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When cider meets whisky: an orchard walk around Lagg Distillery

Editor’s note: when this fascinating article and interview was very generously donated by Jack, it occurred to me that it would be equally suitable for publication on our sort-of-parent-site, Malt. So, as a bit of a fun one-off, both sites are releasing this article today. A true celebration of compound drinking (or omnibibularity!) and more proof that there is so much to learn from seeing what’s happening in the world of another drink.

Within the worlds of whisky and cider there exists an interplay between modernity and heritage; experimentation and traditionalism; the ever-present rise and fall of producers responding to the ebb and flow of consumer demand for specific products existing in the marketplace in abundance, or with increasing scarcity. Timing your business’s entry to this market is everything – too early and your customer base is not yet fully formed to sustain growth over the coming decades and centuries; too late and the physical and digital shelves will already be awash with similar products that compete for attention and a share of our hard-earned disposable income. 

It is my humble opinion that Isle of Arran Distillers have timed the market to perfection – positioning themselves with the first new distillery to open in Scotland post-whisky loch low-point of the 1980’s, with spirit production commencing at their Lochranza Distillery in June 1995, on the north end of the Isle of Arran. Then twenty-four years later, heavily-peated spirit production starts up at Lagg Distillery in March 2019, on the south end of the island. The quality of the whisky produced; the friendly, open nature of all their staff from tour guides and stillsmen, sales managers and managing directors, has led me to visit the island every year without fail over the last decade. Lifelong friendships have been formed on this island – it’s a big part of what motivates my actions in adult life.

This summer, whilst on a camping holiday with friends on the island – seven days I now fondly remember as the one week of proper sunshine and heat I experienced throughout the whole of 2021 – an opportunity arose to tour the relatively recently-planted orchard at Lagg with Distillery Manager Graham Omand. That afternoon, the venn diagram of interests converged between whisky, cider, and Arran. What follows is a transcribed account of the walk that took place when Graham very kindly offered to reveal what has been taking place at Lagg over the last few years, and what their production plans are for the future.

CR: Tell us a little bit about yourself Graham.

Graham: My name’s Graham Omand, I’m the Distillery Manager at Lagg Distillery. I’ve been working with Isle of Arran Distillers since 2011. I started with the company up at Lochranza, I was a stillsman and mashman there doing a lot of solo work. I was there for 8 years, manning the stillhouse – it’s quite nice actually because a lot of the 10-year-olds that are coming out now, I made a third of them, so it’s nice seeing them out there now. We’ve got a lot of casks back on the island now recently, storing them on-site again and I was think “Ah I’ve made about a third of these!”.

CR: That must be a really nice feeling.

Graham: It is actually. It’s great seeing the product coming back now. So a few years ago when Isle of Arran Distillers started building the Lagg Distillery I was approached by the Board of Directors and my Managing Director and they said well you’ve got the experience, you know how to make whisky, you know how a distillery works, do you want to look after this for us? And I thought: eh, I’ll give it a try! And so since 2019 I’ve been looking after this beautiful site.

CR: If we look over at Lagg Distillery, and it is a really beautiful bit of modern architecture, it blends in totally with the landscape. On the right-hand side of the distillery you’ve got your bonded warehouses, but on the left-hand side we’re not walking through fields of barley, we’re walking through orchards. How did this come about?

Graham: Initially we had quite a lot of acres when we bought this site, and the initial plan for the site was warehouse space, but we ended up buying quite a lot of acres from the local farmer so we thought we’ll build a distillery with it because we can’t just have warehouses and empty fields here. So that plan was arehouses and Distillery and then there were still so many acres left – what are we going to do with them? One of the Directors of the Company has quite a green thumb when it comes to apples, and so he suggested why don’t we have an orchard as a feature piece and maybe we can do something with the apples further down the line? And lo and behold around 2000 apple trees suddenly appeared next to Lagg Distillery one day, so we thought there’s something we could definitely do with this as it’s not something you tend to see around a distillery. It could be a focal point around what makes Lagg Distillery so unique. As you say, most distilleries are surrounded by barley fields, but we’ve chosen a different crop to surround us with.

CR: At a time when many traditional orchards are being grubbed up down south, it’s quite something to come up north and see a commercial apple orchard has been planted to be used by a distillery not a cidery.

