“We’re in it for the long term”, said Eileen. “It’s to pass on to our grandchildren.” Her eyes alight. She radiated pride and excitement. Pride in all that she and her husband had achieved. Excitement in all the plans and possibilities of what more they could do. This was bigger than whisky.
Eileen grew up near here, in Wooler. Her grandfather owned the land we stood on. After a successful career in accountancy, she returned to Northumberland where she met her husband, Alan. But Eileen’s homecoming brought with it a hard realisation. Wooler, like so much of our beautiful region, had been left behind. A case-study in the years of austerity and under investment that are now at the centre of the ‘levelling up’ discourse. It was “depressing”, Eileen said.
She could have sold her grandfather’s land. Offers from housing developers were abundant. But this wasn’t about them, anymore. It was about Wooler. So, they didn’t sell. Instead, they built.
The entrance to Ad Gefrin is cavernous. Its walls curve around you and come together in a dome above. Stand in the right spot and the acoustics sound like they could compete with any theatre or opera house worldwide. The low lighting makes the surrounding pine panels glow, like embers in a gentle fire.
The Ad Gefrin Anglo-Saxon Museum and Whisky Distillery opened earlier this year. As we admired its copper stills and toured its tasting room, Eileen described it as her “project of passion”. But it’s clearly more than that. Ad Gefrin is a celebration of history and identity. It’s a statement of local pride. It’s community regeneration, in full effect. Its establishment has created more than 60 jobs – many of them from Wooler or the wider county.
Shop souvenirs (“Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve always wanted a shop”, Eileen says, gleefully. “Now I have one!”) have been carefully selected to not compete with wares available in the town. (“We don’t want to compete with the High Street”, she adds, we want to “bring people to it”.) Many items have been made by local artists – a couple of whom have been supported by the North of Tyne Combined Authority (NTCA).
Even the key ingredient – barley, essential to whisky distilling – is local, from a farm just 12 miles away. It makes sense. “Northumberland”, Alan tells us, “is the best place in England to grow barley”. Ad Gefrin’s supply chain is rooted in its community. “If you’re based here and doing it here, you’re much closer to it”, he explains.
But it also means its carbon footprint is small. Solar panels cover the roof of the building. Its heating system can be converted to run on hydrogen. Waste steam from the stills goes into underfloor pipes, keeping the Museum and Distillery warm. There’s talk of plans to build an Archimedes Screw on site.
The whole experience – and it is an experience – is immersive, right down to the font and translations on the signs. Every detail pays homage to Northumberland’s Anglo-Saxon heritage. But if Ad Gefrin’s ‘look and feel’ is steeped in Wooler’s history, its vision and mission focus on its future. “Regeneration is the driving force”, says Eileen. Taken together, and the whole project is all about belonging. Roots. Giving back to the community. And all this before their first Single Malt expression is even ready.
At NTCA we’re not in the business of making whisky or curating museums. Our means differ but our goals are, in ways, strikingly similar.
They’re offering employment opportunities for local people – we’re set to create more than 5,000 permanent jobs in four years, with over 1,280 already in post across the North East. They’re acting as a business to minimise their carbon footprint – we’ve a Green New Deal Fund set up to help companies do just that. They’re striving to ensure that the money they generate stays in the region – whether through their local suppliers, employees, commissioned artists, or even just their support for the High Street. We have entire programmes aimed at building community assets and wealth and strengthening local supply chains.
They’re celebrating the region – as are we, in all that we do. Because, like Eileen and Alan, we’re in it for the long-term.
Mayor Jamie Driscoll.