Today we will be talking about scotch – Highland scotch to be exact. Though peat is not as prominent in Highland whisky (as it is in Islay whisky), this Highland brand we are chatting with today is no stranger to working with peat. In fact, they distill one of the most popular peated whiskies outside of the Islay – anCnoc Peatheart.
This past month, I met up with Gordon Bruce, Master Distiller for anCnoc Whisky. anCnoc is a whisky under the Inver House Distillers banner. They own and operate: Old Pulteney Distillery, The Speyburn-Glenlivet Distillery, Balblair Distillery, Balmenach Distillery and Knockdhu Distillery (the Knock – which produces anCnoc Whisky).
Grayce: Thanks for coming all the way to Canada, Gordon! Before we begin, can you tell us about yourself?
Gordon: I like to think I’m a pretty down to earth individual, like to see things done simply and done well. Great believer in the power of people over machines.
Grayce: I heard that you started your whisky career as a mash man for Pulteney – did you have an interest in whisky before this or how did you discover your passion for whisky?
Gordon: Had always been interested in what is my home town distillery, although at that time Pulteney wasn’t available as a single malt. Knocked on the office door seeking a job purely on the off chance, was lucky enough to start work there two weeks later. Don’t tell anyone but I wasn’t really a fan of whisky then 😉
Grayce: My lips are sealed – though I might not be able to say the same about my fingertips! 🙂 Do you remember when your first “ah-ha” moment was?
Gordon: Don’t think there’s ever been an epiphany, more a case of taste broadening with age and an appreciation of what actually goes into making our wonderful products. Early experiences (out with the below nasty moments) were very much on lighter blends the sweetness and depth of flavours were intriguing.
Grayce: Was there a particular whisky or experience that changed your perspective of whisky and made you pursue it as a career?
Gordon: There are a lot of people over here (and probably over with you too) who had a bad early experience of whisky, along the lines of sneaking samples from parents drinks cabinet as teenagers. In those days it tended to be blended whiskies. The more you realise how much the distillers can tweak nose and taste profiles by production techniques, age or cask selection, the more you appreciate the products. From a production viewpoint a distillery is basically a big toy box, who wouldn’t like to get paid to play?
Grayce: Absolutely – that’s the dream job! And I’m sure we can all relate to those early experience of rummaging through our parent’s alcohol collection. Let’s talk about yours! After a long work day, do you drink whisky at home? If so, what are you currently sipping on?
Gordon: I do and it can vary quite substantially depending on how I am feeling. At present I am really enjoying pairing whisky with food, particularly cheese. anCnoc 12YO goes great with a good parmesan and Peatheart with a strong blue cheese such as Roquefort, stilton or closer to home Strathdon Blue.
Grayce: How does anCnoc whiskies differentiate themselves from competing Highland whiskies?
Gordon: anCnoc is such an approachable dram, chuffed with the current fairly broad range as there’s something to suit most moods and palate’s.
Grayce: Since Knockdhu Distillery is located near Aberdeenshire, have you ever experimented with Aberdeenshire Peat? If so, how did it turn out?
Gordon: Good question, we do indeed use Aberdeenshire peat (St Fergus). This is important to us as the chemical composition of peat varies greatly from region to region. Aberdeenshire peat has lower levels of 4- methyl Guaiacol, predominant in Islay peat which contributes to a medicinal/ TCP nose and taste in whisky. Our local peat gives a more pronounced wood ash effect.
Grayce: If money and weather were not a factor and you could make whisky any way you wanted, how would your dream whisky look/taste like (please include grains, casks, distilling methodology and age)?
Gordon: My one concession to gambling is to buy a weekly Lottery ticket. When I win the plan is to buy a field with a burn running through it where I’m going to design and build the most beautiful distillery known to mankind! The focus will be purely on quality.
Grayce: When you say quality, are you referring to your grain types? What about yeast or water sources?
Gordon: Barley varieties are fascinating, always interesting to try something new, in fact we’re running a trial on a new barley variety as we speak. Have run a few experiments with yeasts too which is good fun, we ran one trial strain last year where walking in to the tun room was like stepping in to a bowl of fruit! Most of the reporting from trials is observational/ anecdotal where you’re relying on your (and the teams) experience in comparing different varieties/ strains. Gives scope to make process tweaks to get the best out of raw materials.
Grayce: I know your non-peated expressions generally start in ex-bourbon or American oak barrels – are there plans (or have you) to experiment with other types of casks?
Gordon: I couldn’t possibly comment… [grins]
Grayce: Great – I look forward to reaching out for a comment on this in the future 🙂 Speaking of the future, can you tell us about the new releases coming from anCnoc this spring? How do you come up with these new releases?
Gordon: I can’t tell you too much. However I have been working with our team to create a couple of new releases to celebrate our 125th Anniversary. These will be released later this year and draw on our core DNA but they wouldn’t be anCnoc without a slight twist.
Grayce: That sounds really exciting. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about anCnoc and Knockdhu Distillery?
Gordon: If you’re ever in the area please pop in to say hello, think you’ll enjoy it. The Knock means so much to everyone that works there. Have said it before that I’m lucky enough to work alongside the best distillery team in Scotland. Everything is still operated manually at the Knock, a concern that as we become more reliant on technology we’re in danger of losing skills/ forgetting how to do things. No automation means the guys have busy shifts, constantly on the go, the guys look forward to coming to work, enjoy what they do and go home happy. I like to think the essence of this finds it’s way in to the quality of the product.
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