For our Valentine’s Day session, we chose a selection of whiskies backed up by stories of passion – drams that wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for someone really pushing them to be made. Here are those stories.
Kingsbarns Dream to Dram
We started the night with the Kingsbarns Dream to Dram, a whisky that sprung from the mind of one man. Golf caddy Doug Clement worked the greens and fairways of the Kingsbarns golf course, down the road from the more well-known St Andrews. While carrying clubs, telling visitors which way to hit the ball, and being a general fixer for their trips to The Kingdom of Fife, there was one question he got more than almost any other: ‘Is there a whisky distillery near here that I can visit?’.
After a while of saying ‘No’, Doug decided that he should probably make the answer ‘Yes’. Starting out in an era before crowdfunding, he pioneered many of the fundraising techniques loved of start-up distillers. Active across social media, he told the world of his vision, started a founders club and began to gather funds. In the end, despite years of work, he was still short of his target and joined up with the Wemyss family to push his dream over the line.
The Wemyss have long been a presence in Fife, from leasing the land on which Cameronbridge distillery stands to its original builder – the Haigs – to running their own independent bottling company: Wemyss Malts. It was a natural fit, and the distillery started producing spirit in early 2015.
To secure the final funding, Doug sold his business to the Wemyss. While he stayed on as a director of the company and ran much of the customer facing side of the distillery, he eventually left Kingsbarns in January 2017. However, he may no longer be directly involved with the distillery he founded, but he’s still its number one fan. When the first release from the distillery hit the shelves, he was on hand at the launch, along with a new acquisition that he was finally able to unveil on the night – a tattoo of the bottle:
He may not be making the whisky day to day, but it’s still very much on his my mind.
Teeling Single Pot Still
The Teeling family have been a driving force in the Irish whiskey world since 1987, when John Teeling founded Cooley distillery. At the time, there were only two working distilleries in Ireland, and the Teelings started the rolling ball that has eventually, 30 years later, led to the explosion of distilling across the country.
The Teeling distillery is the work of John’s sons, Jack and Stephen. In 2012, the family sold Cooley to Jim Beam. John retired, Jack left the company and Stephen stayed on to help manage the transition. Jack didn’t stay quiet for long, and quickly started up The Teeling Distillery Company, with former Cooley head blender Alex Chasko as his head distiller. They started building a distillery in Dublin, and using stock from Cooley that they’d kept as part of the sale, they put together their first whiskies. As soon as Stephen had finished his work with Beam, he left and joined his brother at Teeling.
It took until 2015 for the distillery to open, and its first spirit turned three in 2018. However, rather than switch over one of the existing releases to use the distillery’s only spirit, the brothers instead released a new whiskey, one that celebrates an older style: pot still.
Pot still whiskey is very much the whiskey of Ireland. A mixture of grains with malted barley, distilled in a pot still, it traces its history back to English taxes on malt and the distillers attempts to get around them. It is also a style of spirit that almost entirely died out during the 20th century, along with many Irish distilleries. Despite the resurgence of distilling, until the launch of Teeling’s Single Pot Still, there were only two distilleries who had any on the market: Irish Distillers, makers of Red Breast, Green Spot and all of the other well-known pot still whiskies; and Dingle, who have released two small batch bottlings.
Pot still is an evocative subject, as it now has a legal definition, something it never did back in its heyday. The recipe must now contain at least 30% malted barley, at least 30% unmalted barley, and at most 5% ‘other cereals’. As Peter Mulryan points out on the Blackwater Distillery blog that’s a definition with no historic basis, but which does fit in with what Irish Distillers are making.
Anyway, no matter the definition of pot still, the Teelings are now making it in large enough quantities to make it a commercial product. Irish Distillers are no longer the only maker, and the door is now very much opened for pot still to yet again have (at least some of) the range of flavour it used to in the past when there were more distillers. Let the Irish whiskey revival continue.
When it comes to people passionate about whisky, Dr Bill Lumsden – head of whisky creation for LVMH, owners of Glenmorangie and Ardbeg, is one the pops to mind. Frequently dragged out of his blending lab to tell people about his creations, his obvious love of whiskymaking is only equalled by his fondness for fine suits, great wine and the filthiest jokes known to mankind. Each year, he is given seemingly free reign to create a whisky that is specifically his – the Glenmorangie Private Edition. This year marks the tenth anniversary of the range, and to celebrate, Bill has rolled out his geekiest creation yet, Glenmorangie Allta.
The idea started with a visit from whisky writer Michael Jackson when Bill Lumsden was the distillery’s manager. He insisted that Glenmorangie used a special, custom yeast, unlike other distillers. While Michael was certain from the flavour profile of the distilery’s whisky, Bill couldn’t find any evidence of it in recent memory. Inspired by Michael, Bill started a project to create and then use a special yeast.
They started by swabbing parts of the distillery and the nearby Cadboll estate, where Glenmorangie sources some of its barley. In the end, viable yeasts were found on the samples taken from barley at Cadboll, and, having selected one, yeast expert Lallemand grew it from single cells up to the multiple tons needed.
Now, a decade later, the whisky made with the yeast – and Cadboll barley – has hit the shelves. Matured in second-fill and refill casks to keep the wood influence in check and emphasis the spirit character created by the yeast, it’s a tribute both Michael Jackson, who passed away in 2009, and to Bill Lumsden’s creativity, which shows no sign of stopping.
Bruichladdich Bere Barley 2009
This is a story about passion for the land, for farming, and for tradition. And a damn nice whisky that Elise snatched up from duty free on a trip to Shanghai last year. Now sold out, this is a very special whisky from the ever-interesting folks at Scotland’s progressive Hebridean distillery.
