We caught up with John Fordyce, Co-founder and Director of The Three Stills Company that owns Borders Distillery, and it seems that nothing is off-limits in our entertaining chat with the industry veteran.
John is officially our favourite interview subject for many reasons. He gives refreshingly un-corporate answers, like a jolly uncle who’s popped in for a bit of tea and biscuits and starts to tell you about all the crazy stuff that happened in the morning at work.
Candid doesn’t even begin to describe the nature of this interview, where we talked about the ins and outs of the Borders Distillery and what makes it tick.
Equal parts and education and equal parts entertainment, I’ve gone so far as to put [/joke] in places (where it might not always be clear-cut; you never know these days) just to indicate that it’s purely tongue-in-cheek.
First things first; this is a long read, so pour yourself a long one, sit back and enjoy.
Borders is part of the Lowlands, so does it fall under the Lowlands style?
John Fordyce: Well nobody here can explain to me what Lowlands means, for a start, so even though I’m a Scotsman and a whisky drinker and therefore I’m a natural bull****er, I’m not going to talk about stuff I can’t explain. If anybody could tell me what Lowlands meant, then (thumbs up) [/joke, and we’re off to a flying start].
I know that InchDairnie – Ian Palmer – in Fife; I know he’s making Scotch because there are only three ingredients, plus the fourth ingredient which is people, what he’s doing at Fife is definitely Scotch whisky. And over at Nick (Savage) in Bladnoch, in the far South West where there are palm trees outside his distillery, I know he’s making Scotch whisky. But they have nothing to do with each other as spirits.
It’s a bit like saying, Burgundy is North, and Borders, South. Oh really, is that all that is? It’s lazy terminology. It comes from 1816; it’s a bit of legislation that talked about the size of stills, and if you had different taxes in the Lowlands of Scotland compared to the North of Scotland. It’s a thing they called the Highlands line, which was invented by the English army when they were trying to repress the Scottish. It’s all nonsense. There are no two Lowlands distillers who make the same type of whisky.
How would you describe the Borders style?
John Fordyce: I’m really passionate about aromatic, fruit-forward Scotch whisky. I want it to be fantastic on the nose, and that first sip has to be absolutely vibrant. So we do long fermentations – 84 hours. We don’t distil as slowly as say, Leonard Russell at Glengoyne but we don’t go fast either. We maximise copper contact. (As for distillation) it depends on who’s in charge. We can do a run in – two and a quarter, maybe three – if it’s Caitlin who’s in charge then maybe it’s a bit quicker and if it’s Chris it’s a bit slower. It depends. You got to remember – Scotch whisky is yeast, water, malted barley, people. There are four ingredients and all our distillers are quite different from each other. None of them is over 30 years old, so you get various degrees of action, depending on how they’re feeling.
We try to go fairly slowly, so our new make is fairly estery. It is very fruity; it’s got that pear characteristic where we protected the esters and aldehydes through the distillation process.
We don’t do sherry, we don’t do peat; very boring. We just do the most expensive bourbon barrels we can find, and then we put them away. A bottle of Scotch is 20 percent distillery and 80 percent cask. But the 80 percent cask, can’t compensate if the 20 percent is rubbish. So we’re very focused on just doing the same thing day after day after day after day. We only use barley from 11 farmers. We have 11 contracted farmers, we never change the yeast, we never changed the process, we never used cough medicine like peat [/joke] or anything like that. And we just keep it very simple, day after day after day after day.
What we’re trying to achieve at the end, is a fruity, aromatic, vibrant single malt scotch whisky. And often it’s easier to describe what it’s not going to be. It won’t be peaty, it won’t be sulphury, it won’t be waxy.
What kind of barley do you use?
John Fordyce: Well, whatever the farmers use is the answer. We’re not William Grant’s or Diageo. We can’t say to the farmers, “you go plant this.” We’re on Concerto at the moment. I expect us to move in the next year or so to Diablo, just because farmers like it. The issue for farmers is not yield; it’s not even price. It’s the environmental impact of the inputs. So pretty much everyone is on a zero-pesticide, mineral water, kiss-the-bees kind of approach. And Diablo, a variety that has been developed for 20 years, and seems to behave better in these low input environments.
