The lone wolf of the north

What does an isolated distillery in the upper reaches of Scotland have to do with the fair city of Cape Town?

First published in Prestige Magazine (May 2013 edition).

As it appeared.

As it appeared.

Note: Apologies on behalf of Prestige Magazine for the factual error in the second paragraph of the printed version.  Wolfburn is not a town.

Wolfburn?  Never heard of it.  I thought that my colleague was making this up.  She’d recounted that in an office nearby a group of guys, specifically one with whom she occasionally met up over a smoke, had claimed to have built a Scotch whisky distillery (called Wolfburn).  I was dubious.  Granted the owners of BenRiach and GlenDronach happen to be Capetonians, but this isn’t Speyside; by and large whisky producers don’t exactly grow on our indigenous trees in the Mother City. It was worth investigation. So it was that a little later, over a glass of orange juice (I had been hoping for new-make Wolfburn, having heard that the stills had begun production in January), I met with one of the owners, an expatriate Scotsman who’d gathered up a team of local investors, to learn a bit more about this intriguing situation.

Wolfburn is located in the far northern Highlands, close to the towns of Thurso and Wick, the latter once having been a major fishing hub.  In the mid-nineteenth century upwards of a hundred thousand fishermen would descend on the area during the season.  This was hard work on a cold, rough sea and it invariably stoked their already considerable thirst for whisky.  There were two distilleries serving this demand, one of which was the original Wolfburn – named after the crystal-clear, pristine stream from which the distillery’s water, then and now, was and is drawn.  Few records remain, just a few references in excise documents, and there’s nothing left of the physical structure.  The only link to the past is in the name and the general location.  I found this sad in a sense – I’ve always been enchanted by the stories and the heritage of Scotch whisky – but we tend get caught up in the romance of history, and we often don’t realise that it comes with its burdens.  Old does not necessarily mean good, and old definitely does not mean efficient.

Freed of these shackles whilst honouring its predecessor nonetheless, the new Wolfburn has been designed to be as efficient as possible, but true to the spirit of whisky.  Its processes, equipment and layout are modern, but it operates on an entirely manual basis, with no computerisation whatsoever.  “It’s the right thing to do”, I’m quoting the visionary behind Wolfburn, “in a world where the bog corporates are building bigger and bigger soulless whisky factories that are barely even distilleries in the real sense of the name”.  This is the type of raw candour that stirs my blood; perhaps we have a new Mark Reynier entering the trade.  Wolfburn then is an up-to-date re-envisaging of whisky-making from the golden age. 

Producing whisky from scratch is an expensive and precarious endeavour; there’s no revenue for at least three years post ignition, and no significant profitability until long thereafter.  Not forgetting of course the usual business risks that come with any new venture.  Efficiency thus is key.  The core team assembled to make this philosophy a reality is made up of General Manager Shane Fraser, a long-time servant of whisky who’s worked at stellar distilleries such as Glenfarclas, Oban and Royal Lochnagar, and Mashman Matt Beeson who was stolen from the beer trade, where mastery of mashing is paramount.  No shortage of pedigree clearly.

What then of the whisky?  Because at the end of the day that’s what really matters.  The malt (made from Optic barley by Munton’s of Yorkshire) is all unpeated, and the still shape is similar to those at Glenfiddich.  The new-make – sadly missing at our meeting I’ll repeat (hint hint) – has had its flavour described as follows: “lovely malty notes with some great nuttiness”, and is being filled into a pleasingly broad variety of casks which should give the Master Distiller a splendid foundation for vatting: first-fill Bourbon barrels, first-fill Sherry hogsheads, second-fill Sherry butts, and second-fill Bourbon quarter casks (the first-fill was an Islay malt so the flavour  from these last casks is expected to be subtly smoky).  There are plans to sell young whisky, probably largely composed from the quarter casks, where maturation might be advanced because of the relatively extensive wood contact, but there’ll be no other compromises in pursuit of quick cash.  You won’t find Wolfburn in a blend (or a blended malt), you won’t find an independent bottling of Wolfburn, and you won’t find Wolfburn “spirit” (white dogs and whatnot).  The strict ethic that has been instituted calls for the production in its entirety to be dedicated to bottlings of proprietary single malts.  Go big or go home.

Wolfburn dunnage

Wolfburn dunnage.

Whilst we’ll all have to wait some three odd years before tasting the whisky, one can stake a claim pretty much immediately.  The first release – limited to 500 bottles – is already being sold at £135 per bottle, and disappearing rapidly I’m told: more than a quarter of the stock is gone.  Interested parties can send an email to info@wolfburn.com to get their purchase rolling. 

The pricing may seem steep for a whisky of barely legal age, but consider that although a few new distilleries have been commissioned in recent years it’s still a hell of a rare thing to own an inaugural bottling.  I’m not a speculator myself but this appears to be worth a long-term punt.  I know I speak for many whisky lovers though when I say that if I were to buy I would do so not for the investment but for the satisfaction that I would be one of the first – ever and for all time – to savour this sweet nectar.  And the almost fraternal Cape Town connection should make it all the sweeter.  May the dram be with you.

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