Goodness from the ground up – Arbikie Highland Single Estate Distillery

Stillroom with a view

The Lowlands whisky region, where we just discovered a handful of new distilleries in the Kingdom of Fife, has its northern borders from an imaginary line between Greenock on the west coast of Scotland and Dundee on the east coast. Crossing the Tay Bridge and enter the Highland whisky region at Dundee, we decided to exit the A92 at our first possibility and head east on the Angus Coastal Route passing many picturesque villages like Monifieth and Carnoustie. There we were compelled to turn a little more landward back onto the A92 through Arbroath, to reach our destination of the morning, at Arbikie, Highland Single Estate Distillery.

Shy north of Inverkeilor, the large estate on the top of the Angus hills looks out over the Lunan Bay. Having seen several unpaved meandering roads, forgettable hamlets with names like Braehead and Drumbertnot, many farmhouses called “Arbikie” with large amounts of Arbikie branded potato crates stacked on their porches and fields telling us the growing crops belong to the 2.000 acre estate, we suddenly spotted a familiar sight; large wooden casks implying distillery activity.

Tater boxes everywhere

Turning into the courtyard of the working farm, we confirmed the casks were not just disused rain barrels when we got a peek into one of the sheds where a huge, shiny, copper column still was reflecting rays of sunlight towards us. We had arranged a meeting and a tour of the distillery with master distiller Kirsty Black beforehand, who saw us arrive and heartily welcomed us to the distillery. Kirsty has worked in brewing and distilling, and has finished her Masters Degree at the Heriot Watt University in the same fields shortly before she started at the family-owned distillery in January 2014, where she was involved in building and running it from the ground up.

Arbikie Highland Estate is a business with brothers John, Iain and David Stirling at the helm. Having farmed at the west coast of Scotland as far back as the 1660’s, the Stirling family moved to the east coast four generations back to settle at the estate. All three brothers have hands-on experience in the farming business but have each chosen professions in other fields. Returning to their home soil understanding “Crop is King”, they looked into an extension of their farming businesses and having vast amounts of barley, wheat and three varieties of potatoes from their own lands, an unfailing naturally filtered underground lagoon as a water source, it may not be surprising the idea of starting a distillery was the one that stuck.

Washbacks, hot water containers and the Mashtun

Every step in the process of making their liquids is done on the estate*. Planting, growing, harvesting, brewing, distilling, maturing and bottling, everything is looked after by people working at the estate. In the large hall, all components of the distilling process are put together. A stainless steel mash tun and four 3.000 and 6.000 litres washbacks feed the German (Carl) pot stills where all the company’s spirits find their start. The single malt spirit is traditionally distilled in the 4.000 litre wash still, “Jan”, followed by a second distillation in the 2.400 litre spirit still, “Ack”, before being diluted, casked and rolled to the dunnage style warehouse next door.

A blend of their own potatoes of the Maris Piper, King Edward and Cultra varieties, is mashed and fermented into such small amounts of wash, that it takes three washbacks to fill the the wash still, showing the yield of potatoes is not as beneficial as a grain distillate would be. The two pot stills distill the “potato wines” into a higher spirit, before it is transferred into the eyecatcher of the distillery; the huge 42 plates copper column still, distilling the alcohols into a high 95%. To take the edges off and definitely remove the last bits of methanol, a fourth demethylizing column still is used, making a dangerously smooth and drinkable (once diluted!) potato vodka.

Shiny equipment

Despite common assumption, this potato vodka is one of Scotland’s first commercial vodkas made from potatoes at this moment, since the aforementioned yields of potatoes are commercially far less interesting as their grain based counterparts. After experimentation, they have chosen to stick with the potatoes though, simply because Angus produces about 28% of Scotland’s potatoes, the resulting spirit was more velvety-creamy, far more compelling, and probably it has some marketing value to stick a potato on the label as well.

Dilution and immediate bottling of the vodka is done in the same hall as the other processes, except when there are batches made to infuse it with Scottish Chipotle Chillies, or use it at high strength to re-distill it in “Ack” once more, adding their eight botanicals to create their sweet, fragrant gin. Besides the default, locally sourced ingredients such as juniper berries, coriander seeds and angelica, liquorice and orrice roots, they also add a Lunan Bay sugar kelp, blaeberries and Carline thistle root as the gin’s key components, capturing the flora and flavours of Angus.

All together, the distillery has a capacity of 200.000 litres per year, but at the moment they are not anywhere near that, giving the team space to experiment with, adjust existing, and discover new recipes. Since January 2014, they have made some revenue with their gin and vodkas to make expansion of their warehousing already necessary, where their first single malt spirits and experimental vodka and gin recipes are ageing in various cask types, including some Dalmore exclusive ex-Methusalem Sherry casks.

Finished products – so far

Their high in the 70%, creamy, tropical fruity, chocolate-chip-whole-grain-cookie-doughy single malt new make spirit is something for us to come back to in two or three years, or whenever the brothers and Kirsty decide it is ready for release the matured whisky. When we can use this spirit, their potato vodkas and gin as benchmarks, a contemporary, state-of-the-art but down to earth whisky lies in range.

After stocking the car with a bottle of each of their products (for research purposes, of course), we were off to lunch and our next distillery appointment, catching another part of the Angus Coastal Route and ending our day with a climb down the stairways (and back up!) to the rocky beaches at Dunnottar Castle in Stonehaven. Well worth the trip…
Have a look at our Facebook page, where you can find many more pictures of our travels.
Slàinte Mhath

Thomas & Ansgar

*except malting the barley, which is done by Boortmalt, around the corner in Montrose, with drum-malted, 30 tonne batches.

Copyright notice: Photos by WhiskySpeller

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