We’re delighted to be joined by master distiller Brendan McCarron who tells us why the distinctive waxy single malts from Deanston Distillery deserve to be better known.
When Brendan McCarron was first announced as the new master distiller for Distell’s Scotch whisky portfolio, there was a great deal of excitement from whisky fans who knew he would have big ideas for the brand’s three distilleries: Bunnahabhain, Tobermory, and Deanston. Despite his Islay background working for Ardbeg, it’s Deanston that’s closest to his heart.
“I’ve had a connection to Deanston throughout my whisky career,” McCarron told me. “When you work for Diageo, Johnnie Walker is king, and during my stint, I learnt a lot about distillery character. The most mysterious and mystical was waxy. Diageo has Clynelish, but the distillery that was always discussed was Deanston and Johnnie Walker needs Deanston to create its iconic blend”. His fascination with whisky spirit character meant that he also pushed to make waxy spirit in his previous gig working at Ardbeg and Glenmorangie.
He now lives in Stirling, just an eight-minute commute, but he’s been regular at Deanston for years. “When I was just moving into gainful employment my girlfriend, now wife, lived there, so I’ve been taking people on that distillery tour for years and years, admiring the open top mash tun, trying to work out where the wax is being created, but also being frustrated thinking this palace so be should much more. My personal life, my distillery fascination, my whisky-making ideas all joined together at Deanston, it’s why it’s been close to my heart for 20 years.” McCarron explains.
It’s easy to see the appeal. Visually Deanston has bags of charm. The building was once a cotton mill designed by the inventor of the spinning frame Richard Arkwright back in 1785. The warehouse is the old weaving shed, complete with a big vaulted ceiling. But it only became a distillery in 1965/66. While some in Scotland have been slow to recognise what a gem they have here, the producers behind Outlander, at least, saw the potential and the cast actually signed a couple of the casks that sit in the warehouse.
Distell bought Deanston and co. from owners Burn Stewart Distillers back in 2013 (Heineken is, pending approval, going through a transaction to acquire Distell Group but the business will be split and where the Scotch whisky side of things is concerned, its current owners will remain the controlling shareholder). Being run by an overseas corporation with several interests hasn’t done anything to dampen the Deanston way or compromise its original charm, however. To this day, the whisky-making process begins with barley sourced exclusively from local farmers and soft water from the river it sits on, the mighty Teith.
There’s a very traditional open-top mash tun with no lautering arm that’s terrible for yield. But the whole pre-maturation production is about one thing, according to McCarron, and that is to evoke “science, art, witchcraft and luck” to create as concentrated, intensely fruity spirit as possible that will develop into that signature waxy whisky.
It’s very refreshing to hear a Scotch whisky maker talk so much about driving flavour without even mentioning the word casks. “I’ve never seen worts this colour,” McCarron tells me excitedly. “It’s usually a beautiful yellow/gold colour, like Champagne. But Deanston is brown. Like Old English ales. An oily, dark, almost monochrome matt brown colour. It’s something else”.
If you see him working in Deanston on a distillery tour, you can guarantee McCarron’s head is in that underback watching the product come off the mash tun. The most important thing at this stage is to ensure the wort, brown as it may be, is also crystal clear, meaning there are no solids so when it’s sent through the fermenters, nothing gets in the way of the yeast.
“We want the yeast to go to town and have a party in the fermenter,” McCarron explains. “After the yeast has created the alcohol and the first flavours, we then go very long, 80-90 hour fermentation to create lots and lots of esters. We don’t just let it go forever, we’re very careful to not create too many floral notes, because it’s all about those fruity esters”.
Another signature feature at Deanston is the sole feints charger. “Normally you’d have a foreshots and feints container, a spirits vat, a low wines vat, and these vessels lined up to each individual still,” McCarron says. “But everything we distil goes into the same vat: the low wines from both wash stills, the foreshots (heads) and feints (tails)… That means we have this constant state of flux occurring as the liquid is always going up and down in ABV”.
What that leads to is what the distillery team at Deanston refers to as “black magic”. In that charger, all the congeners, flavours, textures, and fatty acids come out as a solution when the alcohol drops. “You get this crazy layer of black, oily, silky goodness that forms on top. When you charge that into your still and collect the heart of your run as spirit, it’s gone from being a crazy intensely fruity spirit to an unbelievably waxy spirit,” McCarron explains. He says it’s like eating an orange as if it were an apple. “There’s an intense sensation of oiliness and waxiness then intense fruitiness when you taste the spirit”.
One of the really clever things about Deanston is the blend of contrasts. There’s a lot of processes dedicated to creating thick, waxy texture, but always balanced by the need to bring vibrant, fruity elements too. The stills, for example, are really tall, and have a gently-inclining lye pipe, which encourages a lot of reflux to create light, fresh elements. Taste Deanston’s new make and there’s lots of golden cereal notes and orchard fruit.
It’s no good creating spirit like that if you’re just going to drown it in cask influence, but McCarron says he doesn’t have to work that hard to preserve the Deanston DNA. “I’d love to say it’s down to my enormous talent, which it is, but it just works in a crazy amount of casks. I’d say it’s best in ex-bourbon: first-fill, second-fill, and re-fill. It retains that classic flavour to me, like if you ever drink an Old Fashioned, it’s that twist of orange skin, the garnish, that I can pick that up in every Deanston I drink. It’s not orange juice, there’s a robustness to it”.
