Arbikie Highland Rye. Most people in the whisky community love to celebrate independent distilleries, as ultimately, I suppose, it is the dream to own one. The stumbling block being the absence of funds to facilitate that dream. Being independent does not in itself give any guarantee of quality, but it does give reassurance that they are striving for excellence. There is far too much invested not to be wise, both financially and in time management. The main issues arise in warmer climates, such as Australia, with relatively low set up costs, but the need to get whisky into the market for cash flow. The whisky may not be ready and cask management not quite mastered yet. The consumer suffers at the hands of the distillery who are still mastering their craft.
In Scotland, this is rarely the case. It is expensive to set up, but there is a plethora of master distillers and industry experts to help. They are more than happy to share their knowledge. In writing this magazine, I have heard time and time again how friendly all the distilleries are with one another. It just seems to be the marketing teams that probably won’t go out and share a dram with a competitor. This makes Scotland just as interesting as England and Ireland in terms of new whisky distilleries. Distilleries unafraid to experiment and do things their way, within the confines of the SWA regulations. We are in an exciting time of growth and it is a wonderful moment to be a whisky enthusiast. Of course, the increase in the number of distilleries and, therefore, choice is fuelled by demand. Only at the price of, well, price. No longer can you find mature bottles at affordable prices, 12-year-old single malts that are actually more like 21-year-old as there was so much surplus stock. New distilleries releases are more expensive than the larger, faceless brands, but that is the price of craft products. The market is willing to pay for it, so why not? I personally think core expressions from the big players are inexpensive. £25 for a 12-year-old versus £35 for a bottle of gin made last week from neutral grain spirit? You get my point.
On to Arbikie, one of the newest distilleries to release whisky. The Stirling family have been farmers for centuries in Scotland and over a drink in New York, the three brothers decided they should use their unused cattle shed to build a distillery. Their father, always keen to find ways to maximise the crops value, agreed. They could farm the crops, make the whisky, and mature it on site. All from a blank slate ensuring it was done their way. Their way happens to be gin and vodka, but more interestingly their Arbikie Highland Rye whisky, the first to be made is Scotland for over a century. They are also making a single malt, but that will not be released until it is eighteen years of age. (I wonder if I can pre-order a bottle now for delivery in 2033!) The rArbikie Highland Rye I tried is full of spice with notes of Christmas flavours and orange and was aged in new char American oak. Their two limited previous released expressions have been aged in PX and Oloroso casks.
In the interview below I chat to John Stirling of Arbikie Distillery about their ‘field to bottle’ production, sustainable farming and getting more women into whisky. Transcribed and written by Annie Bowles.
Stirling brothers John, Iain and David all grew up working on their family-owned farm on Arbikie Estate – however it was in New York City where the three brothers realised the challenging potential of producing single estate whisky. Ironically, it was over gin and tonics when they collectively realised that this was the best idea ever, and not even the cold light of day could dim their zeal to turn their vision into a reality. They followed the collective mantra of ‘going back to go forward’ – harvesting the potential of their farm to create a completely authentic single estate product, in which everything grown on the farm would be used to create outstanding whisky.
Their father, back in Scotland, was supportive of his sons’ entrepreneurial spirits. The farm was once a dairy farm, which hadn’t been operational for years as the family had moves onto potato and cereal crops. It was a great idea – using the local crops and land to pipe new vigour and meaning into the farm. However, the brothers needed plenty of help from the whisky industry – which was more than happy to provide. They sourced the best young distiller in the industry, Kirsty Black, who had recently graduated from Heriot-Watt University in 2013 with an MSc in Brewing and Distilling. While at university, she had already created a gin in Edinburgh – a sure-fire talent. The brothers and Black planned collaboratively on how their distillery would be built from scratch. They sourced their custom-made pot stills from Germany, and Arbikie Distillery was born.
Producing the only Scotch rye in the world, Arbikie’s focus on cultivating rye is based on the unique environment of the tempestuous coastal climate. Rye is a challenge – it is harder to grow, process and to get through the combine harvester and the still. However, the flavours from the grain make the effort worth it – Arbikie forgoes the malting process with their rye whisky, relying on the grain alone to speak for itself. Their latest Arbikie Highland Rye 1794 batch is aged in a virgin oak cask, which allows the grain to take centre stage. It reportedly boasts Christmas flavours of spiced orange, cinnamon, and stewed fruit.
Every choice is of prime importance to whisky production at Arbikie – chief distiller Kirsty Black went through an entire process of profiling yeast for future projects. They draw their water from an underground loch, which, untreated, allows the climate to influence the taste of the whisky, resulting in each year’s batch a unique profile depending on the dry or wet season effect the fermentation and taste.
Sustainability is an incredibly significant factor to Arbikie’s choices and process. Farming runs through the blood of the Stirling family, and the brothers took this respect for the land and practices and applied it to whisky production. Going back to go forward, they looked at what was grown on farms thirty, forty years ago and embarked on a project of growing heritage varieties, moulded by the influences of grain, water and climate. The importance of their farm to bottle ethos means Arbikie uses a GPS system to record everything on the land, from climate to soil type, everything has its influence on the finished product. They follow a seven-year crop rotation, with the interestingly increasing use of peas and legumes in the soil. Kirsty Black leads the world in the extraction of alcohol from legumes, which contributes to sustainability as peas are naturally nitrogen carbon-fixing – they actively take carbon out of the atmosphere. Keeping grass in the rotation with the inclusion of cattle feeding creates a far better structure for the land, John Stirling claims, and therefore much more sustainable farming. This process of agricultural time-travel led to a revelation that traditional methods are far more effective for the high quality of the end product.
Stirling laments that in mass produced whiskies from larger distilleries, the most important aspect of production is yield – and thus the flavour profile is lost, bred out to make way for greater yield, and therefore greater profit. He argues that the larger, multinational companies could be doing more – keeping up with the smaller, community-based distilleries in leading the way for a healthier economy, and the drive towards sustainability. Having received so much support from the industry in the early days, he realises the importance each role plays – from the farmer to the lorry driver. Farmers switching to more profitable crops, such as wheat and grapes, he predicts will lead to a shortage of malted barley, caused by the very industry that needs that barley.
Despite his penchant for tradition in their farming methods, Stirling wants to break away from the fusty, archaic gate-keeping around drinking whisky. The industry wants to get away from its rule-enforcing nature on how to drink whisky and embrace consumer’s differences in taste. This, Stirling claims, is how you will attract the younger generation and, importantly, women to whisky culture. Nowadays, instead of sipping a warm dram in a dusty old pub, there are fantastic cocktail bars where incredible mixologists can create the best drinks from whisky – the changing bar culture, which is more open, with more women present, will encourage the complex spirit as an easy, open choice to be drank by all. Seeing the fruits of his family’s labour on these trendy shelves gives a great sense of achievement, confident in the knowledge of all the hard work and effort that was implemented by a whole team.
Despite their primary focus on Arbikie Highland Rye, the fairly distant future holds the release of Arbikie’s first Scotch whisky in 2033, when it will be in its eighteenth year. A legacy product, created to pass from generation to generation, the Stirlings are holding out until they think it is going to be absolutely perfect. That summarises Arbikie’s approach to distilling – handcrafted with the knowledge and patience only drawn from centuries of local family farming, with a zeal for ensured quality.
You can visit the Arbikie website here. You will also discover their Gin and Vodka range.