A Chat with Andrew Thompson, Owner of Wolfburn Distillery


Mr. J @ Whiskiology

Two weeks ago, through the channeling of Wolfburn’s Hong Kong distribution partner (Lillion Wine), Mr. J got the chance to meet and have a lovely chat with Andrew Thompson, the owner of the distillery. This is my first time seeing Andrew in person, and I can tell this gentleman is full of passion and knowledge about what he is doing. First impression: this guy is so cool, and there gotta be some great chat for the night.

Throughout the night, we chatted about almost every aspect of the distillery and Wolfburn whisky, and Andrew is so kind and open to answer every question from Mr. J (unless he didn’t know the answer himself), such transparency is uncommon in the Scottish whisky industry. In this article, I will recap and organize the dialogue into three sections: The Wolfburn Project, The Technical Wolfburn, and Wolfburn’s Future.

The Wolfburn Project

We kicked off the night with questions asking how did Andrew first encountered whisky, and when did he come up with the idea of building his own whisky distillery. Andrew told Mr. J that he used to live very close to the previous-most-northerly distillery on the Scottish mainland (the title now taken over by the Wolfburn Distillery), the Old Pulteney Distillery. Eventhough he has not visited the Old Pulteney until adulthood, he has always known the people working at the Distillery, the “connection” with whisky people is always there.

(Andrew & Mr. J, with a “wall” of signed Wolfburn whisky on the left)

After years of excellence in the satellite business, Andrew said he wanted to do something different, something that is less boring and could keep up his passion in doing it. That’s the time when having his own distillery came into his mind. Through selling the satellite business, he encountered Harry Taylor, who later became the major investor of Wolfburn Distillery.

At the beginning, Andrew said he didn’t know what to do, as he basically got no knowledge in making whisky. Even so, his desperate desire fueled him to do something off the textbook. He “randomly” phoned some distilleries and asked if the answering person may teach him how to build a distillery. Mr. J responded to Andrew with a smile that people would think it’s merely some drunk guy calling, “HA!”. Here comes the dramatic part, after a few trials, an “unknown distillery” did take Andrew’s question seriously, and transferred his call to their operation manager (the distillery is “unknown” because Andrew forgot which distillery was it, he regrets so much about it). And then the manager started hours-chat with him, including calculating the sufficiency of Wolfburn water source for him, and gave him his first lecture on whisky production. Most importantly, the manager referred Andrew to the coppersmith, Forsyths, the company that made most of Scotland’s distilleries’ pot stills (including the Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Ailsa; some foreign ones such as American’s Woodford Reserve, Taiwanese’s King Car, and Japanese’s Yamazaki, and there latest Akkeshi Distillery, etc.). Andrew said this is the greatness about whisky makers he knows in Scotland, they’re all open-minded and don’t hesitate to share knowledge and experiences with you. They would share with you “what they did wrongly in the past”, and prevent you from committing the same mistakes. He said these people don’t really think about competition, as making good whisky is an utterly difficult mission. “If you successfully make a good whisky, you deserve to success. You earn it.” (Well, he also didn’t forget to mention that some marketing personnel might have completely different mindsets.)

Andrew said when he first contacted Forsyths, the family-owned business was just passed to the hand of their fourth generation, Richard Ernest Forsyth. He said before meeting Richard, he imagined Richard would be a much older person; and Richard also thought Andrew would be an older guy too. Later, after they met, they figured out they’re at the same age. Probably because of this coincidence, their partnership runs extremely smooth. “Richard wasn’t as confident as we see today at first”, said Andrew. The Wolfburn Project was Richard first job being in charge of the company, he didn’t know what to do as well and went back to ask his father for suggestion. Then his father asked the question which changed Richard’s mind as a business leader, his father said this is the first job Richard had after being in charge, and then he said he had no clue what to do, is he saying that he is not ready for the job? This question beefed up Richard’s competitive spirit, and then thrilled him to successfully design the perfect stills for Andrew and Wolfburn.

