Shane Fraser is smiling. He has every right to - Wolfburn has had a meteoric year since the release of their first single malt whisky winning no less than three Gold Medals at international competitions. But Fraser is in no way resting on the laurels of a triple crown win - he's got his sights firmly set on the future of Wolfburn. We suspect he's going to be smiling even more in the years to come.
The history of Wolfburn can be dated back to 1821. The original Wolfburn distillery was located 350 metres from its current site in Thurso, Caithness. Run by the Smith family, the distillery was at one point the largest in Caithness, producing 28,056 “Total Gallons of Proof Spirit” during 1826 (roughly 125,000 litres). Production ceased in the 1850's for reasons that are now lost to the annuls of time. The distillery was revived in 2012 and sited in Henderson Park alongside the Wolf Burn (from which the distillery gets its name).
Fraser started his whisky career at Royal Lochnagar on the Barmoral Estate. Over the past 25 years he has honed his craft working at both Oban and Glenfarclas. He is now Distillery Manager, but has been part of the Wolfburn Distillery team since 2012. We caught up with him to see if we could find out where the wolves would be running next.
When did you join the world of whisky and what were you doing before this?
Aged 16 – I was a schoolboy before I started making whisky. In fact, I was making it two years before I could legally drink it! Looking back I was incredibly lucky – Royal Lochnagar distillery was just down the road from where I grew up, and I managed to win an apprenticeship. It was a great training ground – I have some very happy memories of my time there.
Could you tell us about your role as Master Distiller with Wolfburn?
It’s really the culmination of a quarter of a century of experience. From the beginning making whisky has been my true passion, and I’ve been lucky enough to gain some great knowledge from leading distilleries like Oban and Glenfarclas. When you manage old established distilleries you’re following a tried and tested formula – they each have their own style of whisky, and it’s vital that the nose and flavour profile is maintained, so there’s not much scope for creativity. That’s really the single biggest reason for me being part of the team that founded Wolfburn – it was a once in a lifetime chance to create a totally new spirit profile. Wolfburn is the place I get to turn my ideas into reality!
How has the past year been since your first official bottling hit the shelves?
Utter chaos! No – I’m joking. But it has been unbelievably busy. Wolfburn’s first whisky received a huge amount of praise and recognition, and we underestimated demand quite significantly. The challenge was therefore to keep up production – we still need plenty of spirit to be laid down for future years – and ensure all our bottling orders were correctly fulfilled at the same time. So far we’ve managed it just fine, but it has certainly kept us on our toes.
Could you summarise what you see as Wolfburn's house-style. Your liquid DNA as it were?
That’s a good question. I don’t really have a one-line answer, except to say we’re setting out to make whisky that’s smooth and enjoyable and easy to drink. I’m no fan of harsh, challenging spirits – I like a mellow malt, and I think most scotch drinkers are the same. Whisky is a luxury and we’re trying our utmost to make Wolfburn as good as it can possibly be. The results have so far been superb – better than I had dared to hope.
What can we expect from Wolfburn in the future?
This autumn we will release our third permanent expression, called ‘Morven’. It’s a lightly peated malt, named after the highest peak in Caithness, which is in a hug wetland area, surrounded by peat bogs. The first two – Northland and Aurora – are selling very well, but everyone likes something new and early Morven orders from our distributors are very encouraging. Before Morven we’ll release our first small batch whisky, ‘Batch 128’. It’ll be out in July and it is utterly, mindbendingly good! It actually came about almost by accident. We acquired some very small 100L first fill bourbon casks back in 2014 – they were a coopering experiment and we cannot get any more – but we took the chance, and I’m so pleased that we did, as the results are incredible. By the end of this year we’ll release the third in the Kylver collectors’ series too. Further ahead, we’re considering releasing a cask strength expression in 2018, and I’m sure there will be some additional limited releases too.
Geographically Wolfburn is now in 24 markets around the world. I think we’ll continue to add to that list – we’ve recently been approached by distributors in both Cyprus and Malta, for example. And we don’t yet have any presence in duty free – that’s something I hope will change before too long.
From your experience, what new trends might we see in whisky in the future?
The biggest trend I believe is happening all around the world is that consumers are becoming better educated and more selective about their whisky. Good single malt whiskies sell at a premium for a reason and unsurprisingly this is the market sector where the most growth is occurring. I think this trend will continue – people are becoming more astute, and high quality single malts will come to the fore.
Whilst you don't have a dedicated visitors centre as yet, do you have any travel recommendations for those coming to visit Caithness?
We don’t have a visitors centre but we do encourage people to visit Wolfburn! In fact it’s all the better for not having a visitors centre, as tours take place inside the distillery itself and you can get up close and personal with the production staff. Wolfburn is located very close to Scrabster Harbour, from where the ferry sails to Orkney, and we already get thousands of visitors per year. Visits need to be scheduled in advance, but all that’s needed is a quick email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Our location actually bridges the gap between Old Pulteney down in Wick, and the two distilleries on Orkney: Highland Park and Scapa. It’s become a sort of mini region in its own right. And if you’re coming up from Inverness, you’ll also drive past Glenmorangie and Brora distilleries.
You're marooned on a desert island. You can only have one bottle of whisky. Which one is it?
Ooooh that’s a tricky one! For raw unadulterated memories it would have to be Wolfburn inaugural. We only made 875 bottles, and when I nose one the aroma takes me straight back to the commissioning phase of the distillery; happy times. But for quality, Wolfburn Batch 128. Until it’s released in July you’ll have to take my word for it – it’s lovely!