Amongst the Spirits
In pursuit of wider knowledge, the Beer Hunter sent a very small (and committed) team to check out the whisky making process in Scotland. No challenge is too great! We journeyed to Speyside, the home to many Highland whiskies including Gelnfiddich, the world’s biggest selling single malt. The first stop was the restaurant for some local haggis that was a delicious way to start the tour. After a small wait for the (free!) tour to begin, we were off. This is what we learned.
Although often complex in flavour when finished, whisky starts out from some very simple ingredients – malted barley and soft clear water. The process starts when malted barley is ground into ‘grist’ that is then mixed with heated spring water and poured into giant ‘mash tuns’. The result is bubbles, clouds of steam and a pleasantly pungent aroma. We lingered as long as we could…
The result of the mashing is a sweet liquid called ‘wort’. Yeast is added to the wort as it is pumped into the traditional handmade wooden fermentation vessels, the ‘washbacks’. As the wort ferments the resulting carbon dioxide gas creates a massive, hot frothing head that foams up to the top of the washback. Once fermentation subsides it leaves a brown liquid known as the wash. The wash has 8-9% ABV, making it similar to a strong beer (the absence of hops discouraged the temptation to sample).
The heart of the distillation process lies in the still house. Here the wash is distilled in copper pot stills that exactly match the shape and size of the original stills. The wash in the stills is gradually heated until the alcohol turns to vapour. The vapour rises through the narrowing neck of the still and is guided downwards and through a water-cooled condenser. This condenses the vapour into an intermediate liquid, known as ‘low wines’. The low wines (about 21% alcohol) are heated in ‘spirit stills’, smaller versions of the wash still.
The vaporised alcohol is drawn off and condensed as previously, and then trickles down into the ‘spirit safe’, where the flow of spirit can be controlled. This liquid is now legally a bonded, taxable spirit, so it is kept under lock and key. The stillman runs the delicate operation of monitoring this distillation – any mistake can ruin the whisky’s flavour. Only the fine middle cut, or ‘heart’ of the distillation is retained for maturation. The stillman catches it at the flick of a tap and a new batch of Glenfiddich is born.
The raw spirit is reduced to around 63% alcohol with natural spring water from local springs and then filled into hand-built oak casks. Glenfiddich only use the very best casks made from the very best wood, such as once used sherry butts from Spain and bourbon barrels from America. These second-hand casks lead to the creation of a high quality spirit. Mellowed by previous use, the oak helps mature the Scotch whisky, allowing it to breathe, soften, assume subtle flavours and acquire a pale golden colour.
The full casks are stored on-site in the traditional warehouses and the spirit is left to mature. The atmospherically dark, damp interior of the warehouse and the temperature, humidity and climate of this environment provide optimum conditions for the whisky to develop its complex character. When you walk in through the small door you are encouraged to take a deep breath, and it’s a good one! Hyperventilation could be a lot of fun in this place.
The intoxicating atmosphere was explained to us – as a cask ages, alcohol compounds evaporate off the whisky through the porous oak back into the air. This is roughly 2% from each cask per year and the lost spirit is known as the Angels’ Share. We also got the chance to smell a sherry and a bourbon cask ready to be filled – the bourbon was the winner of the two. No smoking or photos are allowed in the warehouse due to the alcohol content in the air – Glenfiddich do not want the 120 million litres of whisky gently maturing to go up in a very exciting flash.
The tour ended with the joys and the hardship of whisky tasting. We were all offered the 12, 15 and 18 year old whisky to sample. All of the whiskies were very good and a joy to drink – the only hardship was having responsibility for the car keys and no other way to get to Grantown. A bottle of the 18 year old made a lovely souvenir.