Ian Buxton talks to Burn Stewart’s master blender Ian MacMillan about the new moves at Deanston.
To be honest, it’s not a distillery we hear very much about.
To be blunt, that’s for the very good reason that—until quite recently—there wasn’t that much to talk about. Though the original buildings date back to 1785 (when it was a cotton mill, powered by the River Teith) it was only converted to a distillery in 1965. The whisky was, well, nothing to write home about.
It’s been in the Burn Stewart portfolio since 1990, when they bought it from Invergordon. Production was restarted the following year. For most of its life under the previous management, it was churning out quantities of humdrum malt, all destined for blends, generally at no great age. For a while that carried on as Burn Stewart built their Scottish Leader brand, and the consequence of that was that any single malts that were released were a little less than exciting. Poor old Deanston hardly excited anyone.
But, behind the scenes, things were slowly changing. Burn Stewart’s master blender Ian MacMillan—a traditional, “came up the hard way” whisky man if ever I met one—was quietly taking Deanston back to its roots and making a Perthshire style of whisky.
Now this isn’t something you hear about very much, but Perthshire was once a major distilling center. Where today there are just 6 distilleries, go back to the 19th Century and over 140 separate operations flourished in the “Big County,” as it’s known. The Perthshire style was distinct: slightly sweet, fruity, and full of heather honey notes. The Dewar brothers built their first distillery there and today Aberfeldy is probably the last prominent exponent of this style. You’ll find it at the heart of the Dewar’s blends—softer, more rounded and slightly sweeter than many—and in their signature Aberfeldy single malt.
So, without copying Aberfeldy (what would be the point?), Ian determined to bring some history back into Deanston. Despite the growth of Scottish Leader, he persuaded his marketing and sales colleagues to hold back some of this spirit until it was fully mature and, at last, showing what the distillery can really do.
I rate it one of the most improved whiskies I’ve drunk in recent years. But even that hadn’t prepared me for the range of special releases that Ian showed at a recent tasting and which are now exclusively available to visitors to the distillery. (In passing, I’ll mention that around $1 million has been spent on visitor facilities, which are just celebrating their first birthday. If you can make the trip, you’ll be glad that you did.)
After trying the sweet, fresh, waxy new make we tasted the 15 year old Toasted Oak expression—690 bottles from eight different bourbon barrels, an experiment with four different levels of char and toast, all vatted to finish in four hogsheads. At 56.0% ABV, non-chill filtered and naturally colored, it exploded in the mouth to reveal exceptionally rich and dark flavors reminiscent of single estate rum.
This was followed by the Spanish Oak expression (57.4% ABV, 11 year old) which had aged in very old oloroso sherry casks before being finished in a Spanish oak cask used for Gonzalez Byass’ La Panto brandy. This massive whisky, totally unexpected for Deanston, held layers of burnt sugar; ripe fruits; nuts; caramel and dark fruit cake flavors that kept arriving in wave after wave of intense taste explosions. Bad news: there was only a single butt and the stock is going fast.
However, do not despair. Coming soon is the Virgin Oak expression which may enjoy wider availability. A vatting of 6, 8, and 10 year old Deanston is finished for just a few weeks in brand new American oak from Kentucky, and tantalizes with a spicy hit, followed by that underlying Perthshire sweetness that’s fast becoming a distillery signature.
Now Deanston and Burn Stewart have new owners. Having been packaged off by the Trinidadian Government, where the parent CL Financial group ended up in 2008, Burn Stewart is now owned by Distell of South Africa, who recently paid £160 million (around $240 million) for the distillery and its two sisters, Tobermory and Bunnahabhain. Distell are known for their South African brandies and their Three Ships brand of SA whiskies.
Though the two companies have known each other for some years—they have a joint venture in Africa—this is a significant structural move. So what does the future hold?
Everyone I spoke to was positive, both on and off the record. The company’s head of marketing, John Alden, spoke of new opportunities in new markets and the potential for Burn Stewart to grow now that it has strong and stable financial backing.
If anything, Ian MacMillan was even more positive. He welcomed the changes and the fact that control now lies with distilling people rather than financiers. I mentioned, in a good way, that he was a traditionalist. “It’s the people who make whisky what it is,” he insisted, “not computers, and their personal idiosyncrasies are reflected in its personality and character. It’s made to drink.”
He’s been making whisky you want to drink for some years now. Only today is it emerging into the light. I urge you to try some of the ‘new’ Deanston. It’s a major step up for this hitherto largely anonymous distillery, but if you try some you’ll realize why you’ll soon be hearing more about it.