Industry Insider: Dunnage Funk
When we join Fettercairn's Distillery Manager Stewart Walker and Brand Specialist Andrew Lennie on Zoom, the pair are already tucking into the Highland distillery's latest release, Warehouse 2 Batch No.001.
This is the first release from Fettercairn's Warehouse Collection - a new series of rare and limited small batch whiskies drawn from the distillery's 14 dunnage warehouses and each named after the warehouse that helped to shape it. The collection is the start of a journey of discovery led by Whisky Maker Gregg Glass, researching how each warehouse makes its own unique mark on the Fettercairn spirit. Intrigued, we took it upon ourselves to find out more. STEWART: It's a lovely whisky, eh? There are a lot of light fruits in it: watermelon, peaches... it's beautiful. ANDY: I'm getting candied pear drops. There's a really nice mouthfeel as well with that higher alcoholic strength. It's undeniably Fettercairn - you can't get away from that - but there's so many other complex flavours that build on top of those tropical flavours. Sounds delicious! Tell us what's gone into this first release. ANDY: Warehouse 2 Batch No.001 is a combination of 19 casks which were all filled with spirit in 2010, before being bottled in late 2020. We've got two different types of casks from cooperages in Jerez- sherry barrels from Tevasa and sherry butts from Vasyma which previously held an amoroso-style sherry. We've then got virgin oak barrels from Vasyma, which received a light to medium level of toasting. Using virgin oak gives you a real grip and muscle in terms of flavour development - a really lovely spice that you get from within the grains of the oak. We've then got bourbon barrels. We tend to focus on bourbons which have a high rye content - things like Heaven Hill or even rye whiskies lend extremely well to the Fettercairn spirit. Then finally, the majority of the whisky comes from Port pipes which have previously held a tawny Port of ten years plus. With tawny Port, you get lots of red fruits, and a lovely nuttiness. These five cask styles were put together to celebrate Fettercairn's tropical, fruity style of spirit. When I nose it, I get lots of peaches and passionfruit. The Port and the virgin oak offer a little bit of spice and a chocolatey note which reminds me of cocoa dusting on the top of a cappuccino. On the palate, there's this lovely creamy coffee flavours that linger and develops on throughout the whisky. Because it's youthful, you still get lots of floral notes, peaches and pear drops from the new make spirit. What's behind the collection's name? STEWART: At Fettercairn, we've got 14 unique dunnage warehouses. They've all got the earthen floors, low slate roofs, thick sandstone walls, and the temperature doesn't fluctuate much between summer and winter. ANDY: Each release in the Warehouse Collection will be drawn from these 14 dunnage warehouses. It bases a project that Gregg Glass is working on, where he is researching the conditions of each warehouse at Fettercairn and how their conditions impact the flavour of the whisky they hold. All the whisky in this first release has come from Warehouse 2. Although all the whisky is from the same warehouse, there's a real variety of cask types involved which I think is brilliant. Why did you choose to begin with Warehouse 2? ANDY: Gregg is interested in Warehouse 2 because of its consistent temperature, the humidity, but also because the door of this warehouse opens and closes more often than the rest due to having so many visitors. That's where Gregg's head is at - he's interested to see what impact these subtle differences have on the end result. Warehouse 2 is also a real treasure trove of treats - it's where a lot of the interesting stuff is kept. STEWART: Warehouse 2 is one of the original warehouses at the distillery and, as Andy says, is predominately the warehouse we take all of our visitors into. It's so historical and so old fashioned. When you take people inside you have to give them a moment because it's like going back in time. Although we put a new roof on Warehouse 2 a couple of years ago, we try to keep it as it is. You can't change a warehouse like that - it would be sacrilege if you did. Dirty, manky walls take years to perfect, like! ANDY: When you're on a distillery tour at Fettercairn, there's this striking juxtaposition of going from the workings of the distillery into Warehouse 2. It's like stepping through the wardrobe into a different land. Suddenly it's so peaceful and quiet. STEWART: It even has its original Customs and Excise office. All the warehouses had one, and then about 25 years ago we removed them all - with the exception of Warehouse 2. Why did you leave that one? STEWART: It was late on a Friday and we couldn't be bothered taking it out! If it had been any other time apart from Friday afternoon, we probably would've taken that one out as