That’s not to say Deanston doesn’t experiment. There’s a Calvados Cask Finish, a Bordeaux Red Wine Cask Finish, as well as classic sherry finishes like Pedro Ximénez and oloroso. McCarron tells me he has Deanstons that are fully matured in sherry and that waxiness that can be found still. He also says Palo Cortado Deanston is sublime, and that he has some distillery-exclusive Port casks that are out of this world. The challenge is not to let temptation get the better of him and go wild with cask choices. “Just because we can, doesn’t mean we should,” McCarron remarks, evoking Ian Malcolm.
Virgin Oak is possibly the most impressive Deanston expression because let’s face it, virgin oak cask whisky is often pretty underwhelming. McCarron is quite diplomatic and reasonably points out that it’s a new style for most. “I can see what they’re trying to do, but the balance isn’t there. It’s either too intensely wood or there’s none at all because they only popped it in for a couple of seconds and taken it back”. Since he’s joined, he’s made a few tweaks, making it slightly older, and changing to heavily charred (char four) casks exclusively.
“I think we’ve taken it and made an even more balanced, and intense expression of Deanston. It has everything the 12 has, with lovely bursts of oranges and those honey/caramel/toffee notes, but it intensifies the big flavours. There’s a reassuring toasty spicy note of ground-up cloves in a mortar and pestle that burst through the orange which has become really candied and pumped up. There’s some lemon citrus in there too, plus that waxy texture all comes together at the strength it’s bottled at”.
Obviously, for a whisky he loves, McCarron enjoys it neat, but he says it also makes the best Old Fashioneds he’s ever had, as you might know if you’re on Instagram. “I’m a latecomer but you’d think I invented it the way I’ve taken to it recently. We now have a weekly challenge at work called Old Fashioned Fridays. I’ve been experimenting and making lots of different editions,” he explains. “I’ve tried it with chocolate bitters, tried it really dry, extra sweet, different garnishes. But my two frontrunners are classic, one with Angostura Bitters, or with orange bitters. I tend to halve the amount of simple syrup in the mix as I don’t have a huge sweet tooth. There will be a few traditionalists howling that I don’t dissolve a sugar cube but I don’t have the time or inclination on a Friday to be doing that”.
Doing things the Deanston way
Deanston was also doing things organically before it was cool. In 2000, it became one of the first Scottish sites to start producing organic whisky, as certified by the Organic Food Federation. “We do two mashes a year where we completely clear out all our bins, we clean down the entire process, we log and systemise and track according to to set standards to create these super low yielding mashes,” McCarron says.
It’s a pursuit of passion that’s a disaster economically, but the reward for McCarron is what he describes as an exclusive, incredible spirit. “Sustainability means you’re not taking shortcuts or the easy route. It’s expensive, but it does tend to make you take the right path, so it’s great for the whisky,” he explains. “As whisky fans become more educated in terms of what they want, not just flavour, they will expect distillers to take responsibility for the way they make whisky and that will help them decide which bottle to pick up”.
This has been a sustainable distillery since it was built. Efficient turbines churn water from the Teith at a rate of some 20 million litres per hour to create power that not only runs the entire distillery, but there’s enough left over to sell to the national grid. And Deanston isn’t stopping there. “We’re working out what we can do with the turbine to reduce further the primary fuel we use in a boiler, we’re also increasing gravity of fermentation to guarantee intensity of waxiness but reduces energy use, and seeing if we can charge the vehicles that come onto our site with electricity for free,” McCarron says. A project is also underway to see if heat from the condenser can be recycled into buildings in the village.
This goes beyond simply ticking boxes for green credentials. Deanston is named after the village it’s based in, one where the distillery workers live and have done for generations. Their fathers or their grandfathers worked in the distillery. The memorial of people lost in the war is on the wall of the distillery. Deanston has always operated with an obligation to this village. “That’s just part of what we do,” McCarron explains. “We can’t just sit in this village and be a faceless organisation that does what it does and then just leaves”.
Deanston deserves more than to simply be a local hero, however, and McCarron knows it. “Fifteen years ago when I was at Diageo it was Mortlach that was a hidden gem, and Deanston was the same. Blends are still the big guy, and Deanston was a victim of its success because it was such a fantastic and intriguing spirit that blenders tried to buy all of the product,” he says. “But Deanston is capable of so much, it has everything a connoisseur is looking for. It’s all-natural colour, no chill-filtration… It’s whisky in its most pure and traditional form. There’s all these reasons, the biggest being that it tastes fantastic, that Deanston has unbelievable potential. Our job, our mission, is to be a bit more selfish and hold on to more casks on this fantastic spirit”.
In the age of single malt, fruity or smoky have led the charge, but waxy spirit is so compelling and curious I can’t see why it wouldn’t get its day. A spirit like Deanston’s can be enjoyed by all, from beginners to Islay whisky or sherry bomb fanatics. It’s affordable, it’s well presented, and its distillery should be a must for anybody looking to tour the places Scotch whisky is made. The promise of Deanston is there. Now is the time to deliver on it. I like McCarron’s chances.