Bruichladdich have no lack of passion – they’re ridiculously loved-up about whisky, their Hebridean heritage, and their brand. But their Bere Barley stands out as the most pure expression of the passion for terroir that has driven this ambitious team from the start. From their website: “Bere is the ancient landrace from which the illegal spirit uisge beatha was distilled back in the 18th century and from which modern whisky was to evolve.”
Bere barley is a truly ancient grain, the oldest under continuous cultivation in Britain. It’s been growing here for 5000 years at least – an ornery, stubborn thing, well-suited to poor soils, harsh conditions and the long cool days of the Orkney growing season. It’s difficult to grow and even more difficult to distil with, with a hard grist that is particularly unfriendly to mill. Famously, when Bruichladdich first attempted their first mash the bere barley mixture broke their Victorian equipment.
Bruichladdich have been working in collaboration with The Agronomy Institute at Orkney College, University of Highlands and Islands (UHI) for more than a decade now, and the Institute manages the bere-barley supply chain for the distillery. This 4th edition, now sold out, was made with grain from four Orkney farms: Weyland & Watersfield, Richmond Villa, Quoyberstand, and Northfield Farms.
Bere barley is never going to get easier to grow, harvest or distil – making this whisky will always be a special labour of love. If you see a bottle, buy it!
Dingle Single Malt Whiskey, Batch No 3
Today the Irish whiskey scene is booming and it seems like a new distillery breaks ground every second Tuesday. Best count is that there are now as many as 50 distilleries in various stages of planning, building and production across Ireland, according to Billy. But back in 2012, when Dingle started production there were only three companies making whiskey, and Dingle made it four.
Dingle was founded in 2012 by the threesome behind the Porterhouse pub chain – Oliver Hughes, Liam LaHart and Peter Mosley. These independent Irish brewers set up as craft brewers back in the mid-90s before hipsters were even a thing, and we were all watching Point Break (the original one, aka the good one) and Reality Bites.
Their beer empire grew to include clubs and restaurants, and is now mahoosive. For guys who could afford anything, even with their brewing success launching a distillery was a step into the unknown. Ireland was just coming out of recession and there seemed little reason to take such a risk.
It was the passion of Oliver Hughes that made Dingle Distillery a reality. A larger-than-life character by all accounts, it was he who led the charge to build the distillery in 2012 in a redundant sawmill in Dingle on the south-west coast of Ireland. They were the first new distillery in the country since Cooley in the 1990s, and kicked off the current boom in Irish distilling.
Dingle is small – producing just two casks of spirit a day. They have two pot stills, and are about to expand to double production. Batch 1 of their single malt was just 7,500 bottles. Batch 4 (imminent) will be 30,000.
The tragedy of this story – and why Batch 3 made the tasting – is that Oliver died of a heart attack in July 2016 just four months before the release of Batch 1.
The London Distillery Company 109 Casks – Cask #109
This is a slightly more personal whisky than any other Billy has written about – it’s his own cask.
The London Distillery Company was founded in 2011 by Darren Rook, Whisky Squad’s original ‘whisky guy’. While he’s man with a stupidly large number of ideas, Darren seemed to always come back to wanting to build a distillery and make whisky. While managing the Scotch Malt Whisky Society rooms in London, he made some useful contacts, found a business partner and launched.
Crowdfunding had definitely been kickstarted in 2011, but TLDC were one of the first to apply the model to the booze world. Billy kicked in a few quid, and has been told that he was the first person to transfer money into the nascent company’s back account.
The plan was simple: make gin and whisky. The same plan that has become a mainstay of much of the new wave of British distillers. Unfortunately, when you’re the first company to do something, is often a little harder to do, a fact that hit TLDC hard. While the distillation regulations had been tweaked in the years before TLDC was founded, allowing whisky makers to use stills smaller than the previously, getting the local HMRC branch to license a small still was a different matter. Getting a gin-making license was simple, but it took over a year before the distillery could start distilling whisky.
Eventually, on 12 December 2013, the first barley-spirit distillation took place. It was only a test run, and we don’t know if any of the new make was kept for maturation, but finally the company could start making whisky. However, making whisky costs money, so the distillery started its first cask ownership program: the 109. They would produce 109 casks – the number of years since there had last been whisky distillation in London – and fill them with spirit made using heritage yeast and barley. Billy obviously bought one.
It took a while for the whisky to actually get made, but on 9 September 2015, ta 20-litre refill bourbon cask, previously filled with whiskey from Kings County distillery in Brooklyn, was filled with barley spirit made using Plumage Archer malt, and both a 1920s’ distillers yeast and Whitbread B brewers yeast, the latter still used today by a huge number of brewers to make beer.
Billy’s cask yielded 28 bottles at an impressive 63.3%. And it’s good. Which is a relief.
These days, things are very different at TLDC. The distillery has moved from Battersea to Bermondsey. Darren is no longer involved (ask me about that over a pint), nor are any of the distillery staff from the Battersea days. Original distiller Andrew started Sweetdram and now makes weird and wonderful spirits in Edinburgh; Joel, former distiller and Whisky Squad boss, now runs booze trips around the south-east as Grape and Grain Tours (Billy did one – he’s really good); and the rest of the gang are spread across the UK doing beer- and spirits-related things.
It’s still a project driven by passion – grab Toby the distiller for a bit and you’ll see that – but things have definitely changed. The new team are very gin focused, with Dodd’s and Kew Gardens both doing very well, and it’s a very different company from when Billy used to help out at shows, or pop down to the distillery to have a chat with Darren.
Billy’s next task is to work out what to fill the cask with next. There’s a little distillery called Bimber down the road from his house who might be able to help…