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New Inverness distillery looks to a heady tourism brew

Victoria and Jon Erasmus in front of a copper still at the Uile-bheist distillery in Inverness.
Image: Sandy McCook/DCT Media.

After many years’ planning, Inverness’ first distillery in more than a century – and replete with on-site brewery – is gearing up for an ambitious drive to attract tens of thousands of visitors including those decanting off Cromarty cruise ships.

The £8 million Uile-bheist “brewstillery” as the company refers to it overlooks the River Ness and is looking to tap the Highlands’ considerable tourism power, but the idea has been challenging as owner Jon Erasmus explained.

“It is a project that has taken 15 years,” he said adding: “It has been a long and difficult journey. Possibly the reason why the project was so difficult was we built in a conservation area in a city centre and with a building which is incredibly technical.

Uile-bheist distillery and brewery sign
A long time to get here. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT Media.

“We are not only a brewery and a distillery, but an energy centre as well. We are between nineteenth century buildings which has made it a hell of a complex development.”

Around 40 jobs will be created by Uile-bheist’s operations, in production, tours, administration, marketing and indirectly, an ambitious number given current challenges in the Highlands with recruitment but one which Uile-bheist – Gaelic for monster – is confident of fulfilling.

Future phases will see the creation of a distilling ‘campus’ with increased capacity, a bonded warehouse with shopping, plus tap room, tasting and visitor spaces, while D&E Coaches will also include the site as a point on its hop-on, hop-off city tours.

Visitors will be able to get up close and personal to copper stills

The first test batch of spirit was under way as the Press and Journal visited the distillery which sits close to the famous castle currently undergoing massive renovation and which itself promises to lure in vast numbers of tourists once open in a few years time.

Mr Erasmus, originally from Durban in South Africa added: “We expect to have whisky in warehouses by the end of March and go into barrels for three years.

“We have set up a cask programme to enable people to purchase casks and [help] fund further phases of development. They are between £6,000-£7,000 per cask and we have put together a membership known as Founders Club 2022.”

Head barman & tours Paddy Fuller
Uile-bheist bar and tours manager Paddy Fuller. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT Media.

Uile-bheist’s equipment was brought in from Germany from nine-generation brewing company Kaspar Schulz and visitors will be able to get up close and personal to the gleaming copper stills and beer vats as they are being operated on the second floor.

Those visitors will pass through the tap room on the ground floor which is now open for business as a bar and which will serve the company’s five craft products featuring lager, pale ale, IPA, white IPA and a stout, with the first beers ready by early April.

Master brewer Bruce Smith, who previously worked for Innis and Gun and Heineken, said: “There will be a lager at 4.5% abv and an IPA at 5.6% abv for example; we are looking at a ‘sessionable’ range.”

The beers will be the first brewed in Inverness for 34 years.

Spent by-product back as animal feed

Mr Smith added: “We are using an efficient set-up which effectively ‘shares’ the equipment up to a point in the initial process, with some subtle differences in recipe and process.

“We have designed everything to be very low impact to our neighbours and this building is heavily soundproofed.”

Using grain and barley from the IV postcode area including Black Isle, spent by-product will be converted back to animal feed with sustainability forming a key plank of Uile-bheist’s philosophy as co-owner Victoria Erasmus explained.

“When we were in the development stage, we put sustainability at the heart of everything we do,” she said, adding: “We put solar PV panels in so we could use minimum grid energy and show you can build businesses with sustainable energy.”

Uile-bheist copper stills
Copper stills so gleaming you could eat your dinner off them. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT Media.

As any visitor strolling along the banks of the River Ness can testify, its waters are exceptionally clear and powerful with Mr Erasmus noting: “We have been told there is enough energy in that river to run three nuclear power stations.”

Water and energy for Uile-bheist’s whisky production comes from the river through a district heating system which uses shallow water wells to fire heat pumps; a system being eyed by local authorities.

The energy technology had backing from the and Energy Savings Trust, as well as £250,000 from Highland Islands and Enterprise.

Holyrood trying to cook the golden goose”

Jon Erasmus

Uile-bheist is building quite some empire on the banks of the Ness and is partnered on adjacent sites by the Glen Mhor Hotel and Waterside Restaurant, also owned by Jon and Victoria Erasmus.

However, there is one potential cloud looming in the otherwise good news down by river and that is a plan by the Scottish Government to potentially restrict alcohol marketing.

Holyrood has published a consultation document: “Restricting alcohol advertising and promotion,” which sets out why it wants to cut down the industry’s ability to market itself in order to “reduce the appeal of alcohol to our young people.”

Mr Erasmus said: “It is a concern. I think Holyrood is literally trying to cook the golden goose – they are not in touch with what needs to be done.”

Uile-bheist distillery Scottish mythology artwork.
Visitors will see Scottish mythology artwork all around the distillery. Image: Sandy McCook/DCT Media.

Visitors to the tap room bar and distillery will be surrounded by Scottish mythology artwork by Melbourne-based pop culture illustrator Ken Taylor.

Large-scale installations by the designer adorn the tap room and distillery walls with bar & tours manager Paddy Fuller adding considerable interest had already been expressed from potential tourists – and future staff – as the company looks to recruit.

He said: “We have been contacted by people all around the world about coming here. We have had [job] applicants from far and wide, we’ve had huge amounts of interest.”

Cruise ship potential

Mr Fuller, who was previously with the Tomatin Distillery and Malt Room whisky bar in Inverness, noted he was “just so intrigued by the project” which will also target the Highland capital’s numerous hotels and cruise ships which are storming back into the region after the pandemic.

Uile-bheist will produce 200-300 casks of Highland single malt per year, rising to 500-600 in development phase 3.

Around 350,000 litres of craft beer a year will be produced on-site, piped directly to the visitor tap room adjacent to the brewing floor.
Tours start 1 March

A limited “discovery” tour programme begins on March 1 with a full hourly tour programme starting on April 1.