In our series of interviews with Scottish independent bottlers, today we chat with Iain Croucher, founder and ‘lider maximo’ of North Star Spirits. A particularly entertaining interview, you’ll see.
How did you fall in love with whisky, how did everything start?
I was 6 years old when I first tried a decent single malt scotch whisky. My dad was sipping a rather large dram after dinner, which of course I thought was apple juice, and I necked the whole glass – Goodnight, Vienna!
It took me a few years for me to revisit straight whisky – but when I did, it was a lightbulb moment. When I left full time education, I realised that I had nothing to speak of in terms of qualifications. This took me into the fascinating and colourful world of bartending. My first bar job was in The Carrick Castle Hotel in 1990. I have vivid memories of the Lochgoilhead regulars drinking 10-year-old Macallan at under £1 per 35cl. I was fascinated by how much enjoyment they got from something so small and what I thought at the time, expensive! Fast forward about 7 years and I was a wine waiter under the watchful eye of Ken Muculloch at Glasgows Malmaison, from here, I came to fully appreciate liquid in all its guises. I can still smell my Cotes Du Rhone soaked apron at the end of a busy Saturday night while sinking my Remy Martin XO staff drink. The logical progression from all these delights led me to single malt Scotch whisky. The first lightbulb moment was a 20-year-old Strathmill from a refill hogshead. The tasting notes on the bottle suggested sherbet and pineapple – I could visualise these tasting notes with each sip, that was it, I was hooked.
North Star is a relatively young company, since you started bottling in 2016, if we’re not wrong. Which are the main issues for a start-up independent bottler, and do you think the business itself has changed since four years ago?
Ahh, yes, in March 2016 I started North Star from the shed at the bottom of our garden with zero investment and £27.67 in my Bank Of Scotland Super Saver Account. The first thing you need to do is surround yourself with good people. I was lucky enough to meet Alastair Currie (Edrington) via Stuart Cassells (Macallan) who agreed some supply. They were very patient with me while I got my WOWGR (Warehousekeepers and Owners of Warehoused Goods Regulations). I was also fortunate to meet David Stirk from Creative Whisky to help me with some supply and the physical bottling of the liquid I chose. I am sure if he had £1 for every question I have texted him over the years, he could happily retire tomorrow.
So to start up as an Independent Bottler, you must have customers and suppliers, the rest you learn as you go, and have as much fun as you can, that shines through to your customers. The business has changed quite rapidly since the start. We celebrate all categories of Scotch, not only single cask, but blended malts and blended scotches. We have developed into the Rum world with the help of old friends The Cuban Brothers – a Breakdance comedy outfit.
Do you source new make spirit or look directly for casks, and do you usually work with brokers, distilleries or private owners?
Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes, but supply is a closely guarded secret you cheeky monkey!
What are you looking for in a cask, before deciding you’re going to bottle it? How would you describe the philosophy of North Star as an independent bottler?
I have mentioned before in other interviews that whiskies must act as a time machine to me. Nosing a whisky that takes you back to a time you may have long forgotten. Recently, I bottled a cask of whisky from Campbeltown. When I opened the cask for the first time, it was that wonderful ‘cold rain on hot tarmac’ smell; this then reminded me of walking down Ferry Brae in Dunoon with my Gran when I was 8…. That’s what I call an attractive whisky.
We’ve seen North has bottled a wide great range of different casks… Do you have any particular cask that is resting in your warehouse that you have great expectations on?
Oh yes, I have some belters! I am actually just back from the warehouse checking on a cask of Clynelish which has been re-racked in a Portuguese brandy cask – holy smoke, its ready and coming soon! I have some older Springbanks, which I am very excited about. They need absolutely no re racking or messing about with. There are some other gallus nuggets which I will let you know about another time.
You have been reracking some casks and you’ve done some finishings in your releases, in order to get new flavour profiles; how much can a cask impact on a whisky, and what do you think of the practice of reracking?
I love a bit of re-racking, it allows me to add to the process of the final product. Many times I have a bought a cask, opened it to find it delicious with a good yield and ABV, but perhaps a little white wine in colour with something a little more required. To be re-racked in an active sherry cask ticks that box. Pedro Ximénez is a great fortified wine for next-to-immediate results for colour. Although the colour is immediate, one must still own a certain amount of patience – a rushed re rack does not go un-noticed with the educated consumer. With patience in mind, Oloroso sherry is my favourite to work with. Although patience is a virtue, too much time in a sherry cask can take away from the distillery character. So, there is a fine line of too little too soon, too much too late. On the plus side, there is a lot of sampling required, huzzah.
I have developed the re racking programme to the point I am purchasing IBC’s (1000 litres drums) of PX and Oloroso direct from Spain and seasoning my own virgin oak; another part of the process of the final product I can hold my hands up to. Also, there is a lovely by- product from this procedure – sh*t loads of sherry, which come Christmas, my Dad rubs his hands in delight.
You released quite a few blended malts in the last years: we know that many whisky lovers are prevented towards this category, and yet your bottlings were welcomed by the market. What can you tell us about blended malts, as a category? Are you playing with blending (which is one of most fascinating jobs in the industry btw) or are you sourcing casks of blended malts?
Yes, we’ve had some creative fun with our blended malt ranges. It’s a wonderful category of Scotch, I adore it. Blending malt whisky is a very talented job which I must refrain from. I purchase already matured and blended liquid. Talented people like Kirsteen Campbell from Edrington own the skill set to blend single malts together to create liquid that is unique.
Which are your favourite “hidden” distilleries, that aren’t so famous but do produce a great spirit?
Until quite recently, North Star Spirits did its physical bottling at Adelphi’s warehouse in Dunfermline. Knowing Alex Bruce for many years has been great and getting to know his Ardnamurchan Spirit was one of the highlights along with his great banter. Their first single malt release is beyond exciting, I am very much looking forward to seeing this hit the shelves and no doubt win many awards. Also, The Thomson Bros have a very slick operation up in Dornoch. Everything these lads do, seems to be done very well. I am looking forward to tasting their first run.
Which are your three best whiskies ever, that you’d bring with you on a desert island?
#1 Macallan 1926, not for the quality or taste, but with the ridiculous auction price, I may be able to swop the bottle for a fast and seaworthy vessel with the local chieftain to get up the road
#2 Orkney Island’s God of Thunder “Thor”, again, not for quality or taste, but should the negotiations fall flat with the chieftain, I may be able to fashion a canoe from the packaging
#3 North Star Spirits 30yo Bunnahabhain. A wee bit of tropical goodness to enjoy before my sail home
Thanks very much for having me on Whisky Facile!