Interview with Alex Bruce of Ardnamurchan Distillery

Alex Bruce

When I read that Ardnamurchan Distillery was using some rather interesting anti-counterfeiting technology, the first thing that crossed my mind was: do they even have any bottles to counterfeit yet? Then, would there be a lot of interest in counterfeiting a new distillery’s bottlings compared to, say, Macallan – a distillery that takes a good while to even notice its own counterfeit bottles these days?

But as I read a little more, I could see that what Ardnamurchan Distillery was doing was, in fact, a little more interesting than counterfeiting technology, which I’m sure makes for a nice headline and gets that all-important traction with the press that these newer distilleries are fighting for.

Indeed, by scanning a QR code, drinkers can find details online displaying a host of information about the whisky, including the bottler, the farm(s) involved and so on. In other words, striving for more openness about provenance, and stimulating interest in drinkers about how their whisky is made, going beyond mere tittle-tattle about the wood. (The only shame is the fact that it uses a QR code rather than, say, an actual code to enter online.)

Now, we at Malt can’t argue with that philosophy. I was aware of the distillery, though, with a lot of new operations that are on the way to releasing whisky, you don’t tend to hear much about their progress. I also knew about the company’s Adelphi whiskies (which are fantastic) and also the Glover whiskies (also fantastic). So, I thought it was about time I got in touch with Alex Bruce, MD of Adelphi, which runs the Ardnamurchan Distillery, to have a chat.

Ardnamurchan Distillery

Malt: The exterior design of Ardnamurchan Distillery looks modern and precise yet still has the recognisable features of a distillery – that has been missing in some recent builds – how difficult was this to achieve?

Having visited a number of new distilleries in the UK, it is great to see how they have been constructed to suit their surroundings and purpose. Some have, quite rightly, understood the importance of visitors and incorporated design and style that might have previously been overlooked. Others have been carefully blended with existing structures.

With a green-field project in a remote and unspoilt location, we were keen from the outset to build a distillery that was in keeping with its surroundings, traditional to look at, but purposeful in terms of modern materials used. Our architects, Organic Architects of Helensburgh, have gone on to complete a number of new projects for the industry.

Ardnamurchan Distillery Interior

You’re keen on promoting that at Ardnamurchan Distillery you’re producing a world-class single malt, but that’s really influenced by what is done within. What can you share about your production methods – anything from distillation times to fermentation, even your wood policy – that can help back up such a claim to satisfy hardened whisky geeks?

We are often asked, why build a distillery in Ardnamurchan? In essence, we can start our process with lovely soft, peaty water, and end it one of the best long-term maturation climates anywhere in the world.

Given that the primary purpose of Ardnamurchan was to produce and mature Single Malt for us, we are in a fortunate position that we can seek added quality at every point along the way.

This is a hands-on distillery, and each member of the production and warehousing team is trained in all parts of the process, and there are no computer-aided shortcuts.

We can also ensure that production methods and times are for the purpose of ultimate quality and not necessarily beholden to a specific time frame to maximize quantity through round-the-clock shifts.

Most of the methods have remained locked in from the start, and we have the great Dr Jim Swan’s legacy to thank for that, but we have also tweaked other aspects to increase the unique style. To help us understand this, we filled a number of 55-litre octave casks in the early months to accelerate maturation and give us a window into how the style was maturing.

From the mash we want a fruity style, but also aim to retain some oils for texture. The fermentation averages 80 hours and, again, our attention is on fruitiness in the wash. We use one distillers’ yeast for our peated and 2 for our unpeated. We employ fairly high and short alcohol cuts, especially in the peated, ultimately aiming for a clean spirit, but we also collect the middle cut very slowly. The spirit is then pumped up to the warehouse and filled into carefully selected casks from the US and Spain. All of these are 1st fill, and have been selected from the same cooperages in the 2 countries to ensure consistent quality.

However, we also use a small number of 2nd fill casks, that have previously held Adelphi single cask bottlings, and some from other distilleries where we know the provenance and previous usage. This will ensure that we have quality locked in for longer maturation as well.

The warehousing at Ardnamurchan Distillery is unique with a two-storey dunnage example built into a nearby hillside. Did this present any challenges, and what features does it offer for maturation?

Once we had relocated the single highland cow, and a telegraph pole from the site, excavation soon showed that we had deep peat to the front, where the cooling pond and visitor centre are now located, and impenetrable rock at the back. The maturation warehouse was destined for the latter, and we ended up with a steep rock face behind it, that allowed both lower and upper access to 2 floors.

As a result, the hill water is diverted around the warehouse, keeping the lower level very humid and temperature stable (about 12-14C year round), but the upper level is more susceptible to seasonal weather and is considerably drier. In essence, this gives us a long maturation space downstairs, and an accelerated one upstairs.

Both levels are traditional storage, 3 casks high on stows, the lower level is down to natural floor, while the upper is on reinforced (luckily) concrete.

We’re seeing different types of warehousing nowadays and the storing of casks to maximise space and minimise costs. Why was a dunnage style important to you compared to more modern alternatives?

Space is always going to be at a premium for casks – we have already filled our first warehouse (both floors) and are about to start filling 3 more that are being built for us on the hill above.

