A SCOTSMAN MAKES AMERICAN SINGLE MALT WHISKY
THE AMAZING JOURNEY OF SHANE FRASER
Master Distiller Shane Fraser in front of a copper pot still at Tenmile Distillery
Hang around a whisky distiller for any length of time and you start to realize there is, well, something truly unique about these individuals that is hard to nail down. In Dead Distillers, Colin Spoelman writes: "Though disparate in historical and geographical circumstance, these distillers often share common traits: humble beginnings, fierce industriousness, ostracism from prevailing society, personal reinvention, a propensity for exaggeration, a contrarian spirit, indomitable energy, superstition, social insecurity, and a surprisingly common affinity for fast horses."
Shane Fraser would no doubt have a good laugh at this.While he hails from Scotland and literally grew up in the whisky trade there, many of the above characteristics fit him to a tee. I never asked him if he liked fast horses, but we certainly covered some serious terrain at a good clip, in our wide ranging conversation about his fascinating career, his Scottish palate, and the exciting work he is doing making American Single Malt whisky at Tenmile Distillery in Wassaic, New York.
BST: So Shane, you must feel like the stars have aligned really nicely right now for you because of the American Single Malt category being officially recognized.
SF: Yeah, I think it's a great, great place to be. You know, there is some great product being made, and I think it's great that there is finally an actual category, you know? Now it's got true meaning. It's very similar to the Scottish kind of situation, as well, but a wee bit different. It's certainly making progress, and hopefully it will promote the product more, and kind of highlight it... There are a few distilleries making really good products over here, and it'll help other distilleries to make them as well, you know?
BST: Absolutely... To my knowledge, and correct me if I'm wrong, but I think you are likely the only Scottish distiller in the U.S making American Single Malt?
SF: I think so, too!
BST: Well, (American Single Malt) is a super exciting category, and I will get to all the great things you are doing now at Tenmile Distillery, but first, can you walk me through your career? I did a bit of a deep dive into your story and am amazed by your trajectory: You started out in Scotland working for a really big spirits company, Diageo, yes?
SF: Yeah yeah, Diageo
BST: You were at Oban, and over the next decade or so, kind of worked your way towards being in a leadership position at Wolfburn, a craft distillery, which is unusual: I mean most people go in the opposite direction, from small to big.
SF: Well, I'm not your usual person (laughs) so I like to do things differently.
BST: What was your first job in Scotland?
SF: At Lochnagar. I was doing tours in the summertime.
BST: How old were you then?
BST : Really? So you were just a kid when you started in the whisky industry..
SF: Yeah, it was a summer job just to make money. And then in September of that year, in 1990, I was going to go to college to do some kind of course study; I can't remember what it was, and the distillery manager at the time offered me a full time role in the distillery.
BST: So, a full time role in production?
SF: No, I was basically a distillery laborer, I was called. Repairing casks, sweeping the yard, things like that.
BST: Starting at the bottom of the totem pole, right. So you liked that and obviously enjoyed the environment!
SF: Yeah, it was really good. It was a good way of learning how to work properly. Another gentleman and I started at the same time, around the same age, and worked our way over to the production side of things eventually...the older individuals eventually retired and also we would start covering shifts if they were on holiday...
BST: What time period are we talking about here?
SF: So I was there for fourteen years. So from 1990 to 2004.
BST: Oh wow, that's a really long time. You really grew into your manhood there, and that's where you cut your teeth...
Shane in Scotland
SF: Yeah, it was a really great place to work because you learned every aspect of the business, not just, you know, the laboring stuff, but also going behind the scenes and learning how things were sold and how they were categorized, and doing the business end of it.
BST: That's a big deal.. So, were they owned by Diageo at that time, or was that later?
SF: I think Diageo was about 1998 or 1999. When it was first started it was under United Malt and Grain Distillers, which was part of Guinness...
BST: ...So, a lot of changes happening in the Scottish distilling industry, and that continued when you went to Glenfarclas...
SF: You know, after working at Lochnagar, I went to Oban for a two and a half year stint, and got to learn different ways of working, in a different distillery. I got a bit more responsibility... And then the opportunity came across for me to become the Production Manager at Glenfarclas, and I couldn't refuse it.
BST: They were under J. and G. Grant?
SF: They were a family run business that's had the company....I was there from 2007 to 2012.
BST: Did you intend to go into this business as a young man, or did you just sort of fall into it because there was so much opportunity in Scotland?
SF: I think I just fell into it and really enjoyed it: I enjoyed the way people worked, and everyone got on fairly well together...and most distilleries in Scotland were very kind of small teams, you know. So when I first started out at Lochnagar, I knew everyone there, basically. And then you grow as a person and want to experience different things... So that's why I went to Oban....and I had a young family by then, so we thought, we'll go and experience another part of Scotland.... After Glenfarclas, I went to Wolfburn.
