, and intellectually deliberate decision-making about production.
JM: It’s much more about methodology than plant, I guess. You need key bits of plant, a direct fire still being the big one. I think worm tubs were also an obvious choice for us. When you taste the great distillates, they always have real weight to them.
AM: And then there’s also things like ingredients and the research that goes into making sure we’ve got a sustainable supply of the right type of barley. We want a heritage and brewing varietals, which essentially deliver much higher ratios of protein, for example, rather than very high starch distilling varieties, which are designed to convert into the maximum amount of sugar to get high alcohol yields. We want ones that deliver a more complex wash, which will, at the end of fermentation, be primed to distill into the type of distillate that we want with the right precursors that eventually mature into the spirit, the whisky we want. It’s about going right back to the beginning with everything and thinking about every single part of the process.
And then around fermentation, it’s looking into what yeast do we want? We want brewer’s yeast, where are we going to get that from? We need to go to a brewery. We need to think about how that yeast is taken from the brewery, how it’s transported, how it’s handled, what condition it’s in when it’s pitched, what that’s going to do to the fermentation. There’s going to be a fair amount of experimenting and playing around in our first year of production to find out what exact ratio and recipe works for us. But we’ve planned all that in, and we’ve factored all that in. I think a big part of what we bring to this is our willingness to not compromise in the areas where we can’t afford to compromise. And our judgment, we’re all very keenly aware of the benchmark we set ourselves and the yardstick of quality that we want to get past. And I think we’re all honest and pretty good at sticking our noses in a glass and saying, "Yes, that’s right," or "Yes, that’s not good enough, we need to change something." That’s very much what the first couple of years will be about.
RG: It’s about consistency, finding the spirit that you want to create, and going on to create that, right?
AM: Yeah, we want to achieve a house style that’s very distinctive, very clear, and very charismatic. I think there’s a certain tension in whisky-making, between the time at which your distillate starts to reveal its true character and how much can you rush that with things like smaller casks in the first couple of years, versus how much of that is actually revealed after three, four, five, 10 years in more standard traditional barrels and hogsheads? It’s trying, or hoping, to get to a point where you’ve got enough confidence to lock in more firmly on a particular type of recipe and a particular method. We’re not concerned that we won’t be able to create something of the beauty and quality that we’re after. I suppose our main area of focus in the early years is: what’s the exact route? What’s the route and the combination of all these different tweaks and very subtle changes that we can make that’s going to deliver the very best and the profile that we really want?
JM: I guess that there’s production parameters that we’re going to stick to, as Angus says. We need to use heritage barley. I think that a lot of flavour that we want is coming from these protein-rich barleys. But within heritage barley, there’s a huge range of things that are available in the market or things that we could grow ourselves. And then equally, we need to use brewer’s yeast. But again, there’s quite a lot of different types of brewer’s yeast, and there’s different ways you can treat it. And then fermentation time as well. There’s some anecdotal evidence of things like two-week fermentations in the ‘60s, but a lot of distillers will have used two days in the ‘60s. So I guess there’s playing about with these parameters. And we know we want to achieve this big tropical fruit, waxy character, [like a] 1969 Longmorn or ‘64 Bowmore. Then there’s also theories about how fast you run the stills or what cut points to take.
AM: When I think of what I want to have achieved with Kythe in 10 years is to create a whisky which people can guess easily. People can put their nose in a glass and go, "Oh, is that Kythe?" That, to me, is something that things like old Laphroaig possess. When you give people that know these whiskies a glass and they go, "That is old style Laphroaig, and it’s beautiful." But they are very subtly different from, dram to dram, from year to year, from cask to cask. Old style whiskies possessed a lovely undulating variation across eras, and even blocks of months of production. And I think a lot of that is because these distilleries were run much more by hand, far less by automation. There was a lot more personal preference of the human beings that were running them day-to-day, being manifest in the process, which ends up being manifest in the whisky later on. But underneath all that, there’s still a core distillery identity, because the ingredients being used, the processes and the equipment and the way they’re being run, it all holistically adds up to something which cannot do anything but create a charismatic type of product.
The other thing about Kythe that’s very important is it’s a commercial sized distillery. We never wanted to make something small and boutique and crafty. It’s a one-tonne mash distillery and if we really pushed it, we’d probably make about 200,000 litres, but we’re aiming for about 50,000. And our business plan and our model and everything, it all factors off this 50,000-litre production capacity because what we’re essentially trying to do is a business model which chucks yield out of the window, gets rid of yield efficiency, all those things and focuses in on quality equals value. And that is what ultimately delivers a sustainable business, which is good for us. This is a lifelong project for us, we want it to be our careers. It’s good for our shareholders. And hopefully it’s good for whisky enthusiasts and people who love tasting beautiful drams.