Graham: Yes I don’t think many people expect to see an orchard here. The number of people that have visited so far and have asked me “Are those apple trees? Why have you got apple trees here?” Well, there’s a lot you can do with apple trees and we’re not just thinking of the one product in the future. We want to extend our portfolio a wee bit.

Building work in progress … for distillery and orchard

CR: So we’re walking right now in this first row in the North Orchard, the trees are spaced out roughly 1.5 metres apart, and they’re growing up against a wire frame, quite similar to how you’d see vines grown in a vineyard. The space between each row is about 2.5 metres so you can get a lawn mower down them easily. What kind of varieties are growing up here in the North Orchard?

Graham: We’ve recently replanted these first three rows. We initially chose a variety that didn’t do too well in this spot, so these are now Red Windsor – I believe an early to mid-ripening variety. These are more suitable for this climate. We learnt quite a lot of lessons as we went along with the orchard. Obviously the climate is very important as an impact on the orchard – Arran is not exactly Herefordshire is it? We went into this with a lot of enthusiasm and learning on the job. So as each year passes we add on to the orchard and replace any trees that need gone.

CR: So these Red Windsor are all planted in 2021?

Graham: Yes that’s right, we ordered them in 2020 and they were delivered early this year and planted in Spring.

CR: These look about 3 or 4ft high, but as we walk further into the orchard we’ll see some that have been in since 2018? So you were building the distillery, and whilst that was going on you also had 2000 fruit trees to plant?

Graham: Yes quite an undertaking, we were certainly juggling a lot at the same time back then. The groundwork on site was just getting done then so it was a perfect opportunity to get the trees in.

CR: Describe to us the aspect of where we are in Scotland, what meteorological conditions does this orchard face? It’s not Mediterranean is it?

Graham: No, it’s wet and it’s salty. Those are the two words I’d use to describe the climate here. A lot of people don’t realise the invisible threat the salty air poses, there’s a lot of wind-scarring on these trees as a result of the salty air and exposed aspect. We’ve got the Firth of Clyde right there behind the distillery and the wind comes straight from the Irish Sea and the Clyde and this is the first landmass it hits, and these trees get blasted with that salty air.

CR: Does that affect the blossoming time or the fruiting time of the trees?

Graham: The salt greatly hinders the leaf growth, in turn affecting the absorption of light and production of energy by the tree. In the end it will affect then the blossom, the yield of fruit – it affects everything.

CR: You mentioned it’s often wet here – is it wet at the right points of year for the trees to grow?

Graham: We had frosts this April, quite late frosts, quite a cold Spring. Obviously that means it’s going to be a not particularly great year, but we’re only just establishing the trees so we’re not expecting a crop this year. One or two frosty Springs this early on is hopefully not going to impact us too much. But the wetness aspect and the lack of heat compared to traditional orchards found down south, that was by far the biggest issue we face with this orchard. A lot of varieties that were planted here were originally the classic cider apple varieties: Dabinett, Kingston Black – two giants in the cider industry, often with single variety uses – but we got a couple of advisors in to help us understand whey these trees weren’t growing so well. He said “well, where I’m from down south you’d be expecting them to crop around November, up here…December…so it’s not going to work.”

CR: So just adding another 4-6 weeks on for fruiting?

Graham: Basically he said where we are we could expect to add another month on to harvesting time, so you’re not going to see too much of an apple crop up here in the middle to end of December. So that was the big first hurdle we experienced and Dabinett and Kingston Black, which are undoubtedly very popular varieties, we were told that the best thing we could do with them was to move them and use them as windbreaks. So that’s something that we did last year. We purchased 350 trees end of last year and planted them start of this year and those are the young varieties you see here in the North Orchard. So those Dabinett and Kingston Black have now been moved to a more shelter belt area, and although they’re not part of the North Orchard anymore, if they do produce fruit, we will definitely harvest them and use them in the future.

CR: A cider producer I like a lot from Wales at the moment, Welsh Mountain Cider, they grow their trees at over 1100 feet, one of the highest orchard altitudes in the UK, so they must get a similar level of battering from the elements as you do here. I think because they grow them from a young age in those elements, as you’re doing here, they just become more hardy.

Graham: It’s all about shaping here too, we can’t go for tall trees here as the wind would just destroy them. So we’ve focused on pruning them heavily, keep the height down so they bush out more, and the shelter belt trees we’ll then allow to grow tall.

CR: Is that also linked to the rootstock you’ve got them growing on?

Graham: Yes, they’re on a very hardy rootstock. As we walk further along here we see rows of James Grieve trees which were put in in 2021.

