SCOTCH WHISKY often conjures up images of hardwood panelled smoking rooms and dusty libraries. It’s the stuffy old drink of kitsch branding led by a kilt-clad piper or a highland stag, right?
In answering that question, the malt trade finds itself between a rock and a hard place. Double down on the traditional and it’ll find itself cast into obsolescence. Go too far the other way and even contemporary drinkers will decry the knee-jerk abandonment of the craft and values of old days.
Knockdhu Distillery in rural Banffshire is a textbook example of how whisky-making can keep a foot in both camps. It produces a single malt under the anCnoc name, a departure from the convention that a distillery’s malt carries the name of its birthplace. Doing so avoids mix-ups with that whisky made by neighbouring Knockando Distillery.
anCnoc presents itself as a fresh, clean-cut branded malt with a flavour profile to match; its light and fragrant style makes it an outlier in Speyside where weighty and layered drams are favoured. But this modern, easier style of malt isn’t the product of some start-up, glass walled laboratory seeking to tear up the rulebook on Scotch.
Bizarrely, it is crafted in one of Scotland’s most traditional, old-school distilleries. This is not much of a contradiction at all to Gordon Bruce, Knockdhu’s Distillery Manager and the man behind both anCnoc’s forward-thinking get-up and its time-honoured production style. To afford him a chance to explain himself, we sat him down with a few drams of anCnoc’s 24 year old release and asked him a few questions….
What was your first experience of whisky?
I’m ashamed to say that like most folk of my generation it would have been something sneaked out of the home drinks cabinet as a teenager. Peer-driven consumption for effect rather than pleasure, I’m afraid!
And your first dram?
Old Inverness, Bells or similar. When I started in Pulteney Distillery in 1988, I didn’t even like the stuff. I soon learnt however that as you become more aware of how whisky is made, and how tweaking the process can change the spirit, you become far more appreciative of what’s in your glass.
anCnoc’s branding is refreshingly clean-cut and contemporary, but how modern is the distillery island production processes themselves?
Whilst I'm all for innovation, I really don’t like seeing things being automated for the sake of it. It’s just not who we are. I see the appeal of digital systems running distilleries, since they're well tested, comparatively cheap and reliable.
But in my view, consistency and quality are best achieved in the traditional way, and there's a lot to lose when you remove human skill from the process. I have a real fear that as we become more reliant on systems, we’ll forget how to actually do things.
So we’re pretty tech free at Knockdhu; our guys embrace working at a manually run site and we (and our whisky) are better for it.
As whisky styles go, anCnoc is on the lighter and softer side of things. Production wise, how do you achieve that signature freshness and vibrancy in the new-make spirit?
Attention to detail is critical during grinding, mashing and fermentation - these early production stages are often overlooked when talking whisky.
The focus is too often on distillation. Yes, it’s nice to look at the stills; the copper kettle-esque bits of kit usually attributed with defining each distillery’s spirit character.
But, do remember, distillation is mainly an extraction process. Those stills play their part but in the main they’re capturing and refining the smells and flavours produced during fermentation; these stages leading up to distillation create flavour.
For example, before we even have alcohol we have the worts - the sugary waters drained away from the barley at the start of the process. Temperature, timings and turning of those worts define whether they end up cloudly or clear. The former often leads to richer, oiler whiskies. We aim for the latter; clear worts give that fruity, estery and very slightly malty new make spirit which defines our whisky.
And in terms of maturation, is there a particular wood style that suits your spirit style? Is there a risk that richer and punchier casks could overwhelm the light new-make spirit during ageing?
Good point on the potential for the cask to overwhelm the spirit; we see that quite a lot these days. It’s a personal thing but I feel that ex-bourbon casks suit our new make style. First fill ex bourbon wood for 10-12 years is usually just about right. Re-fill casks are spot-on for whiskies we plan to age a wee bit longer; they invariably impart slightly less wood and previous cask content influence on the spirit which reduces the risk that we’ll drown out the underlying spirit over time.
Best memory of working in the Scotch trade?
It’s impossible to single one out so I’ll cheat and list a couple. Getting to play with the ultimate ‘big boys’ toy boxes - kit and equipment which generations of craftsmen have distilled with - is up there.
Meeting and greeting folk who appreciate what you’ve had a part in producing is another. I mean, as a distiller you don’t get a bigger kick than seeing a smile on someone’s face as they sip and enjoy something you’ve created.
And the most important lesson you’ve learnt?
One of my wise old managers advised me to ‘plan your breakdowns in advance’. We run the plant 24/7 with a four-week summer shutdown window.
It pays dividends to really understand your plant to anticipate and prevent small issues becoming big problems.
Every day’s a school day in a distillery; you find yourself continually tweaking and adapting things to get the best out of what you’re working with.
Knock isn’t the easiest place to get to and we presume that distilling in rural Scotland is not for everyone? Tell us about the team at the distillery?
It’s the centre of the world to us! If you’ve a twenty-mile round trip away from a pint of milk or a newspaper, you become more resourceful with what you’ve got. The same rules apply to the distillery as to the kitchen table at home.
We’ve a small team of six who work shifts. Years back, we put the site onto single manning, so that’s one guy on shift at a time to look after the whole process. The guys are great; they’ll spend pretty much the whole shift on the hoof looking after all parts of the process solo.
Unless we automate (we won’t), we couldn’t achieve this without having the right folk here. Our Assistant Manager, Ally, has been here for more than 33 years. The place would grind to a halt without him.
I think that my role is mainly to add a touch of glamour and respectability to proceedings. Our pet dogs are an important part of the team, too.
All-time favourite anCnoc?
I’m a big fan of the old 16 year old which solely matured in second-fill bourbon casks. Zesty, citrusy and a real stick to your teeth toffee feel. Two drops of water brought out a subtle aniseedy / fennel-esque note that couldn’t be detected neat.
The vintages are good too. 1999 sticks in my mind as being akin to nosing a bowl of fruit. 2002 was a cracker, too.
Best way to enjoy a whisky?
Always in good company. As it’s such a mood drink, your humour, how your day has gone, and who you’re with will all affect which bottle you reach for.
For more information, see ancnoc.com