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Adventures in Scotch Land

In the wide world of Scotch whisky, the rules of terroir don't always apply
Jack Bettridge
From the Print Edition:
Jim Belushi, November/December 2010

(continued from page 3)


The beer then enters another microclimate unique to each distillery—the still. Every distillery uses a different shape and sized still. Some use two different types for the first run (wash still) and the second (spirit still).

It is in the distillation of Scotch that size—in particular height—matters. Glenmorangie has the tallest still, letting only the lightest spirits escape. Macallan's are among the smallest, which concentrates the flavor of a spirit meant for long aging. Aberfeldy's are large and bulbous, which renders the light, honeyed malt that informs the Dewar's blend. So important are still dimensions that when The Glenlivet recently expanded, pains were taken to replicate the exact shape (tall and wide) of its stills.

Work on the pot stills of Scotland create enough business that outfits like R.G. Abercrombie coppersmith are devoted to these tasks. In its Alloa facility, parts of stills are being worked on, cut in basic form and forced into shape with hammers. The smiths all wear serious ear protection from the constant din as they attend to mushroom- and onion-shaped stills from makers such as Oban and Talisker.

Copper has charms that improve the taste of whisky as it interacts with the metal. If this were true of stainless steel, Abercrombie would have much less work. But copper wears out over 10 or 15 years-seldom at the same rate-so most of the work is piecemeal maintenance. Rarely are the smiths called upon to create an entire still at once, as Abercrombie was when Diageo opened Roseisle, the first new distillery in Scotland in 30 years. Then the coppersmiths had the opportunity to construct 14 stills in one fell swoop.

Back in the still house, the first run creates what are called low wines, bringing the alcohol content to about 20 percent before the second finishes the job, resulting in a spirit of between 60 and 75 percent alcohol. In the Lowlands region, as with Irish whiskey, a triple distillation employing a middle still has been traditional, but is now only used at Auchentoshan.

Glenmorangie uses these giant stills, the tallest in Scotland, with a view toward capturing only the light spirits that can climb out of their swan necks.
Glenmorangie uses these giant stills, the tallest in Scotland, with a view toward capturing on ly the light spirits that can climb out of their swan necks.
It is in the last run that distillation style is typically distinguished. The overall run of the still is diverted, or cut, twice. The foreshots that begin the run are sent off because they contain impurities. Then at some point before the end of the run they further divert impurities called feints. The foreshots and feints are retained, however, and redistilled in a later run.

The point at which the spirit is kept for aging and, later, to be bottled, affects the final product quite profoundly and each distillery has philosophy for when to do this. Some amount of impurities are actually desirable because when aged they contribute to a whisky's character. If the desire was to eliminate impurities completely, they would use industrial column stills, like vodka makers do, instead of old-fashioned pot stills.

The fresh spirit is now ready for aging: the longest and arguably most important part of whisky making. As Cardhu's Duncan Tait, an operations manager, points out, his part of the process is to create new-make spirit, which takes only about 95 hours. The next leg of the journey will last 12 years and that it is when single malts truly become whiskies.

As romantic as it to think of maturation as an integral part of Scotch terroir, enthusiasts may be surprised to learn that aging doesn't necessarily take place where the spirit was created. Often the space and complex cask management requirements for large scale whisky-making make the efficiencies of aging elsewhere more compelling than the charm of aging on site at the distillery. First of all, not every location confers the same local flavor on an aging cask as will Islay with its wind-and-saltwater-whipped shores.

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Comments   2 comment(s)

Marv Eleazer — Valdosta, GA, USA,  —  January 26, 2011 9:32am ET

By far the most well written piece on present day Scotch distilling I've read. I'd love to see you guys publish more of this stuff. Great work!

stantine972 February 4, 2011 11:27pm ET

Nice article Jack. I agree with Marv we want more. I love anything Bourbon!

George NY

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