David Brown is clearly a man who takes setbacks in his stride, no matter their scale, and comes out looking at the bigger picture and the brighter future ahead of us. It’s an optimistic attitude that we’d do well to be inspired by during the dark days of the coronavirus pandemic and the uncertainty about what’s to come.
When we last met up to tour an empty shell of a building in the Bonnington area of Edinburgh – not far from The Vaults in Leith – it was summer 2018, and the managing director of John Crabbie & Co. was looking forward to the transformation that was about to take place. Then construction hit the first of several snags.
“When we met and walked around the site, I had no idea we were about to find some very significant archaeological finds,” David tells me by phone from his home in Edinburgh. “The ramifications of that meant that the distillery project took nearly a year longer to complete than was intended.”
The significant finds David describes include a distillery, a house, an old bronze foundry and even remnants of a battle known as the Siege of Leith.
“The first thing we discovered was that there had been a distillery on this site,” he says. “When we bought it we didn’t appreciate this, but it dates back to late 1700s. During excavation they found pieces of barrels, decomposed but preserved better than you might expect because of the type of soil. So it’s nice to know that we’re carrying on a tradition that started before John Crabbie was even born.
“The main find on site was something called Bonnington House, which dates back to the 11th century and had been rebuilt and destroyed a few times since then. I’ve lived in Edinburgh all my life and didn’t know we’d lost a mansion, but apparently we did. So the good news is that we found this ‘lost mansion of Edinburgh’. The bad news is it was under my floor!
“That meant all work had to stop on the site while the archaeologists poured over this, and in the meantime unearthed various other things – we found the original furnaces from a bronze foundry buried under ground, and also some remnants of the ‘The Siege of Leith’, when the French occupied Leith for up to 13 years.
“The archaeologist from Edinburgh City Council described these as among the three most significant finds of recent times in the city, and as part of our planning permissions we’ll create an area devoted to Bonnington House as part of the visitors centre.”
AN ANCIENT AQUIFER
The delays brought some breathing room in the distillery’s construction, which allowed an exploration of a well close to the site – an exploration that paid long-term dividends in providing a flow of pure water from a borehole that taps into an aquifer running under the city.
“We discovered that there had been a well just a few yards down the road that had serviced the original distillery, so we took a risk and sank a borehole to see whether we could tap into the aquifer,” says David. “In Edinburgh there’s a long history of brewing and distilling and that’s because of the aquifer – the water is very good because of the volcanic rock, and at one point something like 60 breweries were taking water from it. We decided to see if we could tap into it and got lucky on our first attempt. So now we have our own source of pure water on site, tested by [Scottish Environment Protection Agency] SEPA, who said all you need is a filter to stop particles going into the equipment, otherwise, it’s absolutely safe to drink. So we’re now using water from our own location in the production process and for our whisky, that’s a lovely thing.”
CHANGE OF PLANS
Construction may have been delayed for about a year, but that also allowed a rethink in terms of the still room set up. The original plan had been to start with one pair of small stills, before adding a second pair during phase two of development. Instead, the decision was taken to use that pair of smaller stills elsewhere in the business and order new bespoke and larger stills, custom built by Speyside Copper Works. They’ve been built in an onion shape, with no boil ball and with descending lyne arms – all with the goal of creating a heavier, oilier spirit, with the character of dark fruit, caramel and butterscotch.
Casks will be predominantly using first fill bourbon and American whiskey barrels, as well as calling on John Crabbie’s legacy of using sherry, marsala, tawny and ruby port and sweet wines. There are some other experiments to come.
“It seems appropriate to fill some Crabbie casks that are used for steeping ginger to age some of our whisky in, and we’ll be using some really interesting wine casks as well as the usual bourbon and sherry that you’d expect,” says David. “We’ll have a range which has consistency, but we also want to lay down some really interesting whisky in interesting wood, and that’s going to be some of the fun part.”
David is also planning on laying down stock for the very long-term, as well as making sure it’s good enough to bottle in the short-term as well.
“It would have been anathema 30 or 40 years ago to have been drinking young single malt whisky, but I think what’s changed is that the quality of that young whisky is now much, much better,” he says. “That’s because people understand the dynamics of what’s happening in the cask much more. Maybe 30 years ago, people just shoved the whisky in the cask and hoped for the best. After 10 years they could give it a touch on the tiller if it wasn’t quite right, but nowadays you think more about what this whisky is going to be when it comes out. You might fill at lower or higher strength depending on what your plan for that particular whisky might be, or put it into a particular type of wood.
“What I do know is that we’ve got a plan for every single drop of our whisky that goes out, so we know what casks we’ll be ageing for 30 years and which casks we’ll be ageing for less. It’s good to have a plan.”
David himself has even been hands on in the cask filling room, as the first new make spirit comes off the stills and into a selection of wood types.
“It’s very cathartic in these troubled times, standing there filling whisky into casks, and it’s a wonderful smell that I go home with, so I’m perfectly happy to do that,” he says. “It’s also a nice time to think about the future!