(Right: Forsyths’s current Managing Director, Richard Ernest Forsyth, Source: https://goo.gl/hYzZsb)

According to Andrew, Richard had that stills’ design for a very long time, but as he wasn’t the boss back then, the design was put aside and not used. When Andrew showed Shane Fraser (Wolfburn’s Distillery Manager) the design, Shane said that’s the “perfect stills” and he could play a lot of magic with them. Before joining Wolfburn, Shane was the distillery manager at Glenfarclas. But managing the existing flavour of certain whisky is not the same as making a brand new one. Given the opportunity to determine the character of the Wolfburn whisky is Shane’s greatest motivation in joining the team. During the communication through a middleperson with Glenfarclas, to explore the possibility in acquiring Shane from them, Glenfarclas knows there ain’t much they can do to keep Shane there, as “he wants to make his own whisky”, quoted Andrew.

Wolfburn now has four employees on production in total (they still have a book-keeping staff, and an in-house designer, etc.). Besides Shane, there are Iain, Innes, and Charlie. Charlie is Shane’s son, he and Innes are apprentices at the distillery. The Distillery understands the importance of passing on its legacy, and Shane and Iain’s priceless knowledge to the next generation. Andrew said he doesn’t like the “micro-management” style in doing things, and thus besides setting certain financial and time-framed parameters (e.g. the first bottled whisky has to be released in 2016), he basically allows the team to do what they are best at. Andrew said the team is so sophisticated in saving every penny for making the best whisky. One time he went into the main building and found all the lights off, and then asked Shane what is going on, Shane said it’s to save cost. Some time later, Andrew again entered the production house and searched for the light button, he found the one-switch originally became two. The team told him that if he insists to turn on the lights, he could use one to switch on half of the lights, and keep the other half off to save energy and money. Andrew said the tendency to not waste a penny is simply in every Scot’s blood. This echoes a Scottish proverb Mr. J learned some time ago, “A fool may earn money, but it takes a wise man to keep it.” Wolfburn obviously has a team of wise men.

The Technical Wolfburn

On the discussion for the technical details of Wolfburn, one word would summarize Mr. J’s impression: efficiency. Like mentioned earlier, Wolfburn is extraordinary transparent about their production. They actually shared a lot of information on both their website and Facebook page. In order to avoid repeating what’s already public, Mr. J worked hard the night before meeting with Andrew and came up with a few technical questions on the Distillery. Hopefully, readers will find something they don’t previously know below.

The first question on production that night was about the malt Wolfburn uses; Mr. J has cited that Concerto and Optic are currently the market leading barleys in an earlier article (in Chinese).  From Wolfburn’s FB Page, it says the malts used are the “distilling malts” from Munton’s, but the exact barley variety is not stated. To sate Mr. J’s curiosity, Andrew revealed that it’s Optic they use. As I have expected, the reason for picking Optic is solely because of the yield, and has nothing to do with the aroma. Andrew said building a distillery is a big investment, and the alcohol yield equals the amount of bottle you may sell, i.e. the yield determines a large portion of your revenue. He kept on saying some distilleries in the past emphasized on certain barley type they used, was most likely related to the alcohol yield too. “Best barley” for “best aroma” was just marketing myth for him. What Andrew said, is coherent with Mr. J’s long-time belief, that in general, even daily whisky appreciators or many whisky maniacs would not be able to tell the differences in aroma between whiskies produced from diverse types of barley. I am not saying that whisky experts can never distinguish different barleys used, I am saying that they probably can only do so when the “whiskies” are still in their new makes status under a straightly controlled production process, i.e. only alter the varieties of barley used, ceteris paribus.

Learning that the Distillery also started to use peated malts from 2014, Mr. J asked when would their first peated whisky be released. Andrew said it should come out next year. When talked about the mashing process, Andrew highlighted that they are using a “balanced system”, i.e. one tonne of mash, will go to one filling of a wash back (they added a 4th washback now), and the wash will go to one filling of the wash still, and then one filling of the spirit still, and finally one filling to the intermediate spirit receiver, before going to the spirit receiving warehouse vat afore diluting and casks filling. An unbalanced system would mean one has to divide or add up the in-process liquids at certain stage. For example, when a distillery fills one mash, to one wash back, and then two distillations for each still, it has an unbalanced system. As the stills fail to catch up the previous processes, the production is slowed down and/or manpower not fully utilized. Just like the traditional way, the Distillery also uses three water for mashing.

