Wolfburn. Now this is about as Highland as you can get!
Wolfburn is a brand that I have started to occasionally see sneaking onto backbars in NYC. When you spot it, your whisky mind goes through that thought process of another non-age statement and if it is worth the $15 a pour investment (NYC pricing). One thing is for sure, the name is pretty darn cool! I have nothing against NAS whiskies, and I did end up ordering the Aurora late last year. I remember enjoying it but still wondering what Wolfburn was all about.
This isn’t the attention grabbing revival story of a long-lost distillery or the resurrection of a highly sought-after brand. We know these brands. Brands that at their pinnacle were highly regarded by some of our original “influencers” including Michael Jackson and many others. I feel as whisky drinkers, we don’t have that emotional attachment to a new distillery like Wolfburn quite as quickly. We didn’t see it for $500 dollars, $1,000 etc. in a Gordon & MacPhail single cask bottling or a special Diageo release. They didn’t write about it in Forbes or Thrillest telling you these are bottles you want but can’t have. The wealthy whisky instagrammers didn’t flaunt an old bottling of Wolfburn online to get your attention of how developed their palate is for trying a shuttered distillery. Don’t get me wrong, I am tremendously excited to see how we can revitalize Port Ellen, Brora etc. but I think the fight for completely new brands in Scotland need their own pat on the back. They are building their story from scratch, truly organic and that made it so enticing to see. Not to mention the young, yet true to tradition vibe that the brand and its guardians exude.
Wolfburn is in Thurso, right at the top of the mid-western part of Scotland. Go to Inverness and head up the coast through Dornoch, pass Glenmorangie, Dalmore and Old Pulteney and you are now at the most northerly distillery in mainland Scotland. Keep going north and eventually you hit this town that is actually pronounced Thur-z-o. I was missing that “Z” too. I only knew of this town because it is right next to Scrabster and back in 2016 when my flight to Orkney was cancelled twice due to fog, they eventually taxied me up to Scrabster to catch the ferry. I highly recommend taking the ferry anyways if you have time! I was up there helping to lead a Rascal + Thorn Coastal Scotland Tour with my good friend Charles. The team at Wolfburn were so kind to come in on a Sunday and show our group of seven whisky fiends around.
It felt like an American craft distillery as we drove up to the business and industrial complex that the distillery sits in. I mean that in a flattering way and hey, this is a startup for all intent and purpose! Make good spirit wherever you can. They are just outside of the downtown Thurso area so easy for visitors to get to. You may have guessed it but the “Wolfburn” name comes from their water source. There was a decently well-known farm distillery in this area pulling water from this same burn back in the mid-1800’s so the distilling history is here – where there is water there will be whisky. Two South African’s who had family ties in Wick opened this distillery in 2011. The first distillation run was on a very fitting day – Burn’s Night 2013.
As you walk into the building everything is quite linear which is a fantastic visual for people new to whisky. Making it easier to understand how this never-ending batch process of single malt happens. To your right is the newly refurbished visitors’ area with bottles and paraphernalia for sale. Their wolf pin is proudly on my backpack right now and on my shelves sits a limited edition bottle I purchased. Getting back to production and starting with the mill. It isn’t a Porteus or a Boby mill – how dare them! It is a much more modern AR2000 which seems to get the job done well enough and sounds like a name from Back to the Future. All equipment has been fabricated by Forsyths and their stainless-steel mash tun with a copper top will receive mostly unpeated malt/grist but about six weeks a year they do run peated malt. After about a 5 to 6 hour mash they are moving the wort over to the stainless steel washbacks. Each of the 4 washbacks or fermenters have a capacity of about 9,000 liters and their fermentation period lasts about 84 hours give or take. Utilizing classic distillers yeast they achieve about an 8.5% abv wash or beer. The wash is then moved over to their pair of copper pot stills. The wash still is at a capacity of 5,500 liters and their spirits still at 3,800 liters.
The Wolfburn new make spirit is then put into all different types and sizes of casks. You will see the common ex-bourbon, hogsheads and sherry butts within their 3 dunnage style warehouses. They have everything from those massive 500 liter sherry butts to the newly popular 50 liter octaves. The casks are filled at the industry standard of 63.5% abv and once ready for bottling everything is hand labeled and filled.
Now to the finished product! Our group was extremely lucky to have two fantastic guides take us through the Wolfburn Distillery. Scott and James brought out some pretty cracking bottles for us to try but I would say the core range seemed to be: Northland, Aurora, Morven and Langskip. Aurora is the one I have seen and tried in the States and recently saw Northland and Morven at Astor Wine & Spirits. I won’t list all of the tasting notes but here are a few of the standouts that I tried.
Langskip: Candied apple on the nose followed by citrus and candied orange and lemon peel. Definitely ex-bourbon showing its qualities here!
From the Stills – Summer 2019 Distillery Release: Candied banana and some tangerine along with custard. Slight clove hidden in their as well. The palate is quite creamy for me. More spice with some nutmeg and cinnamon on the palate. Still a serious banana undertone here which is cool. Long finish.
With water: Banana cinnamon bun yogurt! Still just as creamy on the palate. I actually prefer the palate with a few drops of water. More of the stone fruit shows up.
Morven: Floral and grassy caramel toffee. Definitely some highland peat but every so slightly. That’s the grassiness I sense. Almost a bit of a cappuccino froth vibe. On the palate is a much fruitier and juicer quality. This is more charred pear and white grape juice. A bit of a dry finish where the peat shows up. A lovely whisky! Very well balanced.
While waiting for the ferry we also saw a terrible fire in Scrabster. Everyone was ok as far as we heard but it was a crab and seafood facility. If crab legs go up in price -- we all know why. Glad everyone was ok though!