For most visitors, the highlight of any distillery visit is the still room. There's something magical about the process that goes on within stills that makes them irresistable. Yes, it can all be explained by physics and by chemistry, but the two-stage process of distilling something a little like unpalatable beer into spirit always looks and feels much more like alchemy.
While still rooms all give rise to this sense of wonder, they vary dramatically from one to another, as do the stills that reside in them. Some still rooms are vast, and house large stills, while others are tiny and cramped, barely giving room for the stills or, in exteme cases, forcing the stills to be adapted to fit under the ceiling or roof. Stills themselves range from large to small, and from beautifully shiny to grubby enough to make you think you've stumbled into an old-fashioned gasworks. We've visited and photographed many still rooms, and would have to say without doubt that the most visually impressive we've ever seen is at the Borders Distillery in Hawick.
The distillery occupies the site and buildings of the former Hawick Electric Company, and refers to what we call a still room as a distillation hall. The grander term is very fitting, for this is a space which really has the "wow!" factor. The stills themselves are beautifully shiny, but what really sets this place apart is the fact that much of entire length of the apex of the roof is formed of glass panels. With sunlight streaming through and onto the stills, they look more like burnished gold than copper, and the effect is truly awesome. This is a place where it is even easier than usual to believe that the distiller's art really is founded on alchemy rather than science. (Continues below image...)
The Borders Distillery was established by the Three Stills Company and opened its doors to the public in May 2018, having begun production two months earlier. In doing so it became the first (legal) whisky distillery to operate in the Scottish Borders since 1837. According to press reports, the project cost £10m. That may seem a lot of money, but it's immediately obvious where the money was spent. There is a sense of care, of quality, and of attention to detail that leaps out wherever you look. This begins even before you enter the distillery car park. The iron railings that run along the boundary with Commercial Road are decorated with little iron stills. And the gates carry, in wrought iron, the words "The Borders" and "Distillery". These wonderful - and entirely unnecessary - details show that the development of the Borders Distillery has been a labour of love.
The same sense of attention to detail is obvious once you enter. There's a welcoming reception area and a shop selling high quality goods, many locally produced plus, for the moment, blended Scotch whisky. The point about the shop selling local goods is an important one. Local sourcing of materials and skills was another important principle when the distillery was being built. It's also worth noting at this point that the distillery prides itself on being fully accessible. The production areas are on an upper floor, but there is a lift.
Distilleries tend to take a very individual approach when it comes to the relative priority given to their production of spirit on the one hand, and their operation as a visitor attraction on the other. The Borders Distillery struck us as first and foremost a distillery, but one set up in such a way as to ensure that visitor can gain the very best understanding of the process by seeing it for themselves. They can also finish their tour in the very attractive tasting room.
A tour of the distillery takes in the two main production areas. The first, the fermentation hall, is a wonderfully bright space illuminated by light pouring in through the extensive coverage of glass panels in the roof. As you enter you can see features such as a crane retained from the building's previous use, and there is also a beautiful model of the distillery, giving a nice overview of the whole process. Much of the space in the fermentation hall is taken up by eight stainless steel washbacks in which the sugary "wort" is fermented to produce an alcoholic "wash" (think of it like making beer). At the far end of the fermentation hall is the large mash tun in which ground malted barley is mashed to produce the "wort" that then flows into the washbacks (think of it like making tea). Nearby you can see down to the AR3000 malt mill, in which malted barley grown in the Scottish Borders is milled down to the right consistency for use in the mash tun. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process.
And then you come to the distillation hall. Once you get past the immediate impact of this glorious space, you can take in some of the detail. There are two large wash stills which distill the wash for a first time, and two large spirit stills, in which the output of the wash stills is distilled for a second time. The output of each still passes through an individual condenser, which turns hot vapour into less-hot liquid. This is then managed, depending on which pair of stills it is from, in either the wash safe or the spirit safe. It is early days yet, but the process has been designed to produce a whisky with strong fruity and floral qualities. Maturation takes place off-site in mainly ex-Bourbon barrels, with some Portuguese red wine and rum casks also used.
An interesting addition to the distillation hall is a tall, thin, gin still. Why gin? It's worth talking about the economics of setting up a distillery at this point. A major problem is that doing so requires a lot of funding, yet once the big money has been spent and production starts, it is three years before the maturing spirit can be legally called (and sold as) Scotch whisky, even for use in blends. And it can be eight or ten or more years before the spirit is likely to be deemed sufficiently matured to be sold as the distillery's single malt Scotch whisky.
This makes setting up a distillery a very long term investment. One way of realising at least a partial return rather sooner, is to use some of the spirit being produced as a starting point for making gin. The great benefit of gin is that it can be sold as soon as it is produced. Many artisan gin producers take as their starting point spirit which has been bought-in, which they then re-distill with botanicals (flavourings, including juniper). We visited when the process was being set up, but very much look forward to being able to sample Borders Gin, entirely produced in the distillery from Borders-grown malted barley, and then redistilled in the same distillation hall with juniper and local botanicals.
It is wonderful to see Scotch whisky production returning to the Scottish Borders after such a long absence. It is even better to see it being done with such love and attention to detail.