Fettercairn Distillery is situated in the middle of barley land under the Grampian foothills in the Howe of Mearns. The town’s name is loosely based on the phrase “the foot of the mountain”. Today the distillery uses barley supplied by farmers within 50 miles of it, some of whom are descendants of those who would have supplied the distillery when it first opened for production. With all that local grain and crystal clear water rolling down the mountains, it doesn’t take a detective to work out why a distillery was built here.
A Scottish oak forest
But recently a new feature has been added to this landscape: a Scottish oak forest. In October, we travelled to the Highland distillery to witness one of the most comprehensive maturation programmes we’ve ever seen. A project ten years in the making led by master whisky maker Gregg Glass, Fettercairn is the home of a native oak programme that aims to establish a system where Scottish-made barrels are not a strange and unique outlier, but a readily-available option.
On the land next to the Fettercairn Distillery, 13,000 oak saplings have been planted. A total of 109 farmers signed up to help assist with the project and the nearby Fasque Sawmill is taking care of the logistics. Prior to the programme, its trade was felling trees to create pallets, fence posts, and occasionally even hot tubs. Now it works closely with Glass to grow and mill better-quality oak for whisky-making purposes. Speyside Cooperage is also involved in the project, removing imperfections from the oak and training apprentices.
From sapling to cask
The ultimate end goal is a consistent supply of Scottish oak that can be used across the industry. Obviously, the saplings that have just been planted won’t be available for use for another century, so a nearby supply from the Fasque estate demonstrates just one aspect of why Fettercairn is the natural home of the Scottish Oak Programme. “Fettercairn has always been a community distillery. For us, it was only natural that we would look to work with our neighbours next door,” Glass explains. “Not only because they take pride in what we make here at Fettercairn, but also they have the knowledge of how to work the wood, and together we developed an understanding of what it takes to take a tree and create staves for a cask perfect for whisky making”.
Bench trialling and small-scale lab assessment are always ongoing, with trials happening across Fettercairn’s considerable number of warehouses where variations in aspects like climate and how it impacts Scottish oak can be monitored. Our tour group got to see (and sign) a real-life Scottish oak cask, one that was toasted and air-dried on an open flame that will be filled with new make soon. Pride and traceability are important for Glass, as he tells us that Fettercairn is investing in sanding and shaving machines to alter the exterior of the casks so there’s as much pride on the outside as there is inside.
The character of Scottish oak
What’s really fascinating about the Scottish Oak Programme isn’t just the scope, but the fact that it’s happening in front of our eyes. Royal Salute has already used oak from Fettercairn’s supply, and in Warehouse Two, we got a considerable preview of ongoing trials. Glass and distillery manager Stewart Walker were kind enough to open several casks including a virgin Scottish oak for us to taste, and inform us that first, second, and third-fill casks are in use here too. The sizes range from blood-tubs to butts, with different toasts and chars being experimented with too.
“What has been remarkable is that Scottish Oak gives influence to the whisky comparatively quickly, which has meant we have already been able to explore the flavour potential,” Glass explains. “It is a journey of shared learning, between us at the distillery, the cooperage, sawmill, and estate managers. We all have a hand in the flavour we create”. He says there is still learning to do about its properties and the different flavour characteristics we can create through it, but there’s already some fascinating results.
We tried a one-year-old sample that was a 100% virgin Scottish Oak blood-tub (about 35-40 litres in size). The profile was rich and tannic with flavours of red cola cubes, chocolate, and nuts. The impact is big. Scottish oak extracts quickly and significantly, to the extent I’m unsure that it can work for full-term maturation, but it was a very small cask. As a blending tool, the potential is much more obvious. Glass is adamant there will be whisky aged fully in Scottish oak, saying that he, and partners such as Speyside Cooperage, are 100% sure that Scottish oak has real potential not just for whisky makers, but the wider spirits industry. It’s already won Whyte & Mackay the Innovation in Production award at The Spirits Business Awards this week, so people are taking note.
Balance, legacy, and Fettercairn 18 Year Old
The challenge is clear: balance. Glass defines it as one between nature and nurture, the balance between the house style of spirit with the influence of the Scottish Oak. “To be honest that’s what’s really exciting about the programme, is that we are still discovering what works,” he says. This is vital for a Fettercairn fan like me, who loves that rich malty whisky bursting with tropical fruit goodness that the distillery makes. What was once a weakness is now Fettercairn’s greatest strength, a unique spirit that stands out from the crowd. Covering that in an expressive oak, not matter how interesting its origins, is nobody’s desire.
Hence the first release from Fettercairn to feature Scottish oak: Fettercairn 18 Year Old. The single malt, which is planned to be an annual release, was initially matured in a combination of first-fill and refill American white oak ex-bourbon casks before it was finished in 100% Scottish oak casks, 96% of which were virgin casks. It’s delightful, a sumptuous dram full of Fettercairn character with syrupy tropical fruits, patisserie sugars, and gingery spice, but with those big bold chocolate, vanilla, and coffee elements from the Scottish oak, well-measured and adding a new interesting element. A taste of the future of whisky-making?
“At the end of the day, we took our time to create the Fettercairn 18,” Glass explains. “What was brilliant was the knowledge of the team here at the distillery, who in some cases had made our whisky for 20-30 years, and that local knowledge and insight is invaluable when you are experimenting as a whisky maker”.
Two centuries in, planting for the third
What stood out most across this trip was the vision Glass had. This is a deeply personal project for him, one you can see the roots of across his career with previous experiences like King of Trees. He was emotional at times unveiling the results of his idea and is only too keen to point out the joy of working with a distillery that, despite celebrating 200 years soon, is still innovating, experimenting, and questioning what is possible to create with a single malt. He says the Scottish Oak Programme is about more than the sawmill and the distillery. “It is every aspect of whisky making – from forest to field to Fettercairn”.
The distillery may be barely 200 years in, but it’s planting for another 100 to come. They are the first to do a Scottish oak programme this exhaustive, with sustainability, the industry’s benefit, and the future all in mind, all while being aware it’s not exactly a prudent course financially. Glass admits they would get better value if they exported the oak, comparing it to Scottish seafood, where a great product is immediately sold off with little benefit to the local industry. The Fettercarin way, by contrast, ensures the whole chain thrives, a virtuous circle that Glass won’t even see come to fruition.
But that’s the oddly selfless nature of Scotch, so much of its production is handled by people who will never see well-aged stock bottled or witness the fruition of the potential of a project like the Fettercairn Forest. “As a whisky maker, working with a historic distillery, there are things that I work on that I know I will never see,” Glass admits. “In a way, the Fettercairn Forest is a natural extension of that ethos. We all wanted to develop a Scottish Oak Programme, for the future, that would offer real potential to the whisky makers in 200 years’ time. It is ambitious, but it starts small, literally with a tiny oak”.
Fettercairn 18 Year Old is now available from Master of Malt, just click the link in the product name.
Here’s our tasting note:
Nose: Charred pineapple, honey-roasted cashew, fresh pastry, and dark chocolate lead with hints of espresso, mango chutney, dunnage earthiness, and salted caramel.
Palate: Lots of signature Fettercairn: biscuity malt, tropical fruit, and aromatic spice are joined by a dark, sweet, and tannic edge that screams Scottish oak. There’s rich vanilla, menthol herbs, apple pie, cinnamon, black fruits, and a dusting of cocoa powder.
Finish: The sweet notes of the palate are joined by drying tannic elements