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We’re often asked why we took on the Annandale Distillery project. Most people seem to expect a rational and well-considered answer from two (hopefully) sane scientists-cum-business people, possibly alluding to return on investment, diversification of business interests and the like. Others expect to hear something about a lifelong dream or a passion for whisky, or something of the sort. Although both of these may have been contributing influences, the truth of the matter is rather different. Although he didn’t necessarily realise it at the time, David Thomson, being an expatriate Scot, was looking to do something that would anchor his life back to his native Scotland. Teresa Church, the other member of the founding duo, has an enduring passion for restoring old buildings. Through her visionary lens, the intrinsic beauty of Annandale’s historic buildings shone brightly through the dilapidation, the decay and the dereliction. For both of them, Annandale Distillery was a case of ‘love at first sight’…and every bit as irrational and unfathomable as that!
From the very start, we were intrigued to know why there had been so few whisky distilleries in the South of Scotland. At that time (2006/7), Annandale Distillery had been closed for almost 90 years and Bladnoch Distillery (near Newton Stewart, Wigtownshire) was in the process of fizzling out under very sad circumstances. This left William Grant’s gigantic grain distillery at Girvan and Diageo’s Glenkinchie Distillery to the east of Edinburgh, as the only functioning whisky distilleries in the South of Scotland (although neither of these are truly southern in a strictly geographic sense). Previously, there had been two other distilleries in the Scottish Borders, Glen Tarras and Langholm, but both had ceased production in the early 1900s.
In seeking an explanation, it’s immediately evident that the climate in South West Scotland would have been too damp for growing the barley cultivars of 100 – 150 years ago. But otherwise, there would have been an abundance of water, peat and coal, and the weather (damp and mild) would have been ideal for maturing whisky. Also, by the 1890s, Southern Scotland had a well-established rail network which should have made inward transportation of barley and outward transportation of finished whisky, relatively straightforward. (Surely, any challenges facing South of Scotland distillers would have been nothing compared to the challenges faced by Islay’s distillers.) This led us to the inescapable conclusion that there isn’t, and probably never has been, a fundamental reason why first class Single Malt Scotch whisky couldn’t and shouldn’t be produced in Southern Scotland. Clearly, there was a point to prove!
Southern Scotland falls within the ‘Lowland’ whisky region of Scotland. According to various of the coffee table books on Scotch whisky, Lowland Single Malts are characteristically light in colour and dry in finish. This is apparently attributed to the nature of the barley used by Lowland distillers. What arrant nonsense! Most distillers source their malted barley from all over Scotland, depending on cost and availability. If barley regionality has ever played a part in determining the character of Lowland Single Malts (which is doubtful), it certainly doesn’t now. Colour has everything to do with the type of oak barrels used to mature the whisky and almost nothing to do with regional differences in barley.
Lowland malts are often described as having a sweet fruitiness (specifically citrus by some accounts). Being mellow in character, they apparently make a good aperitif and provide a readily accessible entry point for inexperienced whisky drinkers who wish to approach the Single Malt category (with caution). More piffle and poppycock! The truth of the matter is that the modern genre of Lowland Single Malts is a wishy washy aberration created by marketers hoping to build a plausible back story for regional provenance in Single Malts. Historically, malt whiskies from Southern Scotland would have been peated because of the abundance of peat for kilning barley. (Southern Scotland is very boggy!) In his wonderful ‘time capsule’ book… ‘The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom’ published in 1887, Alfred Barnard makes specific reference to both Annandale and Bladnoch, the two principal distilleries of Southern Scotland, using peat for kilning!
The simple truth is that any regional differences that may exist within Single Malt Scotch whisky category are more a matter of design than genuine ‘terroir’, although it is acknowledged that differences in the climates of Islay (mild, windy and rain-lashed Islay) versus Speyside (drier and colder in the Winter), for example, could influence the rate and nature of maturation.
Having disabused ourselves of any notion of regional terroir, this left us with a blank canvas for creating sensory profiles for Annandale’s Single Malts. The next decision was relatively easy: Annandale should produce a peated malt (as it would have done historically) and an unpeated malt (largely for commercial reasons). In doing this, it was imperative that Annandale’s peated and unpeated expressions should have a common core of sensory characteristics that define them as being ‘Annandale’. This wasn’t going to be easy!
Back in 2007, Scotland already had more than 100 Single Malt distilleries. As a matter of due diligence, we felt compelled to ask ourselves whether or not Scotland actually needed another distillery? Although we reasoned that Scotland (as a whole) probably didn’t, we were very clear that the South of Scotland definitely did. Indeed, reintroducing Single Malt Scotch Whisky production into the South of Scotland became one of our primary motivations and our passion!
