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A TALE OF TWO (NEW) DISTILLERIES

2muckle_fluggaSome people talk and talk about opening a distillery and others just get on and do it…..

Blackwood Distillers, the Shetland Isles

Being avid readers of the ‘Times’ (the Shetland Times that is - a far better read than the national daily!) we have been keenly following the progress, or not, of the proposed Shetland Distillery. Originally, in 2002, there was a six year plan to build a distillery on land allocated at Catfirth on Mainland (the largest, most southerly isle in Shetland). Bonds were offered in the distillery at £560 each, with the reward being 12 bottles of the first whisky produced in Shetland when it reached 3 years of maturity in 2006 then the same number of bottles again this year when the whisky reached 5 years of maturity. The Shetland Times states ‘few took up the offer’!

With the continuing non appearance of the distillery, as an alternative to the above plan it was decided to mature spirit from the Scottish mainland on the island of Unst (which is the most northerly habited island in the British Isles). This spirit was a vatting of three different eight year old malts from the north of Scotland, and some of this has indeed now been bottled under the label of ‘Muckle Flugga’ (the most northerly uninhabited island in the British Isles, little more than a rock and a lighthouse – as this picture shows) for the bond holders.

Hopes rose for the Shetlanders in 2006 (who were looking forward to the possibility of jobs and increased tourism generated by the new distillery) when a new plan was put forward to build the distillery next to the Valhalla Brewery at Saxa Vord, in the old Ministry of Defence buildings on Unst. This plan also fell through and once again Catfirth became the favoured site. Guess what! That idea is now in limbo as the Shetland Spirit Company has gone into administration, a move further complicated by the impending divorce of Blackwood’s only director, Caroline Whitfield. One result of the move into administration is that the gin, vodka and cream liqueur that the Shetland Spirits Company have been selling under the brand name of Blackwoods have now been licensed to London based Blavod Extreme Spirits for a seven year period (the products themselves are actually made by Inver House Distillers). An announcement on the future of the distillery has been promised this summer!

As an interesting twist in the tale, it now appears 360 x 6 bottle cases of the ‘rare’ Muckle Flugga have been stolen from a warehouse in Borden, Hampshire. Each bottle is labelled ‘for bond Holders’ and ‘Not for resale’. Ms Whitfield commented that "There were several million pounds worth of toiletries in the warehouse due to be shipped at that time. It is fairly certain that the burglary was targeted at the toiletries, but it had already been shipped the day before. When they got in, they didn’t find the toiletries but they found the Muckle Flugga." Police believe the whisky has left the country! Happily the whisky, believed – by whom, it doesn’t say! – to be worth about £30,000, is insured. But you have to wonder how this stolen spirit is being (black)marketed – as perfume water or the water of life??

There have been some interesting comments in the letters section of the ‘Shetland Times’ about the use of the ‘Shetland’ brand for both whisky and gin that was made several hundreds of miles from its supposed place of origin, and dark mutterings about contravening the Trade Descriptions Act. There has also been correspondence featuring a photograph taken of a bottle of "The Original Shetland" Scotch Whisky in Spain in 2001. It is allegedly a 12 year old and is signed by one Robert Sutherland. So what’s that all about? The plot thickens!

*STOP PRESS* The Shetland Times has just published an article stating that Blackwood Distillers are to be placed in liquidation, with a new company called Catfirth Limited being set up in an attempt the rescue the plan for the distillery at Nesting. The new company intend to provide income by continuing and expanding the plan of buying in whisky from elsewhere to mature on Shetland. The saga continues!

And now on to happier news from Fran!

Abhainn Dearg (Red River) Distillery, Isle of Lewis

Marko Tayburn is someone who has quietly, without any fuss, just got on with achieving his dream of opening the first legal distillery to exist on the Isle of Lewis for over 160 years. That dream is about to come to fruition as when I recently spoke to Marko (who I first met when we were both attending the Bruichladdich whisky academy in November 2005) he told me that the first spirit is due to run any day now.

The small scale distillery (likely production around 25,000 litres per year) is sited at Carnish, Uig, and has been converted from part of a former fish hatchery. The location is about as remote as you can get (check out postcode HS2 9EX on Google Earth to see what I mean), and the Red River that the distillery is situated near was named as such because of the bloody battles that used to take place over cattle rustling in the area. This is indeed the Wild Western Hebrides!

Marko’s aim throughout the planning and building of the distillery has been to make it as traditional as possible, and he has paid great attention to detail. The site was carefully chosen with the incredibly pure water source originating in the nearby mountain, and nothing between the distillery and America apart from the wild Atlantic sea. It is hoped that at least some of the barley that will go into producing the single malt whisky will be grown on the island but with the climate being what it is (think wind, rain, and yet more wind and you’ll get the picture) the amount that will be available will be variable.

With regards to equipment the distillery couldn’t be much more traditional. There is an open mash tun with rakes, the washbacks are made from Douglas Fir, all the pipework is copper, worm coolers will be used to recondense the vapours arising through the stills (1 wash and 1 spirit – both of 2,000 litres), and maturation will take place in dunnage warehousing. The tall stills are specifically designed to produce a light and elegant style of whisky and, given Marko’s dislike of peat (resulting from long hours working at the peat bed when he was a wee ‘un) the phenol content of the spirit is likely to be very low.

Marko is working towards his first whisky being ready to come from the cask in time for the 2011 Mod (a festival of Gaelic song, arts and culture) but I’m hoping to make a trip to Lewis later this year and so with a bit of luck should get to try a drop of new make from what will now be the most westerly distillery in the British Isles a bit earlier than most. We’ll keep you updated!

Although Blackwoods have not produced any whisky yet their gin is very recommendable and some of the botanicals do come from Shetland. Click here to see their gins.

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