Fettercairn Distillery has spent much of its history being overlooked, maligned, or misunderstood. But the Highland producer is turning the tide. Here’s how.
“There’s a great Fettercairn story that we haven’t told well enough and we will going forward.”
That’s what Daryl Haldane, head of whisky experience at Whyte & Mackay, told us at the launch event of the distillery’s first core range back in 2018. Fettercairn is the least-known of the brand’s whisky distilleries. Dalmore and Jura get more headlines and sales. It’s not historically had many official single malt expressions. Independent bottlings are few and far between, while releases like Fior and Fasque, launched in 2009, failed to make an impact.
Worse than that, Fettercairn had the dubious reputation of being one of Scotland’s most pilloried distilleries. For years it was something of a whipping boy, chastised for a sulphury, rubbery spirit that was distinctive for the wrong reasons which led to scores of negative reviews. Most notably from Jim Murray, who was persistent in his disdain for the distillery.
But the Fettercairn fightback is on. The Highland distillery is aiming to put its chequered past behind it and forge a new identity. New expressions with a revamped look and lots of work behind the scenes have aimed to transform the distillery and tell a new side to the story. The range launched in 2018 includes a 12 year old, 22 Year Old, 28 Year Old, 40 year old, and even a 50 year old that, alongside some rare and small-batch releases, aims to celebrate the new fresh, vibrant, and approachable house style.
A story not told
Fettercairn actually has a lot going for it. For one, it’s beautiful, with whitewashed walls and an iconic pagoda roof sitting in the rolling Grampian Hills at the foot of the Cairngorm mountain range. The surrounding fields are filled with barley, with locals referring to it as the ‘Garden of Scotland’, and there was even a time recently that Fettercairn was home to a distillery horse named Fergus, who was often seen kicking around a football. Your everyday distillery cat can’t compete with that.
The distillery’s history is interesting, too. Fettercarin was one of the first licensed distilleries when it was founded in 1824, when Sir Alexander Ramsay bought a corn mill and converted it into a whisky factory as a means to make money off lovely local barley while rallying against illicit distilling. He then hired an illicit distiller (James Stewart), lent his house crest unicorn to the brand’s emblem, and subsequently built an enormous gothic mansion he couldn’t sustain and so had to sell the place to the family of former Prime Minister William Gladstone. Classic stuff.
In those early days, the distillery was a favourite of the London elite and had a solid reputation. But what followed was the usual passing through hands that many distilleries experienced, being mothballed or altered while spirit flowed primarily for the purposes of blends. The likes of Associated Scottish Distilleries and Tomintoul-Glenlivet claimed ownership before finally Whyte & Mackay took it on in 1973. An interesting history was left untold, however, and the brand was relatively obscure for much of the 20th century.
When Andrew Lennie, whisky specialist at Fettercairn Distillery, joined in 2019 he says the first thing he did was go to all his whisky books to find what had been written about Fettercairn. “Not a great deal had been”.
Changing the tides
That’s what he and owners Whyte & Mackay are keen to change. A massive period of investment in infrastructure and marketing has taken place, while focus has shifted from blends and retail business to premium brands. “Whyte & Mackay has gone back to where it was when it started out: being whisky makers and blenders first and foremost,” Lennie says. Recently winning distiller of the year at the Icons of Whisky Scotland 2021 demonstrates that it’s not just Fettercairn that’s benefiting from rehabilitation, but Whyte & Mackay too.
Wholesale changes began in 1991 when a new malt intake and milling equipment were added. Since then, the tun room was rebuilt, the number of washbacks was increased, the wash stills were updated, a comprehensive wood policy was put in place, the visitor centre had a makeover, and stainless steel condensers, which accentuated that unpopular sulfur-forward spirit, made way for copper ones.
Turning the ship around is a dedicated, experienced staff, like Whyte & Mackay whisky makers Gregg Glass and the legendary Richard Paterson. But it’s distillery manager (and another Icons of Whisky Scotland 2021 winner) Stewart Walker who typifies modern Fettercairn best. “He’s the greatest brand ambassador,” Lennie says. “He grew up on the same street as the distillery and is a big personality in the local community. He’s been here 30 years and has done every gig going. He’s also genuinely one of the most humble, passionate, and genuine guys you’ll ever meet and he has stories for days. The way he talks about the distillery is beautiful”.
A unique process
Above all, however, is the distillery finally communicating what an interesting production process Fettercairn has. A great deal of its barley is local and there’s plans to increase the amount in the works. Not to claim terroir, mind, but to support the local community and create less of a carbon footprint.
While the distillery’s old malting floor remains, all malting ceased in 1966. Instead, the barley is sent to nearby Bairds Malts. The malted barley then goes through a Bühler mill and then an old Victorian, open-top tumble rig mash tun that was installed in the 1950s. “It came from Glenugie, which was a distillery up in Peterhead, as did the spirit safe,” says Lennie. “It creates a cloudy wort with a rich, biscuity profile, so the process that follows that is all about balancing that”. Fermentation takes place for 60 hours in 13 beautiful Oregon pine washbacks.
Things get truly unique, however, in Fettercairn’s stills. There’s two wash stills and two spirit stills, the latter with the copper cooling rings fitted in the 1950s by Alistair Menzies. He wanted to lighten the distinctive cloudy wort, but didn’t have the right still shape to create enough reflux for it. “This was a nice little bit of ingenuity,” Lennie explains. “Crystal clear water from the Cairngorms literally cascades down the outside while the heart is distilled. This boosts reflux and promotes the funky, tropical notes in the new make. To our knowledge, there’s nobody else in the industry who does it”.
Fettercairn’s improved cask policy focuses on first-fill ex-bourbon casks with a high rye content (Heaven Hill is a favourite provider) to enhance distillery character. On-site is 14 dunnage warehouses, two of which are original from 1824, housing 30,000 casks that are never racked more than three high to create consistent temperature and humidity. Classic old-world casks like sherry butts and Port pipes are used, but Fettercairn is also now a hotbed of innovation, most notably with its programme to responsibly source Scottish oak in the future.
The new Fettercairn
Getting the fundamentals right is no use, however, if you rest on your laurels. An effective core range has been followed by the first release of its 16-year-old expression (new incarnations will follow annually), while this year the Warehouse 2 Collection was launched, taking small batches of single malts to showcase the treasure trove of stock that’s in its warehouses and flex the distillery’s maturation muscles. Along with the recent news of Fettercairn investing in local barley and oak, the distillery is marching forward at an impressive pace.
The new Fettercairn is not perfect, of course. Pricing is just too high right now, considering its low levels of recognition. But across the new releases and the core range, the quality of the whisky is speaking for itself. The consistent use of ex-bourbon casks in the 12 year old, 22 Year Old and 28 Year Old tells a story of a developing distillery character, which is vibrant and fresh with a house style of funky tropical fruits and malty spice. All in all, the whiskies are balanced, bold, and really stand apart in a crowded market.
With investment and long-term strategy, effective communication of what makes the brand unique, a wonderful staff, and quality whisky that showcases a genuinely good distillery character, Fettercairn is finally ready to tell a different story. And, best of all, it promises more exciting chapters to come.