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Sunday Whisky Blether #5 - Mark Westmorland

Wolfburn is the most northerly whisky distillery on the Scottish mainland, and our master craftsmen fashion their whisky the same way it has always been made: by hand, using only the finest ingredients, and without haste.

In 1821 William Smith founded a distillery on the outskirts of Thurso and named it Wolfburn after the watercourse it drew from, “burn” being the Scots word for stream or small river.

The distillery was constructed from hardy local Caithness flagstone and the remains of its foundations can still be seen today. Smith invested heavily in Wolfburn and it quickly became a significant producer of malt whisky – tax records from the early 19th Century show it being the largest distillery in Caithness. In 1826 its annual production was 28,056 “Total Gallons of Proof Spirt” – roughly 125,000 litres.

The new Wolfburn distillery building is just a short walk along the burn from the old site towards the sea. Smith invested heavily in Wolfburn and it quickly became a significant producer of malt whisky – tax records from the early 19th Century show it being the largest distillery in Caithness.

Wolfburn distillery was kept in the Smith family until at least the 1850s, when production seems to have ceased. The exact date of its closing is lost in time, with some records indicating that it may still have been producing whisky in the 1860s. In 1872 the first Ordnance Survey map of the region was published and this showed the distillery to be in ruin, yet in 1877 when the next edition of the map was released the words ‘in ruins’ had been removed. It may be that the distillery worked intermittently towards the end of its past life. Find more about the distilleries story here

We have been fortunate to speak to Mark Westmorland, Global Brand Ambassador from Wolfburn Distillery up in Thurso.

WDF: Hi Mark. Thanks very much for your time today. Since we met last a lot of things happened at Wolfburn. For those who don't know you ... Could you please tell us a bit more about yourself: Where do you come from – career background etc. And how did you end up working for the Wolfburn Distillery in Thurso? Mark: Born and bred in Thurso, the home of Wolfburn Distillery, I spent my formative years there. A few stories about drinking whisky but not for public consumption. Joined the police and had a successful 30 year career. I had an interest, when I heard that the distillery was opening up and kept up to date with progress. In 2016 a friend of mine approached me. Charlie worked at the distillery part time and was needing a hand presenting at festivals and shows. The rest is history. Full time Global Brand Ambassador now spreading the love of Wolfburn Whisky across the world.

WDF: Wolfburn is the most northerly whisky distillery on the Scottish mainland, and your master craftsmen fashion their whisky the same way it has always been made: by hand, using only the finest ingredients, and without haste. Could you please tell us a more about the idea behind Wolfburn Distillery and its products: Why “Wolfburn”? What makes the spirit unique? What is your current range made of? Ingredients, equipment, casks experimentations?

Mark: The idea to create Wolfburn came to our owners in 2011 and in 2013 our first spirit was produced. We filled our first cask on Burns Night. 25th January 2013. Apart from our malt we do everything on site ourselves. Traditional dunnage warehouses and everything is hand bottled. Our character is fruity and floral with as you said, a without haste approach. It takes time and effort to produce our spirit, so there's no rush.

WDF: As Wolfburn's history might be lost in time between 1872 and 1877 due to an unknown and unrecorded circumstances, is there any dedicated story within any of the distillery's bottlings so far?

Mark: History and our heritage is very important to us. Our name is taken from the Wolf Burn, our water source, a natural spring which was used by the first Wolfburn distillery in 1821. Our names for our Core expressions reflect that nod to the past and our community. Northland (land of the North) Aurora ( after the Aurora Borealis, visible on occasions from Caithness), Morven, (the highest peak in Caithness) and Langskip (named after the Viking Longship, as Thurso is named after Thor when the Vikings settled here, some say)

WDF: Some technical questions in regard to the production... How long is the fermentation at Wolfburn and how does the slow manual distillation (cutting points) look like a Wolfburn?

Mark: About 3 to 4 days fermentation depending on which day the mash was. Currently 6 mashes a week and we do have the capacity to do 8 without expansion. Roughly 120,000 litres per year, Cutting points 10 mins Heads, 2 hours Heart and 2 hours Tails, gentle distillation with a lot of copper contact makes a light and vibrant spirit.