But, you know, our yield from Concerto over the last two years has been amazing. But we’ll go with what the farmers do. If the farmers decide to go plant “Singapore Sling”[/joke], I mean, that’s what we’ll use. For all the distilleries, at the end of the day, it’s a process of a farmed product. We take barley, we make a beer, we boil the beer, we make whisky.
Any plans to get sherry casks?
John Fordyce: I used to be in the wine business. So the thing about sherry is, if you want to do sherry properly, you have to be so far down the supply chain, as you practically have to pick out the trees if you want to control quality. So if you’re a Macallan, or Grants, or Ian MacCleod – they have their own coopers, they have their contracts with Williams & Humbert, they have their Gonzalez Byass, they have everybody; they’re all in the game together, they’ve all known each other for 30 years, it’s all very fun. And even though I know all the sherry bodegas, we were smaller than a startup. We didn’t have the money to get into the sherry game.
Bad sherry wood is worse than no sherry wood. There’re some Scotch whiskies that are so sherried they’re undrinkable; it’s just covering up bad distillation. In 20 years we might have enough money to get into the sherry game, but we can’t do it now.
And then the other thing is, the type of spirit we make, doesn’t really suit sherry cask for maturation. It could be good fun for finishing, so you could see in the future, a Borders Distillery 15 YO finished in PX casks. That would work, probably, with our type of spirit, but what we’re looking for is, a pretty volatile reaction between spirit and wood in the first year. You know, sort of like an unruly teenager who leaves home, shouts at his dad, goes into the garden, sulks for two years and then eventually comes back and then a relationship builds. So you kind of get that from fresh select bourbon; you get this kind of ‘boof’ [punches fists together] as spirit meets wood. And the character can evolve and change.
So, the best distillers using sherry wood know that when they put the spirit in the cask. They’re defining the character and then it’s just the question of watching your kids grow up. So the Macallan guys, the Glengoyne guys, they know what they’re getting – they’re so good at it and they’ve had so many decades of practice, that they know. When they see the tree in Jerez, and it appears back in the distillery in 20 years time, they know what they’re getting. It’s a wonderful thing. But you have to be brilliant to get into it from the outset, and I don’t think it suits our spirit style.
So all of your new make goes into first-fill bourbon casks?
John Fordyce: We’ve 70 percent of what we’d call fresh select – or first-fill – which we buy in the US. Twenty-eight percent goes into refill, and two percent goes into rum – old rum casks from Jamaica. I can’t tell you if that’s what the recipe is, I’ve no idea. Because we don’t know. That was our best guess – mostly fresh select; or first fill – some refill and then a bit of salt and pepper with rum casks. But I can’t tell you what the outcome will be.
What other casks are you experimenting with?
John Fordyce: I used to make wine in Portugal, so we’re having fun with some casks from the Douro, and we’re doing a bit of rye. Everybody in Scotland is completely obsessed with rye at the moment. So, we’re doing some rye casks and we’re doing some, what you call, European ex-wine; Bordeaux essentially. I’m very interested in certain types of wine if it’s made in a certain way as they have quite an interesting effect on maturation. I think.
But honestly, I can’t tell you what’s going on. Because it’s all the in the warehouse and, you know…
How long before the whisky is ready?
John Fordyce: So, we were pretty happy at two. Maturation isn’t like that [describes linear upward slope]. Maturation goes [describes a waveform]. Maturation isn’t linear. It’s a long and winding road, just the same as having children. Exactly the same process; identical process. All shiny and new and lovely, and then terrible at two and then better at five and then horrid at nine. It’s all the same stuff.
We’ve just been through three years so for the first time in the history of the company we have Scotch whisky in our warehouses. It has moved on from two, but you have to change its nappy. It’s still very young and quite green. I’m not in a hurry. I’m not going to release a green whisky onto the market because it’s three years old.
So my best guess at the moment is that somewhere between six and seven years old it will be good enough to release. But I honestly don’t know, I really don’t know. The analogy is this: I know my children are redheads, but I don’t know how tall they’re going to be.
If you put it on the market as a six-, seven- or eight-year-old, people might think of it as a young whisky. What would be your pitch then?
