Denis visits the picturesque distillery of Edradour in his quest to bring you the next great whisky cask....
How does one prepare oneself for a day spent consuming copious samples of whisky? With a gut-busting full Scottish breakfast. On the menu this morning was a steaming bowl of porridge, followed by rashers (bacon), sausages, black pudding (blood pudding), haggis (don't bother asking what's in here, just enjoy it!), baked beans, eggs, potato bread, hash browns, fried bread, grilled tomatoes, sautéed mushrooms, toast, and flowing pots of tea. By 10 am, with a fully-lined stomach, we were ready to begin the hunt for the next great cask.
From Pitlochry, we made our way up the hill behind the village, then down into the little valley where the most picturesque distillery in all of Scotland lies: Edradour. This was to be our base camp for the day as it is here that two very important parts of Scotland's whisky industry run in tandem. Edradour is home to the Edradour Distillery, which produces its own aged whisky, while the distillery's warehousing is also home to one of Scotland's most respected independent bottlers, Signatory Vintage. And it was here in 2016 that we selected two spectacular casks and were now back for more.
Our 10 am appointment with Edradour operations manager Des McCagherty and owner Andrew Symington had to be put on hold until Andrew finished unloading casks from the Carntyne transport truck. This is what small-scale operations are all about; it's all hands on deck when deadlines need to be met and it is clear that both Andrew and Des are hands-on all the time. It's this devotion to detail that has made Edradour one of the most visited distilleries in all of Scotland, while Signatory has grown from a small independent bottler with few casks into a very respected bottler with one of the most diverse portfolios in the country.
When we did finally get to sit down with the two of them out came steaming mugs of tea for everybody (the Scots, like the Irish, run on hot tea!). This is the part of these trips that I love, the chance to glean valuable information as to the state of the Scotch industry from two guys who are living and breathing it every day. Of course for Andrew and Des it is an opportunity to get a sense of what is happening in their biggest export market, the U. S. A. (albeit on a small scale, if talking about Indiana). What I sensed from them that day is that things are getting a lot harder, especially for independent bottlers. While there is whisky available, much of the older stocks have been depleted and the big distillers are holding onto their aged whiskies and only selling if cash-flow is an issue. Even Signatory, with their long history of purchasing casks from both brokers and distillers, has not had an easy time getting their hands on good casks, and this is reflected in higher pricing.
But distillers and their owners are always looking at inventory held and how fast they can turn that inventory, and often times a distiller will sell off a parcel of casks to free up cash. From a distiller's perspective, it is much easier to sell a cask of whisky today and get their money tomorrow than to try and sell a few hundred bottles to a few hundred people over the course of a few months. Brokers are always on the lookout for opportunities like these and good relationships mean that good bottlers get the pick of the litter.
From litter to letter, I pulled out of my pocket 'Santa's Wish List' (as it became known that day), and boy was it a long one. With over 120 distilleries scattered across Scotland, I needed to begin the conversation by focusing on distilleries that would work for Vine & Table. As I said in my first post, not everything is for sale and in order to get some of the things that I had hoped for, a certain level of diplomacy would be required, along with respect for our hosts. And in this discussion, new ideas were thrown out, things that I could not even have contemplated. So with a newly revised list in my possession, we set off to see the distillery.
When we last visited in April 2016, new ground had just been broken on a project to construct a second identical distillery across the burn (stream) and a little up the valley from the present distillery. The reason for the expansion is that the original Edradour Distillery is tiny. It's so small (and cute) that it looks like a home for a hobbit. The yearly capacity is just 100,000 liters of spirit, meaning just a few casks of whisky are made a week. To give you a sense of perspective, the new Macallan Distillery that recently opened can produce just over 15,000,000 liters of spirit a year, quite the difference! Edradour has been growing too, but could not keep up with production, and to alter the original facility to accommodate new stills and fermenters would tragically alter the whole feel of what makes the distillery so unique. So the decision was made a few years ago to construct a replica of the production process on a site within a stone's throw of the original facility.
Now, two years, later we had a chance to see the new distillery in action, and what a tremendous job has been done, from whitewashed walls with the signature red-painted surrounds, to an exact replica of the original mash tun, to the tiny copper pot stills and a replica of one of the last remaining copper Worm Tubs, which is cooled with fresh water that flows from the Edradour Burn just a few yards away.
It's a fascinating story as to how Andrew acquired the distillery back in 2002 and who better to tell you about it that the man himself.
Until next week, when I'll give you a behind-the-scenes look at all of the hard work that goes into selecting the barrels we bring back...