WDF: At what ABV Wolfburn is filling their casks with the new make and what casks are usually used?

Mark: We fill our casks at 63.5% and as a fiercely independent distillery, we make our own choices and shape our own destiny. No shareholders to answer to! We always get the best casks we can afford and like to experiment too. Bourbon, Sherry Rum or Port we have over 7000 casks of all shapes and sizes maturing on site allowing our unique costal environment to help flavour our expressions.

WDF: Each season Wolfburn produces a limited-release bottle exclusively for visitors to the distillery... From The Stills. You explained this year's expression (link) as “humdinger of a whisky”. Can you tell us a bit more about this particular bottling and how the decision process came along?

Mark: We find it important that if people make the pilgrimage North to see us at the Distillery they should be able to get something that wee bit special. We do a From The Stills release on a seasonal basis. We have the ability to source casks immediately and bottle them on site for this purpose. No requests having to made for spirit to be taken out of central warehousing and sent to a bottling plant. We do it ourselves. That handcrafted nature has a huge attraction and appeal to our ever growing army of fans.

WDF: Early in 2020, Wolfburn agreed to take part in this year’s Highland Whisky Festival, which was scheduled for May. The global pandemic scuppered the plans for the festival but decided to press ahead with the “cancelled” special release. The official tasting notes say there is a subtle sweetness reminiscent of ripe fruit. Would you class this as the typical Wolfburn characteristic?

Mark: We continue to be strong and resolute through these current circumstances and our strategy remains on course, including our Cancelled Highland Whisky Festival release. That fruity character, you are right, is Wolfburn. A perfectly rounded spirit which is pleasing to drink. 

WDF: How do you (and the team) see the future for Wolfburn? Is there any project in the pipeline? A special project we would like to know about?

Mark: With 12 people in the entire company, it has a family feel, everyone knowing each other and all mucking in. 4 people on production only. There have been times we have all been in the bottling hall, all hands to the pump, getting an expression ready for market. We do our small batch releases, different from our core and our Kylver releases which are our choice cask selections for the year. Watch this space!

WDF: As you know... WeeDramFife will be hosting different sorts of whisky experiences once the lockdown is over. Could you see Wolfburn taking part in special multi-sensory events in Germany and also releasing another special bottling for the German market?

Mark: Germany is a huge market for us, one of our best. Alba Import do an amazing job for us and there is always a warm welcome from passionate German fans I meet at shows, festivals or masterclasses. With Alba we have released 2 exclusive German editions as part of their Vibrant Stills portfolio. Working with WeeDramFife is an exciting concept and I am sure the collaboration would be beneficial for everyone concerned, especially the consumer.

WDF: Last but not least .. What is your all time favourite dram (...from Wolfburn of course)?

Mark: My fav dram is usually the next one in my glass! I have the opporchancity to do a lot of online tastings so, whilst drinking responsibly of course, my Wolfburn consumption is being shared across the world, with adoring fans of our phenomenal spirit. I really love our latest small batch release no 155, our first ever finished whisky, in Port casks although our distillery strength 58% Langskip is also stunning and a wee nod as Thurso sits on the 58th degree of the map.

Fortune Favours The Brave as we say at Wolfburn and long may this continue. We are in it for the long haul creating spirit with heart and soul. Blood, sweat and tears go into making our whisky but that wouldn't taste nice in a glass, that's why we produce a wonderful dram to savour.

WDF: Well I can't and won't add anything to this wonderful closing words apart from 'Thank you for your time Mark and hopefully see you again soon in person at a wonderful social whisky event - if not a Whisky Experience event from Wee Dram Fife.'

For those of you who want to get to know more about Wolfburn, please feel free to check out the following links:

Panoramic Video (link)

Virtual Tour (link)

Interview Shane Fraser, distillery manager (link)

Interview Mark at The Whisky Fair in Limburg 2019 (link)


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