John Fordyce: That’s a good question. So I started in the whisky business selling Glenfiddich, which of course, dominated the world with no age statements at all. We’ve never had an age statement (back then). And also, I come from the wine business – I spent ten years in the wine business – so I don’t believe in age statements. I do not think they are an indication of quality. I think they are a trust signifier for consumers, but if you were to say to Mouton Rothschild; if you were to say to Madam Philippine, oh you have to have three-year-old wine in your bottle, she’d tell you “I beg your pardon? I’ll have wine in my bottles just as the wine’s ready to go into my bottles, thank you very much.”
When we’re ready to release, we’ll then tell the story about we’re the last region in Scotland to be making Scotch whisky since 1837, and then we’ll go ‘yak yak yak yak’ enough times until people buy it. A very traditional Scotch whisky industry [/joke].
I think if you can survive as a business until you have enough stock of 10-20 years then I think age statements become interesting if you can relate them to a story. So, for example, 12YO in fresh bourbon. I think if you can tell an age story over a cask type and make it entertaining and try to avoid the narrative that it’s good because it’s 12 years old, then I think it’s more interesting for consumers. And I have to say, if you follow what’s happening at things like the San Francisco Awards, the age statement doesn’t seem to matter under blind tasting.
I also think that if you look at the Scotch industry when I started – I’m not going to tell what was going on – but I can promise you that today, wood strategy, distillation accuracy, training of the people, quality of the barley, environmental concerns about the water; you know, the product that we’re making now, compared to when I started, is infinitely better.
So last night, I was listening to a journalist from the United States, who was talking about the Parker system in whisky, and how people want to rate Scotch whiskies above each other and everything. Parker invented that for wine in 1982. So she was saying the problem is, between 90 and 100, there’s so many in there that actually, her life is much harder because the old 50 per cent or 50 points out of a hundred is now minimum 80.
Just because of technology and training and better behaviour; on the farms and the way we treat wood. And the other thing is, that casks – I mean, I can remember someone who ruined their stock because they thought, you know, its was quite funny to buy casks for almost no money. Well, the reason why he bought them for no money was that they were sh*t. Nobody would do that now. We now buy casks like we buy barley. The price goes up and down depending on what’s happening in the seasons. And you just have to accept it. We don’t fight about it, we don’t argue about it. So, every one of them is top quality.
And this is the same story around the world, whether you’re making baijiu or sake or shochu; or you’re making arak. I mean it has really affected the United States. The craft distilling movement in the States has driven the quality of the product through the roof and they’re using the wood that we buy. So the more brands pick up the better it is for me.
How do you get the balance right in doing something new vs traditional?
John Fordyce: We’re very lucky in Scotch whisky – we’re not allowed to do anything, really [/joke]. So right since the 18th century, we just do what we’re told. The regulations are very strict, the process is written down in law as an act of parliament.
Where I think you can be modern vs old, is you let your new distillers – your young distillers – express themselves. It’s that fourth ingredient that’s so important. I think that we, like the people before us and the people before them, learn from our elders’ mistakes. We know, looking back at the last, maybe 40 years of history where mistakes have been made. For instance, on compromising on wood, which nobody does now. I think fermentation is a really big deal now, whereas before it was just an annoying process you had to go through to get to the beer.
We’re like all distillers nowadays, we’re very interested in fermentation, and I also think the whisky industry’s not immune to the new digital world, which is noughts and ones, but what it’s really about is the minutiae of process. So we put our entire process on the blockchain, so we can look back and it’s a permanent record. So if you’re into blockchain and distributed ledger…
In a way, it’s rather sad, but every single process is measured right down to the [pinches his fingers]. We count off every day and we [squints at paper]. The distillery is not automated by choice. It works with valves and everything, and the distillers can do whatever they like. But, we measure everything. We’re a blend of an old fashioned system, which is manual, but we’re fanatical about measuring.
We’d measure how tall we are in the morning, it’s obsessive [/joke]!
Why did you choose to do it manually?
John Fordyce: The fourth element. People. So we don’t have any guides at the distillery. So if you visit the distillery you’re taken around by a distiller. and they all have a completely different view of the process. And I could be sitting downstairs and I know which distiller is taking the public around as I can tell from the public’s reaction.
