THE founder of the world’s first 100 per cent community-owned whisky distillery is selling the Ross-shire farm it was built upon after a bitter split with its management.
The unique and innovative GlenWyvis distillery near Dingwall was the brainchild of helicopter pilot John McKenzie, known as the ‘flying farmer’, who saw his dream come to fruition in 2016.
The non-whisky drinker’s grand vision was to build an asset completely owned, run and managed by the local community on his land at Scroggie Farm above Dingwall.
The local area has a rich tradition in distilling dating back to 1690, but the last previous whisky distillery, named Ben Wyvis, had closed its doors in 1926.
The new project’s crowning glory was to be a major visitor attraction at the original old Ferintosh and Ben Wyvis distillery entrance to Dingwall – complete with cinema, restaurant, shop and events rooms.
The aim was to ensure visitor footfall brought a significant boost to the town’s ailing High Street economy.
But the visitor centre project was never realised and differences of opinion on the distillery’s future led to Mr McKenzie quitting the GlenWyvis board in 2019.
He remained a shareholder as well as landlord, but there have been spats over issues such as pedestrian and vehicle access to the distillery and a perceived abandonment of its founding principles.
Mr McKenzie claims the distillery is now run by “absentee owners”, including Essex-based chairman David Graham and other investors from as far afield as the USA.
The green energy advocate and former Army Air Corps and Canadian Air Force helicopter pilot said: “It is well-known that there’s a divide between myself and the committee that’s led by the chairperson who lives in Essex.
“He has changed everything and cancelled the visitors centre plan for the edge of town.
“For the good of Dingwall and the community, 10 years is what I put into it.
“I respect the fact that lots of people, locally, have invested in it, but we’ve had enough.”
The distillery, opened in 2017, has gone from strength to strength with two successful share issues raising £3.7 million and the release of its first three-year-old single malt in December last year.
Mr McKenzie, though, feels the dream has turned sour.
With Dingwall not benefitting as he had envisaged, he is seeking “the right person” to take over stewardship of Scroggie Farm’s properties and land.
Particulars of sale include “the unique, bespoke, architect-designed GlenWyvis Farmhouse”, all buildings, a hydro scheme, wind turbine and solar array.
Extending to 30 acres across 17 fields, ownership of the farm would entitle the buyer to act as distillery landlord and attend board meetings.
In 2010, the farmer created a green energy project on his land which the distillery taps into as part of its eco-friendly ethos.
Outline planning permissions currently exist for a farm shop, conversion of cow shed to a bonded warehouse and two further options for warehouses.
Mr McKenzie continued: “As founder of the distillery, I’m quite happy to say that I’m frustrated by the lack of development in the town that was planned and put to investors.
“There were a number of businesses in the High Street that invested in the distillery to regenerate Dingwall.
“We expected to see investment. Unfortunately, the distillery is not as Dingwall-focused as those of us who live in and around Dingwall – and there are nearly 4000 members of that distillery – would like.
“There have been disagreements between myself and the distillery as regards where the development is going.
“For someone who lives in America, maybe the aspiration is to have a visitor centre beside the farm, which there is no planning for.
“But the whole idea was to use the history of whisky in Dingwall to assist the town.”
Safety issues arising from people attempting to visit the distillery have also been a sore point.
Mr McKenzie said: “The distillery have repeatedly refused to advise members of the public not to attempt to visit the distillery despite planning for visitors being refused twice.
“I have great concerns about the possibility of an accident on the stony brae farm access.”
Mr McKenzie says he has already garnered a number of serious enquiries.
He added: “I’m looking for the right buyer to assist Dingwall and protect what I created with local directors (at the outset).
“There is no time limit on finding the right buyer.”
The distillery is set to launch a “goodwill fund” to be spent in Dingwall, but Mr McKenzie feels this is a far cry from the founding vision.
GlenWyvis Distillery has declined to comment.