Whisky Scotland: Shetland distillery set to open this summer after plans 'bubbling away for 20 years'

Scotland is set to welcome another island whisky distillery, as plans for one on Shetland are moving forward

As Scottish island spirits – from gin to rum, and, of course, whisky – are bringing more tourism and jobs, as well as awards and accolades, to more remote locations, you’d be forgiven for thinking Shetland was already producing whisky.

The Shetland Distillery company, located at the former RAF Saxa Vord base on Unst, have released two whiskies – a single cask single malt bottled in Shetland, and a blended malt bottled in Unst. But the company has otherwise stuck to making their Shetland Reel gin, as well as limited editions including an annual release Up Helly Aa gin.

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While plans have been afoot for a whisky distillery for a while now, it has taken years to get anything off the ground. On a recent trip to Lerwick for a recording of Scran, The Scotsman’s food and drink podcast, the newspaper spoke to Martin Watt, managing director of the Shetland Distillery about a potential opening date, what visitors can expect and plans for the whisky.

Ian Miller is the distillery's master distiller.Ian Miller is the distillery's master distiller.
Ian Miller is the distillery's master distiller.

He said it had taken a number of years, but now the distillery was looking at an opening date of this summer.

“Plans for a whisky distillery in Shetland aren’t new, they’ve probably been bubbling along for about 20 years,” he said. “We took it forward about six years ago and got nowhere with it as we couldn’t find any suitable land.

"We felt it was quite important to have it situated within the main town in Shetland, and that's primarily because we need to have a good passing trade from the cruise ships, etc, that come into the town. But we picked it up again just over two years ago and now we’re in a position where we are expecting to open this summer.”

A chartered accountant, who has set up and ran other businesses in the past, Mr Watt wants to “set something up that hopefully Shetland can be proud of, and we can create a number of high-quality jobs”.

The founder's cask brochure.The founder's cask brochure.
The founder's cask brochure.

While this is a new distillery, they have invested in the years of experience from their master distiller, Ian Millar, who has worked for Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Blair Athol Distillery, Bladnoch, Mortlach and Glen Elgin.

Of his appointment and role within the distillery, Mr Watt said: “We've got a huge advantage over a lot of other start-up distilleries as our master distiller, a chap called Ian Miller, has 50 years experience in whisky and has been the master distiller a number of high profile distilleries. We're by no means beginners, because we've got him on board with us.

"He's actually designed our distillery and he's taken on board the character that we want to achieve in terms of the taste of our whisky.”

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Which leads to the question – what is Mr Watt expecting from the whisky? He said he could not really say what it would like as whisky hasn’t been made on Shetland before, but everything in the distillery is designed around producing a premium quality whisky that will be very palatable.

The plans for the tasting roomThe plans for the tasting room
The plans for the tasting room

“All we've done is line up ducks up so that we know that we've got the best possible chance of creating what we want to create in terms of the palette,” he said. “A lot of this comes down to the wood and the maturation. Because we don't know how the maturation will work in Shetland, then nobody will know what the whisky will be like, until it comes out.”

Mr Watt did confirm, however, the whisky won’t be peated. He said: “Everyone associates peat with Shetland, because Shetland is pretty much covered in peat. But I can tell you though that probably none of our whisky will be peated as it’s not environmentally friendly.

"We do, however, intend to use what's called a chocolate malt. This is barley that’s been malted, a little bit longer, so that it caramelises and it'll give a slightly different taste profile to just normal malted barley. When I say we'll use chocolate malt, it'll just be a very small proportion of the malt mix that we use going forward.”

“Our equipment will start arriving in Shetland over the next few weeks with our fermenters, our mash tun, and our condensers, all arriving on the first shipment. Then about four weeks after that our stills will arrive in Shetland and it will take us maybe five or six weeks to get them in place.

Plans for the shopPlans for the shop
Plans for the shop

"It'll be a very rapid transformation. We hope to have the shop open April or May, and then with the distillery producing June or July. We won’t have whisky for a few years, but the intention is that we’ll be selling new make spirit from day one. It’s going to be called Haad Still, which is a Shetland phrase meaning ‘hold on’, until we have whisky. The only way to get our new make spirit will be either by joining one of our bottle club memberships or visiting the distiller in person.”

How does Mr Watt, who was a member of the Jarl Squad last year, see the annual Up Helly Aa Festival impacting this new distillery? “Up Helly Aa is, for all intents and purposes, a Lerwick community event,” he said.

"I've seen a massive change over the last few years with the number of visitors coming in, and I think that's just going to increase as time goes on. More and more people are becoming aware of it and that underpins what our business plan is for the distillery.”

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He added: “Plus, during the summer months, Lerwick gets visited by about 150 cruise ships every year, with about 150,000 passengers, I would estimate, coming into the island. So again, we're geared towards doing tours and tastings and having visitors coming to the distillery via that route as well.”

For more information on the Lerwick distillery, visit their website and to hear more from Shetland food and drink producers, including this chat, search Scran wherever you get your podcasts.



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