“Someone said we should call these first fillings the ‘Covid casks’ but I’m not sure! They were born in a crucible of uncertainty, that’s for sure. But the thing about whisky is that it’s a long game, and although it’s terrible what’s going on right now, it will pass and by the time this spirit is legally whisky I’d like to think that this period will be a distant and unpleasant memory and we can all get back to enjoying a dram or two.”
Part 2: Distilling in the time of coronavirus
Bonnington’s head distiller Marc Watson is making sure operations continue despite the coronavirus pandemic, producing spirit on a smaller scale than anticipated but also finding the time to make sure the new equipment is working properly and efficiently.
The distillery only received its licence from HMRC to distil on 16 March this year – a matter of days before most of us were ordered to work from home and bars and restaurants closed their doors – but Marc has been able to continue operations with a smaller team.
“We’ve made sure we can work in a safe and more spread out manner, reducing the number of staff on site, spreading out and putting more hygiene stations in place,” he tells me. “It’s certainly been a learning experience, because the commissioning only finished at the end of February and we worked through some of the snagging, but there are still little bits and pieces that rear their heads.
“On the mash-in today, for example, something didn’t quite work and we were a couple of thousand litres of water short in the system, but we were able to manually top that up, so it wasn’t too much of an issue.
“We’ve been able to deal with any problems as a team, and learn about all the equipment hands on, as opposed to just inheriting the equipment after it’s already up and running and working smoothly. Having worked in other distilleries in the past it’s always a bit like using someone else’s power tools, in someone else’s shed. This has been a labour of love for David and myself from the very beginning, we’ve put it together ourselves and it feels really nice to look at it and know that it’s to our specification and it’s set up to produce the spirit that we want to make.”
A WARM EMBRACE
Marc explains that Bonnington will run unpeated malt for the majority of the year, but will do a peated campaign using 50ppm for around six weeks in August. Fermentation is in six stainless steel washbacks with a capacity of 14,500 thousand litres, but won’t be filled with more than 10,000 litres, to allow for longer fermentation times.
The wash still has a capacity of 10,500 litres and the spirit still 8000 litres, with shell and tube condensers and the spirit safe right in the middle underneath the lyne arms.
“When you stand at the spirit safe, it’s like a warm embrace,” says Marc. “We’ve made it so that it’s like an altar to whisky right in the middle.”
Marc is also experimenting with cut points, taking a high cut and a low cut off the same spirit run to get two separate flavour profiles from one distillation.
“That flows through into the filling room, where we have two separate holding tanks so we can keep them separate,” says Marc. “For our first runs we’ve been mixing them together to create one stable new make spirit with the high cut and low cut put together, but in the future when we get to the crux of what we think the Bonnington distillery character is where we want it, we’ll be able to really define those cuts, take a high cut and a low cut and do something very different with our spirit.
“Our new make spirit is running off the still at about 71% abv and for our spirit that’s destined for long-term maturation, we’re not adjusting that, it goes straight into cask without any alteration. But for our outturn that we know is going to come out younger and earlier, we’re looking to fill casks a bit lower, from 59 to 63.5% abv, so we’re taking a leaf out of the bourbon and American producers who fill into casks a lot lower, pulling flavours that are a lot more mature and different earlier.”
LIGHTING A FIRE
Marc is also motivated by the desire to make sure that whatever goes into these first casks is good enough to be bottled within five years of the spirit coming of age.
“If we have it in our heads that we’ll want incredible spirit within five years, that lights a fire with me to make sure the character is right, that the casks are right and that the maturation is going well,” he says.
“We’re not under pressure to get something out that isn’t right for us, it has to be right and it has to be amazing – but I’d like to see us release something extremely tasty and wonderful early, while always having an eye on keeping stock for later release and much later releases.”
With that, Marc gets back to work, taking advantage of the unpredicted peace and quiet caused by the coronavirus pandemic to get on with the art of distilling.
“We’ve been so ready to show this place off, so ready to display how amazing the building has come on and show off what we’re producing. But at the same time it’s really nice for me to actually work out all the little idiosyncrasies of the distillery itself, get the spirt character locked in and the situation has given us a bit of time to pull it all together without the worry of people coming around. So while it’s our proud achievement and we can’t wait for people to come round and have a look, it’s a nice opportunity to polish up the bits that we needed to and let us plan for the future in a nice, organic way. We look forward when we’re through this to taking people around and showcasing the distillery at its best.”
Bonnington Distillery in numbers
Stills: 1 pair with 10,500 litre wash still and 8,000 spirit still
Washbacks: 6 x 14,500 litre
Capacity: 500,00 litres per year
Fermentation: Four 0f 48 hours, two of 70+
Warehouse: Dunnage at Leith, dunnage and racked at Granton warehouses
Listen to the story of Bonnington distillery’s birth in David and Marc’s own words by tuning into the SMWS Whisky Talk podcast below: