East of Scotland bonanza: Fettercairn and Arbikie
TL;DR: On our way to Speyside, we stopped by two distilleries along the way. One old, Fettercairn, and one new, Arbikie. We liked both tours: while Fettercairn was more of a classical distillery experience, we appreciated Arbikie forward-thinking and innovative spirit. Fettercairn Warehouse 2 drams were outstanding!
Here we are again, mid-September, early Friday morning, on a bus to Lochrin Place, near Tollcross, where a car is waiting for us. We had booked it at McNicoll – following the increase in rental car prices due to the pandemic, they are now quite competitive and their service is generally much better than most of the other ones. That morning Teresa, the designated driver for the weekend (Gianluigi: “AH-AH”), drove us up north towards the Highlands, but then turned eastward on the road to Aberdeen.
Our first appointment of the day was with Fettercairn distillery, at the bottom of the Cairngorms mountains (which is the meaning of the name). This distillery is owned by White and Mackay and has a long history. Founded in 1824, it was one of the first to get a distilling license.
Recently the brand underwent a restyling, so although the 12y and the 12y ex-PX cask (a travel retail expression) stayed at 40%, the 16y moved to a more natural presentation: from 40 to 46%, not chill-filtered and no artificial colour additions, just what we enthusiasts want! They also added the Warehouse 2 series to their portfolio, usually younger expressions at a higher abv from a vatting of casks selected by the distillery manager, each different from the previous one.
As we get to the (renewed) visitor centre, we are welcomed by our guide for the day: Kirsty. She illustrated very clearly the historical context of the late 1700s and early 1800s, around the time that Fettercairn got its license.
We then moved to the Forest Flow monument outside the visitor centre, a testimony of the distillery’s sustainability plans. For example, they planted oak trees on the Fasque Estate, an 8,500 acres land nearby. Another long-term but extremely interesting plan is a collaboration with the farmers in the area around the distillery, which will lead to single-farm expressions: exciting times!
Moving to production, Kirsty showed us the water recycle system they have in place to minimise water waste.We were then shown their copper lidded mashtun, their Douglas Fir washbacks, and finally, their 2 pairs of (vapour coil heated) stills with their cooling ring. This was one of the most interesting features: the ring is a circular tube spraying water on the neck of the still, cooling it and therefore increasing the reflux. In our understanding, this makes some particles drop back into the still, allowing only the lighter ones to go up. So cool(ing)!
We checked out the warehouse and finally went back to the visitor centre for a taste of the two 12y expressions and the 16y (we opted to pay and extra fiver for a third sample). The two 12y were tasty compared to other 40% basic drams, but the stand-out was the 16y: a nutty storm, truly delicious. Kirsty was very kind and gave us also two wee samples of the Warehouse 2 collection, batch 3 and 4 (1 and 2 were gone): the #4 is a more classical, rich and fruity dram, while the ex-rum cask influence on #3 gives it a tropical and flowery perfume, one of the most floral drams we ever tried. Both amazing.
Overall, a nice visit, which we’d repeat, particularly because Kirsty told us that they are planning to offer new tours, including warehouse tastings and some Warehouse 2 series focused, looking forward to it!
We had lunch in a café close to the famous arch in Fettercairn, and then moved to the next distillery: Arbikie. This is a quite new distillery, founded in 2013 by the Stirling brothers, originally farmers in the area. They started by producing vodka with potatoes they cultivate, and soon moved to gin and later to whisky. An interesting characteristic is that they produce whisky from 3 different grains: oat, rye and, of course, malted barley. As we parked, we were welcomed by a stunning view of the fields and the sea, truly a beautiful spot! The amazing landscape can also be enjoyed from the very nice café and restaurant.
There were works going on to build a new semi-open conservatory to improve visitors’ experience, particularly in sunny days. It’s just the two of us on the whisky tour (they have also a gin-focused and a general tour). Our guide was Andy, very knowledgeable and whose great-grandfather worked for the Stirling family.
Everything in the distillery is oriented towards sustainability, with heat-exchangers and other features in place to minimise energy consumption. Some peculiarities are their stainless washback silos (more similar to those in breweries) and their stills: three pot stills (one for wash and two for spirit) and the column stills. While gin and vodka are exclusively distilled in the column still, for the whisky they can play with a combination of the two. For example, we’ve been told that some of their rye newmake spirit recently underwent the second distillation in the columns, as the spirit stills (normally used for the second distillation) were under repair. Unlike most distilleries, they currently don’t have a dunnage warehouse, everything is palletized. On top of the usual ones, they have a variety of casks, including ex-Armagnac, ex-rum, and ex-red wine.
Back at the shop we tried some of their rye whiskies, the first ones officially released in Scotland in over 100 years. We had two expressions, the one that can be defined their core range (which we had already tried via Whisky-Me), and a single cask finished in ex-Armagnac casks. The second was better, but we weren’t huge fan of either: too herbal, almost a hybrid between a gin and a young rum. Very pricey too, £90 for the first and £250 for the second. It must not be easy to find your feet for something so uncommon as a Scottish rye whisky, where, unlike single malts, there is no “blueprint”. So, we are confident that their product will improve over time, in particular as more aged stock becomes available. Also, we’ll be very curious to try their single malt, once released.
Back to the car, we took the “slow” but very scenic road across Speyside to reach Fochabers, where we had our hotel booked. After a nice dinner at the Gordon Arms Hotel, we went to bed ready for the next day.
Fettercairn Tour (with extra dram)
Price: £20.00 pp (September 2022, £15 without the extra dram)
Duration: 1h 30min
Tasting: 3 drams, 12y (40%), 12y PX-finish (travel exclusive, 40%), 16y (46.4%, NC, NCF)
Value for money: Very good
Highlights: the cooling ring system on the stills
Arbikie Whisky Tour
Price: £25.00 pp (September 2022)
Tasting: 2 drams, Arbikie rye (48%, NC, NCF), Arbikie single cask rye ex-Armagnac finish (46%, NC, NCF)
Value for money: Ok
Highlights: the view and the distillery setting
Recommended: mainly to fans of all spirits