BST: So Interesting! Can you tell me a little more about them? Sounds like their story is amazing, being located in the Northern most part of Scotland, across from Scandinavia.
Wolfburn is the northernmost distillery on the Scottish mainland. It was originally built in 1821 but had to close again in the course of the 19th century and today only ruins of the old complex remain. In 2011, a new distillery was built not far from the ruins and in the meantime the production volume has returned to the same level as in the 19th century. The logo features a wolf, whose related mythical creature, the so-called 'sea wolf', is said to bring good luck to all those who set eyes on it. In the 16th century, when the drawing for the Wolfburn logo was made, there were plenty of wolves in the area.
The rebuilt Wolfburn Distillery in Thurso, Caithness in Scotland
Hard at Work in his new role at Wolfburn
SF: From the time I moved up there in 2012, the new building had been built, and I was there for all the installation part of it, etcetera, and for the start up...Wolfburn was actually an old distillery that had been brought back to life...and the original distillery is now about 250 yards away from the original one.
SF: It was one of the main producers of whisky in Caithness, as well, and has just been going from strength to strength since we got everything going. I think it was in January of 2013 that we started production, and the aim was, I was basically told by the owners to make whisky that would be ready in three or four years time. So,I was like, I can do that! (Laughs)
BST: Shane, prior to that time, had you worked with peating?
SF: No, never before.
BST: Oh, truths revealed! (laughter). It's my understanding that Wolfburn is in this part of Scotland where there is one of the largest expanses of blanket peat in Europe, and maybe the world, ...so obviously Wolfburn would have taken advantage of that..
SF: Where we were at the distillery, we didn't do any of our own malting. It was all contracted out to the bigger malting companies...we didn't actually have room where the distillery was built to have actual malting done onsite...and Caithness is not a great area for growing malted barley,(laughs) so we would have to have had it shipped up... and really, with a start up distillery, a lot of it comes down to cost, and how much there is there to work with.
BST: Right, right. So you were the distillery manager at Wolfburn..how long were you there, and what were the initial whiskys that you laid down like?
SF: So our initial thoughts were to do things in a really, really traditional way, sort of like what I'm doing now, with everything done nice and slow. The mashings, nice and slow, clear wort, the fermentations were the maximum we could do at Wolfburn for the production targets that we had..the fermentations were averaging about eighty hours, and we did pretty slow distillation as well.
BST: And you were there for how long?
SF: From 2012 to 2019, so seven years.
BST: So here comes the big question. Your'e working in this incredible distillery, your career is going amazingly well, and your'e in a great place. How did Tenmile Distillery come into your life? How did they approach you? Tell me about that process.
SF: Well, I have worked in the industry for what would be 32 years this year, so in 2018 I had been in the industry making single malt Highland whisky in Scotland for 28 years. So I'd been there all my life and thought why not look elsewhere in the world and try to go take my skills somewhere else...and see i I can make good whisky in a different culture?
BST: Were you thinking about doing it in the U.S?
SF: I'd actually had offers from further afield..there was one over in the far East to do a single malt..but I was like..that's a bit too far away..(laughs)
BST: Yeah, that's a bit of a stretch. So how did you and John Dyson (owner at Tenmile Distillery) connect?
SF: I sent in an application for the role. He had an advert on Indeed.
BST: Oh Really!.So the ad said they were looking for a Scottish distiller to do their American Single Malt?
SF: Yes, because John Dyson's family comes from Scottish roots: They came from Aberfeldy... and he wanted to show off his Scottish roots.
BST: What great timing for you! So what was your first meeting with John Dyson like? It must have been really exciting when you first heard about his mission...and heard about their story.
SF: Well, I landed in New York and Joel ( Tenmile distillery manager and co-owner Joel LeVangia) met me off the plane. We came up to the farm the next day and John was there and we went through what their vision was and the type of equipment they were getting. We sat down in a stable and discussed alot of things, and we just seemed to hit it off really well...I sussed them out, and they sussed me out.
The Tenmile Distillery
BST: Right.. it's a really exciting story because it was their first venture into the whisky making business, and John Dyson has had this noted career in wine, but also the agricultural sector of the US. So it must be appealing to you to work with a company owner that knows abut farming....because in the old days in this country, most farmers in America were also distillers. They had to be because they had this excess grain at the end of the season, which they turned into whisky, because it was a marketable commodity. A "liquid asset" they could trade with.
SF: Same in Scotland as well..exactly the same idea in Scotland. They would farm in the summer and distill in the winter.
BST: Exactly. So a lot of similarities there...
