A Shetland whisky distillery may yet come to life despite hopes having all but evaporated in the seven years since the idea was first mooted.
The key to establishing the world’s most northerly Scotch is held by a group of Canadian investors who are to decide soon whether to follow through with their interest in the venture by backing it with hard cash.
In another sign that the much-hyped whisky dream is actually more than just a marketing fantasy, bottles of the mysterious Muckle Flugga malt whisky are about to go on sale in the shops.
Meanwhile, Caroline Whitfield, the founder and for so long the public face of the bankrupt Blackwood adventure, remains the biggest shareholder in Catfirth Limited, the new company keeping the distillery concept alive. She has now re-surfaced with a set of new business ventures in the Highlands including one called Paleface Beauty.
Little has been heard about the Nesting distillery plan for more than a year since The Shetland Times revealed that Catfirth Limited had been set up in London to try to salvage it after the Bank of Scotland pulled the plug on the Blackwood family of companies to recover debts.
Catfirth did manage to raise some capital from new shareholders but its progress has been hampered by the slow process of Blackwood’s financial affairs being sorted out by the administrators. Blackwood Distillers Holdings was the parent company while Shetland Spirit Company dealt with the white spirit drinks like the popular Blackwood gin and vodka. Another offshoot, Blackwood Distillers Ltd, was to deal with the whisky project.
The process is now entering a crucial phase with the winding up of the affairs of Blackwood Distillers Holdings plc. Some of the company’s assets should then become available for sale from the bank, notably the Catfirth site where the distillery was intended to be built.
Catfirth executive director Andy Burrows said it might be that the land would be auctioned off to whoever is the highest bidder, but if Catfirth was to fail in its bid there remains the possibility of developing on an alternative site in Shetland, although he did not want to divulge where at this stage.
Catfirth has told shareholders that investment capital of around £3.4 million is needed to build a £1.5m distillery at the former air force base at Catfirth and provide working capital to keep the business trading while stock matures for a minimum of five years.
Mr Burrows, an aviation consultant, said it would not be easy to find the money in the current economic climate but the Canadian team visited Shetland in August with him and Ms Whitfield and he believed they were impressed with the potential.
The investors are expected to take up to six months to come to a decision once they have possession of Catfirth’s updated business plan. “We hope obviously to persuade them that it is a good project and that they should back it,” Mr Burrows said.
Mr Burrows was originally a Blackwood shareholder and became more deeply involved in an effort to save his investment and try to realise the ambition of establishing a distillery.
If whisky production did succeed it would allow Catfirth to take advantage of all Shetland’s natural gifts to marketing, not least the boast of being “the northernmost Scotch whisky distillery in the world”, currently the proud claim of the 200-year-old Highland Park in Orkney.
For now, the only “Shetland” whisky is a batch of vatted malt, blended from several malts, which was said to have been sent north for “overwintering” in oak casks in 2006 while Blackwood was still in existence – a process which reputedly results in the whisky being affected by its surroundings.
The first bottles of this Muckle Flugga brand were the subject of some controversy last year when 360 cases were stolen from a warehouse in England as it was about to be shipped to bond holders who had invested to help fund Blackwood’s start-up. A replacement batch was sourced.
Some of the few bond-holders in Shetland are known to have picked up their two cases from the bond store of Lerwick wholesalers Hughson Brothers. One was Jim Ivens, who owns the Rod & Line Fishing Tackle shop in Lerwick.
He said last week it tasted “very nice” but he is keeping most of his in the hope it will become valuable.
According to Mr Burrows, some of the barrels of spirit which spent time in Shetland are in Catfirth’s possession and the company is having it bottled at a plant in England. The process involves diluting the whisky to the correct strength.
Mr Burrows said it had been pre-sold to “a key UK industry distributor”. He had hoped it would be sold through a supermarket chain but that appears unlikely now. He has still not heard what retail outlet will be stocking it. It is intended that there will be a public launch for the new Muckle Flugga product in the UK but it remains to be seen whether it makes it to the shops in Shetland.
The proceeds will help raise funds for Catfirth to pursue its whisky venture. “We are happy to sell off what we have,” Mr Burrows said. “Clearly it is income to the company and keeps things ticking along.”
The company hopes it will sell well in the UK which has a good market for specialist malts. Mr Burrows said: “If that goes well obviously it gives us encouragement to start laying down another production batch.”
The new production would also be sent to Shetland to be “laid down” for some of its ageing process.
In July, Catfirth had around 250 shareholders, not many of them living in Shetland. But Mr Burrows is aware that others (perhaps 120 or more) who were involved with the original Blackwood project dropped off the radar and he wants them to get in touch to claim their shares in the new venture. They can do so by writing to Catfirth, Warnford Court, Throgmorton Street, London, EC2N 2AT or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
He said: “There must be 100-plus out there – and there must be some on Shetland – who haven’t contacted us and we would be happy to hear from them.”
One local shareholder who did transfer to Catfirth said she had no idea what was happening, having heard nothing from the company for a while. She did receive an email from a mysterious company offering to buy her shares, which she ignored. Mr Burrows said that inquiry was probably from a company based in the north of England which tries to buy up people’s shares in failed companies.
According to company records for Catfirth, Ms Whitfield is the biggest shareholder with over one million shares, although they are worth just one-tenth of a penny each, totalling £1,006 of the total share capital of £2,937. Last year she was acting as a consultant to Catfirth with the option to buy into it later if the shareholders agreed. Mr Burrows confirmed she was still a consultant.
Ms Whitfield could not be reached for comment. Now with an address in Nairn, she has been busy lately setting up new companies, including Paleface Beauty, registered in Orkney, and transferring Voisey Innovations from England to Scotland. She also has Voisey Training and Recruitment and Voisey International.
She has merited a full-page feature in the new edition of Inverness-based Executive magazine, where in addition to the distillery plan she mentions her involvement in “developing spin-outs for a major local business and a new niche eco-botanicals business”.
While confident in her entrepreneurial abilities, she admitted to being fallible: “I’m not 100 per cent all of the time, far from it, but I’m probably better than most when it comes to making the right decisions when there is a high degree of uncertainty and ambiguity.”