Continuing reflections of my Scottish distillery tour in July 2017.
Presently awaiting the approval of brown road signs from the Scottish Tourist Board, Wolfburn is situated in an industrial park between BT and The Church of JC & the Latter Day Saints. It’s only a minute away from the Scrabster Ferry to Stromness, but if it’s not on your radar you’ll miss it – and miss it I did! After three glorious days on some of Orkney’s islands [blog], a selfie session at John O’Groats and a night in Wick for the early tour of Pulteney [blog], I returned to Stromness [wrong, Scrabster – thanks tOMoH], three distilleries later to visit Wolfburn.
Distillery manager Shane Fraser was waiting for me at the door and welcomed me in. I was immediately struck by Wolfburn’s compact yet spacious setup, in an ample-sized, logically laid out, high-roofed, well lit, modern barn – with the kind of flexibility the old/established distilleries can only dream of.
Not a great deal is known about the old Wolfburn distillery. What Wolfburn’s website does tells us is:
- In 1821 William Smith founded a distillery on the outskirts of Thurso and named it Wolfburn after the watercourse it drew from, “burn” being the Scots word for stream or small river.
- The distillery was constructed from hardy local Caithness flagstone and the remains of its foundations can still be seen today. Smith invested heavily in Wolfburn and it quickly became a significant producer of malt whisky – tax records from the early 19th Century show it being the largest distillery in Caithness. In 1826 its annual production was 28,056 “Total Gallons of Proof Spirt” – roughly 125,000 litres.
- The new Wolfburn distillery building is just a short walk along the burn from the old site towards the sea.
[Further reading: scotchwhisky.com]
The new Wolfburn distillery, initially situated on a different plot close by, is now well set where it is in Henderson Park. The units which they [Aurora Brewing] own, contain the distillery itself and three warehouses. Crucially, they also have an agreement allowing them to take 10,000 litres of water, daily, from the local Wolf burn.
Wolfburn were lucky to get their plans/spec to Forsyths in 2011, just before the ‘mad rush’ – and a 7-8 year waiting list so I’m often told. Staggeringly, Wolfburn were set up in under a year.
For Shane, taking the distillery manager role at Wolfburn was a no brainier. His remit was to make whisky that will sell. With 14 years experience at Royal Lochnagar, 2.5 at Oban and 5 years at Glenfarclas, Shane had no doubts he would make excellent whisky. Wolfburn’s initial results however, even on the first run exceeded expectations. Now in their second ‘whisky-ready’ year , it’s a testament to Shane that Wolfburn’s spirit is as good as it is.
Wolfburn operate five days a week with a cooling off period on Wednesdays and a leisurely weekend – dreamy!
Starting at the top, the grain bins are twice Wolfburn’s storage capacity needs. The only constraint at Wolfburn, if they were to significantly up production, is the mash tun – only 10% bigger than Ballandalloch’s one tonne-r. All of their other equipment is size/capacity ample, like the two huge red 57000 litre spirit receivers for example, that came from the old Caperdonich distillery.
Wolfburn share the same dry yeast order as Pulteney, but unlike Pulteney and their expensive rehydration machine, Wolfburn simply pour the yeast straight in with the wort into the washbacks. They use only three of four available washbacks, and the working three are only half full during fermentation. This means they have no overflow issues, the need for electric blades or the dreaded soap! Fermentation time is around 75 hours/3 days.
Shane’s moto here is “take your time”. He explains that slow yet sure distillation creates plenty of reflux & copper contact without undue sulphury elements, nor the need for a regulator on the lyne arm.
An oil burner provides the energy for steam coils to heat Wolfburn’s one pair of stills. In keeping with his moto, “the stills never blow at full steam”, explains Shane. Instead “they tick along around 7>8 on the dial”.
The low wines come through at 21% abv with 2800 litres going through to the 3800 litre capacity spirit still. 10 minutes of fore-shots lead to a chunky spirit cut between 73-61 – the spirit run lasting for around 2 hours. The entire distillation cycle is around 4-4.5 hours.
Wolfburn’s first warehouse includes their filling station along with approximately 500 casks. The second warehouse contains around 1200 and the warehouse I was taken to, around 1600.
Sourced from the Speyside Cooperage, their bourbon casks come in from everywhere & anywhere, all shapes & sizes. What’s important is the quality, explains Shane. Inevitably, their sherry butts come from Spain. Then there are the ex-Laphroaig quarter casks for maturing Wolfburn’s non-peated spirit for their Northland single malt. These casks, along with a few octaves, are placed highest in the dunnage-style warehouses to take advantage of the higher temperature fluctuations in these modern barns.
Shane is very pleased with his quarter casks. He tells me they come from Laphroaig still lovely & fresh, and as refills, without such a resinous nip. Sounds ideal!
- N: Those familiar with Laphroaig’s Quarter Cask expression[s] will recognise its character here, perfectly relaxed within the company of Wolfburn’s spirit.
- T: I’m immediately struck by the crisp arrival of the oily-barley. Boy, those casks are fresh.
- F: Seemingly short but it lingers if you allow it. I was halfway back to Wick and still getting soft reminder bursts – such is the staying-power of those phenols, coupled with Wolfburn’s wonderfully clean barley spirit.
- C: Given this is straight whisky, peated through maturation, Northland is a lovely take on Laphroaig for those who want a lighter smokey [Islay-esque] session dram. Let’s be clear though, this isn’t Laphroaig-light, this is Wolfburn right!
Scores 80 points
Wolfburn peated new-make
- N: The 10ppm doesn’t really show until water is added. What is immediately offered is a light fruity, clean oily-barley element without any obvious coppery/sulphury traits – slow yet sure pays off.
- T: With the ppm now more obvious on the palate, there’s a delicious light-sweet development, extra-light on the malty cereals, making it a clean, crisp one without being austere. Clever!
- F: Even some mouthfeel and a fairly sustained finish – from new-make!
- C: Stunning spirit. I’ve had far less impressive core range 10yo’s this week. It’s that good, I’m even scoring it.
Scores 80 points
With thanks to Shane