Ardnamurchan – The western jewel of Scotland

(Or everything you wanted to know about Ardnamurchan but were afraid to ask!)

In this digital age of whisky websites and social media activity, there are very few secrets left in the whisky industry.  Once upon a time, a new distillery would suddenly appear and no one knew much about it except for what might have been published in a subsequent book.  Today, by the time a new distillery’s first release is bottled, it seems we’ve all followed the journey of the distillery breaking ground; building the stillhouse; installing the stills; starting production; and filling the casks.  We’ve done the virtual tour of the distillery before the Visitor Centre has even opened its doors!

One of the primary reasons for this is simply because most of us will never get to make the journey to the distillery, and thus we live and drink vicariously through what we read and view online.   Consider, also, that not all distilleries are blessed by geography:  Auchentoshan and Glenkinchie, for example, are an easy bus ride from the big city centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively, but things are trickier for the more remote distilleries that sit well off the tourist trail or are located on the fringes of Scotland’s reaches.

Ardnamurchan is one such distillery.  If you’re looking to start up a new distillery, your choice of location is fairly critical.  In addition to the most obvious requirement (i.e. a good water source), other considerations will be existing infrastructure, convenient access, shared resources, a ready-made tourist trail for visitors, and ease of transport for both the delivery of materials and the departure of spirit and filled casks.  So – with all these essentials being key to a successful distillery venture – why would you choose to locate your distillery in one of the most far flung, remote, and inaccessible parts of Scotland?  In the case of Ardnamurchan, the answer is pretty simple:  Because they can.

Ardnamurchan is the name of the peninsula on the west coast of Scotland, extending directly above the Isle of Mull.  It is the western-most part of the Scottish mainland, and amongst the most remote and unspoiled locations in all of the UK.  When approaching from the south or east (it’s approximately a 4.5 hour drive from Glasgow, or five hours from Edinburgh), access on to the peninsula is still via a ferry (i.e. no bridges!), unless you care to drive up to the top of Loch Linnhe and head west from Fort William, before dropping down off the A830.   Even taking the more conventional route, the B8007 road to the distillery is a slow, winding, single lane track with intermittent passing bays every few hundred metres to allow vehicles to pass.   The drive would be significantly easier and safer if you weren’t so tempted to keep glancing sideways to admire the exceptionally beautiful views.

The slow, single-track road to Glenbeg.

{Click on the gallery images to enlarge}

The distillery itself is the child of independent bottler, Adelphi.  It’s long been said that independent bottlers would need to own and run their own distillery if they are to remain a viable force in the industry, and the Ardnamurchan Distillery was the result of seven years’ planning by the Adelphi team.  And planning is the key word here…for example, the size of the mashtun (a two-tonne capacity semi-lauter affair measuring 3.2m in diameter) was determined by the maximum possible width that could be transported on a truck over the narrowest bridge on the peninsula!

 

The 3.2m diameter, 2-Tonne mashtun. Sized so that it could be transported across the peninsula’s narrowest bridge!

The distillery opened in June 2014 and so its first spirit has only just made it to legally be called whisky.  But ignoring the spirit for a moment, the distillery itself is remarkable for several reasons.  Environmentally, the distillery is one of the greenest in Scotland, being powered by biomass.  (3.5T of woodchips fuels a day’s production).  The distillery is making both unpeated and peated spirit, with the peated malt weighing in with a phenol content of 30ppm.  The distillery is currently on five day production, with just a single shift each day from 8.00am-4.30pm.  Fermentation times are 68 hours for the shorts, and then 112 hours over the weekend, producing 10,000L of wash from each mash.  The distillery has seven washbacks, although the three stainless steel fermenters are not yet in use.  The other four washbacks are ex-cognac oak washbacks, sourced from France.

 

The washbacks – four ex-Cognac oak fermenters, and three stainless steel.

The stillhouse houses two stills (the wash and spirit still are charged to 10,000L and 6,500L respectively), and looks out across the water.  On a clear day, you can see the village of Tobermory off in the distance on the Isle of Mull.  The wash still takes six hours to produce the low wines, but the spirit still takes just over seven hours to complete its duties.  After a relatively short foreshots run (10 minutes for unpeated malt or 18 minutes for peated), the middle cut is collected over three hours, with the spirit trickling in at around 4.5 litres per minute.

When the distillery first started, the middle cut collected spirit down to 63.5% before switching to feints, although subsequent input from the late Jim Swan saw the cut adjusted; coming on at 77% and cutting off at 69%.  There are thus two different “cuts” of Ardnamurchan currently being matured, both pre- and post- Jim Swan’s involvement.

When it comes to maturation, the distillery has a few more tricks up its sleeve.  The two storey warehouse features a traditional dunnage floor at Ground Floor level, whilst the upper level is a suspended concrete slab.  The temperature difference between the two is very significant, and it’s noticeably warmer when you enter the upstairs section – thus triggering a different maturation environment.

Like all distilleries, spirit is being filled into a mix of casks, although the majority are currently 1st Fill ex-bourbon casks from Woodford Reserve.  Wandering around the warehouse, a few ex-Kilchoman casks were also spotted!

On the upper level of the main warehouse.

Malt for the distillery currently comes from Bairds, although the distillery will add another string to its bow shortly, with construction almost finished on a new floor maltings and kiln.

The maltings floor, still under construction.

Fraser Hughes is the Distillery Manager, and comes from a family history and tradition of distilling.  He cut his teeth with the Morrison Bowmore group, having previously worked at Auchentoshan, Bowmore, and Glen Garioch.  His passion and enthusiasm for the craft is instantly evident and – after a short break from the industry for a few years – you can tell he’s back where he belongs.

Fraser Hughes, Distillery Manager and king of the casks.

The distillery was purpose-built for now and the future, and it features a very comfortable and welcoming visitor centre.   Opening times and tour times vary depending on the season, but there are several different tours on offer, and it’s all spelled out on the distillery website.   With 6,000 people coming through the door each year, it’s clearly a worthwhile attraction.

The tasting room above the Visitor Centre.

Whisky & Wisdom was privileged to taste a few works-in-progress with Fraser, including casks from both upstairs and downstairs in the warehouse; both peated and unpeated; and casks that were filled both before and after Jim Swan’s input.  These included a 1st Fill Pedro Ximinez hogshead at 2.5 years old (incredibly delicious); a peated 1st Fill bourbon barrel at two years old (excellent); and a number of peated casks in various guises and ages.  We concluded that the higher cut of 69% seemed to suit the peated make.   The other surprise packet was trying spirit from a cask that had been filled just two days earlier.  Unbelievably, in just 48 hours, the spirit had already taken on colour, and – as an indication of how good the new make spirit is – the contents were extremely drinkable.

The first official release from Ardnamurchan, the “2016 AD”, was a delicious drop for its youth, but it’s evident to this taster that that was no fluke or one-off.   This is a distillery that’s clearly making good whisky.  Despite the effort to get to Ardnamurchan, the distillery will definitely make the journey worthwhile.   Not to mention the whisky!

Cheers,

AD

With special thanks to Baranows Emporium and Fraser Hughes for arranging Whisky & Wisdom’s visit.

 

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https://www.whiskyandwisdom.com/?p=1874

Author: AD

I’m a whisky host, writer, presenter, educator, taster, critic & all-round malt tragic! Also Director & Cellarmaster of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @whiskyandwisdom and also on Twitter @SMWS_Australia

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