Located atop the River Teith, around eight miles from Stirling, lies Deanston – beloved for its delicate, fresh, waxy whisky. On the blog today, master blender Julieann Fernandez brings us up to speed with the latest goings-on at the Highlands distillery…
Deanston distillery started life as a cotton mill back in 1785, designed by Richard Arkwright, the great inventor and entrepreneur of the early Industrial Revolution. It was converted into the single malt distillery we know and love today in 1966, and began bottling its liquid in 1971, starting with a single malt named Old Bannockburn. Its eponymous Deanston single malt followed in 1974.
Now operated by the Scotch whisky arm of multinational distiller Distell Group – which also owns Bunnahabhain Distillery on Islay and Tobermory distillery on Mull – Deanston has lost none of its original charm, and this is reflected in its approach to distilling. A team of 10 local craftsmen make Deanston’s single malt by hand using barley sourced exclusively from local farmers and soft water from the River Teith, which starts high up in Trossachs National Park.
The site has long led the charge when it comes to sustainability in Scotch whisky. Thanks to its location on the banks of the fast-running Teith, Deanston is the only distillery in Scotland to produce all of its own electricity, with power generated by an on-site hydro-energy facility. In 2000, it became one of the first Scottish sites to start producing organic whisky, as certified by the Organic Food Federation.
We caught up with Julieann (sic) Fernandez, who last year became Deanston’s master blender, to chat about her role, delve into the DNA of the distillery’s new make, and learn more about this unique Highland site…
MoM: Tell us about your career – what was your journey into your current role?
Julieann Fernandez: My journey was a little bit different, I never really planned to work in the whisky industry at all. I studied Forensic Science at university and between my third and fourth year, they were really big on us doing placements. I got a placement in Chivas Brothers’ laboratory doing a lot of analytical testing for the spirit samples they were getting in. I did that for about a year, and during that time I started doing a little bit of work with them on new product development – they were working on making a whisky for younger people and females to try and break the mould of whisky typically being an older gentleman’s drink. So I was involved in that project, which was absolutely fantastic. I really started to get a passion for whisky through that. I went back to university, finished my fourth year and graduated, and started working in the Scotch Whisky Research Institute, which does a lot of the analytical support for the whisky industry. Again I was working in a lab, and as much as I enjoyed it, it just wasn’t really what I wanted to do. A job came up at Chivas Brothers’ grain distillery right in the centre of Glasgow, so I went back to work for them. I learned about the grain whisky process and from there, I worked in some of their malt distilleries to build my knowledge on how the whisky is actually made. I spent a lot of time with them, did a lot of organoleptic stuff and really, really enjoyed it. And then the job came up with Distell, so I moved over to them just over three years ago now, starting as a blender – working on our malt portfolio and our blends, getting involved in our limited editions. I was promoted to master blender at the tail end of last year, and now I’m in control of all our malts, our blends, all of our inventory. So it’s been a crazy journey, but it’s been excellent.
MoM: Could you bring us up to speed with what’s been going on at Deanston over the last few years – any new equipment, ongoing projects, experiments, etcetera?
JF: There’s been a few things going on! We replaced our mash tun last summer, that was a big project. The old mash tun had been running since about 1966, so it really needed replacing. It was a huge open-top mash tun, I think the biggest open-top mash tun left in any distillery – typically distilleries have a copper dome covering the mash tun, whereas ours is open, so it’s great when you come and visit, because you can see right inside. We decided to keep it very traditional, so it looks like an old mash tun, even though it’s new, which is lovely. It’s given us a clearer wort, which is what we are looking for, for the character. We’ve also recently moved from oil to gas, to boost sustainability at the distillery, because it burns a lot cleaner – that was a massive project. We’ve also got new limited editions coming up. We’ve just launched Deanston Kentucky and Deanston Dragon’s Milk, which are different to what we typically do with our portfolio. Deanston Kentucky is filled into bourbon and new oak barrels from Kentucky and soft-filtered. All of the malts in our portfolio are non-chill-filtered whereas with this one, the ABV’s a little bit lower, and we soft filter it instead – just making it a little bit more accessible and easy to drink. So there’s a lot of different projects on the go.
MoM: How would you describe the distillery – and the character of its new make – to someone who didn’t know much about it?
JF: The distillery is absolutely beautiful. It dates all the way back to 1785, when it used to be a cotton mill, and it was transformed into a distillery in 1966. It overlooks the River Teith, which is where our water supply comes from. Being an old cotton mill, it doesn’t look like a distillery when you first see it, and so many bits of it are very different. Our warehouse, for example, was an old weaving shed; they used to weave the cotton there, so it’s got big vaulted ceilings on it. The distillery has been a backdrop for Hollywood productions, because it’s such a lovely setting. They filmed Outlander there – the cast actually signed a couple of the casks that sit in our warehouse. The tour guys tend to point out where bits were filmed, and once you’ve been to the distillery and go back and watch Outlander, you can match it up and see which bits are Deanston. The stills are really tall, and have a gently-inclining lye pipe, so that encourages a lot of reflux which gives us a really light, fresh spirit. It carries a sort of strong cereal note and has beautiful hints of crisp apple. We also have a waxy character in the new make that’s quite unique – not just on the nose, but it’s almost a mouthfeel as well, which is really nice.
MoM: Deanston is the only distillery in Scotland to produce all of its own electricity using hydro power and is also certified by the Organic Food Association. How do these environmental credentials shape the whisky?
JF: The River Teith is the second fastest flowing river in Scotland, so it’s absolutely perfect for producing electricity for the distillery. We use what we need and sell the rest back to the National Grid, so we are giving back as well as powering our own distillery. We’re certified by the Organic Food Association as well, which is a really difficult certification to get, because so much work goes into it. You need to make sure your cleaning process is up to scratch. After a shut down – where we’ve maybe shut the distillery down for maintenance work – we’ll clean the entire distillery, and when we bring it back up, that’s when we [distil] organic. We also need to take great care on where that malt comes from, making sure that we’ve got the malt passport for it and can follow it back to the farm, which is also organic-certified. [The new make] then goes into new oak barrels that haven’t held anything. There’s a lot going on at Deanston that makes it special.
MoM: In terms of production process and equipment, what else sets Deanston apart from other Scottish distilleries?
JF: The River Teith flows over granite, so it makes the water really soft, which is just absolutely perfect for making whisky. At Deanston all of our malt’s Scottish – in Scotland we can’t grow enough to support the Scotch whisky industry, so naturally, people have to buy from England or Europe or wherever it may be. But at Deanston we only use Scottish malt. We only use traditional techniques, there are no computers, so it takes a lot of skill and craftsmanship to make our whisky.
MoM: Deanston has always fostered a sense of community – what is it about the distillery that makes it so special and well-loved among whisky fans?
JF: When you visit the distillery, you can see the passion the guys have for it. For a lot of the men who work in the distillery, it goes back generations. A lot of them live locally and the fathers or their grandfathers worked in the distillery, it’s lovely. During lockdown our kitchen stayed open and provided soup for the local community, which was really nice, because it was a difficult time for so many people. We’ve got a big meadow at the back of the distillery, which we’re planning to donate to the local school. Obviously that would’ve happened by now but it’s been pushed back a little bit with lockdown. They’re going to make it into a wildflower garden, so that it’s right at the heart of the community.
The Deanston single malt range is available from Master of Malt.