CR: So you’ll keep them roughly 6ft high?

Graham: Yes we’ll keep them roughly head height, we’re no longer encouraging height on these trees, we’re encouraging the lateral growth to bush out. That was the first job we asked of our current advisor – he had award-winning cider orchards and vineyards down south in the 1980’s, and he’s semi-retired on Arran now, so we asked him to advise us.

CR: What a great neighbour to have!

Graham: I know, he’s been fantastic help. He had the experience to know what to do and what to look out for.

CR: So these trees we’re now walking past, are 2018 trees, they’ve had 3 years growing here around the distillery?

Graham: Yes, they still need to be slightly re-shaped, they’re going to have a nice heavy prune this winter, it’s just a constant battle right now but eventually they will retain the shape we’re looking for.

CR: You’re not going for an open-centre tree, a bit like a goblet shape, like you see in some traditional orchards?

Graham: We’re going for a small bush hedge shape. If we stop walking right here and look out past the distillery, that’s the Irish Sea right there. There’s nothing between this orchard and that. If you get too much height the trees aren’t going to like it. And as we walk from the North Orchard where there are predominantly dessert apples now, the South Orchard has more of a mixture of cider apple varieties growing in it. We try to keep each row containing the one variety for our own sanity when we come to picking the fruit in a few years’ time. An exception to this is Tom Putt, which we got in last year, just when the coronavirus pandemic was starting, leaving us with little manpower, so our poor gardener had to plant these Tom Putt trees on his own wherever he could find space. He can remember where about ¾ of them are planted, otherwise we’re looking and asking ourselves on the ends of rows: Is that Tom Putt?

CR: You’ll have to come out at blossom time and see if you can identify them by the blossom.

Graham: Ah that was purely down to having a few hundred trees arrive just when coronavirus hit and they just had to get in the ground.

CR: Talking a bit of terroir here, do you notice the different effect between one orchard in one field around the distillery and another? I’m assuming going to the South Orchard as we are, it’s more sheltered?

Graham: Definitely, the South Orchard has more of a shelter belt from existing trees and bushes around the dry stone wall which marks the perimeter of our grounds. These trees are also sheltered by the distillery on this side too.

CR: It’s such a lovely view from here as well, looking at the roof of the distillery blending in with landscaped mounds of grass and wildflowers, and the rows of apple trees are the icing on the cake.

Graham: We’ve tried to keep it as wild looking where possible. There are quite a lot of oxeye daisies planted alongside other wildflowers.

CR: And I see lots of willow planted here too?

Graham: Yes it helps with the sheltering of the trees as well as reducing the moisture content in the soil as willow is quite a thirsty tree and should stop this bit of the orchard from becoming too boggy.

CR: It’s a tale of two orchards here then really with the dessert apples in the North Orchard blossoming earlier, but then getting hit by the frosts. Then you’ve got the cider apples in the South Orchard blossoming later, avoiding that frost, but then fruiting later, perhaps too late…

Graham: Yes we’ve got a lot on our plate that’s for sure.

CR: Whilst you’re also preparing to release the first ever 3 year-old single malt whisky from Lagg too.

Graham: Ha I’m trying my best, keeping my head above water for now yes.

CR: Projecting forward say 10 years’ time, do you see this as an additional attraction to the Visitor Centre? Come here and talk a stroll through the orchard?

Graham: Absolutely, that was one of the goals from day one. A lovely orchard that people can walk through safely, sign-posted directions. An orchard walk before you start your tour of the distillery, maybe help yourself to a couple of apples if you want.

CR: I’ve been here twice so far and I never even knew this part of the Lagg site existed until now and it’s really lovely.

Graham: You’ll see as we approach them now the trees in the South Orchard, the size in comparison to those in the North Orchard.

CR: You’d think they were twice the age from the size of them!

Graham: Most of these went in 2017 and 2018, the North Orchard was 2018 specifically. So there may be one year difference, but it’s not much. These here are all Michelin. Even though it’s a mid-season variety, they’ve done particularly well here. Whether it’s the climate, the soil, but for some reason the Michelin trees have taken much better than any other variety. Not even our advisor can figure out why, he says let’s just run with it. Whatever it is they like, they’ve found it here.

CR: What was the land used for here before?

Graham: Farmland mostly, occasionally it was planted with Barley, but mostly grazing sheep.