So, they’re individuals and they all got their thing. Some of them are really relaxed about the cut points some of them are not and some of them eat chocolate biscuits and drink coffee when it’s coming up to the cut and others stand there and watch it obsessively. They’re boys and they’re girls, and they’re young and they’re old. Sometimes they’re in a good mood, sometimes they’re in a bad mood. Whisky’s an organic living product, which is a function of its place and its time and the only way it can truly express that is through people.
We train them – we invest a lot in training. So there are international qualifications you get through the institute of brewing and distilling, so they all do the exam, whether they like it or not, and they don’t much like it. So we got three through last year and we’ll get three through this year. We’ve got one doing a PhD, we’ve got another doing a masters. We’re really into this training thing and our objective is to be the most highly qualified distillery in Scotland.
So every one of the distillers cut the whisky differently?
John Fordyce: Yeah, everybody’s got a different cut point. The cut point’s a big deal. Because it’s not precision shooting. What you’re looking for is an average over the point, over the distilling time. So if you want 72 (% alc./vol), do you come in at 63 and leave at 84? Or do you come in at 69, and leave at 78? It depends on how hard you run your stills. So we’re about at 72.1 (average); not that we measure, of course. We don’t measure that [/joke]. When distillers get better, your average cut point becomes more consistent.
So when we all started in 2018 it was quite exciting, what was going on. It was like, the difference was between parking and crashing your car. Quite exciting. But now they’ve all got really good at it, we’re very consistent at the 72.1-ish mark.
On the topic of individuality: what do you hope to see come through in the final product?
John Fordyce: I don’t really know the answer to your question, but I can trust what’s going to come out because they’re really good people. I mean, I have no doubt there are casks of bad-tempered, hot day, fighting-with-each-other whisky. I have no doubt about that.
But we average; because one cask doesn’t make a bottle. But I’ve also known there are days where everything’s going well at home, and you’ve slept well and it’s all joyous and easy and the distillery’s working like that [snaps fingers] – no problems with the water pump, no problems with the grist, no problems with the yeast, everything is just one of those days where you just go whoah, that’s fabulous and you go home after ten hours and you think you’re the king of the jungle.
I’ve no doubt that there’re casks full of that and casks full of the bad stuff. But the overall idea; the overall philosophy, was that people drink it – so people should make it.
Do you experiment with casks? E.g. quarter casks?
John Fordyce: No, we’re very boring. We’re really boring [/joke]. (But seriously) I don’t like the maturation profile; it’s too fast for me. Again, it goes back to this estery, aromatic, kind of grassy spirit. Fast isn’t good. I think eventually (we’ll get there to experimenting more) but I’ve no idea what’s going to work best till I get to that point.
I mean you could imagine a situation where, in ten years, when the team has done a really good job and we’re just getting very consistent, very high-level spirit and at that point because you have so much confidence in the stock and your team, you could then say well OK, let’s risk 20 casks and put them into a tabasco cask or a tequila cask. Basically, your business is doing well enough that you could experiment on 30-, 60-, 90-days finishing time, and you can fiddle about. I mean, that’s paradise.
If you’re David Stewart of Balvenie or Dr Bill at Glenmorangie, this is just joy, all day long. “Ooh, I’ll have ten of that and four of that and six of them, and we’ll do that, do that, do that. Lovely.” We’re not that yet. But I’m a big believer in finishes. I think since Balvenie Doublewood, I’ve always been a big fan of the whole idea of finishes.
What’s your favourite finished whisky?
John Fordyce: Probably Balvenie Doublewood.
Do you plan to expand the vodka and gin range?
John Fordyce: We only take a tiny percentage of our new make spirit and redistill through our Carter Head still. We can grow that as fast as people want to buy it. It’s not really what our business is about, but because the Carter Heads are integrated into our steam system and it’s in the same stillhouse, we can operate as part of the main distillery at no extra cost.
Obviously, we’re making very expensive vodka because malted barley spirit is way more expensive than grain neutral spirit at about three times the price. But it’s a beautiful thing. It’s kind of fun, it’s very different, it allows us to express ourselves early, and so we’ll keep on.
The point about the vodka is about the substrate of the vodka. If you look at modern potato-based vodkas, you can taste the potatoes. They’re not flavoured but you can taste the potatoes. There is a new generation of distillers making wheat vodka. You know – you smell it and it’s wheat. It’s got that kind of a warm, fireplace-y scent about it. Milk – a lot of people making vodka out of milk now. I mean, it smells like milk. And our stuff is unmistakably from barley. It could not be from anything else. And in fact, it’s not only unmistakably from barley, but it’s also unmistakably from malted barley. So you can smell and feel it from the glass. So I think this is a very exciting area where distillers can express themselves. Because there’s nowhere to hide. It’s either it’s good or it’s sh*t.