RG: Tell us about the wood-fired wash still and the challenges of working with something like that, and why you’ve gone for it.
JM: I think when we had our first sort of proper sit-down meeting with the engineers, they said: ‘Look, I don’t think this is possible’ to which the answer was: ‘Well, this is kind of the key part of the project, so we’re going to make it work.’
AM: It will probably be the biggest challenge. If we get that right and we work hard at it, it’s also something we can legitimately say, we really are making whisky with skill by hand in this sense. It’s been proven conclusively over the decades, it does make a damn big difference to the fatness and character of the distillate you make, especially when done in combination with worm tub condensing. And then on top of that, with the spirits still being electrically heated in a manner which mimics the character of direct firing as well, that’s the right balance and a nice little addition, which will help to emphasise this character of fatness and weight in the distillate as well.
The other component of this is, and the reason we ended up opting for wood over coal, is the environmental impact. A distillery of similar scale and spec using a kerosene boiler and driving steam stills would have, I think, 94 per cent higher emissions than us. We’re making a huge emission saving. And as time goes on and we can build in more renewable supply to our electricity requirements we’ll become greener and further sustainable. That’s something that genuinely matters to us. We care a great deal about it. We all think a lot about it, and we’re very conscious that going into the future businesses need to have legitimate sustainability at their heart, not greenwashing.
JM: Another interesting part about the direct fire still is in conjunction with the brewer’s yeast and it’s kind of a working theory. If we’re using brewer’s yeast instead of distiller’s yeast, that’s much less effective at eating sugar. And one of the key things is that brewer’s yeast doesn’t eat multi-trials, which distiller’s yeast does consume. So our wash, when it’s finished fermenting, should have more sugar in it than a modern wash. The main difference with a direct fire still is in temperature – where a steam coil still reaches about 110, 120 degrees, our wash still probably goes to about 400 degrees, so you’re going to get that Maillard reaction, but with more sugar in the wash. It’s a working theory that’s going to contribute to flavour and mouthfeel. That’s the theory anyway!
AM: It will also deliver that undulating character throughout the year when combined with natural variances in cooling across the seasons, which worm tubs would be more susceptible to, combined with the absolutely natural variation you’ll almost get from distillation to distillation through having, I suppose, quite a hands-on, labour-intensive and variable type of heating of the wash still, particularly. Over the course of a year, we think that builds in quite a lot of natural complexity and subtle variation of our distillery character, which, looking ahead to the sort of products that whisky lovers like these days, everyone loves to obsess over single casks. This is the sort of production process that helps build in the right kind of personality combined with the right variation that feeds into that kind of culture and that kind of love.
RG: The emphasis is clearly very much on the spirit that you create, possibly more than maturation. What are your thoughts about maturation? You want to let the spirit sing, obviously.
AM: Wood is still of huge importance, but what we want the wood to do is to sculpt and mature the distillate, not flavour it and not dominate it. We want the casks to be something which nurtures our spirit to maturity but we don’t want a whisky that tastes of splinters. Our view is that we’ll probably fill quite a variety in the early years to help us best understand how our spirit responds to different wood types and different levels of wood activity. But longer term, we’re likely to align around a wood policy dominated by second fill barrels, refill hogsheads, complemented, we hope, by some very carefully chosen sherry casks.
JM: Yeah, no red wine or virgin oak or any of that crap, frankly!
RG: When can we expect to see Kythe whisky in our glasses?
AM: Well, we’re not going to bottle it until we are happy with it, and we think that could be around five, six years old, depending on what the casks are telling us. We’re not going to rush, is the short answer.
JM: I would like to release something that’s five years in a refill cask that’s very different to what people are expecting, but distillate-driven, thick, fruity, waxy. Whether I’ll have that at five, eight or 10, I don’t know. But we want to be proud of our first bottling.
AM: The thing about amazing distillate is that it doesn’t need a lot of wood. Boring distillate needs wood because it has nothing else. But if you’ve got amazing distillate, it needs to be rounded out and sculpted and slapped on the ass a little bit, but it doesn’t need a lot of additive wood flavour. I hope that one day I’ll be able to slam a bottle of Kythe 100 proof five-year-old on the table that’s very pale and absolutely fruit bomb delicious. Watch this space and maybe in about eight years or so we’ll be able to pop the cork on something.