I started to really appreciate whisky’s complex charm when, 25 years ago, I drove up to Ross-shire to have a look at Glenmorangie. It was a hell of a journey, over 1,200 miles there and back. The distillery is on the edge of the southern shore of the storm-whipped Dornoch Firth; the precious spring water used in the distillation, hard and full of minerals, tumbles down through pale-coloured sandstone from the Tarlogie Spring and through the distillery grounds. When I arrived, the then-manager Mr MacGregor took me to his bungalow and gave me a cup of milky coffee and a plate of pink coconut biscuits. After a brief inspection of the tall copper stills, I climbed into his Hillman Minx and we set off to look at the spring’s source, in the forest two miles up a muddy track. It was a silent place, with just the whisper of the water and the wind in the trees.
When we got there, the source bubbling gently out of the ground, MacGregor sprung into action. “Will ye tak a dram?” he asked. By then I knew about drams; they could be about half a pint or so of raw spirit. And it was 11 o’clock in the morning. But I said, “Thank you, sir, I’d love one.” He moved aside a rock embedded in the mud above the water. Beneath it was a metal box with a latch, which he flipped open to reveal a bottle of whisky and some glasses. Wearing an expression of infinite smugness, he poured out two generous measures, saying, “Ye must always add a drop or two of the watter to bring the whusky alive.” After adding in some of the wild water from the spring, he passed me my dram. “There y’are, the 10-year-old malt mixed with the watter it’s made from. Slàinte,” he toasted to my health.
It turned out that MacGregor had bottles hidden all over the countryside, and guests were never short of a dram. While the cynic in me understood that this was clever marketing, the romantic preferred to think of it as the very height of hospitality. To me, that dram by the spring, that heavenly mouthful, was a revelation.
But then, I have an idyllic attitude to whisky. I like to believe in the validity and character of the terroir; I like to believe that, like wine, the quality of a whisky is intensified by the landscape where it is created – helped by the climate, the water, the wood and the skill of the whisky makers. It’s this, the charm and tradition of the malt, which consumes many of us when we sit before the fire on a winter’s night and pour ourselves a glass.
Since Glenmorangie, I’ve often dreamt about a distillery of my very own – perhaps in a corner of the Highlands, or perched alone by the Atlantic on a windswept island. From a strictly business standpoint it’s not a bad idea: malt whisky is entering a golden age, according to industry figures. Sales increased by 11 per cent in the first six months of 2013, and exports to South and Central America are rocketing; Mexicans are now apparently aficionados of Laphroaig. And in the UK, a new generation of men and women are discovering, and loving, fine old malts. The taste is diverse, subtle and unique; the one you choose says something about you.
I talked to Dr Nick Morgan, head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo, which owns 28 single-malt distilleries and is the biggest whisky distiller in the world. I explained my ambition and asked him how to buy a distillery. It wasn’t long before I detected a hint of pity in his voice. “Distilleries occasionally come up for sale, but you must be very careful. You may think you know about the market, but my suggestion is that you seek professional advice. And whatever you think it’s going to cost you, you’ll need more.”
Part of the problem is the popularity of single-malt whisky, and today most of Scotland’s hundred-odd distilleries are working flat out. One could simply wait for something to come up for sale, but as Jim McEwan, the distillery manager at Bruichladdich, noted when we spoke, it might be a very long wait. McEwan knows about buying distilleries: Bruichladdich, which was built in 1881 on Loch Indaal on the Isle of Islay (and which changed hands only a couple of times in the ensuing 120 years), was sold in 2000 to a consortium led by Mark Reynier, of the independent bottling company Murray McDavid, for £6.5m. He hired McEwan to take charge: much of the place was dismantled and the original Victorian machinery was restored and reassembled; the company continued to use the traditional Victorian method of distillation, but called themselves “progressive Hebridean distillers”. When Bruichladdich went on the market again in 2012, it was bought by Rémy Cointreau – for £58m. When I visited, McEwan gave me a glass from “The Laddie” range; it includes a 10-year-old, 46 per cent malt, is un-peated, un-chill-filtered and free of even the hint of anything artificial. It is a masterpiece, and the only organic whisky I have ever tasted.
Other distilleries that have changed hands in recent years include the old works at Kingsbarns, which the Wemyss family bought last December and is currently rebuilding, and Edradour, a lovely little malt distillery near Pitlochry, which was bought by Pernod Ricard in 2002. But, notwithstanding the occasional happy ending such as Bruichladdich’s, it seems that established malt-whisky distilleries with any potential are being snapped up by big companies like Rémy and Diageo (much of whose single-malt production is sold for blending by big brands such as Johnnie Walker and Bell’s).