CR: It’s a kind of undulating landscape here, descending down to the coast. Are you now as the Distillery Manager and distilled and fermented apple juice maker-to-be trying lots of different Michelin single variety ciders from different producers to see what that fruit can do?

Graham: I’m definitely on the look-out for more cider! I was never much of a cider drinker, perhaps in my youth a bit, but I think everyone goes through that fruity flavour phase when they’re a teenager. Since then, I’ve been looking to find out a lot more Vintage Ciders and Single Apple Variety Ciders. I need to get off the island a bit more for that as there’s not exactly a high class bottle shop here yet. Normally I would pop by Glasgow and pick a few things off the shelf from a few good bottles shops. But that happens seldomly now. I’m a father of two so it’s not as easy as it used to be.

CR: A lot more pre-planning needed these days. I live out in the wilds of West Norfolk and there’s definitely no bottle shops in my hometown, but I’ve found in the last year and a bit, e-commerce and the websites of these small bottle shops around the UK have been a godsend [Ed: we’ve links to a few of our favourites of these on our Resources page.]. They offer easy access to these bottles which don’t seem to be priced that highly yet compared to their equivalent craft product in the beer world.

We walk around the orchard further …

CR: So are these Michelin trees looking bigger this year already than last?

Graham: Yes absolutely, they were about my height last year, and now they’re taller than me, about 7ft tall now.

CR: How many trees per row, and how many rows in this bit of the orchard?

Graham: 12 rows, roughly 25-30 trees per row. Some bits of the ground this way around aren’t suitable for trees as it’s gets a bit too stony. We may think about de-stoning that area, adding in topsoil, and extending the orchard in the future, but as far as we’re concerned, we’re happy with just over 2500 trees here at the moment. A good variety – a mixture of dessert, culinary, and cider apples.

CR: The cideries I’ve been to down in Herefordshire – Little Pomona, Ross On Wye, and Oliver’s – they barrel-age some of their ciders in whisky casks from Scotland. Up here you’re making the cider, you have the capacity and space to add in specialized stills at Lagg. What are your plans that you can reveal to Cider Review for the future?

Graham: Since 1995, Isle of Arran Distillers has been a Distillery-based company, we’ve been making spirit. Ultimately we do want to make cider, but I think our focus as a company going forward will be looking at making apple brandy. We make a form of beer on a daily basis, so we’re going to continue that with the cider. We hope to focus on Apple Brandy and make a spirit product which ties in with our whisky. It won’t be the main focus, but a side product. A lot of distilleries make gin on the side. If you go to a gin aisle in a shop it’s almost impossible to differentiate what’s what. But very few people are making any kind of apple brandy in the UK. We’re very popular in France already – they’re one of our biggest whisky importers – and apple brandy aka Calvados is very popular there, so it’s a win-win.

CR: I’m very excited to hear that! I’ve seen your distillery blog posts about your Calvados Cask project, that sounds amazing.

Graham: They’re not very easy to come by, used Calvados casks, but we were able to get a few dozen for both Lochranza and Lagg. We’ve casked some fresh, new make spirit into them from both distilleries. They’re relatively recently filled so I can’t provide tasting notes just yet, but something to look forward to.

CR: So some have been filled with peated spirit and some unpeated?

Graham: Yes, they were all filled at the same time with new make spirit from Lochranza and Lagg so we should have a good variety of roughly the same age casks.

CR: I seem to remember a festival bottling from a few years ago, the white guitar box, was a calvados cask, 9-year-old I think.

Graham: Yes we were very lucky in getting some calvados casks in Lochranza about a decade and a half ago and that’s what we used for that bottling. I remember people saying back then it was quite a rarity to see a calvados cask-matured whisky.

CR: Could you see a time when you’ve matured your apple brandy in casks, bottled it, and then you fill those casks with whisky again?

Graham: A circular economy, oh yes, don’t you worry about that, we’ll be refilling those with whisky again afterwards. We’d like to mature our calvados casks and apple brandy casks on site, and when they’re ready to bottle, we’ll re-use those casks for our whisky to give a combination of flavours. It’s our two products feeding off each other.

CR: A big part of Lagg is Peat and Peated Whisky. Are you going to try and introduce an element of peat into your cider or apple brandy?

Graham: At the distillation stage we’ll keep them separate. We’re looking at a small, bespoke still for the apple brandy, which will be kept separate from the wash still and spirit still we use for our whisky. But when it comes to the maturation stage, we’re probably going to experiment with casks that have had our own heavily peated whisky matured in them previously. Peated apple brandy does sound amazing though!

