The minimum size of still required for full production whiskey distilling in the UK is 1800 liters. Both Daftmill and Kilchoman stills will be at least that size. Loch Ewe Distillery stills have an approx volume of 120 liters. The process of distilling whiskey at all distilleries in Scotland is relatively the same utilizing large vessels and machinery, and computers. Here at Loch Ewe Distillery, everything is done by hand. A match is required to light the flame underneath the pot; the pot is filled with water, the water heated to 65 degrees, then malted barley is added and stirred by hand for approx. 3 hours using a spurtle. The barley is then removed from the sweet water via a colander with the excess being collected after pressing with a turnip masher. Yeast is then added to the sweet water and ‘hidden’ in the fermentation vessel for three days. The fermented mash is then returned to the still, and the first distillation commences. Once again the flame must be lit by a match. Every last drop of alcohol is returned for the second distillation. During the second distillation, we take and record ABV readings throughout the process. We use the old-fashioned method to check for feints & foreshots as we do not have a spirit safe.
In addition to the physical method of whiskey production being different from any other distillery, visitors to Loch Ewe Distillery can make their whiskey using the above methods and take home their cask to mature.
Drumchork Lodge Hotel had been awarded the numerous UK and worldwide accolades in recognition of the work they were doing to raise awareness of malt whiskey. There was only one thing left which we could not do so it seemed a natural progression to produce our whiskey. There were no licensed distilleries on the North West Coast of Scotland even though illicit whiskey was the main export from Wester Ross in 1928. Illicit distillers were still producing in the area late in the 20th century. This was the ideal place to open a distillery, but it had to be the type of distilling native to Wester Ross, not the type which had evolved throughout the rest of Scotland since George Smith got the license. As the overall whiskey making process is the same throughout Scotland, would you travel an extra couple of days on remote roads to get to the north-west to see the same distilling which you could see at numerous locations around Speyside or Islay? Our distillery had to be different, and thankfully the government finally agreed.
Initially, water was not a problem as we intended to draw it straight from the loch to the rear of the distillery. Unfortunately, SEPA contacted us and advised that this is not acceptable. Because you consume whiskey, it is regarded as food so all raw materials used must be to European standards. We were not allowed to use untreated water for our product so had to comply with their regulations and use water from the tap. Previously,
during whiskey tastings in the Uisge Beatha Lounge, we had identified problems due to the smell of chlorine from the water masking the aroma of the malt. We had to install a filtration system to remove the chlorine from the water, so this had now had to be utilized for the distillery also.
Throughout our search for malted barley, Simpsons of Berwick was the only company who would sell the barley to us in the form we required. The problem was not with obtaining the barley but with delivery, so we just go to Berwick and pick it up ourselves.
It has been a problem getting casks as the cooperage we use is usually very busy with orders from a large distilling company. Our 2, 3 & 4-gallon casks come from Glasgow and are coopered from full-sized casks (via the cooperage) by a retired gentleman who has also made us a few bespoke 5-liter casks from used staves.
The casks which the visitor will take home are made from new oak from a forest on the German – Austrian border. We soak these casks with different types of sherry, port and recently dark rum but we will always be experimenting with different flavors.
We began the project with £50,000.00. The quotes for the stills, casks & building were horrendous and to me seemed ludicrous. Eventually, I contacted some whiskey enthusiast builders, removed the word distillery from other essential quotes and looked to mainland Europe for the equipment; we completed the basics under budget. We had no problem with planning because essentially we were ‘repairing’ an existing eyesore of a shed.
From initial inquiries, Customs intimated that we could go ahead with a distillery, but it must be in the same format as every other distillery in the country. As explained previously, this was not acceptable due to location and self-funding. In researching the early distilling law, I stumbled across a paragraph which I could not find having been repealed. I contacted the whiskey association with my question, but they also could not find the answer. Customs consistently denied my application, so I then contacted Charles Kennedy and told him of my findings via the law. Finally, three years later we got the license, and 15 minutes after that the loophole was closed.
Drumchork Lodge Hotel attracts many whiskey related visitors and through discussion and debate knowledge was amassed and stored. Local people in Wester Ross have a great knowledge of illicit distilling, and there is no end of people willing to tell of their experiences in days gone by. A great source for distilling secrets is one of our neighbors who (allegedly) made the best whiskey in the area. Her name is Kay Mathieson, and she is more well known for being the female student in the gang who retrieved the Stone of Destiny.
John Clotworthy also attended the whiskey school at Bladnoch. The three-day course was invaluable, and John gained lots of knowledge on the principles of mass production distilling from the tutors.
We are constantly experimenting, and although something may be classed as a mistake, so far there have been no catastrophes which could not be utilized elsewhere.
Loch Ewe Distillery was initiated to attract visitors to Wester Ross and in particular Drumchork Lodge Hotel.
The distillery tour begins and ends in the Uisge Beatha Lounge where you can gaze at the malts on the gantry or admire the private collection of rare bottles in the glass cabinets. Staff is trained in both the hotel and distillery, therefore, you can always find someone to answer that question. A tour with tasting costs £5.00 per person, and many people purchase a 100ml gift boxed bottle as a keepsake. These bottles are also available by mail order. Also we sell 50cl pottery jugs at £75.00.
Loch Ewe single malt is distilled using illicit methods, therefore, it is ready to consume as it comes off the still as was done in the last century. The clearance has been distilled relatively quickly due to the small volume of mash, therefore, it has not had time to become harsh or tainted so is palatable immediately. We do rack the spirit into casks but have been surprised at the number of people requesting bottles of the white whiskey.
It would be possible to make approx. 600 liters per year but that is unrealistic due to our scale.
At present we have two casks maturing in our warehouse and 1 in the Uisge Beatha Lounge. Persons attending to make their spirit take the cask away on completion of the course. Our stills cannot produce enough whiskey for the sales so in general the spirit does not mature in the warehouse for very long before it is moved to the lounge when required.
Our whiskey is released as required. To date, the oldest whiskey we were able to keep in a cask made it to 7 months. We felt that the volume of spirit in the 2-gallon cask had taken too much influence from the wood, so we are monitoring different sizes and volumes.
You say we are selling ‘new make’ spirit. When does new make spirit become whiskey? I say we are selling traditional Uisge Beatha as produced in Wester Ross. We have called it ‘Spirit of Loch Ewe’ as this evokes the spirit of the people producing and selling their illicit whiskey while struggling to survive in this harsh, remote landscape of Wester Ross before finally being faced with the evictions.
‘Spirit of Loch Ewe’ will continue in its present form for the foreseeable future. There are no additives in our whiskey, and due to the small volume and cask size, it has taken on a wonderful color and flavor within six weeks. So far the spirit in a 5-liter cask is at its best in 6 weeks but that is our opinion, and we are biased.
We have always marketed ourselves and the hotel at whiskey fares around the world. e.g., New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, the Hague, Leiden, London to name but a few. Also, we regularly advertise in whiskey magazines in various countries. As we are running both the hotel and distillery, it is becoming a bit of a problem for the time to attend these shows. We class these shows as our holidays, so the expenditure is offset.
The biggest problem initially was getting the license in the format we required. Since starting the venture, the biggest headache has been the Customs forms relating to the bonded warehouse. I must add though that customs staff has been brilliant and helpful to the best of their knowledge in keeping us right.