Warming up with Tweels & Uisge in The Borders
The town of Hawick (pronounce Hoyck) is proud home to a distillery since 2017. It is the first one in the Scottish Borders since 1837. Hawick was founded in the 12th century during the reign of King David I. It is located where the Siglit and Teviot Rivers meet and is known as the place where tweed was invented. Today the city is still heavily involved in making that cloth.
When we came back from our annual trip to Speyside this year, we decided to make a detour before heading for the ferry in Newcastle that brings us back to the Netherlands during a nightly crossing of the North Sea. And if there is a new Scottish distillery we are always game …
On a beautiful spot in Hawick along the river stands a building erected in 1888 from Cotswold stone, which must have cost a fortune at the time given the transport costs involved. Until the Second World War it was home to the Hawick Urban Electric Company, after which engineering company Turnbull & Scott moved in. As we would shortly see there is still a big T&B crane in the distillery, restored during the distillery build.
The old premises have been turned into an architectonical masterpiece by Gray McPherson Architects. They succeeded in using old and new elements in such a way that they grace each other seamlessly. In the distillery a wooden scale model, manufactured by building company Ballantyne from nearby Kelso, shows in precise miniature how the distillery is laid out. The visitor center, housed in an adjacent former candy shop, now has a roof covered in moss plus a glass roof on the main building that was replaced by reinforced glass that can withstand the weight of a severe snowfall — mind you, we ARE in Scotland!
Founder John Fordyce roamed about the country for two months before deciding where his distillery should be built and where he could find the proper staff to man the operation. Fordyce has a proven track record in the industry and worked for many years at William Grant & Sons (of Glenfiddich fame). His cofounders George Tait, Tony Roberts and Tim Carton share a similar professional background. The foursome founded the Three Stills Company in 2013 to build the first distillery in the Borders in 180 years. They also own the Clan Fraser blend, which is distributed in no less than 22 countries. Recently they introduced another whisky called the Lower East Side Blended Malt, with a label depicting that particular part of New York City.
They need these blends for which they source mature whisky elsewhere, since their own product has to mature at least three years before it can be sold as whisky, a Scottish regulation set in stone. Another revenue stream is their gin, for which they hired a Ph.D. student from Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University. This young gentleman is writing a paper for his promotion about distilling experiments with different recipes. He aims at a gin more akin to the Dutch jenever than the London Dry Gin. For you gin aficionados, the gin still has a Carter Head for rectifying the spirit.
The distillery uses barley that is grown in the Borders. With the current setup there is storage for six tons of malted barley on site. Eight fermenters, each with a capacity of 26,300 liters, ensure a long 72-hour fermentation time, which will eventually result in a nice and fruity dram — in years to come. With two wash stills and two spirit stills which are identical in size (uncommon in the industry) the theoretical annual capacity is between 1.6 and two million liters of spirit. The stills are named after the four founders.
After our tour we are offered a wee tasting. I have to decline, since I am the designated driver, so Becky can enjoy the Lower East Side and the Clan Fraser. The latter is a real treat for her. After all she is a member of clan Fraser of Lovat, as can be deducted from her maiden name Lovett. Fraser, by the way, may derive from fraisier, French for strawberry picker. These workmen originally came from Anjou in France and crossed the North Sea about 900 years ago to settle in Scotland. Yes, the Auld Alliance goes back a long way!
Before leaving, we visit the distillery shop and see a beautiful tweed throw blanket made in a mill around the corner, called … Lovat. So much for conceptual continuity. Becky can’t resist the souvenir so we take it home for the cold winter months in the Netherlands.
But how did Tweed get its name? Actually, it is a spelling mistake that kept on going. In 1826 a company in London misread a label on a delivery of woven wool, sent by Hawick manufacturer William Watson & Sons. The label read “tweels” — the Scottish word for twill. In the past the English often reinterpreted Scottish words (remember the Gaelic uisge that was transmogrified into English as whisky?) and that was what happened here. An understandable misconception, since many a Scottish gentleman could be seen in this type of fabric around the River Tweed, when sporting a gun or a rod.
When the London company ordered a second batch and clearly wrote TWEED on the order, Watson just took over the English spelling and started to use tweed as a generic name for his quality line of fabric and sporting wear. He forgot to register the name as a trademark; hence it became a household word all over Great Britain. The same happened with uisge and whisky, albeit on a worldwide scale. Anyway the new Borders Distillery happily keeps both handmade products alive and unites them in their visitor center and shop, where you can pick up a bottle of Clan Fraser next to a Borders Tweed blanket.
The Whisky Couple