According to Morgan, however, a potential distillery owner would need to watch out for overproduction, as this can leave distilleries with large stocks in bond, and a buyer could then find themselves with a possible tax liability, when in due course the stock needs to be bottled and sold.
I was beginning to understand that the market pickings might be more minefield than sweet shop. After further conversation with Morgan, the conclusion was that the best course of action would be to build my own distillery instead; at least this way there would be no one else to blame if it all went wrong. Morgan explained how to go about it.
The first and most important thing is to reconcile oneself to the fact that it’s not a magic process. Despite my own enchanted notions about making the spirit, whisky isn’t wine, and distilling is a science, albeit one pursued in beautiful surroundings. The key is to find and hire an expert. Thankfully, there are a number of them. Dr James Swan, an authority on whisky and a distilling consultant, presses all the right buttons for the putative entrepreneur: he specialises in maturation in oak wood, cask management, blending, flavour composition and distillation, and will advise on all aspects of creating a new distillery, including the selection of an experienced manager to run the business for the first few years.
The second imperative is a location with a good source of wild water. This is absolutely critical – and is also where the novice may well encounter his first bureaucratic confrontation, which will be over the extraction and disposal of the water used in the distilling process, of which large quantities are required. The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) strictly enforces measures to avoid drying out rivers and wetlands, destroying or harming wildlife, and interfering with other users of the water – particularly farmers. Morgan suggests a working farm as an ideal location; besides the water source, it would provide accommodation, a possible separate income and land on which to grow, store and malt the barley. There’s also a relatively large area from which to choose: Campbeltown, the Highlands, Islay and Speyside are where much of Britain’s single malts are distilled, with isles like Skye and Jura providing ideal conditions. Advice and help from a good land agent, such as Savills or Knight Frank, will be invaluable in negotiating the ins and outs of the local market.
The third priority is design. There is a wide choice of architects who specialise in the field. Austin-Smith: Lord, who is responsible for the Roseisle in Speyside, and Organic Architects from Helensburgh, which has designed the new Ardnamurchan Distillery, located in Argyll, are both worth consulting. There are two elements in distillery design which are common throughout the industry: the traditional pagoda on the roof and the copper stills. Copper is always used in whisky distillation; Diageo even owns its own firm of coppersmiths, Abercrombie, in Alloa. They built the 14, 5m-high stills for Roseisle and maintain those installed in the Diageo distilleries. Forsyths in Rothes, an independent company, build copper stills as well as mashtuns, washbacks, spirit safes and all the specialist equipment.
Then there is sourcing the raw materials for production to think about. Morgan recommended I consider the Kilchoman distillery as a model for my own project. It was built on Islay in 2005, and its first single malt was released as a three-year-old in 2009. “They grow their own barley and they do their own floor malting. It’s the first one on the island for 124 years,” says Morgan, “and it was constructed on a farm, as distilleries used to be. It’s small, but it produces 125,000 litres of alcohol a year.” Islay was chosen because it has all the qualities required to make good whisky: the land is fertile and there is an abundance of both pure water and peat for drying the malt.
Which brings us to the last concern: the sort of investment money required. “Impossible to predict,” he says. “But when you have your business plan and a figure in mind, I would double it. If you require investors, they will need to have deep pockets; and even if not, it will be a minimum of three years before you have your first cask – and a chance of any revenue.” At this point, the aspiring distillery owner takes stock. He must talk to the bank, decide where to build and whom to commission as consultant. He needs planning permission, an experienced manager and a young assistant who can learn from him. He will have to find a land agent and an architect, unlimited water and certification from SEPA to use it. I have spent several hours discussing my ambition with Morgan.
I have enjoyed listening to his patient advice on this subject about which he is both knowledgeable and inspiring. Those who enjoy whisky will understand the phenomenon that occurs every time you have a conversation about it: after a while – in my case, with this particular conversation, quite soon into it – you develop an overpowering desire to pour yourself a glass of the stuff and drink it.
After we had finished talking, Morgan gave me a bottle of Talisker Storm, a malt launched in spring of this year. Talisker is distilled on the coast of Skye, a few miles from Talisker Bay. “Why is it called Talisker Storm?” I asked. “Well, it’s just like the original Talisker,” he said. “Only more so.” Cheers to that.