When I wrote the tasting note for Wolfburn’s first release (not the inaugural bottle), I mentioned that it’s a whisky with excellent nose: medicinal peat, floral, tiny bit of green apple sour, peppery costal style with malty sweetness. I just couldn’t stop nosing it, as it’s so good. The nose totally outweighs its palate. That kind of floral elegancy has a very high chance to be formed from a long fermentation, Mr. J expected. And bingo! Andrew said their fermentation normally last for 62-92 hours, depends on whether it’s a weekend. Another interesting note about Wolfburn’s fermentation is that they use “dry yeasts” from Anchor, which is not very common in Scotland. Andrew said because of the distillery’s geographical location, using dry yeasts has the advantage of efficiency because it will not be frozen during winter time.

After long hours of fermentation, the alcohol content of the wash rises to around 12-14% ABV, it is then “pre-heat” through a heat exchange system before entering the wash still, and that heat is coming from the effluent (i.e. hot pot ale and spend lees) of the previous distillation. You need fuels for heating up the liquids, and fuels cost money. Andrew said they do not want to waste the heat when it is already there. This is both environmental friendly, and cost saving. In addition, the pre-heating of the wash also save time for the distillation process.

Another interesting point about Wolfburn’s distillation is that they “run hot” between the two distillations. As one should know, after the wash still distillation, the liquid is then condensed through the condenser to about 20ºC; Andrew said it cannot be below 19ºC, as certain unpleasant acidic flavour will be formed. To avoid that, they open the door of the spirit safe and allow the temperature of the low-wine to get slightly higher. From the opened door, distillery staffs would immediately identify if there is any unpleasant aroma formed and then adjust the water flow of the condenser accordingly. Andrew said the low-wine is about 25% ABV, and around 69-70% for the new make spirits. Around 10 minutes for foreshots run, 2 hours of spirit cut, and 2 hours of feint run.

The new make spirits of Wolfburn doesn’t go into the vat immediately. Instead, it reaches the “intermediate spirit receiver” (ISR) first. Andrew said the advantage of using an ISR is that if you have any issue with the new make spirits, all you lose is that round inside the ISR instead of a whole week of hard work. Subsequently, the spirits will be pumped into the warehouse’s spirit receiving vat. The new makes will then be diluted to 63.5% ABV for casks filling. Three major types of casks are used by Wolfburn current:

(1) ex-bourbon “peated” quarter casks
(2) ex-bourbon hogheads and barrels
(3) ex-Miguel sherry butts (ex-oloroso)

For (2), Andrew said they obtained the casks from Buffalo Trace; and (1) are from Josey Miguel in Jerez. As from the limited release whisky I tried, I’m pretty sure that medicinal peaty note is from Islay peat; thus deduced the casks are likely used by an Islay distillery. Hence, I made my guess, and Andrew confirmed my answer. Since that distillery do not want to be disclosed, its identify will not be mentioned here. Though Mr. J may share one more information about these casks’ source with you guys, before this “mysterious Islay distillery”, those quarter casks were used by Jim Beam. Wolfburn currently has three warehouses, and they are all in traditional dunnage style, i.e. no more than 3 stacks high.

Wolfburn’s Future

After the limited edition Mr. J has tasted before, Wolfburn has already released another two products to the market, which are Northland (ex-bourbon quarter cask), and Aurora (ex-bourbon, and Spanish oak oloroso sherry casks).

Mentioned earlier, there will be a peated version coming out in 2017. When asked about what can we expect in the future, Andrew said they will certainly work on the maturation years gradually. Mr. J also asked if they plan to do any cask finish in the near future, Andrew replied that they do not have such plan at the moment, since filling the whisky with another cask could lose around another 5% of spirits, because it would just get into the wood. Thus, financially speaking, it doesn’t suit Wolfburn’s current interest best.

Finally, Andrew also added that he doesn’t want to keep building warehouses forever like what other distilleries do. Even if there might be expansion plan in the future, he and the team would want Wolfburn whisky to remain hand-made. In other words, full automation would be a NO for the distillery in the near future.

Like Andrew shared, making good whisky is extremely difficult and complicated; hence a one-night chat certainly couldn’t cover all the details that contribute to improving the whisky flavour. But I hope, the above would give readers an overview about this 2013-founded new distillery. Once again, thanks Andrew so much for his kindness and generousness in sharing all the Wolfburn’s intel with me through the night. I look forward to try the peated release coming next year. May we meet again.