well. ANDY: That tells a little story in itself. In 2010, Fettercairn began distilling seven days a week instead of five, so that would have been a time when Friday afternoon was the end of the week. STEWART: It's fantastic that we've still got that one left. We're intending on taking VIP tours in there to enjoy a dram and see the whole place as it was. The Customs and Excise officer was a lovely guy - I can still picture him. He used to wander about the warehouse with a portable heater and plug it in wherever he went. He was like a red beacon at the end of the warehouse! He only lived about half a mile from the distillery, but when he cycled home it probably took him a mile! Customs and Excise officers were invariably the ones that took most of the alcohol in the first place. What's special about dunnage warehouses? STEWART: With a dunnage warehouse, the casks can breathe. Our casks are never racked more than three high. The air surrounds the whole cask, so the whisky matures more evenly. It's still the best way to mature a cask. ANDY: It's difficult to explain "old" as a smell, but when you go into a dunnage warehouse like Warehouse 2, this really funky, chocolately, old oak smell hits you. When I lead tastings with aged Fettercairn whiskies, I often describe the smell as "dunnage funk" - it's my favourite band name! It's hard to describe, but with an old dunnage warehouse whisky you get this leathery, old library scent... in a really nice way! STEWART: Warehouse 2 has matured some fantastic whiskies. It's home to the oldest cask at Fettercairn from the 1960s. We've also got a heap of Gregg Glass' casks maturing in there; a number of beautiful casks from 100-year-old Cognac casks to new Scottish oak. There are 3,216 casks in there at the moment. ANDY: Does that include the ones you've hidden, Stewart?! STEWART: We're blessed at Fettercairn because we've got so many aged whiskies. You could probably cover every year from the late 60s right through to present day. They're all very good, all different. Andy mentions funkiness, and that's exactly what it is. ANDY: There's a lovely tropical fruit note from everything: from a 4-year-old spirit right through to the really old stuff. Where does the tropical note come from? STEWART: It all starts with the spirit and how it's made. The new make spirit itself is quite palatable; it's already got those lovely tropical fruit, floral notes - a distillery character that is derived from our unique distillation process using the cooling rings on our stills. I'm sure Andy would be able to create a lovely cocktail with our new make spirit! It's then all about putting it into the right wood and letting it rest in the right place to enhance those lovely tropical fruit notes that we've already got within the spirit. Stewart, you've worked at Fettercairn for over 30 years. How have things changed? STEWART: Although we do things differently at Fettercairn, we are still very much old fashioned. There's a lot of human touch here. If you have machines running the stills, then I think you lose a lot of the romance in whisky making. A distiller reading the hydrometer a little bit differently to the distiller before them is what it's all about. That's the magic of Fettercairn and we want to keep that. When I first started 30 years ago, I was learning from guys who were here 30 years before that, so you could go back 50 years and things haven't really changed that much/ I like to think that if someone who worked at Fettercairn 50 or 60 years ago walked back into production today, they'd probably recognise it. Admittedly, alcohol was probably more available back then than it is now. If you did jobs outwith your duties, you got a dram of new make. That was your overtime pay! I can still picture one of the guys fumbling for the step to the old boiler house. He was about 25 feet away! I remember thinking, he's actually going in there to look after boilers that have the potential to wipe out the whole village... Can you hint at any future releases from the Warehouse Collection? STEWART: For all the releases we're keeping the natural colours, with no chill filtration. The percentage of cask types will be on the label for you to see, as well as the distillation date. It's important to us that the transparency is there. ANDY: From a whisky lover's point of view, the next few bottlings are certainly interesting. They are all focused around casks and warehouse environments which help to amplify and accentuate our tropical, fruity distillery character. These whiskies help to tell the stories of Fettercairn and as you can see, there are so many of them - so many great little stories! The original feature is our cover story in the Spring 2021 edition of Whiskeria, delivered to the door of W Club subscribers and also free with any Whisky Shop purchase in store or online. Click here to read the full Spring 2021 issue of Whiskeria online for free.