Foodful Features: The Borders Distillery

Published on 13 Mar
10 min read

Why build a distillery in the middle of the Scottish Borders?

There has been plenty of interest in establishing the first distillery in the Scottish Borders for 150 years. The first, and only, to make this dream a reality was The Three Stills Company which has created The Borders Distillery in Hawick. The Borders Distillery is located in the centre of Hawick. The town, which is the one of the largest in the Scottish Borders, is well-known for its illustrious textiles industry as well as its Common Riding which commemorates a victory by a band of local lads over an English raiding party in 1514. There are many Scottish Borders towns who celebrate similar victories during those tumultuous years.

Outside the distillery it's clear to see a blend of the past and future in the borders.
Outside the distillery, it’s clear to see a blend of the past and future in the borders.

Hawick: The Industrial Town

By the 18th century, the town had 50 textile mills all powered by water[1]. In the middle of the next century, steam power replaced hydro-powered mills to make them bigger and more efficient, not only did mills increase in size, but more mills were created and thousands of jobs were created[1]. It was said at this time, that Hawick was a mini Glasgow. Mills which were created during this time were world-famous brands such as John and Robert Pringle and Lyle & Scott[1]. The town was also well-known for its livestock industry. This was developed further as a result of the railway to Edinburgh. At the end of the 19th century, the town’ s population reached nearly 20,000 people[2]. The town is settled on the confluence of the River Teviot and Slitrig Water. This made its industrial prowess possible. This is also a reason for the distillery being built in Hawick. Further reasons include the availability of natural resources and raw materials.

An Award-winning Project

The distillery is the first whisky distillery in the region since 1837 and symbolises a blend of the town’s enterprising past and its ambitious future. The distillery is built in an old Victorian building with history already attached to the town. The refurbishment cost £10 million and is anticipated to become a distinctive asset to the town, which has been struggling since the collapse of many textile factories. The Borders Distillery opened its doors in March 2018 and the same year was awarded the Architectural Journal Heritage Project of the Year 2018 and a year later, the project has received an award from Civic Trust Awards 2019. These awards celebrate the built environment, acknowledging cultural and community projects as well as admiring innovative architecture and environmental designs[3].

A model of the distillery
A model of the distillery

When the Old meets the New

The building itself dates back to 1888[4] with a later section, built in a Tudor Cotswold style, 15 years later by the Hawick Urban Electric Co, a company that powered the whole town at one point. Hawick was also was of the first towns to be run on electricity.

In 2015, the company raised money from the market and the development was announced. The restoration project has been sympathetic to the history of the building, whilst still being a strong, functional building necessary for a distillery. The Victorian design and development of the building have been perfect for the distillation process and hints of Victorian engineering can be found throughout the distillery.

The building has 3 sources of water, 2 of which are used in production, from the River Teviot, mains water and a freshwater well 16.7 metres beneath the building which is used to create the spirits. The roof of the building in the malting room serves as a ventilation system. The roof is balanced on pivots which allows air to circulate keeping things cool and to remove carbon dioxide, a byproduct from fermentation, from out of the room. Many distilleries need to spend a lot of money to keep the fermentation tanks cool, but this clever engineering allows costs to be kept down as well as being environmentally friendly.

Not only does The Borders Distillery aim to create its own single malt, but they have also made gin and vodka in the process. The site not only houses the distillery, but also a visitor centre/gift shop, tasting room and office space for staff. The distillery has created 14 jobs in the town so far and while the malt is brewing, local people are learning distilling skills which can be passed down to future generations.

The Tour

Stepping into the malting room
Stepping into the malting room

Without giving away too much about The Borders Distillery’s whisky-making processes and history, we highlight top moments from the tour.

The tour invites an insightful look into the world of distilling and is the first look into how the process begins and the future plans of a working distillery. It is a very rare opportunity to see a whisky industry in its early stages and to see it developing in front of your eyes.  We were lucky enough to be shown round by Andrew Nairn, the distillery manager, who has been in the whisky industry for many years. Andrew’s experience and knowledge in the industry proved advantageous for discovery into the world of spirit-making in general and how it can grow to be part of the Scottish Borders identity.

Andrew sharing his vast knowledge of whisky distilling.
Andrew sharing his vast knowledge of whisky distilling.

Andrew took us on a journey of history, enterprise and into the world of a distillery with all its interesting sights and smells. Starting on the ground floor, which houses the office and gift shop, we swiftly moved to the first floor where we could see and learn about the beautiful architecture and the history of the building. In the first room, the malting room, we all got a real insight into the production and saw where 5 tonnes of malt barley is fermented with 26,000 litres of water to convert the starches in the grains to alcohol. We saw views into the stills and some of us smelled the delights of the fermentation process, which was surprisingly sweet!

