Green piece

Posted 11 January 2021 by Matt / In Ailsa Bay
The Dramble reviews Uhuru whisky

Bottle Name: Uhuru

ABV: 55%
Distillery: Ailsa Bay
Bottler: Young Spirits
Region: Lowlands Age: 10

The sustainability of the whisky industry is a topic rarely given as much attention as it deserves on the pages of whisky blogs. Despite the core ingredients of whisky being seemingly limitless, the impacts of their convergence within distillation are often far from neutral. Whilst not listed on environmental shit list alongside fuel producers, transportation companies and fashion production – virtually all aspects of the production of spirit require inputs that result in by-products – some of which are not easy or cheap to deal with in an ecologically-minded manner.

A commonly asked and answered environmental question is that of draff – usually sold (or in some cases paid for!) to farmers for agricultural feed. However, the number of by-products is far greater than simply spent grain. All distilleries require and in-turn produce energy. Power in – in the form of electricity/gas to drive plant processes – energy out in the form of greenhouses gases produced during fermentation and some aspects of cleaning. Increasingly, distilleries are being founded and retrofitted with their environmental footprint in mind – from reducing and recycling C02 to better processing the huge amounts of production water – and resultant by-products (pot ale, fuel-grade ethanol, caustic wash from cleaning etc).

But not all resulting yields of by-products are necessarily useful to distilleries themselves – and many are expensive and time consuming to convert. And with both an increasing number of distilleries and an increasing capacity at existing sites, it’s little wonder that studies are being undertaken to explore how the output of waste products is tracking against the growing output of spirit. In Scotland, this has been predicted as rising by 13% over a five year period.

Distilleries have been looking at various forms of ‘valorisation’ whereby the value of their capital can be increased through the implementation of systems, processes and new plant that actively assists with the treatment and recycling of by-products to either reduce costs or to actively recover elements which can be reused within the distillery in the future. All of these are interesting – from CO2 recycling to reduce overall emissions all the way through to transforming production regimes to focus on base ingredients sourced closer to the distillery in an effort to reduce fuel miles. And everything in between.

Some of these environmental measures are exceedingly investment heavy – capturing, storing and converting CO2 from fermenters and other parts of the distillation process is far from straight-forward – similarly, segmenting particular fractions of the distillate for recycling purposes might well require a change in both still construction as well as the distillation regime itself. Not something ever taken on lightly. And that’s saying nothing of water use – which far from being an unlimited resource, has important implications for wetland habitats and biodiversity both in its extraction and through its aerobic digestion recycling.

And this is possibly why it is usually the biggest players who end up shouting the loudest about their environmental credentials. With the ability to invest in new, ecologically-minded plant, comes the desire to want to maximise its installation through corporate CSR. And to my mind that’s more than fair enough.  If you’re going to not only be looking to reduce your environmental impact, but also add additional value to a business – why wouldn’t you want to tell the world about this? And indeed encourage other existing and newer players to consider wider sustainability. There’s plenty of whisky out there, but only one planet to drink it on.

Launched at the start of December (when The Dramble was knee-deep in our annual Advent calendar review), Uhuru is a new whisky produced by Young Spirits. Founded in 2019, Young Spirits who are based in Edinburgh operate a small, batch bottling facility offering bottling, capping and packaging services to the wider spirits industry. And their new whisky which is named Uhuru (Swahili for ‘freedom’) – encapsulates several ecological characteristics which are close to the company’s heart. As well as openly striving to transform their operations to be as energy efficient as possible over the next three years, Young Spirits have partnered with conservation charity Tusk for their inaugural release – offering 10% of profits to the charity and harking back to Founder John Ferguson’s childhood summers in Kenya – and his love of protecting endangered elephants.

The expression has been sourced from Girvan’s Ailsa Bay facility – and is noted as a blended malt due to it being teaspooned spirit – otherwise known as ‘Dalrymple’ – a word which has a variety of meanings, but in this context refers to the south Aryshire parish that the distillery resides in.

The spirit has had an interesting journey over its 10 years – originally starting life in ex-Hudson Baby Bourbon casks – which as the name suggests, are indeed pretty tiny – around 10 – 12 litres. And then being vatted and re-racked for a finishing period in a single virgin cask. It seems that as an operations company, Young Spirits are not currently looking to scale up to become a huge bulk bottler of spirits as yet – as such, releases from Uhuru appear to be positioned to be single cask in scale going forward for the time being. As such, this first Uhuru release is limited to 250 bottles, which can be purchased directly from Young Spirit’s shop for £42.99 (which includes the 10% donation to Tusk).

Nose: Sweet and unsurprisingly cask-driven. Pear drops and pear syrup together with peach yoghurt and ground sugar. Vanilla pods and toffee popcorn sit with crème brulee, Bird's powdered custard and charred staves. Dilution offers additional fruitiness with white grapes and gooseberries alongside caramel wafer biscuits and creamed rice.

Taste: Macerated peaches and apricot slices join pureed orchard fruits, whilst perceptible high ABV is accompanied by a juxtaposition of cask creaminess and oak spicing – both of which are pretty heady. Vanilla extract and crème patisserie-piped choux buns together with burnt toffee, overdone caramel and building pepperiness. Smoke is exceedingly background and largely enveloped by the sweetness and wood – but it is there nonetheless – largely char, but with an aside of ashy hearths lurking beneath. The addition of water introduces tart grapes and Greek yoghurt, whilst amplifying the strong maturation regime further – puckering, drying tannins, overt oak and somewhat surprisingly - hedgerow berries.

Finish: Medium in length and focussed on oaky sweetness, peach melba and fading pepper.

In a growing sea of new independent bottlings Uhuru offers something different. Both its composition from Ailsa Bay distillate and its micro maturation regime are far from obvious choices. And these aspects are also given some attention in the marketing blurb as opposed to going down the path of least resistance and simply listing this as a ‘blended malt’ and leaving it at that.

The convergence of the Ailsa Bay spirit, tiny ex-Hudson’s and virgin cask finish has produced an expression which is accessibly sweet, but at the same time is exceptionally pokey at the delivered bottling strength. The net result is a user-friendly profile that’s offered at an ABV which I’m far from convinced is where folks are at when looking for an introduction to any spirit. This said, the high strength will be looked at by existing whisky drinkers as a boon – and rightfully so when you consider the glut of lower ABV offerings positioned at this price-point. It also feels appropriate to the distillate composition which is, unsurprisingly, exceedingly wood-forward and therefore requires a punch of alcohol to ensure that things don’t get too bogged down in oakiness. Overall, an interesting choice that’s admirably different.

Review sample provided by Young Spirits

Score: 81/100

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