Rainbow-making Unicorns – Fettercairn distillery

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On our quest to fulfil the possibility to meet the many people in the whisky industry and hear their stories about their jobs and feel their passion making the most beautiful spirit in the world (in most cases this is whisky, but we have seen a handful of distilleries making other spirits where people are just as passionate), we drive up from our previous distillery visit in Brechin, and find ourselves in the lovely town of Fettercairn. Fettercairn – “the foot of the mountain”, has a pretty white pagoda-chimneyed distillery of the same name on the outskirts of the town, against a panorama of lush green hills, endless glens, clattering burns, thriving farmland and thick forests. In the distance, the Cairngorms mountain range already is visible, with the Royal Balmoral Castle not forty miles away. An other beautiful drive.

Stepping around the distillery between the Scottish showers and their half day of Summer, taking snapshots of the surroundings, the buildings, the flora and fauna, including the Unicorn, a man comes walking towards us enquiring if he can be of any assistance. Turns out this is exactly the man we have an appointment with; Stewart Walker, distillery manager of the Whyte and Mackay run Fettercairn distillery. Over a good cup of coffee, Stewart tells us a little about himself and the distillery, which has changed hands several times since the building – originally built as a mill, later transformed into a distillery after it moved to this location a little down the hill.

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Although the pagoda chimneys are still there, the maltings have been closed in the 1960’s when the industrial maltsters became more (cost-) efficient than having a malting floor at every distillery. Nowadays, Bairds delivers their slightly peated* malt to the distillery into the three 35 tonne malt bins, which are filled and emptied continuously to process 120 tonnes every week. The efficient, new, six roller Bühler mill that replaced the old four roller Boby Mill (sad to see another one gone), weekly processes 24 batches of five tonnes in just under an hour mixed with the first of three waters from their water source in the Grampian mountains, feeding into the cast-iron, copper domed mash tun. Altogether this produces a volume of 25.000 litres clear wort after the rakes have been doing their slow stirring for six hours. The wooden washbacks have recently been increased in number from eight to eleven, in order to elongate the fermentation time from 48 to 56-60 hours, so the 95 kilos of liquid yeast can do their work a little longer. No switcher blades to be found on these washbacks, but an odourless and tasteless soap is sprayed on the froth, when things are about to overflow.

Back in the still house where we have seen the mash tun earlier, we can see the two sets of stills, the slightly larger of the two sets added in the 1960’s. About half of one washback is filled into each of the wash stills, and five hours later the low wines are caught through the spirit safes (each set has their own) and transported into the low wines receiver. The lampglass-shaped spirit stills are both equipped with a rather cool and unique feature – a water jacket** on the outside of the neck , to chill the alcohol fumes in the neck and achieve more condensation, reflux and copper contact resulting in a cleaner spirit. This water jacket can be turned on and off by the operators, and is usually only used during the two and a half hour middle run, until an alcohol percentage as low as 60% is reached. On a sunny day, in this water jacket, when the sun rays hit it just right, is where the Fettercairn Unicorn – symbol of Purity and Strength from founder Alexander Ramsey’s Family Crest, creates her rainbows. Sadly, we have not been witness to this event, but with the heat of the stills accompanied by the musical ensemble of the hissing steam in the coils, the clanking of the heating and cooling metal and the trickling of the water at the side of the jacket, we can imagine the Unicorn has found a place to feel right at home and make her magic happen.

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Now, that is a cool jacket…

Three time a week, the stills are given a break, to give the copper some time to rest. Rest, we also find outside the stillhouse where the cooling water is returned into the reservoir to oxygenate, looking out over the hills behind the distillery, where the surroundings are in full bloom. Every so often, a Kingfisher comes to have a look at the water in the pond, catch a break, and possibly a fish once in awhile. Speaking of rest, walking between the distillery buildings and the fourteen warehouses, we come to learn that all are of the dunnage type and hold about 28-30.000, mostly ex-Bourbon, some ex-Wine casks. The twelve people working at the distillery are proud of what they make and full of passion of their craft. A lot of overdue work is done recently under the recently changed ownership and, although their website does not really show it (or anything else for that matter), they do have a visitor’s centre with a shop and the possibility to tour the distillery from Tuesdays till Saturdays.

Like the Kingfisher, we were ready for a snack, and were guided to the Clatterin Brig Restaurant, just outside of town, of the hill following the Cairn o’Mount road (B974). When you think you have missed the signs, just keep going a little further, and find the little restaurant for a nice cup of tea and a sturdy lunch. From here, we could have gone further into the Cairngorms and visit the Royal Lochanchar distillery or Balmoral Castle, or drive further north and have a peek at the Ardmore distillery (rumoured to soon open a visitor’s centre) the Glen Garioch distillery, or the just recently opened visitor’s centre at the Knockdhu distillery, the Glenglassaugh or Glendronach distilleries, all on the edge of the Speyside area. We won’t tell you about this routes (now) however, but have a little sidestep to talk about another passionate distiller in our own country next week, after which we will start a new route and adventure in Scotland.

We are not done yet – we are just getting started, so keep coming back to www.speller.nl for our travel stories, or have a look at our Facebook page for an elaborate amount of pictures.

Slàinte Mhath

Thomas & Ansgar

*slightly peated – they now use 4-5 ppm, as opposed to the 45-50 ppm they used previously.

** we have only seen this water jacket on a whisky still in an experimental form, on one of the stills at the Auchroisk distillery, when we were there in 2014. When we were back in 2016, the distillery confirmed an experiment with the distillation of Gin, an experiment that was terminated.

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