THE new chairman of a company building a £20 million distillery in Inverclyde has underlined the “scale and quality” of the project, while questioning the wisdom of current UK Government policy on alcohol duty.

Scotch whisky veteran Paul Currie, who co-founded the Isle of Arran Distillery in the mid-1990s before jointly launching The Lakes Distillery in Cumbria, was drafted in by the team behind the emerging Ardgowan Distillery near Inverkip as work on its construction gathers pace.

He is the latest major industry figure to join Ardgowan, following the arrival of David Keir, a founding director of The GlenAllachie Distillers Company, as sales and marketing director, ex-Macallan master of wood Stuart Macpherson, and master whisky maker Max McFarlane, previously lead whisky maker at Edrington. Heading the project is chief executive Martin McAdam.

Speaking exclusively to The Herald about his new role, Mr Currie said: “I think it is very exciting. You are probably aware that within the malt whisky industry there are a lot of new distilleries out there. But I guess what got my attention with Ardgowan was the aspiration and scale and quality that they are looking for.

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“A lot of the new distilleries are very kind of artisan, small [projects] and that is fine. The aspiration is never to be that big. Ardgowan is looking to be a leading player. The capacity of production, the money raised, and the investment required is considerably more than the others are doing.

“It is that aspiration and ambition that was attractive to me.

“[But] there are many other reasons. The location is great, it makes a huge difference to the distillery. Not only does the location give the brand and story behind it, it also [generates] valuable income from a visitor perspective.

“We discovered that on Arran, where I think the distillery is now the top attraction, even more than Brodick Castle. Certainly starting at The Lakes, where there are 18 million visitors a year, that was a big part of it. It is a great way of getting people to visit [and] you can actually get income from it, which is great. Probably as important is the ability to build a brand, because people visit, they know it, they tell their friends, they buy bottle to give to the neighbour for looking after the cat. It’s a great way of building it.

“It [Ardgowan] ticks many, many boxes and I think another big factor is the people involved. [There are] some experienced people [with] the same aspirations. It has been some years in the making, but they have raised a lot of money to be able to do this. I’m joining up at an exciting time.”

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Construction of the distillery, which is being developed on the Ardgowan Estate, is under full swing, with the aim of production beginning by the end of this year. The initial plan is to produce one million litres of spirit per year, before raising output to two million litres per year in the long run.

The malt will be matured in Infinity sherry casks from Spain which will have a key influence on the finished product. Mr Currie said it is unlikely that Ardgowan will launch a three-year-old spirit, as other new distillers have.

Asked to describe the style of whisky Ardgowan will ultimately produce, Mr Currie replied: “It is going to be sherry-led, if not sherry-exclusive. We have these new Infinity casks, which are a new idea. It is a sherry cask, but a shape and size never produced before.

“They are very expensive, as indeed are all sherry casks at first fill. It allows you to have a fantastic product. Probably by seven to 10 years there will be something great coming out of the place.”

Mr Currie, who is no longer involved at Isle of Arran but remains a shareholder of The Lakes, said Ardgowan benefits from an advantageous location just off the main road between Greenock and Inverkip, and within an hour of Glasgow, which he said will help with it attract visitors.

It is hoped tours of the distillery will begin in some form once production has started, using existing buildings. However, a dedicated visitor centre will be built during a subsequent construction phase. Mr Currie said: “We’re calling it ‘cathedral of whisky’ [and] it is going to be incredible.”

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Ultimately, it is expected that the project will create nearly 50 jobs for the local area.

Meanwhile, as the Budget looms in March, Mr Currie questioned the UK Government’s approach to spirits duty. Following the most recent increase in August, the duty rate on spirits is £31.64 per litre of pure alcohol, making it the highest in the G7 group of nations. It means that of the £15.63 average price bottle of Scotch whisky, £11.40 is collected in tax through duty and value-added tax.

Mr Currie said: “I really do feel strongly about that. I think that the duty rates in the UK are completely crazy. It is one of the most important national industries, not only in Scotland but the UK as a whole. It makes the UK business more complex. For any start-up, you need a strong local business e.g. the UK, and it is made more difficult because of duty rates.

“A lot of what bugs me is the unfairness of it. For whatever misunderstood reasons, spirits are taxed at a much higher duty rate than say cider. Where is the logic there? I don’t understand. It affects the UK market because it therefore makes the home-based business more difficult to thrive in. And, absolutely, it makes it much more difficult in other countries, where the Government is trying to negotiate lower tariffs. It is easy for the other side to point and say: what are you doing in the UK?”

Asked how hopeful he was the UK Government would at least freeze duty at next month’s Budget, he said: “Well I’d hope so. There were reports that the Government’s take has actually gone down on the back of the higher duty. You would hope logic will prevail and at the very least they will just freeze it. I think it needs a reversal to the pre-August situation, where it was a much more level playing field of duty rates against other products.”