Rye to the fore
Ian Buxton pays a return visit to two relatively new distilleries with a multitude of differences, but which are both turning to whisky’s history to shape a rye-flavoured future
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
Back in the day of Unfiltered’s print edition, my colleagues Tom Bruce-Gardyne (Issue 43, May 2018) and Richard Goslan (Issue 39, May 2019) reported on Arbikie and InchDairnie, two exciting new distilleries under development on Scotland’s east coast – an area relatively sparse in distilling’s history and present-day practice.
A lot has changed since then, not just with Unfiltered, and so it seemed timely to return and measure progress on these two pioneering projects. On the face of it they could not be more different: while Arbikie lies in the middle of some bucolic farmland with stunning coastal views of Lunan Bay, InchDairnie is located on the edge of an unprepossessing industrial estate in Glenrothes. That’s Glenrothes in Fife, a creature of post-war planning that created a ‘new town’ in a bid to create employment through industrial regeneration – a far cry from the picturesque Speyside scene the name may conjure up.
And there’s more. By April 2022, hopefully just as soon as the last fears of Covid subside, Arbikie will be welcoming visitors to a brand new, up-to-the-minute visitor centre. InchDairnie remains firmly closed to the public and has no plans whatsoever to open its doors.
Though today Scotch single malt is distilled from malted barley, with maize and wheat also used for the grain whisky essential to blends, life has not always been that simple
One distillery was dreamed up over several drams in a New York bar by two farmers while the other was the meticulously planned culmination of a 40-year career in whisky production by a highly regarded distillery engineer, sought after for his consulting skills. And one is as high-tech as this industry gets, with custom-designed, bespoke equipment while the other relies more on off-the-shelf plant – as regards the last two sentences, there are no prizes for guessing which is which.
HISTORICAL PRECEDENCE: Ian Palmer notes that rye was previously used in Scotch in the 19th century
NEW DISTILLERIES, A SHARED TRADITION
So I was more than intrigued to make a recent visit to both and explore their differences. What surprised me is that, despite the apparent gulf between them, they have ended up in much the same place: one which, for Scotland at least, is highly unusual. Because, against the grain of standard industry practice, both are distilling rye and will feature this as their inaugural whisky release.
To understand this, it’s necessary to take a step back into history. Though today Scotch single malt is distilled from malted barley, with maize and wheat also used for the grain whisky essential to blends, life has not always been that simple. Historically, other grains such as rye were used to make whisky in Scotland. At InchDairnie, MD Ian Palmer points to the 1908/09 Royal Commission Report on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits as irrefutable evidence that historically rye was used to make Scotch whisky. Similarly, at Arbikie this 19th century practice is cited as a tradition they have revived. It’s curious that while both are breaking with today’s orthodoxy, their innovation is defended by reference to documentation admittedly impeccable as a source but somewhat esoteric for all but the keenest student of whisky’s history. It seems that even the newest of distilleries look to the past in creating a heritage and provenance for their brands.
Arbikie distillery has views across to Lunan Bay
InchDairnie is a more industrial-scale distillery in Glenrothes
However, I’m not so sure they needed to bother. Rye is well established as a distilling grain and rye whisky a key component in many whisky cocktails, especially in the US. Whisky enthusiasts will surely welcome a Scottish twist on this longtime classic and it makes sense for any new distillery to be doing something, well, new – at least in its home market.
The good news is that Arbikie’s version is already available, and comes in two variants. The four-year old limited release of Highland Rye Single Grain uses Arantes rye (some wheat and malted barley is also included in the mash bill) and, in line with Arbikie’s ‘field to bottle’ philosophy, even identifies the precise field where the grain was grown. Bottled at 46% abv, there are just 1,220 bottles available for the whole world though, at £250 a bottle, this may be one that ends in collections rather than on a bar. Though a price drop from the £350 asked for the first release, it can hardly be denied that the price is ambitious for a brand-new distillery, especially as Arbikie’s white spirits are considerably cheaper.
However, there is a second option, that of Arbikie’s no age statement 1794 Highland Rye. Bottled at the slightly higher strength of 48% abv, this is available at £130 – still a considered purchase but it does deliver all the spicy complexity that we look for in great rye whiskies, backed up by buttery brown sugar and honey notes.
Turning to InchDairnie, they have been distilling their RyeLaw style of rye since December 2017 and expect to release it sometime in 2022 – “when it’s ready”, says Ian Palmer. If not Scotland’s first rye, which was one suspects their initial hope, it’s certainly technically interesting.
To produce the more finely ground flour that suits rye, the grain is prepared using a hammer mill as opposed to the conventional roller set-up and instead of the usual mash tun a mash filter (as also seen at Diageo’s Teaninich) provides a higher extract of starch and sugar.
Rye is also infamous for foaming during fermentation, at least so Palmer was warned during his researches in the US. It turns out that this varies greatly between varieties and, entirely fortuitously, InchDairnie ’s Fife-grown grain is free from this problem.
The innovation doesn’t stop there: InchDairnie use their own variation on the Lomond still, designed by Palmer to include six fixed condensing trays, to take the low wines.
With increased copper contact between spirit and still considered vital, the two adjacent pot stills are both fitted with twin condensers, providing enhanced heat recovery as an energy bonus to the process.
InchDairnie’s palletised warehouse
Arbikie master distillery Kirsty Black
With so much relatively novel technology packed into one distillery and the whole site designed from the ground up, it’s a disappointment for whisky enthusiasts to learn that there are no public facilities, though privileged trade visitors are received in a boardroom dressed with stylish contemporary art. But InchDairnie are single-mindedly in the business of making whisky, not tourism or coffee shops, and so we must be content with the website’s tantalising suggestion that “we may in future occasionally host special visits”. It’s one to watch carefully and grab the chance if the doors are ever opened.
But what about the whisky?
As it matures in new American oak it’s approaching the point where Palmer and his team consider it time for the launch, probably early in 2022.
Personally, judging by a precious sample, I’d consider it not far off ready for bottling and tried it with pleasure. It’s a high quality, sipping style of whisky that rewards contemplation and considered drinking – perfect, in fact, for discriminating SMWS members. As to the price, nothing has been revealed though given InchDairnie’s larger volumes compared to Arbikie I would anticipate it to be competitive with the wider market.
Both distilleries are a credit to their respective owners and their entrepreneurial spirit. They bring welcome fresh thinking to the industry, offering the curious drinker the opportunity to explore a style that is both a whisky classic, yet something not seen in Scotland for a century or more. Firmly rooted in their localities, both look confidently outward on a whisky journey that has taken them back to the future.
Inside the stillroom with Ian Palmer at InchDairnie