Like last week’s Arran whisky, this week’s tipple – Wolfburn – has seen a revival after a halt in production of 150 years.
The Wolfburn distillery is the northernmost on the Scottish mainland, lying just west of Thurso in Caithness. It takes its water and its name from Wolf Burn, a nearby stream. Also nearby is ‘the flow country’, one of the world’s largest areas of peatland, storing about 400 million tonnes of carbon, more than double the amount in all Britain’s woodlands.
Wolfburn Distillery was founded in 1821 by one William Smith and constructed using Caithness flagstone, one of the world’s rarest materials, formed from beds of sediment and thin layers of volcanic dust. By 1826, Wolfburn had become the area’s largest producer, recording 125,000 litres of spirit for that year. But when the region’s first Ordnance Survey map was created less than fifty years later in 1872, the distillery was shown to be in ruins. No one knows why it had declined. The proximity of Thurso’s port, a significant trading point since Norse times, and the arrival of the railway couldn’t save it.
Whisky production wouldn’t start there again until 2011, when permissions were submitted for new buildings just 350m from the old distillery. By 2014 the first cask was laid down and five years later Warehouse No.1 was full.
Twice distilled and never chill-filtered, different lines of Wolfburn come from maturation in different casks, for instance first-fill bourbon or Oloroso sherry. Some are lightly peated, their barley infused with smoke during the drying process. The Kylver Series is named for an ancient inscribed runestone from 400 AD and uses one-off or special casks. Meanwhile, Wolfburn’s small batch whiskies are produced in very limited quantities, again using notable casks, with results the distillery describes as ‘sometimes experimental, often complex and always interesting.’
These then, are young characterful whiskies to look out for and when you’re seeking them out Wolfburn’s distinctive logo should be easy to spot. Perhaps fittingly for a distillery on the edge of an important natural heritage site, Wolfburn takes its branding from an illustration by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner.
Gessner is one of those extraordinary Renaissance minds who managed to combine several careers into one short lifetime. From a humble background and dependent on the generosity of many teachers, he went on to become Zurich’s city physician, wrote dictionaries, recorded European species and created an incredible compendium, a 16th century ‘database’, of all the books published in the first century of print.
Gessner’s illustrations appeared in Historiae Animalium and were reproduced by British cleric Edward Topsell in 1607 in The History of Four-Footed Beasts (a book that has surely inspired J.K Rowling). The creature Wolfburn have chosen as their emblem looks like a hyena with an impressive dorsal fin the length of its spine.
Wolves would have been native to Scotland back in Gessner’s time (and there are moves to reintroduce them as part of rewilding the landscape). Gessner’s illustration though is no ordinary wolf then but a wulver or sea-wolf, a mythical creature said to bring good-luck to those who see it. Will it bring good luck to Wolfburn whisky? Time only will tell, but meanwhile, let’s raise a glass to the flow country, to rewilding and the renaissance of distilling in this part of Scotland.