I don’t think it’s going to take over the world, and I can’t see, for instance, the guys in Seoul giving up Jinro for us. But in the white spirits world, where sake’s getting better, shochu’s getting better, even baijiu is starting to get more recognition – I think white spirits of high quality have a place. And we really enjoy making it. We really like it.
How different are the Carter Heads from the ones that say, Hendrick’s and Bombay Sapphire use?
John Fordyce: It’s quite similar to Reyka, I would say. I designed it with Richard Forsyth, and we put a few twisty bits in it so as not to be the same [/joke], but it’s the same – it’s like Reyka – it’s not a Bennett still, it’s very much a Carter Head. We have copper packing; those plates, we have the open-top condenser thing going on that drives everybody mad. It’s all about massive copper contact.
So the point about the Carter Head is that vapour moves up the column and then it’s forced back down. So it kind of goes like that [waves arm up and down] and the copper rings [makes a ring with index and thumb] are in there, millions of copper rings. And it’s just washing through the copper.
And then it emerges as a kind of super-contacted steam, which then goes through activated charcoal and then the route to the condenser is like that [uses hands and body to show a very small space]. It’s very intense. It’s like being in a very hot sauna then jumping into the sea, right next door to the sauna. It’s quite dramatic.
I kind of feel slightly sorry for the little molecules, you know, because we really put them through it. They’ve been through the whole whisky distillery and instead of putting them into the cask, we rip them away and then put them into the Carter Head and then we whack them again. And then they go up and down up and down. And then it becomes steam and then we just plunge them into the ocean. And that’s how we got our vodka.
And then the cuts are, and you would imagine in a normal malt whisky distillery – the cut time might be that [describing with hands a width slightly wider than his head]. And our guys – they all know it because they’re all young and very cool, so they all know everything. And old people like me don’t get much of a say [/joke]. So they sit around and eat biscuits and play with these things [picks up a phone]; they kind of know when the cut’s coming and they’ve got time. But when they’re making the vodka everybody goes to the loo beforehand; everybody eats beforehand. They’re not leaving, because the cut time is like that [shows palms almost touching each other]. It’s like a piece of A4 compared to malt whisky distilling. It’s just great fun.
It’s got everything you want in a movie, It’s got lots of violence, it’s got an uncertain ending, you don’t know what’s going to happen right up to the very end, and the difference between four and five stars is like that [pinches with thumb and forefinger]. And they love making it. It’s hard to tell with Puffing Billy Steamed Vodka – I’m not too sure who we’re trying to please. I think a lot of it is pleasing ourselves because it’s such fun. And if we can make people buy it, then [shows two thumbs up].
How close is Puffing Billy to new make spirit?
John Fordyce: Well, in substrate – malted barley – it’s the same. But let’s just say you fill up your intermediate spirit receiver or your spirit receiver at 72.1, and then we redistill it through the copper at 55, it totally changes in character. Activated charcoal is the most volatile chemical in the world. If you stood beside a big stick of activated charcoal, eventually you’ll disappear into the activated charcoal because nothing could resist it. So in the vapour state, it strips every random congener and other chemicals but it’s so gentle compared to macerational filtration that it protects the estery notes.
So I would say if you were to smell our new make at 63.5, which is how we fill casks with it, then it’s pretty green and grassy, very sweet, very clean. If you then smell the vodka, it’s creamier, sweeter and more voluptuous. It’s got a fantastic mouthfeel and a fantastic attack on the palate.
Why is the company called the Three Stills Company?
John Fordyce: The fact that we, you know, put a Carter Head in and we will have a vacuum still in there as well in the same still house. So we have a guy doing a PhD at Heriot-Watt, who is into some funky thinking about flavours and spirits. He’s just finished his PhD and he’s finishing up the design of the vacuum still and we’ll build that.
What do you plan to use the vacuum still for?