The second consideration was much more complicated: What should Annandale’s peated and unpeated Single Malts taste like? Producing Single Malts in the style of Islay and Speyside, for our peated and unpeated expressions, respectively, didn’t seem sensible. Surely, if whisky drinkers wanted an ‘Islay style’ malt, they’d buy one from an Islay distillery? The same rationale applied to our unpeated malt and Speyside. The challenge was to produce peated and unpeated Single Malts that were different from other Single Malts on the market, whilst still fitting within and forming a credible part of the sensory universe of Single Malt Scotch whisky.
The foregoing deliberations led to a 4-point product development brief for Annandale’s Single Malts:
1.) Peated and unpeated expressions
2.) The peated and unpeated expressions should have obvious sensory commonalities/overlaps
3.) Unique and different from all other Single Malts (characteristically Annandale)
4.) Fit within, and be a credible part of, the sensory universe of Single Malt Scotch whisky
With over 100 Single Malt Scotch whisky distilleries (in 2007) producing multiple expressions (e.g. age, cask type/finish, etc.), there are literally thousands of Single Malts for consumers to choose from. Although the sensory universe of Single Malts was inevitably going to be very crowded, was there any ‘white space’ (i.e. gaps in the sensory universe) where we could credibly insert Annandale’s peated and unpeated expressions?
To explore this, we used a form of sensory profiling known as descriptive sensory analysis. This work was undertaken by a panel of 12 highly trained, professional sensory assessors working for our sister company, MMR Research Worldwide (www.mmr-research.com) in Reading, UK. MMR’s professional sensory assessors routinely work across a wide range of food, beverage, personal care and even homecare products, so they’re vastly experienced in deconstructing holistic sensory perceptions into their constituent sensory characteristics, describing these sensory characteristics very precisely and then quantifying the magnitude of each sensory characteristic in each product.
We selected approximately 60 Single Malts for sensory profiling. These were mainly standard distillery expressions such as Aberlour 10, Ardbeg 10, Bowmore 12, etc., etc., chosen using David Wishart’s excellent book ‘Whisky Classified – Choosing Single Malts by Flavour’ to guide our initial selection. It was important that we should sample the sensory universe as thoroughly as possible whilst restricting the number of whiskies to a sensible, practical maximum. (Sensory profiling is very time consuming and expensive but extremely effective.)
The sensory panel developed an extensive, sensory lexicon to describe the appearance, odour, flavour, mouthfeel and finish of the whiskies. We deliberately avoided using established sensory vocabularies for Scotch whisky, allowing the assessors to use their extensive experience in sensory description to create their own bespoke vocabulary. The assessors then systematically quantified the magnitude of each sensory characteristic in each of the 60 Single Malts. This process was conducted over a period of 12 months using a carefully structured sampling plan to reduce the effects of sensory fatigue and other biases. All of the Single Malts were assessed at 20% ABV (as is typical for master blenders). Each whisky was profiled at least twice by each of the sensory assessors to provide a very robust data set. The data (12 assessors X 2 replicates) was averaged within each sensory characteristic, within each whisky to yield and averaged sensory profile for each of the 60 whiskies.
A statistical procedure known as Analysis of Variance identified which sensory characteristics were most effective in discriminating amongst the whiskies. Thereafter, Principal Component Analysis was used to create a 2-dimensional map of the sensory universe of our Single Malt Scotch whiskies.
The horizontal axis of the sensory map differentiates the whiskies by degree of peaty character, with the most extreme, peaty whiskies positioned towards the right of the map (e.g. Laphroaig 10, Ardbeg 10 and Kilchoman) and the least peaty whiskies towards the left (e.g. Glenlivet 10 and Glefiddich 12). The vertical axis is defined by the heavily sherry-matured malts towards the top (most especially Macallan Sherry Wood and Aberlour A’bunadh) which are characterised by brown fruit and molasses/dark sweet attributes (fruity/dark) with the non-sherry matured malts such as Cardhu 12, Longrow 10, and Glenkinchie 12 (i.e. those matured primarily in ex-bourbon casks) situated at the opposite extremity. These are characterised by sensory characteristics such as pear drops, orchard fruits and citrus. These lighter fruity/estery characteristics are the antithesis of the fruity/dark notes associated with sherry maturation.
Kilchoman and Ardbeg 10 standard expressions are located towards the bottom right hand corner of the sensory map because they combine heavy peating with fruity/estery characteristics. Lagavulin 16 and Bowmore 12 are also heavily peated but fruity/dark rather than fruity/estery, which locates them towards the top right of the sensory map.
Glenmorangie 10, located towards the bottom left of the sensory map, is fruity/estery in character with a strong hint of vanilla (probably deriving from the once-used bourbon casks in which it was matured). Aberlour A’bunadh and Balvenie Doublewood 12 are both located towards the top left of the map because a significant proportion of the whisky used to create these Single Malts will have been matured in sherry butts or other sherry-conditioned casks.
