If you’re a new whisky distillery, what do you do to bring in a little cash while you wait for the spirit to mature? Make gin? Boring! Nate Brown looks at two producers doing something a bit different.
The economics of opening a whisky distillery are not for the faint-hearted. Years of planning, design, construction, commissioning of stills, bottling contracts and a hundred other factors are to be tackled even before the long wait for maturity begins. As it is, a cool £10m should cover the initial phases of the build for a good-sized operation. With perhaps as long as ten years of waiting on the cards before you can start to see any money coming the other way. Don’t expect your bank manager to do anything other than cackle in your face whilst bashing the under desk alarm. Mix into this the depth of competition and the unpredictability of future markets and you enter a kingdom of risk where few individuals dare tread.
So it’s no wonder then, that once the ground has been broken, walls erected and spirit has flown that distilleries explore any and all options at off-setting the huge cash deficit. You could, of course, release a gin, but please don’t. The world does not need another cynically-conceived on-the-bandwagon bottling. Gin fatigue, ironically, is alive and well.
If you really want to do something other than twiddling your thumbs and wait (which I strongly recommend), there is always the opportunity to play with the alcohol you are producing in-house. Indeed, it is the new-make spirit that makes a distillery unique, the casks used are pretty much ubiquitous. Just don’t expect to make any money.
To be frank, it’s a darn shame that nobody just drinks new make. It’s a trillion times better than boring vodka (and I do mean the boring variety, not all vodkas are created equal). I know this because some new make spirits are already on the market, quietly gathering dust on shelves. Which begs the question, just what can be done with new make spirit? Here are two distilleries leading the way.
Lindores Abbey – the infusers
Does the name sound familiar? Good on you, my little geek. Lindores Abbey is mentioned in the first written reference to whisky (well, almost – it’s written as Aqua Vitae) in Scotland (we know the Irish got there first). Appropriately then, Lindores Abbey has released an Aqua Vitae made from its new make spirit and infused with botanicals according to an ancient recipe (or close enough).
The AV seems like a no-brainer. Although, as anyone in the sales and marketing side of the industry will be quick to point out, the ROI (Return on Investment) here is dubious. But we’re not here to make money, folks! No, no, this is an exercise in brand-building.
As the man tasked with the education of the bartender community, brand ambassador Murray Stephenson plans to straddle both gin and rum drinkers by using AV as the hero spirit in classic cocktails, rather than as a modifier. It stands up in Espresso Martinis, Mai Tais, and Negronis, and all manner of tiki serves, should wish to don a grass kilt and pretend you’re more Bob Marley than Bobby Burns. Each to their own, I say. I’ll have mine in a highball.
Ncn’ean – the progressives
The folks at (the extremely unpronounceable) Ncn’ean do something similar. Again we have foraged local botanicals, only this time it’s distilled rather than infused. Yes, I know this sounds like a gin, but it really isn’t. There’s no juniper for a start.
In fact, there is nothing gin-like in the new make from Ncn’ean; it’s really all about the rich, malty, stone fruit character of the spirit. Well, almost nothing. Yes, the signature serve is with tonic (and bitters). Yes, the bottle looks like a gin. Yes, some of the botanicals in the mix are locally foraged. But this is not gin. Nor is this terroir. This is a reflection of local provenance. There’s the key difference.
Ncn’ean distill the new make but its distilled with botanicals off-site. There’s no point in installing an expensive new still for a spirit that right now has a limited application. Ncn’ean, much like Lindores, isn’t balancing its while-we-wait-please-give-us-a-tiny-bit-of-cash releases on a pedestal of bullshit about apparent standalone integrity.
I hope more newcomers pay attention to Ncn’ean’s (are we sure that word isn’t Elvish?) and Lindores’ models. What works here is the integrity. Goodness knows we could do with a tonne more of that in this game: we make fools of our guests when we are made of fools of by the marketers. Most of what makes a distillery unique is the new make, let’s celebrate it, even if we don’t drink it. After all, as any good brand engineer will tell you, if you’re not making money, make friends.
Nate Brown has owned and operated spirit specialist cocktail bars in London for the better part of a decade. He’s a regular speaker on industry panels, a judge for various spirit awards and has been known to harbour an opinion or two.