John Fordyce: Well, I could tell you but I would have to fly over and shoot you. It won’t be Scotch Whisky I can promise you that [/joke]. It’s not at the top of my priority list. The three stills company is a statement of intent, rather than the reality right now.
But we will get there.
Any other interesting projects on the horizon?
John Fordyce: Because we do all this fiddling about and we’ve got sort of a pathway of Single Malt whiskies, so there are several things we can do which aren’t malt whisky but are whisky, that we can make – because we’re cool.
And we’re launching, near the end of this year, certainly into 2022, a series of Scotch whiskies which are named under a thing called the Workshop Series. (And since you asked about it earlier) the Workshop 00, will be the new make spirit – from spirit receiver straight to bottle. And these are expressions of what we can do in the distillery. So, we’re not completely focused on the day job – sometimes we have an afternoon off where we can do some other stuff. And we’re launching that as a series; very, very small number of bottles. When it’s gone, it’s gone. And we’re quite excited about that.
We’re like all the other people in the industry. We stick to our main job and try and do it to the highest possible level, but you know, when it’s the afternoon; the sun’s out, let’s do something different.
Is there room for innovation, though?
John Fordyce: I’m quite interested in stuff that’s going on at the moment in the industry where even within a very tight set of rules, innovation can spring up. It’s a bit like a weed in a concrete car park. You’d think nothing could grow, but oh, there you go. And we’re a massively regulated sort of industry. So you would think that everything’s the same.
But actually, the weeds are getting through in every single crack, and there’s a lot of innovation going on; a lot of very interesting thinking going on around yeast, fermentation, maturation, so I think the industry’s actually in a pretty good place in that sense.
It’s quite interesting listening to baijiu fanatics talk about Scotch whisky. The sake fans, of course, are now riding into fusion stuff going on between Japan and Scotland through Adelphi. It’s very interesting listening to craft Bourbon makers talk about Scotch. The Irish are on a bit of a run at the moment and they make all sorts of claims about inventing – obviously they didn’t [/joke]. It was invented in Scotland, obviously. The Swedish Mackmyra is doing a good job; the French are into it. And one I think was kind of killed off by UK parliament in the 19th century, is English whisky.
England used to have a massive distilling industry because their barley was great, and Scottish barley was sh*t. But all these tax changes and the way the industry was changed, kind of favoured the Scots and the Irish. In those days, Ireland was still a colony, and we were very nice to people in colonies. We let them have the same rules as we have [/joke]. But now the English distilling companies are coming back and they’re totally focused on terroir, so you know; the Norfolk boys and Yorkshire boys and the Gloucestershire guys. Daniel at Cotswolds – these guys are doing amazing. Nigel Mills at Lakes – these guys are doing amazing jobs. The whisky’s bloody good.
So, we’re into this kind of differentiation and improvement and innovation cycle now as an industry. Being driven by outside influence, being driven by international trade, being driven by prejudices falling away. Scotch is Scotch, but Scotch isn’t whisky. And whisky’s cool. And it’s up to Scotch to keep up.
I just think this is fascinating stuff. I’m watching very carefully what’s happening in France, I think, you know, even spirits like Cachaça are becoming more interesting – Sagatiba started it years ago, but the new craft Cachaças are good. Tequila’s been driven by an improvement in quality, process, distillation technique. I mean, when I was very young and drunk and good-looking, tequila was frankly, disgusting. I mean it was quite good when you had a stain on the carpet but it was an appalling thing (to drink). Now, if you did a blind tasting of tequilas you barely know they all came from the same plant. Such is the sophistication of the agriculture, the processes and the maturation, in getting that greeny, grassy, character in your tequila but making it smooth and not burn the back of your throat off. I mean, that was unthinkable thirty years ago.
(Likewise) My first experience of baijiu was so awful I can still remember it now and I probably need counselling. I can taste it now, 30 years later. But then a friend of mine brought me a craft baijiu, from just outside Guangzhou – a fantastic product. Opened it; amazing.
The whole game is going like this [gesturing upwards] and the kind of big guys are getting better and better and better. You have to go over to get attention. What interests me is that quality is no longer a signifier. It’s an entry qualification.
I just think we’re all getting better at this worldwide, and I think there’s a lot of stuff happening and if you’re a consumer right now: has it ever been better? It’s very exciting right now, and Scotch whisky has to keep up.
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