TWO years is not an overly long time in the licensed trade, but the brothers behind the whisky bar at Dornoch Castle Hotel have managed to achieve a lot in that timescale.
After picking up SLTN’s Whisky Bar award in 2014 the pair behind the Highland venue, Philip and Simon Thompson, were not content to rest on their laurels – and it’s shown, with the venue named SLTN Whisky Bar of the Year for 2016, in association with Glenfiddich, in November.
The biggest change at Dornoch Castle Hotel is the launch of a micro-distillery at the site, which will see the brothers produce their own whisky and gin.
Spirits production is now underway at the site which, after gaining its licence, fired up the still in December.
Like everything else at the hotel, Philip and Simon insist that the focus for their spirits venture will be on quality, with no corners cut.
There’s a lot more flavour to be had when you’ve got full control.
“I think it’s an element that’s quite important to us; we’re very keen to make our spirits from scratch,” said Philip.
“It’s a ton more work but if you’re going to do it, do it properly.
“There’s a lot more flavour to be had when you’ve got full control over the process. It gives you a lot more control.”
Support for Dornoch Castle Hotel’s latest venture was not in short supply. Finance for the micro-distillery was sourced through a crowdfunding campaign which attracted more than £200,000 in investment.
These same investors will be consulted on the makeup of the first release.
While investors will need to wait three years for their first sip of whisky from the still, Philip and Simon plan to release a gin this spring, and they’ve opted to give their investors a say in the flavour profile.
To create the first gin, Philip and Simon have sent samples of ten different botanical blends to their investors, inviting comments on which flavours work best. From there, the brothers will work to create a botanical blend which best matches the taste of their investors.
“For us it’s so important we look after these people, we’re quite humbled by that,” said Philip.
The whisky will be a bit more of a wait, with the pair committed to releasing both a three year old and five year old expression as well as seeing how much stock they can sit on for more mature releases down the years.
Whisky has also kept Philip and Simon’s passports well stamped over the last few years as the pair have acted as ambassadors for the national drink and their hotel.
Dornoch Castle Hotel has been represented by the Thompsons as far away as Tokyo, which is a long journey but one worth making, according to Simon.
“It’s quite respectful to go see these customers,” he said. “It’s not cheap for them to come from Japan.”
With other international duties including a whisky festival in Rotterdam, the hotel gets its name out there, which has been good at building an international customer base.
“It’s absolutely fantastic – we’ve been featured in a few Japanese books as well as German and Dutch magazines,” said Philip.
If you have passion and love for something it doesn’t become a chore.
When they’re not distilling their own spirits and travelling the world, the brothers have a busy whisky bar and hotel to run.
SLTN Awards judges were impressed by Dornoch Castle Hotel’s extensive range of whisky, with its focus on quality and rarity, as well as the breadth and depth of knowledge on display from both Philip and Simon and their staff.
Passion is the secret to this success, according to Simon, who reckons it’s their sheer enthusiasm for whisky which allows the siblings to keep on top of a category with such depth.
“I think if you have passion and love for something it doesn’t become a chore,” said Simon.
The bar staff at Dornoch Castle Hotel are also encouraged to develop their own attachment to the national drink.
A certain amount of independence has been granted to staff by Philip and Simon, who invite their team to taste the whiskies on the bar and make their own decisions on what they like.
“When you have that frame of reference with the whisky on the bar you can help them (customers) find something instantly,” said Philip.
One of the rarest finds on the bar at Dornoch Castle Hotel first came into the world through SLTN, as part of the paper’s 30th anniversary celebrations in 1994.
A specially-produced, bottled and labelled Thirty Year Old Bowmore was released as a competition prize over twenty years ago and the brothers managed to pick up one of only three bottles released shortly after snaring their 2016 SLTN Award.
The kind of stories which see a spirit find itself open at last on the back-bar of a hotel after two decades are not uncommon in whisky, and it’s this element of mystery which Philip reckons customers buy into when they order a dram.
“I think whisky will always have history and origin – it’s got a bit of mystery,” said Philip.
“We try to take up a stock of rare and old whisky but we want a fair price for our customers.”
The curated whisky bar is without doubt key to coaxing customers to fall in love with the spirit, according to Philip and Simon, and the pair reckon a renewed focus from distilleries on the Scottish on-trade would be no bad thing for sales.
“One of my very good friends is a whisky collector in Holland,” said Simon.
“When he came to Scotland in the mid ’90s he said it was the barman and the environment (that attracted him to whisky). He’s spent thousands of pounds on whisky in years since.
“If you’ve got someone onto a distillery you’ve got them for life.”