The 2010s were a heady time for the Scotch Whisky Industry. With global demand for single malt booming, more new distilleries opened in that decade than any other since the 1890s. Though on current trend, the 2020s might give them a run for their money.
One of the first of these new waves of distilleries to open was Wolfburn, whose stills ran with spirit for the first time on Robbie Burns Day, 2013.
Wolfburn was established in Thurso, the northernmost mainland town in Scotland, which looks across the tempestuous Pentland Firth towards the Orkney Islands. An earlier distillery, also known as Wolfburn, operated a few hundred meters from the site of the current distillery between 1820 and around 1837, Nothing remains of it today, save for a sad pile of stones. Both distilleries took their name from the Wolf Burn, their water source.
Wolves used to be common in Scotland, especially in Caithness and the northern Highlands. Even though the last of the creatures were killed off centuries ago, their legacy continued in local culture and place names. Wolfburn’s emblem is inspired by a sketch of a wolf from the 1600s, when they were more common. A sighting of the related, mythical sea-wolf was believed to bring good luck to those who saw it.
It is no easy thing to open a new distillery, and it is not for the faint of heart or those with shallow pockets. As I have noted more than a few times over the years in this column, starting a whisky distillery from scratch is a daunting and expensive undertaking. The startup costs to build or repurpose a building and kit it out can be substantial. But the bigger challenge is operating the distillery and laying down production for years without income, while waiting for the spirit to mature.
In Scotland, as in most of the world, the spirit must have matured at least 3 years in an oak cask before you can legally call it whisky.
And that is just the bare minimum – few established distilleries bottle anything under 10 years of age. And while there have been exceptions, there are few 3-year-old whiskies worth writing home about. Many new distilleries have released gins or spirit drinks to help pay the bills, while others, including Wolfburn, have sold cask futures to help with their operating costs.
Wolfburn Distillery was financed and built by the Caithness-based Aurora Brewing consortium. In 2011, after locating the old distillery site, they began negotiating the purchase of a flat piece of nearby land with access to the Wolf Burn. The land sale was finalized in May of 2012, and construction on the site began in August of that year. The fact that they were already laying down spirit by January, 2013 is almost hard to fathom.
Wolfburn is one of Scotland’s smallest distilleries, producing just 135,000 liters of spirit per annum. By way of comparison, Glenlivet and Glenfiddich each produce more than 50,000 liters every day. Most of the roughly 30-odd distilleries to open in the last two decades have also been relatively small, catering their production towards the growing demand for single malt Scotch whisky, as opposed to blends. Most of Wolfburn’s production is unpeated, but they also distill a lightly peated spirit.
The distillery has an established core range of expressions, including peated and unpeated offerings, all of which are at least 46%, without added colouring or chill filtration. Wolfburn hit a significant milestone in 2023, with the release of their first 10-year-old single malt. Although the 10 Year will be a continuously available expression, the first release will be limited in distribution.
Wolfburn offers tours Monday-Friday, and visitors are encouraged to book ahead. The distillery is rather remote, even by Scottish standards, unless you are driving the North Coast 500 (a route circling the Northern Highlands), or trying to catch a ferry to the Orkneys, I i’s likely going to be a bit out of your way. This is a part of Scotland few people see, but it is worth the effort. The coastlines are stunning, and the winding roads are invigorating. And who knows, maybe you’ll even catch sight of a sea-wolf!