All that marketing fluff you see today about tradition, heritage, and hand-crafted quality when it comes to whisky wasn’t always just marketing fluff. About ten years ago, there was a genuine passion on behalf of real whisky fans to both understand the past traditions of whisky-making and create a more authentic future based on that history, hoping that a renewed focus on those now-ubiquitous buzzwords would result in something truly special. When I use the word “authentic,” I mean whiskey made in a manner before mass consumerism and global capitalistic desire; back when whisky was designed to taste as good as possible, not serve as many customers as possible. The goal wasn’t necessarily to sell more whisky. It was to drink better whisky.
That’s not to say that “authentically made” whisky is better by default, because you still have to know what you’re doing. When it comes to making classic single malt Scotch whisky, you just have to be willing to work inefficiently in the name of better flavor. That could mean floor malting your own barley by hand, or lengthening the time of both fermentation and distillation to achieve texture and character. In both cases, the cost effective decision is to streamline the processes based around potential alcohol volumes, not a specific flavor profile. However, to ignore the efficient process in favor of the more artisanal one is what gives the latter its definition. That’s what “hand-crafted” quality and “authentic” heritage meant at one point in time to whisky-making.
Back in the heady days of 2010, when the legends of long ago were still within reach, some of us passionate retailers were so taken by the heritage of whisky that we would drive around Scotland in search of these lost casks, even visiting the abandoned facilities and forsaken sites no longer in operation. It was an homage of sorts, a pilgrimage to discover Scotch whisky’s past, and connect and commune with it in some way, hoping to somehow reach deeper into the intoxicating world of that tradition in order to channel it moving forward. We weren't alone, however, and there were a few other folks out there who were far more ambitious than us.
It was around that same time—circa 2011—that a group of very ambitious whisky fans went looking for the former site of Wolfburn, an old distillery established in 1821 that likely stopped operating at some point around 1872. It was built near the town of Thurso, a remote sea port along Scotland's northern coast that's known for quite a nice wave amongst surfers, and the name Wolfburn (like many Scottish distilleries) came from the water source nearby—a small stream with cold, clear water (the Wolf Burn) that flows all the way to the sea.
When the group finally located the verdant grounds they found little more than a pile of stones, but the stream was still there; and where water still flows in Scotland, whisky will soon follow. By 2012, a small parcel of land along the Wolf Burn stream was purchased and plans to rebuild the distillery began. Many of us had been monitoring the moves of Kilchoman to see if the general public would support the concept of a small, independently-owned single malt distillery making delicious, but somewhat pricy boutique whisky. After the tiny Islay producer was met with a huge fanfare, it seemed this whole Scotch renaissance had legs. By January of 2013, Wolfburn distillery was open and the stills were running once again. By 2016, we were selling the first edition of new Wolfburn here in the states; one of the most precocious young whiskies I had ever tasted.
In talking with Wolfburn’s Harry Tayler this week, looking to catch up on what I’d missed over the last year or so, I was excited to hear that Wolfburn had expanded to four full-time expressions since I’d left the industry: the standard Northland edition (now five years of age, instead of three), the sherry-matured Aurora, the cask strength Langskip, and the lightly-seated Morven. I’d recently tasted through all four whiskies and was utterly impressed with how dynamic they were in their youth, although as Harry would go on to tell me:
“Even the new make is delicious right off the still. When you nose the worts, it smells something like Juicy Fruit gum and bananas. That’s because when we distill, we run the stills at a lower temperature than normal to preserve those flavors, which means we have to run the stills longer. Because we run the stills longer, the spirit is in contact with the copper or longer, which strips out all the impurities. Our new make spirit is therefore very fine, very pure.”
That’s what I’m talking about when I use the word “inefficiencies”: being willing to be less cost-effective in order to produce a better flavor. That’s what artisanal distillation is supposed to be about.
Part of the reason that Wolfburn’s wort, or fermented barley mash, is so fragrant is because they allow it to ferment 25-35 hours longer than most other distilleries. After about 40-50 hours, a fermenting vat (or washback) of barley wort has attained its 8-9% ABV of alcohol and is therefore ready to be distilled. That’s when most production efficient distilleries begin pumping their alcoholic wort into the first of two copper pot distillations. Not Wolfburn, however. “When you’re fermenting wine, the alcohol level eventually reaches a point where it kills the yeast and they stop working,” Harry explained during our conversation; “but that’s not the case with an 8-9% ABV wort.” While the yeast is no longer converting the sugar into alcohol, it does continue working on the wort and by leaving it in the fermenter for a 75-80 hours, it creates a lighter, sweeter whisky with incredibly fruity aromatics. “It’s vastly inefficient,” Harry added; “but the flavor differentiation is enormous!”
Flavor differentiation is exactly what Wolfburn is after, cutting no corners in the name of efficiency. “We said to ourselves: ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s do it as best as we can. Let’s not mess around. Let’s make the best whisky in the world,” Harry noted, when I asked what motivated the team to make such efforts. “There is zero automation in what we do,” he added; “Every drop is made by human hands. It’s how whisky would have been made in the original Wolfburn distillery.” That commitment to quality doesn’t stop once the whisky has been distilled either. Wolfburn’s close relationship with an independent Speyside cooperage has allowed them access to top quality casks as well. “We’ve always said: ‘If you put good spirit into good wood, you won’t go too far wrong,’” Harry noted.
Indeed that is the case.
Tasting the Langskip again this week, I’ve been utterly smitten by many of the attributes Harry mentioned during our chat: the fresh aromatics on the nose, the light and sweet character on the palate, the clean and fresh finish, and the whisky’s simple charm from front to back. At 58%, it’s a far cry from the bold, in-your-face approach that a number of overzealous producers seem driven towards in today’s market. It’s elegant, refined, and it tastes like its been fussed over. That’s probably what caught the attention of another elegant, refined gentleman who happened to drop by the distillery just yesterday: none other than Prince Charles.
“He overstayed his scheduled time, so clearly he was enjoying himself,” Harry said as he described the visit; “He filled his own bottle by hand and was in no hurry to get away. He genuinely likes the whisky, which is why he agreed to come and visit in the first place.” It’s interesting to think about the juxtaposition of Wolfburn’s location (along Scotland’s rugged, windswept northern coast) with the style of whisky it produces. Surrounded by open moors and brooding wetlands, one might expect a bold, aggressive, and manly style of whisky, strong to the taste and intense on the palate. To the contrary, however. Tasting the lightly peated Morven again this week, it’s incredible just how soft, concentrated, and lithe it is on the palate, brimming with clean peat and sweet smoke as you exhale. The finish lasts for a solid two minutes as the flavors casually dissipate in a long, slow dissolve.
When I asked how many casks Wolfburn has laying down in its traditional dunnage warehouses, Harry answered: “As we talk now, we have 5,000 casks laid down, which is enough to make 2 million bottles.” I was completely taken aback by that number, but as Harry added: “We are fully committed. We don’t have a plan B, so this has to work.”
It’s certainly working so far. There are few—if any—single malt upstarts that have captured the tradition, the romanticism, and the quality associated with Scotland’s whisky-making heritage as well as Wolfburn. On top of that, they’ve managed to match the quality of their whisky with the sleekness of their packaging. The wood block seawolf that adorns each bottle is by far the coolest distillery logo in the business, and when you read the words “hand-crafted” just above the crest on each box, rest assured that’s not marketing fluff. With Wolfburn, the proof of that commitment is palpable in each sip.