Have you seen the price of whisky nowadays? Talk about excessive and yet the demand is still out there fuelled by unseen forces and investment funds. The last great bastion of whisky involvement apart from having your own distillery is cask ownership. Here we’re going to talk about my experiences of this dynamic and more specifically about Dornoch distillery and what they’re trying to achieve.
Full disclosure or transparency as we like to call it here at MALT. I know the Thompson brothers, who have established their own distillery within the grounds of the Dornoch Castle Hotel after a considerable effort in 2016. Then there’s that whisky bar within the old fortification itself. A bar the stuff of dreams with the bottles you’ll see plastered across auction sites or pouting, cigar smoking Instagramers with the seal firmly intact. Venture into this landscape, experience the liquid and you’ll soon re-evaluate the whisky of today. This older style should not be consigned to the history books. More than ever before, armed with knowledge and science, you can recreate the style and bring to life whisky with flavour for a new generation.
Why wasn’t anyone actually doing such a thing already is the question? It’s far from a revolutionary idea after all. A combination of factors no doubt created a towering sense of inertia. Combined with the devastating force of finances this meant it was easier to follow the herd. Distilling by economics and by that I mean the highest yielding crops, short fermentation times and quick turnarounds. For a distillery as small as Dornoch this would maximise their limited output and give them the most bang for their buck. Except they wanted to recreate a lost style and to do so might not make immediate financial sense. Phil and Simon wanted to own their own distillery and explore the classic flavours of whisky on their own terms. They knew a market already existed for their whisky and pursuit of old-style malt from their time in the Dornoch Castle Whisky bar.
The brothers turned to the crowdfunding route and the initial batch 100 casks or so sold out in a prompt fashion. As with all good crowdfunding or Patreon drives, there are various tiers of rewards. Things proved more popular than anticipated and for such a small distillery they’ve balanced the requirement of filling these casks whilst producing their own spirit to mature alongside the ever popular presence of gin. The dream was a reality and as they’ve acknowledged to the initial batch of crowdfunders; those of you who took a chance on us and our ideas about single malt whisky and ‘craft’ – in the plainest and most authentic definition of the word – Scottish distilling. Those of you who put money on the table and backed us because you, like us, wanted to enjoy spirits that are as good as they can and should be.
The focus has always been to create an old style of single malt scotch whisky but what is that to the unaware? It starts at the very beginning with each stage of the distilling process broken down and maximised. Producing new make is hard work and defines the origins of any distillery. Sadly, over the decades many have abandoned the factors that assisted their prosperity. It begins with the organic Plumage Archer barley and after years of research in-house yeasts rather than just the latest commercial chuck-it-in variety. Then the wooden washbacks play host to their contents for just a week. Yeah, you read that right. Just 7 days or in distillery speak 168 hours. With most Scottish distilleries limiting fermentation times to 50-75 hours, to help boost production, it seems excessive but combined with the yeast and patience. This is an incredibly important stage of the process. What about the black art of secondary fermentation? That’s a question for a future interview.
Put aside that Macallan message about the wood – it’s not all about the wood and we’ll understand this more in the coming years as we’ve seen already from many European distilleries. As Co-founder and director Simon Thompson puts it: Scotch Whisky tasted notably different in the 1960s and earlier, before mass modernisation of the equipment and ingredients. The demand for this older style – more focused on distillate character, mouthfeel and tropical fruits – is massive these days. No one else is making this style of whisky anymore so we wanted to really push the envelope and see if we could create a whisky which harks back to these extinct Scotch Whisky characteristics.
Cask ownership is all about patience. The temptation is to focus on the end thereby missing the fact that the journey itself is part of the joy. I have several casks or shares in casks across Scotland. For me, it seemed a logical extension of my enthusiasm for whisky to go that step further. When Dornoch announced their initial Crowdfunding launch, I was aiming for a lower tier initially, then upon reflection and motivated by the prospect itself and supporting these 2 whisky geeks, I went all in. There have been no regrets. Since that moment, and being a regular visitor to the area due to family, in such a short space of time I’ve seen the distillery team grow and the distillery establish itself. Even their gins are remarkably palatable compared to more commercial equivalents and from me that’s saying something!
The Dornoch cask ownership personally has been a solitary affair by choice. That cask #2 is all mine and I’ve tasted the spirit from the still, after an initial period and on its first anniversary. I’m happy and given time the cask and spirit will come together. Even now the temptation is to think of releasing when its officially able to be called whisky and no rules are broken – Dornoch distillery has the right to release their debut malt initially – and rightly so. With such a possession comes great responsibility. The 50-litre octave is more limited and transparent. For the record when its ready I want a couple of cool artists to come up with labels and then I’ll keep them for friends. The rising cost of whisky plays into my mind with the question 50cl or 70cl? These are questions that can only be answered in good time and that’s part of the fun whether you own a cask outright or split with friends.
Already Dornoch distillery needs to expand and satisfy the demand for more casks from onlookers whilst retaining their independence. A new round of crowdfunding has just been announced and kicked off this week. The purpose of this is to allow the establishment of a new distillery, 200 metres up the road in an old Dornoch slaters yard. As you can see from the photographs the current distillery housed in the old fire station is a beautiful thing, however, choke points in the processes hold back the team. There’s very much a hands-on ethic that won’t change going forward, but space will enable a better mash tun and I’ve emptied their current tun once and it was quite an undertaking. Production will be enhanced and more importantly, the benefits to the community will be tangible. New jobs, a distillery shop and tasting room with the ability to provide tours with work starting later this year.
The future is exciting and for those that missed out originally, here’s your chance once again. With a batch of 50 and 100-litre casks from Koval and Journeyman being released for purchase, I’m doing it all again. For more information, you can visit the relevant page.
We’ll hopefully catch up with Phil and Simon soon here on MALT, for a chat about this round of funding and what they have in store for us.