The whole process of whisky making is one which has the potential to be extremely environmentally friendly. All waste products from fermentation can be re-used. The water can be recycled and used again, the waste product called ‘draff’ can be used as animal feed, the casks used can be up to 80 years old and can be repeatedly used.

As the tour progressed, we learned about the importance of copper stills, for temperature conduction and the flavour of the spirit.

The grandiose, beautiful copper stills which are so important for great-tasting whisky!
The grandiose, beautiful copper stills which are so important for great-tasting whisky!

The Scottish Borders is actually a fantastic place to have distilleries. There is plenty of fresh water, it is a cool climate and there are plenty of hops and barley grown locally. The malt comes from just over the border in Berwick-upon-Tweed at Simpsons Malt, a 5th generation family business which has been active since 1862.

A Warming Farewell

The tour costs £12 and offers an informative insight into the workings of a distillery. At the end of the tour enjoy a wee dram of the blends, Lower East Side and Clan Fraser whisky, William Kerr’s Borders Gin and small-batch vodka and discover how best to enjoy them. If you are driving home, you’re not left out and you receive 2 small jars of the products found at The Borders Distillery so you can enjoy a dram at home.

Viewing the casks.
Viewing the casks.

The distillery is offering the prospect to own your own private cask, There are 1837 casks for sale. You can choose your filling date, cask type, ranging from Rum, Bourbon, Sherry, Rye and European Wine and then track the maturation of the spirit, via an app, by selecting when you are ready for it.

The Products

As The Borders Distillery is just one year old, its definitive product, a single malt whisky representing a taste of the Scottish Borders, is not ready. A single malt whisky takes a minimum of three years to create. On offer at the moment are two whisky blends reflecting Border life. A blended whisky can be either a blend of single malt whiskies, a blend of single grain whiskies or a combination of both grain and malt whisky. The blended whisky business counts for about 85% of sales.

Lower East Side

A complex blend of single malts of which one is peat single malt. This alludes to a smoky taste in the whisky.

The Borders Distillery: Lower East Side blended malt scotch whisky

Clan Fraser

A blend of grain and malt whiskies, inspired by a vision for a Borders-based whisky company. It tastes buttery and slightly sweet.

To taste a whisky properly, there are a few steps to partake in before drinking. First of all, is a visual analysis looking at the colour to distinguish which cask the whisky has been ageing in. Gold means bourbon cask, darker means sherry cask and pinkish tones mean red wine cask.

After the colour, look at the ‘legs’. To do this just swirl the glass gently to see the residue. This is an indicator of its alcohol content, there will be more legs and they will fall slower if the alcohol percentage is high, and viscosity which alludes to the age of the whisky.

Next is to smell. This is important to detect characteristics in the whisky from the distillation process. The olfactory system can detect an impressive amount of smells and tastes. It can also conjure up images and memories associated with these smells. And, finally, taste the whisky or add any additions which you like such as water or ice. Whisky will taste different to everyone as we all have our own tastes and smells we can distinguish so don’t be afraid to believe what you sense and taste in the whisky.

Although the majority of the distillery’s alcohol is kept to create its first batches of single malt whisky, approximately 10% of the spirit is used to create The Borders Distillery‘s own vodka and gin.

William Kerr Borders Gin

A gin to honour famous Scottish botanist from Hawick, William Kerr, who was not only a gardener at Kew but also an avid plant explorer especially in China and Indonesia where he sent around 238 plants back to Europe to be displayed in gardens and used for scientific research.

The gin is inspired by tastes of home as well as the Far East with flavours of juniper, liquorice root and cassia. The gin’s base is from the original spirit base from the copper stills, which helps the gin to capture the marriage of home and away flavours through vapour infusion. The taste journey starts with a fruity malty taste, through into a light juniper note and ending with citrus and spices. The gin is distilled in a bespoke Carter-Head Still. It is recommended to serve one part gin to three parts tonic for a perfect gin and tonic.

The Borders Distillery: William Kerr's Borders Gin
The Borders Distillery: William Kerr’s Borders Gin

Small Batch Vodka

A small-batch vodka from ‘barley to bottle’. Its creamy, smooth mouthfeel results from the spirit being filtered through charcoal. The charcoal removes impurities and flavour from the spirit which affect the taste and feel of the vodka by making it ‘cleaner’. This vodka is designed to be an enjoyable drink on its own or with mixers.

The Borders Distillery: Small-batch Vodka
The Borders Distillery: Small-batch Vodka

Hat-Tip to the Producers

Thank you to The Borders Distillery for inviting Foodful to an insightful tour around the distillery and into the processes and history of whisky making. In particular, thank you to John Fordyce for organising our invitation and to Andrew Nairn, the distillery manager, for his knowledge and warm reception on the day.

We thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the distillery and highly recommend especially if you are around the area or want to know more about the science of distilling. Visit The Borders Distillery to see history in the making.

The borders distillery visitor centre
The welcoming visitor centre with many gifts and great drinks to buy!

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