SF: Yeah, I think it's really good the way we work together at Tenmile. We've got one main grower who grows our malted barley at Migliorelli Farms.. We've also got a few other farms that we have to spread the risk sometimes because if one crop fails, then we wouldn't have any malted barley to produce. I think we've got around two to three large growers and then we've got a few smaller farms that we use. And we've been doing a lot of work trying to develop new varieties that will suit the New York climate. Through Ken ( of Migliorelli Farms) and through Cornell, we've been doing a lot of trial malts this year that have been harvested...and if that's successful they'll go forward next year, grow some more barley and see how it does..it will take a few years to become proper malting barley, but at this stage it looks good!
BST: That's wonderful! So, can we talk barrels? I think, if I am not mistaken, that you guys are using barrels from John Dyson's winery?
Shane unlocking the barrelhouse door
"Little Rest" whisky maturing in different cask finishes
SF: The one in California, yeah...we're using the used Pinot Noir French Oak barrels.
BST: So was that the first juice you laid down, and had you ever worked with those kind of barrels?
SF: No, I had never worked with those before...in Scotland, to be honest, they don't do a lot of wine casks but it's coming in a lot now..
BST: Was that a challenge for you?
SF: (Laughs) Yeah, I was wary because I was good friends with a cooperage owner in Scotland and he said a red wine cask can produce alot of scaliness on the inside so that the liquid doesn't get to the actual wood to mature.
SF: ..but because John's casks were lightly toasted and charred, and it was a light Pinot Noir, so there was none of that, you know, (scaliness) compared with some of the heavy French wines and stuff like that.
BST: Interesting! So how much of that initial run, that batch.. did you lay down?
SF: I think the first two or three weeks of our production was 20 casks of the Pinot Noir.
BST: 53 Gallon Casks?
SF: Yes,well, I go in liters, so 225 to 228 liter barrels.
BST: So those made up the 2023 release barrels?
SF: All of those, along with some ex Jack Daniels barrels
BST: Oh! Okay! So exciting!
SF: We actually visited a cask broker down in, near the Jack Daniels distillery (In Tennessee). We actually got the casks really fresh! They were basically emptied one day and then taken to the broker the next, so we got them within probably a week or so, fresh.
BST: Oh wow. So it's part Pinot Noir and and part super fresh Jack Daniels barrels. Very cool. I'm so excited for you, Shane! You seem to be hitting all the right marks and it's happening at the right moment...doing things that are handcrafted...doing things like taking alot of time for the fermentations and distillations on these beautiful pot stills. So I guess my next question is about your Scottish Palate. Your'e in the US, making single malt whisky with New York state grain and American barrels, and it's a whole new thing for you. Have you tried some of the other American Single Malts, and if so, what do you think of them? I mean, I have my favorites, and I'm so thrilled about the category, but I'm not going to throw them out there until I hear from you first...
SF: I've tried a few of them, and let me jut say..
BST (Laughs) Be honest!
SF: They're different! (Laughs) There are a couple distilleries doing really great stuff..
BST: So who do you think is unusual and doing something special..
SF: I think Leopold Brothers are doing great things
SF: And Westland.. they are probably the only two that I would say..
BST: Have you tried Balcones?
SF: I have.
BST: And your'e not a fan?
SF: Well, No. (Laughs) It's just my taste..
BST: Of course, of course. At the end of the day, that's the beauty of it. Your palate is unique to you. And America is so, so big, and the whiskies are so regional. The air and the water and the climate are so different from state to state, and those components can all be expressed through the single malt whisky... and then you factor in the types of barrels and the grain and things like that. So I'm curious about your long term vision, and would you look into doing peated whiskies? And how would that work?
SF: We've had preliminary discussions with our maltster about that. But there's not alot of Peat in NY State! (Laughs) We have discussed doing like a wood smoked malt, like an Applewood or something..
BST: Yeah, like what they're doing at Del Bac with the Mesquite smoked malt..
FS: Yeah, but really, if I was going to do a smoked whisky it would be very, very light. Because, well, you've tasted our new make and it is really quite delicate...alot of fruit and that in there. If you added too much smoke you wouldn't taste anything.
BST: Right, my vision for a peated whisky done by you would be more towards the Caol Ila (Islay whisky)
SF: Nah... (Laughing)
BST: Not something super, super light like that?
SF: Caol Ila is not to me, super light..(laughing) Light to me is just a whisp of smoke... I don't know if you've ever tasted the first edition that came from Wolfburn called "The Northland". You should really try it... It was matured in ex Laphroaig casks.
SF: It was matured in quarter casks that had the smoke in them from the peated whisky.
BST: Oh, that's really interesting! I didn't realize that Scottish distillers used ex Scottish casks. I thought it was mostly ex Bourbon casks...
SF:Yes! And they were quarter casks, so about 25 gallons.
BST: So more contact with the wood...
