Recently, I was lucky to win a bottle of Wolfburn’s precious Kylver II in a Facebook give-away. Since I have been a fan of the young Highlands distillery for quite some time (I bought my bottle of Northland back when it was still called First Release), I eagerly popped the cork off my prize right away. Enjoying the beautiful bottle’s exquisite contents not only inspired me to review the Kylver II for BarleyMania, but also to reach out to Wolfburn for a short e-mail interview. Gladly, their distillery manager Shane Fraser answered my questions with lightning speed…
BarleyMania: Wolfburn produced its first new make in January 2013 and sold its first bottles in March 2016. So those long three years of wait, in which your distillate evolved from spirit drink to Scotch whisky, are still rather fresh. Obviously, you did a bit more than waiting during that time. Can you give us a brief outline of your daily routine at Wolfburn throughout the “non-bottling” years? And how have your duties as distillery manager changed once the first bottles of Wolfburn had appeared on retail shelves?
Shane Fraser: Essentially our role through the first three years was production, production, production. We had a strategy of laying down a good quantity of new-make spirit each year before bottling started. So even though Wolfburn is now bottling every week, there is a significant amount of whisky maturing for the long term. Eventually we intend to have a 10, 12, 15 year old, etc etc. So it was vital in the early years to produce and lay down as much stock as possible. We did this by mashing and distilling six times each week: twice on Mondays, once on Tuesdays, twice on Thursdays and once on Fridays. Wednesdays were dedicated to warehousing and maintenance. I’ve always been very hands-on when it comes to production, so my routine would generally include either mashing or distilling most days. And the warehouse remains my favourite place, so I spent a lot of Wednesdays filling and stowing casks!
BM: The core range of Wolfburn currently consists of Northland and Aurora. But you also release limited small batch bottlings every now and then, such as the Kylver series or the recent 4-years-old bottled exclusively for your German importer Vibrant Stills. What qualities must a cask possess to be considered for usage in such a small batch bottling?
SF: That’s a great question. The oak from which casks are made is a living product, so every cask is different, and they affect every batch of whisky differently. I personally select all the casks for Wolfburn’s small-batch and limited edition whiskies, and I start by whipping out the bung and nosing them. The nose gives me a good headstart – it’s instantly recognizable when a whisky is maturing nicely. Then I’ll draw a sample and check the colour. And of course the taste. A good cask will have lent the whisky a complex basket of flavours – for a special release I’m looking for real depth, where the whisky keeps opening up on the palate for long time, before receding gently with a nice long finish. Choosing these casks is one of the true highlights of my job.
BM: Personally, I am of the impression that more and more people move away from considering age the only relevant characteristic a good whisky must have. But still I would be surprised if you never bumped into people that are skeptical about Wolfburn simply because you do not yet have a 10-, 12- or 16-year-old bottlings on offer. How do you convince such people that Wolfburn’s whisky is well worth trying nonetheless?
SF: Yes, there are still many people who consider age to be everything when it comes to a whisky, and convincing them to try Wolfburn is one of our big challenges. At shows and exhibitions we try blind tastings and ask people to guess the age. With our Northland expression the most common answer is eight years – when in fact it’s just a four year old! Personally I believe you can make great whisky at three, four, five years old. But equally, time spend inside the casks gives additional complexity and depth of flavours, so it’s a balance. Our ambition with Wolfburn is ultimately to have three or four core expressions without age statements – these will probably end up being around five or six years old – and three or four age statement expressions, starting with a 10 year old. But obviously we’ve got a few years to go until we get there!
BM: Can you already give us a rough outlook at what to expect next from Wolfburn? Are there plans to add a third expression to your core range or release another Kylver whisky anytime soon(ish)? And looking a bit further into the future, could you also imagine to give a portion of your precious spirit to blenders or independent bottlers someday?
SF: I can say with a fair degree of certainty that we will never sell to blenders or independent bottlers! There are three releases to look out for this year. The first is called Batch 128 and it’s Wolfburn’s first ever small-batch release. It was matured in tiny little 100 litre casks and it’ll be out during August. The next is Morven, which will be a permanent expression made from lightly peated spirit. Then finally Kylver #3, which will be released shortly before Christmas. It’s going to be a busy six months!
Wolfburn @ Web: http://www.northstarspirits.com
Wolfburn @ Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/northstarwhisky
Wolfburn @ Twitter: https://twitter.com/northstarwhisky
Wolfburn @ Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/northstarwhisky
Vibrant Stills (German Importer) @ Web: https://www.albaimport.de