However, we were adamant that the casks should individually be given the best environment for maturation, and this is ultimately going to be in an environment that allows full circulation of the surrounding natural climate, hence the reason for sticking with the traditional dunnage method.

Ardnamurchan Distillery

What involvement have you had with regards to farming your barley? Have you requested any particular varieties, for example, or have you had much to do with how the farmers actually farm it?

Our offices and bottling warehouse sits on land that has been farmed by my family for over 300 years, and we have been very grateful for a direct supply contract for barley destined for our unpeated malt from this farm. To date, we have asked for the current varietal, Concerto, but, going forward, and especially once we have commissioned our own small floor maltings at the distillery, we will be experimenting a little further, especially with early harvest varietals, more suited to the Scottish growing season.

I note that you’re keen on green credentials – are you encouraging organic farming in the field as well?

We are certainly focused on a sustainable approach to distilling and, although this does not necessarily include organic farming, the farm does employ an efficient and sustainable approach through the use of recycled garden waste from the West Fife area, ploughed back into the soil.

We are also the first Scottish distillery to be wholly reliant on locally-sourced wood chip for heat and steam provision, delivered from only 2 miles away, and electricity taken from the hydro-electric generator on the same river as our cooling water is abstracted.

How has demand been for your private cask scheme given the competition from new distilleries, and is this an option that you will continue to offer?

We have been overwhelmed by the response to our private cask scheme. It was originally designed to let private customers join us on our exciting distilling journey, but also priced to allow us to buy back some, once mature.

We are now coming to the end of our 3rd annual offer, having reached the allocation each year, and are planning to reduce the allocation considerably from next year.


Adelphi whiskies

Adelphi whiskies have a very fine reputation. You say that you accept only 4% of casks that are offered to you. What criteria do you use to turn down casks?

Taste – quite simply, if we like the taste we buy them and bottle them. It doesn’t matter to us if they are young or old, or which distillery they come from. Sometimes, we will buy blind and then decide to bottle or re-sell the casks, but we will never bottle one for ourselves unless we are prepared to stand behind it.

Logically this would mean that casks you hold as not fit for purpose are consequently bottled and sold by other independent bottlers. What do you make of that?

We have never matured casks from an early age for Adelphi, so have very little stock at any given time, that isn’t about to be bottled. However, those mature casks that we have bought and don’t meet our criteria, or are superfluous to our requirements at that time, are traded on for other stock – this is a very valuable process given the current demand for stock.

I don’t actually know what happens to the casks that we trade – some might end up as single casks, others in small batch single malt or blends, but it would be a far less exciting industry if we all had the same taste.

Some say that the number of good casks on the market is getting generally poorer – or rather, good indie casks are hard to find – especially with so many other independents on the market. Have you found the good stuff harder to come by?

There is always going to be a measure of nostalgia as we grow older, and perhaps progress through the different levels of expertise in any given field, but I do feel that age is often confused with quality. Yes, we have been lucky enough to have been enjoying the excesses of production during the last boom period in the industry for many years now, but this stock from this period is beginning to dry up and we now should be equally grateful for the more robust wood policies that started to be implemented in the late 90’s, early 00’s, and are now offering up some really exciting younger whiskies.

I suppose that the only negative, if you can describe it as such, would be that there is more consistency in maturation now, and less opportunities to come across the one-off, extrovert, single cask bottling.

Given the number of distilleries having increased production over recent years, you sensing over production from some distilleries, with more spirit becoming available?

I probably have 2 hats on here: with our distillery, I am optimistic that quality Single Malt will continue to find a home in an ever-growing global market, and the boom and bust of previous eras should become less extended with this consumer-lead focus on quality and unique styles.

However, it would be good to maintain a decent balance of independent stock available to the secondary market, even if the values remain strong.

You don’t seem as prone to finishing as some other bottlers. What do you think of this technique? Do you think it is being used by some bottlers to attempt to remediate bad whisky?

While we have never been keen on changing the style of our casks through secondary, or even tertiary, filling into different types of cask, a “finish” can, and does, find new customers for Scotch whisky. Personally, and given the nature of distillation, I would always prefer that a cask has only previously held an incumbent that has been through the oxidization process.

We’re big fans of the Glover whiskies. Are you looking to release more international whiskies or hybrids along these lines? Indeed, what’s the reception been like to the releases now that a bit of time has passed?

Delighted to hear that! It has been an amazing journey so far, not only being able to research and bring to life the extraordinary Scots that we have named the whiskies after, but also working with distilleries and bottlers all over the world to source exceptional casks from them, and then try to fuse a “marriage” with casks from our own industry.

To date we have blended, bottled and sold 4 editions of the Glover (hopefully more to come), 1 edition of the Kincardine with our friends at Amrut in India (the 2nd is due shortly under a new name), and are working on several more from other countries.

Yesterday, I was incredibly honoured to receive the Order of the Scottish Samurai for playing a very small part in the ongoing relations between Scotland and Japan and promoting our longstanding friendship.

Finally, one I’m sure many an ageing drinker whose eyes are fading may wish to ask: have you any plans to make your Adelphi labels… a little larger and easier to read?!

Sorry, I didn’t hear that, can you repeat the question?


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