Back in January I ended up at a tasting at Alo Salon in Toronto and I had the very opportune chance to interview Mr. Andy Chu who came all the way from the Dornoch, Scotland to lead this tasting for us. Andy is the bar manager for the Dornoch Castle Hotel Whisky Bar, a member of Scotland’s independent whisky bars. Dornoch Castle Hotel was also named whiskybase.com’s #1 whisky hotel along with the title of whisky bar of the year multiple times over the past decade. Outside of his role managing the whisky bar at Dornoch Castle Hotel, Andy is also a distillery operator who works alongside brothers Phil and Simon Thompson (who also release independent bottlings of whisky, rum and other spirits under the Thompson Brothers label) at the Dornoch Distillery. So I am very thankful that Andy allowed me to ask him more about the distillery and his experiences in the world of whisky!
So outside of working as the manager of the Dornoch Castle Whisky Bar you’ve said that you’ve been doing some work for the Dornoch Distillery. What kind of work have you done in the distillery?
My weekly schedule at Dornoch Castle is centered around managing the bar and also on a day off I’ll work in the distillery. The distillery is very much a micro-distillery, it has only 4-5 members working and we do everything from moving barley to doing mashing to watching the fire for distillation to doing the cut point which we do by sense as every barley spirit is different. We use open top oak washbacks for fermentation and ferment for at least 7 days, compared to the 120 hours used at Oban and at Ben Nevis before the 2000s.
The first 3 days are all sugar concentration. After the 4th or 5th days of fermentation the bacteria attacks the juice, which is a good thing. The beer starts turning sour when the yeast is consumed and then, at the end of fermentation, the bacteria will eat up all the acids to create esters. Those esters carry over into distillation which is why the cut points are very different. This year we used spent brewer’s yeast which lets us catch the less active products which contain more acids. This is a much less efficient process, but the end product is much nicer.
Of the usual distillation, how much of the run would you say would be your heart?
The head cut is around 75% with the tail cut being about 66% with the latest being 64% as we want the oil but don’t want to go too low so we can keep a clean and fruity distillate. At the moment we use more refill bourbon barrels and a couple (19 to be exact) of ex-solera sherry casks because we want to use the real sherry casks then just the re-use ones. We are currently waiting for the results from these casks which will take a bit more time!
Any specific sherry types that Dornoch has been using so far?
We have one cream sherry butt with the rest being mainly Oloroso and Pedro Ximenez sourced from an organic sherry bodega.
What kind of barrel experimentation has Dornoch been doing outside of sherry?
The thing is that we cant really answer that question as we’re just 3 years old. We’re at the stage where we’re trying to create good new make. Every month we try new maturations because every barrel will give a unique profile. The first batch of production is mostly aging in 50 L barrels/ We still think that our spirit is “not good” and we’re punching ourselves over it, but now in the last month the recent batches have put a smile on our face!
So would you say that you’re more focused on honing the quality of the spirit before worrying about cask experiments?
We do worry! Every part of the process is an important factor. From the brewing, from the fermentation, from the distillation and from the maturation. All are important. We’re just 3 years old and we are learning. We have a great opportunity to try a lot of old school whisky, but no matter how much we try we’re still very much learning as we’re running the distillery. The collection at the bar is quite impressive as we get stuff from the 2000s, not the 2010s. Dornoch can pour whisky such as Rare Malts Selection bottlings from the old DCL (now Diageo) and charge £9 a dram when, if they were bought today at current market value, they’d go for a lot more. Now you can’t see anything under $30 or even $40 a dram!
So when Dornoch has something that’s got 5, 10, 15 years under the belt will they be trying to bring it to the Ontario market?
The Canadian market is very hard. We tried with the Thompson Brothers independent bottling, but I cant speak for Simon and Phil.
Out of all of Scotland, how did you end up in Dornoch?
When you want to learn about the best whisky place you want to learn at the best whisky bars. I have a bartending background so it was a great opportunity. I noticed a job opening for bar manager at Dornoch Castle and I applied right away. Speaking to Phil and Simon Thompson they were very happy to accept me up there. Dornoch is a small town with just 3 or 4 pubs, they’re very small. The people there are very nice and the collection is outstanding. They have a great opportunity to find good whisky without being dominated by quantity. Dornoch also gets a lot of tourists as we’re close to the Royal Dornoch Golf Course, one of the most famous golf courses in the world. We get a lot of travelers and tourists who love to drink whisky in their time off as well so that’s whats great.
So it made a lot of sense for the owners to have bought the castle all that time ago?
Well the castle has only been owned by the Thompson family for 20 years. In a couple months we’ll be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the hotel. We’ll also be releasing an exciting bottling for the celebration as well!
Any hints that you can give us on that one? Maybe a letter and a number?
I can tell you that the distillery starts with an “H.” For number…I’m not so big on numbers! It will be an official bottling though, kind of like our Whisky Bars of Scotland single cask bottling of Chichibu whisky.
So the only other question I wanted to ask…out of the many bottles that you’ve had the chance to try, what is a bottle that you’ve tried that hits that “special place” for you?
In my time there have been a couple whiskies that have really blown my mind. For example…Bowmore from the ’60s…such as a 1966 and 1968 vintage from Duncan Taylor. A couple of Diageo products…Oban Manager’s Drams 200th Anniversary bottle which is a sherried Oban!
I don’t really enjoy dark sherry, but I believe that dark sherry is like a sports car. If you make it good, it’s bloody amazing. There’s a lot of gimmicky sherry casks, but it’s the reason why a sherry cask is sherry cask. Once in a while you get a really amazing sherried whisky.
Prestonfield is a really good bottler, which is an old Signatory Vintage bottling. The old Clynelish and Brora is amazing whisky, the more I try the more I really enjoy it.
Hopefully we’ll see you back in Toronto soon so we can treat you to some whisky then! Thanks for letting us talk to you!
It was a great pleasure!
You can follow Andy on instagram @idiot_chu and can find more about Dornoch Distillery, Thompson Brothers Organic Gin and Thompson Brothers independent bottlings at thompsonbrosdistillers.com, more about Dornoch Castle Hotel and Whisky Bar at dornochcastlehotel.com and about the annual Dornoch Whisky Festival at dornochwhiskyfestival.com.
(Note: The header image used in this review are taken from Dornoch Castle Hotel’s website. All images are owned by their respective creators.)