What’s in a name? You’d be forgiven if you thought that Borders Distillery was a new hipster American craft distillery rather than a wee Scottish one.
The same could be said for its offerings: William Kerr’s Gin, Puffing Billy Steam Vodka and Lower East Side Blended Malt, all evoke images of a progressive American company with a penchant for pedantry and old school English typography.
But the relatively new Borders Distillery is as Scottish as they come, and the name is a direct reference to its provenance.
New Beginnings in the Borders Region
The Borders Distillery is the brainchild of The Three Stills Company (TTSC), and it won a three-way race to be the first whisky distillery to open in the region since 1837. As the name suggests, the region is the area that’s just above the border between Southern Scotland and Northern England, not far away from the capital Edinburgh. And depending on the context, the region may include the northernmost cities of England as well.
The distillery is equipped with two spirit stills, two wash stills, a Carter Head Still and eight washbacks. It’s capable of producing up to two million litres of spirit a year. The Borders Distillery ended a 181-year drought on March 6, 2018, when the first drops of liquid came off the stills, and the first casks were filled in late April and early May. It’s almost three years to the day, but those looking to buy the first bottle of whisky from the Scottish Borders in almost 200 years will have to wait a little longer, unfortunately.
“We’re not going to launch our first single malt for probably another couple of years until we feel that the liquid is mature enough. We’re certainly not going to jump on the bandwagon of releasing it at three years and a day and charging an extraordinary amount of money for a very young single malt,” said Tony Roberts, Co-founder and director of TTSC.
It is a rather bold declaration, given that the practice of releasing young whiskies as a collectable or as a snapshot of a work in progress has become somewhat acceptable among whisky fans. Also, the first whisky produced in the region will be at the centre of media attention when it hits the shelves.
But Roberts, along with co-founders Tim Carton (CEO), John Fordyce (Director), and the late George Tait, are old school – spring chickens in this business, they are not. They are friends who have worked together at William Grant & Sons, whom you may know for Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Hendrick’s Gin. Life took them on different paths, but they got back together for lunch before Christmas in 2012, and it was then that they came up with the idea of building a distillery together.
The pride of Hawick: Cashmere, Tweed, now Whisky?
“The backbone of the project from the beginning was to build a single malt whisky distillery and we decided very early on in the project that we wanted to build it in a part of Scotland that didn’t have any distilleries or had very few distilleries, rather than to be the 75th distillery in Highlands or the 10th distillery in Islay. We wanted to be the first in a new region. And so we chose the Scottish Borders because, at that time, it was the only region in Scotland that didn’t have a Single Malt Whisky distillery until we came along,” said Roberts.
He added that Borders had once been home to many distilleries, as it was near the barley heartlands in Scotland. The quality of the soft water is good as well and is ideal for whisky-making. But the era of excisemen resulted in the decline of distilling in the region, with the last distillery shutting its doors in 1837. Although Roberts and his team won the battle to become the first distillery in the Borders region since that fateful year, people are likely to associate them with the Lowland character. All the same, the Borders Distillery is set up to produce a gentle, floral style, which could fall into that category. Only time will tell if the Borders style will stand on its own.
Borders Distillery resides in Hawick, a manufacturing town renowned for cashmere, and it is also the birthplace of the ubiquitous tweed. The distillery occupies what was once Hawick Urban Electrical Company. While the premises makes for a nice brand story, there are more practical reasons for the choice of location. Firstly, the ex-factory was near an excellent water source, the River Teviot, the largest tributary of the River Tweed. Secondly, they can source all their locally grown barley from within 30 miles of the distillery.
Because they have no intention of releasing a single malt whisky until they feel it is ready, Borders Distillery relies on a trio of offerings in the meantime: The aforementioned William Kerr’s Gin, Puffing Billy Steam Vodka and Lower East Side Blended Malt. TTSC owns Clan Fraser blended whisky as well, but it will not be available in Singapore.
Before Whisky, Gin and Vodka
Until the first samples of aged Borders Distillery whisky appear, Lower East Side Blended Malt is the only thing that will clue us in on the owners’ preferences (and interestingly, none of the founders is a fan of peat. Sorry, peatheads). Lower East Side is a blend of seven malt whiskies matured in American oak, designed for casual drinking or mixes, given its notes of vanilla, almond and honey with a tinge of smoke. While the name references the distillery’s geography, the blended malt is touted to work great in a Manhattan. For now, the Lower East Side Blended Malt does not contain any whisky from the Borders stills, but the plan is to incorporate their own output soon.
To get a sense of what Borders Distillery can do, one has to look towards William Kerr’s and Puffing Billy, as both offerings feature spirit produced at the distillery. The two offerings are unique as they both feature malted barley spirit distilled in pot stills. Forsyths also custom-designed a Carter Head Still around the style of the base spirit to process the gin and vodka. If you are familiar with gin, you might know about Carter Head Stills through Hendrick’s, which uses something similar. The still is unique as it passes spirit vapour through a basket containing botanicals and picks up the aromas that way.
Compared to the traditional methods of steeping, the Carter Heads produce results that are more gentle. Combine that with the use of barley spirit and you get William Kerr, a subtly flavoured gin with a more rounded mouthfeel and accented with notes of juniper, citrus, green tea and liquorice. It’s the only Scottish gin made with malted barley spirit in a Carter Head Still.
Likewise, Puffing Billy Steam goes through a similar treatment. Instead of the usual filtration methods, the spirit vapours pass through charcoal pellets in the Carter Head Still to preserve the distinctive flavours offered by the barley spirit. The vodka has a creamy mouthfeel with a grassy, malty character, along with notes of tropical and citrus fruits.
But if you must have first dibs on the whisky, Borders Distillery offers a private cask programme that’s open to the general public. You can purchase a cask or split the cost among a group of friends (nominate one representative as the legal owner), leave it to the distillery to care for it, and they will bottle the liquid when it is ready. Spirits Castle are the authorised distributors for Borders Distillery products in Singapore and interested parties can reach out to them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You will also receive a free 700ml bottle of one of their three products upon purchase of a cask.
And if you are interested to find out more about The Borders Distillery’s range of products, you can visit Ikigai @ The Riverwalk, Ikigai @ The Venue and GrapeVine @ The Venue, where you can drink the spirits by the glass ($9 at Ikigai and GrapeVine at The Venue, $10 at Ikigai at The Riverwalk), have them in a cocktail ($12 at Ikigai and GrapeVine at The Venue, $14 at Ikigai at The Riverwalk), or purchase by the bottle ($130 at Ikigai and GrapeVine at The Venue, $140 at Ikigai at The Riverwalk).
The world of whisky is often highly romanticised through glitz and glamour, but the industrial and communal nature of The Borders Distillery is perhaps closer to the true spirit of the Scottish tradition, where pride, industry and a dash of clever marketing is what makes the whisky world go round.
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