SF: And it won the first double gold awards I had...It was a Highland style whiskey so not too smoky, and that's the kind that, if you taste it, you'll see what kind of smoke I want in a whisky. (laughs)
BST: And your palate is obviously towards the lighter, fruitier style
BST: And I got a floral note when I tasted your whisky that one time..
SF: Yeah, definitely that's the kind of spirit I want to produce. I could produce different spirits if I wanted to but to be consistent, and have the same qualities all the time, that's what I want to be known for, you know.'
BST: Did you design the Forsyths stills that you use, with those upward lyne arms?
The two Forsyths Beauties
SF: Yeah, it was funny, you know, Joel, the project manager had already done a deep dive into my background like you've done with me! And he had done the same when I applied for the job, and looked into producing a still with upward lyne arms which I had said in a few interviews when I was at Wolfburn that..the lyne arms going way up was to get a lighter spirit... So we had a discussion about that and we got Forsythes to do that and actually extended them..made them longer.
So the potstill at Tenmile have lyne arms almost six feet longer than they should be. When you come back, I'll show you the holes in the ceiling that we had to cut to make room!
BST: So how are the barrels that you've been tasting so far tasting to you?
SF: They're coming on really, really well. We made up a kind of sample of what we think our first release will be..it's only at two and a half years but tastes a lot older than it actually is, and coming along really nicely.. both types of casks are maturing very well and very consistent with what I expected.
BST: So can you talk a little bit about the game plan for Tenmile and Little Rest and what the plan is for the release?
SF: I think the initial plan is to release them in mid April of next year (2023), for the inaugural bottling.
BST: ...and to what markets?
SF: It's just to the U.S, mainly New York state at the moment..
BST: Both on and off premise?
SF: Well it's just going to be onsite.. you'll have to basically come to the site..it's like a whisky club where you do a subscription..
SF: Similar to what John does with his winery in California..the William Selyem winery has a wine list and you buy onto a spot on the list and you will buy say, bottle number ten..
BST: Got it,and is there a bigger vision for that, or..
SF: Well they're trying to sell up to 6000 bottles for the first release...we're getting there but we'll see how we get on...
BST: And how is your onsite tour program going?
SF: It's busier on weekends when there's a bit more foot traffic..We're open Wednesday through Sunday from 12-5.and you dont need to book an appointment: you can just walk in and get a walk round and a tasting. So steady but not busy, yet. so we''ve been trying to do a few events to encourage people to come to the site.
BST: And how are your gin and vodka sales going?..and by the way, they are so beautifully done.I'm a pretty whisky focused person but I thought both those products were magnificent.
SF: The gin is outselling the vodka.. Onsite they sell about equally but out in the liqour stores in Duchess County the gin does better..
BST: And you've done those spirits before and have experience in making a botanical gin?
SF: I've never done that in my life.
BST: I'm shocked, it's so good! (Laughing) So did they ask you to produce a gin first and what was your process with that..did you research into local botanicals..what was that like?
SF: Basically the first year of production which was 2020 we did some whisky to start and then changed to neutral grain spirits runs so then we could do small trials for making the gin. We used some of the botanicals from the garden like our mint and lemon balm and bought some...
BST: And who was getting the herbs..did you hire a forager?
SF: (Laughs) No, it was just me and Cole, my assistant, and we just tried different things, we just went out and said we'll try this and then this...we did about six or seven recipes..some were good and some weren't so good. We found that our spirit didnt go very well with coriander seeds, we found it quite acrid, so we whittled it down to two recipes, tweaked them a wee bit, and then settled on the recipe we have now.
BST: So Shane, what are your dreams for the single malt and what sort of iterations are you thinking of for that spirit? Are you going to put more focus on barrel finishes or do you have any plans to do any other categories like Rye?
SF: No, I think our full focus is going to be on making good single malt whisky, and making the best single malt in America.
BST: I think that's wise...
SF: I do think I will dabble with different casks.I may fill some ex rum casks, maybe some tequila casks..We have some sherry casks from Spain in the warehouse now. So barrel finishes and single cask releases, different releases of barrels we like married together and so forth.. I think that's the way to go forward, so your'e not confusing yourself...
BST: Well, Shane Thank You so much for your time..I'm super excited about what you're doing and looking forward to watching what you do and how your Scottish palate will translate into making these American whiskies, and I think that's something people will keep their eye on for a long time to come.
SF: It should be a lot of fun!
The beautiful entrance to the tasting room at Tenmile Distillery
To sign up for a bottle of Shane's first American Single Malt, the Little Rest, being released for the first time in April of 2023, please go to: https://www.tenmiledistillery.com/tenmile-distillery-spirits
The Tenmile Distillery is open for tours and tastings at its' stunning facility Wednesday through Sunday from noon to five. Book tickets here: https://www.tenmiledistillery.com/product/tenmile-distillery-tour/
For photo credits please contact Barrel Strength Talent