Much more detail could be extracted from this sensory map but suffice to say that there’s a large area of ‘white space’ towards the bottom right hand side of the map (i.e. to the left of Ardbeg 10, Kilchoman and Caol Ila 12). Realising this pleased us enormously because it created the possibility of developing a peated expression of Annandale that would be less heavily peated than Ardbeg 10 and Kilchoman, combined with distinctly sweet and fruity/estery notes. With this established, it was reasoned that Annandale’s unpeated expression should be located in an area of white space towards the bottom left corner of the map, beyond Longrow 10, Cardhu 12 and Glenmorangie 10. In doing this, it was hoped that we could create a unique fruity/estery, sweet, vanilla sensory complex that would define ‘Annandale’ and make it somewhat unique, whilst giving the peated and unpeated expressions a common sensory component. Positioning Annandale’s two standard expressions thus would, we hoped, satisfy all four of the development criteria mentioned previously.
By ‘reverse engineering’ the mathematics used to create the sensory map, it was possible for us to create ‘theoretical’ sensory profiles for our peated and unpeated expressions of Annandale. These data rich sensory profiles became the benchmarks against which everything that followed, in terms of plant design, production specifications and even our branding and packaging, would subsequently be developed.
Now we needed to find a genius who could design a plant and a process that would deliver whiskies with the target sensory profiles. Fortunately, we knew Dr Jim Swan!
Jim Swan and David Thomson had known each other since the mid-1980s when they’d met at a sensory conference in London. Jim was specialist in the chemistry and sensory evaluation of whisky flavour, working at Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research. David was a lecturer at the University of Reading where he taught and conducted academic research on sensory evaluation and consumer science/psychology. They had two other points in common; both were Scots, and both enjoyed Single Malt Scotch whisky. A bond was inevitably formed!
Jim and David met occasionally and otherwise kept loosely in touch over the intervening years. Having completed the purchase of the derelict distillery in 2007, Jim Swan was the first person we called (although common sense might have decreed that we should have called Jim before buying the distillery). We showed Jim the sensory map, explained the rationale behind the positions we’d selected for our ‘theoretical’ peated and unpeated sensory profiles and asked him three questions:
Q.1 Does this make sense? Yes!
Q.2 Could he design a production plant and specify a process that would make whiskies with these sensory specifications? Yes!
Q.3 Could we flip between peated and unpeated whisky production on the same plant? Yes!
Armed with the ‘theoretical’ sensory profiles for our peated and unpeated malts, Jim set about blending various malts together to make sure he understood the specifications and the brief perfectly. It goes without saying that he ‘nailed it’. Teresa, Jim, David and former Distillery Manager, Malcolm Rennie took the specifications and the malts to Forsyth’s of Rothes and so the process of designing a whisky making plant against two very tight sensory specifications began.
Details of our whisky-making plant are described elsewhere on this website. Suffice to say at this point that the desired fruity/estery character is achieved through very limited agitation of the grain bed during mashing and a unique combination of two very specific yeasts used in fermentation. The capacity to make both peated and unpeated spirit on the same plant required separate storage bins for the peated and unpeated malts at the beginning of the process, separate receivers for the peated and unpeated low wines, foreshots and feints at the end of the process……and some very elegant pipework.
The most significant feature of our plant was Jim Swan’s twin spirit still concept. Most Single Malt distilleries have one wash still paired with one spirit still. Annandale’s single copper wash still (12,000 litres) is paired with two copper spirit stills (2 x 4,000 litres). This increases the ratio of the surface area of copper to the volume of liquid (inside the spirit still). Enhanced copper contact during final distillation, leads to increased purification of the spirit due to the complexing of various impurities (especially sulphur compounds and long-chain fatty acids) with copper to form insoluble precipitates that sink to the bottom of the still and are discharged to effluent (spent lees). The fact that our unmatured new make spirit is extremely enjoyable to drink (straight), without a trace of harshness even at 63.5% ABV, is testimony to the efficacy of our process. (We sell this as peated and unpeated Rascally Liquor®.)
Sadly, Dr Jim Swan died suddenly in February 2017.
Fast forward to 2018/19 when the very first of our fastest maturing Single Malts were beginning to reach sensory maturity. It was perfectly clear that the combination of Jim’s plant and process design, our choice of casks and Annandale’s perfect maturation microclimate, had delivered against our ‘theoretical’ sensory profiles……exactly! Better still, both our peated and unpeated Single Malts were highly acclaimed in Jim Murray’s 2019 & 2020 Whisky Bibles, with one of our 2015 peated casks receiving the accolade in 2020 of ‘Best Single Cask, Single Malt Scotch Whisky – 10 Years and Under’.
Professor David Thomson PhD
Founder & Chairman – MMR Group
Co-Founder & Managing Director – Annandale Distillery Company Ltd.
The late Dr Jim Swan, Malcolm Rennie, Richard Forsyth Snr (Forsyth’s of Rothes), Phiala Mehring (Sensory Manager), our sensory panellists based at MMR’s sensory facility, Reading, UK and Mark Trainor and his production team at Annandale Distillery.