CR: Little Pomona this year have been releasing Ciderkins – rehydrated, and then re-pressed pomace – and I was thinking could you do a similar thing to the pomace that you do to the barley and smoke the pomace with peat smoke, and then press it again?

Graham: I need to read up on second pressings, I’m not sure of the legality of where we are doing it. I remember when I did my course on cider it said always check on where you are in the world, before you do second pressings as some countries think of it as an inferior cider, given to the workers.

CR: Yes historically it was given to the workers but I had a few of them this year, and they come it at between 2.5 -3.7% abv. I know there’s this buzz for Hard Seltzers at the moment, but I’d much rather have a Ciderkin or Perrykin than one of those, they were gorgeous.

Graham: Moving down further into the south orchard, most of these 350 new trees we planted to replace the Dabinett and Kingston Black are all early-to-mid varieties: Katy, Amanda, Jane, Discovery, Ashmead’s Kernel, James Grieve (a Scottish variety).  We wanted to make sure they could all deal with the climate up here.

CR: So these are the Ladies from the Long Ashton Research Centre’s output. Relatively new apple varieties from the mid-90’s? Is there any plan to extend further?

Graham: No, I was stood up on the balcony by our restaurant and our groundskeeper Davie was down here walking along the vista, and he stopped at this certain point and we saw that if there were to be trees planted at this point, we would interfere with the view of Aisla Craig.

CR: It’s such a ludicrously beautiful view, I can understand.

Graham: It would always be nice to have more trees, but you don’t want to interfere with the local view. It’s one of the main reasons that we purchased this land for Lagg Distillery, just look at that view!

CR: You’ve gone from working at an admittedly lovely location in Lochranza, where you’re surrounded on three sides by hills, to the most open, exposed, fantastic panorama I can imagine for a distillery. It’s something else. Would you ever look to bring in livestock to graze and fertilize the orchard?

Graham: It would be a nice idea but I’m not certain our visitors would appreciate seeing sheep everywhere.

CR: Very true. Any of the byproducts from the distillery used to fertilise the trees?

Graham: Yes, draff can be used, and we’ve been using local manure as much as we can.

CR: As I look down towards the bonded warehouses I can see some small birds on the trees over there. Have you noticed an increase in biodiversity since you planted trees here?

Graham: Absolutely, and we also have five beehives on site. They’re located down the hill towards the far end of the site. One of the local forestry workers has a few hives around the island and he sells local Arran wax and honey products. He approached us one day and said “I see you’ve a nice big orchard here, plenty of wildflowers, would you mind if I put some of my beehives on here?”. I said of course, it’s only going to help the environment.

CR: Are you able to sell local honey from the grounds of the distillery at some point?

Graham: We already are, there’s a local Arran honey for sale in the shop right now.

CR: I’m going to pick some up! I was going to ask an “experimental” themed question – as Lochranza is so renowned for experimenting with its releases over the years- but the planting of these apple trees here seems to have proven that point already – you’re still experimenting at full speed, just on a completely different scale to Lochranza. We’ve been walking for roughly twenty minutes now and we’re not even all the way around the outside of the distillery.

Graham: I do count my blessings every day: open sea views, an orchard, the smell of peated whisky every day. We’re looking out now on our neighbouring field at Arran Barley which is going to be used later this year at Lochranza. Every two weeks of the year, for the last six years, local Arran barley has been produced down here in this field and it’s harvested, sent away, comes back to Lochranza. You’ll start seeing Lochranza whisky made from 100% Arran barley very soon. Lagg will get some eventually, but we’re starting with Lochranza.

CR: By having two distilleries on the island are you able to stimulate that bit of the market a bit more and create the demand for local farmers to grow more barley for the distilleries?

Graham: Of course, yes, we hope it can all help encourage local farmers to grow a bit more barley.

CR: Thank you Graham for being so informative and for taking the time to show me around the orchard here at Lagg. We will watch this space to see what comes along in a couple of years’ time!

Editor’s postscript: thank you so much to Jack for the contribution of this fascinating interview and to Graham for talking about the Lagg project and orchard in so much depth. Thanks also to Jack and to Arran Distillers for providing photos. If the (many) names of apples mentioned are unfamiliar to readers, some of them are described in more detail in our glossary of apple varieties by taste.

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