Whisky Distilleries

Ardnahoe Distillery – Youngest of Islay (At the Moment)

Ardnohoe Visitor Centre

Ardnahoe Distillery is the newest setup on Islay, and we arrived bright and early to the distillery on our tour day! As you can see in our picture above, the visitor centre team member was just opening up for the day! Hahaha! Talk about enthusiasm and “crazy whisky people” – that’s us!

Now, the relatively new distillery has an awesome team of people right at the front of their visitor centre. We went in and got ourselves signed in for our booked tour. As we were about 30 minutes early, we had the time to browse the shop for their different offerings.

The full set of Kinship Bottles

We saw many Hunter Laing bottlings for sale, including the much sought-after Kinship bottles (picture above). However, nothing intrigued us more than a bottle of Laphroaig 12 Years Old as it was their shop exclusive. We eventually returned to buy that bottle to bring home with us.

The Beginning of the Tour

Our guide came to us shortly after to bring us into the first room for our 10 am tour. With us was just one other couple from the United States of America, and we had a fantastic time interacting with one another. We met the same couple at Laphroaig and Ardbeg too! It was great fun to make new whisky friends and trade drams and stories. Whisky unites!

The owners of Ardnahoe

The family behind Ardnahoe

Spread across the entire wall in the first room was the history of Ardnahoe. First and foremost, we wanted to talk about the family behind the distillery. Fully owned by Hunter Laing Group, the owners of Ardnahoe are none other than Stewart Laing, a familiar name in the Scotch whisky industry and his two sons, Scott and Andrew Laing.

Stewart Laing founded the Hunter Laing Group in 2013, after fifty years in the industry. He first started his career at the Bruichladdich distillery, and later on, appeared to work with his family business. In 2013, Stewart decided to venture out on his own to create a new legacy with his sons.

Ardnahoe was a dream come true for Stewart. He dreamt of returning to Islay after all these years to set roots down on the island that ignite his passion for whisky. His dream finally took shape in the building of Ardnahoe.

A short history of Loch Ardnahoe

The distillery takes its name from the nearby Loch that supplies the clean, crisp water for distillation. The building is purposely nestled into the hills close to the Loch for its heights. It was quite a sight to drive up to the distillery. The winding roads up the hill gave breathtaking views at every turn, and the tiny roads gave much excitement whenever a car appeared from the other direction. The elevation allows one to take in the sights of the Paps of Jura over the other side of the sea as well, giving visitors magnificent views of the Paps.

According to our guide, Irish monks came to Islay in the 14th century and introduced the art of distillation to the islanders after they saw how suitable Islay was for whisky production. Incidentally, generations of families in the Ardnahoe region illicitly distilled their own whisky using traditional techniques and handmade copper worm tubs. The 1644 Excise Act forced these people to “disappear” into the hills and forests, taking their equipment with them to continue illicit distillation. As a result, every step of the distillation progress was done by hand from barley to peat to water.

A note about Loch Ardnahoe

Loch Ardnahoe is said to be the deepest loch on Islay, but nobody truly knows its depth. Perhaps nobody wanted to try as the risks are high. The water in the loch is soft and filters through thousand years old peat and rock. Ardnahoe distillery uses this amazingly soft water for all its distillation needs.

Behind the First Room

After the history of Ardnahoe, our guide took us behind the first room, and into the production hall. He went through the safety brief as required, and very quickly, the five of us made our way to the first stop – the Bobby Mill.

The Legendary Bobby Mill

The Bobby mill at Ardnahoe is the third one that we met so far, having been to Bruichladdich Distillery and Ardbeg Distillery earlier. As mentioned in the article on Ardbeg, the Bobby mill is precious to their owners as it is fully manual. Only four mills exist. The last mill is at Glen Scotia Distillery, located in Campbeltown.

The First Step – Malting the Barley

Ardnahoe is a modern distillery with limited space, which means it does not have its own malting floor. They buy barley from mainland Scotland, and Port Ellen Malting helps them to malt and smoke the barley to 40ppm. The peat comes from Castle Hill, which is known to be floral, and the team hand-cuts the peat for maximum effects.

Peat from Castle Hill

Port Ellen Malting delivers 28 tons of barley every week, and the team at Ardnahoe sets the Bobby mill to work. After milling the barley to the right ratio, they store the barley in a 2.5tons grist bin.

Grist Bin

Similar to most distilleries, Ardnahoe mills the barley into 70% grist, 20% husk and 10% flour. The maltster at the distillery weighs 100g of milled barley to check the ratio. It is a difficult job as one requires a lot of experience to know how to check the ratio. The maltster also needs to be accurate in his calculation as the Bobby mill is manual and does not have a control panel.

Onwards to the Mash Tun

Once the team completes the milling process, the barley runs along to the mash house, where they enter the first procedure on their way to becoming whisky.

Semi Lauter Mash Tun

Ardnahoe distillery enlists a 2.5 tons semi-lauter mash tun to turn barley into wort or sugar water. Three steams of water go into the mash tun at various temperatures. The first water (10,500 litres) goes into the mash tun at 63-64 degrees C, and drains before the second steam of 3,000 litres goes in at 80 degrees C. The last steam of water (8,500 litres) goes in at 90 degrees C.

The end result is wort or sugar water, and it is cooled to between 18 to 23 degrees C before it gets pump into the Oregon pine wood washback. The remaining draff (spent barley) is channelled to the local farms to feed the cows!

Draff

The Place of Fermentation

The Washbacks of Ardnahoe

The wort that goes into the washback then gets fermented. One Oregon pine wood washback holds 12,500 litres of wort. The distillery uses 40 tons of yeast for each fermentation cycle. Once the team adds the yeast, the fermentation hours starts and the cycle completes after 70 hours. Most fermentation cycles are around 50 hours, but Ardnahoe increases their fermentation to 70 hours to extract more ethers and flavours from the wort. The completed fermentation yields wash at around 7-9% abv.

Yeast in Action

The fermentation in Ardnahoe was fascinating partly because the smell was pretty aromatic. Unlike some of the other distilleries where fermentation was a smelly affair, the washbacks in Ardnahoe smells good. It is a pity, however, that we could not taste the wash. It would, otherwise, be a very eye-opening experience!

The Still House and the Paps of Jura

Stills of Ardnahoe

Ardnahoe has a pair of stills with the capacity of 12,000 litres. When the wash goes into the wash still, the team heats it up to about 90-92 degrees C to start the distillation process. The still has a 7 meters long lyne arm which encourages reflux. The lyne arm is connected to worm tub #1 outside the distillery which acts as a condenser. The liquid that exits the worm tub is now called low wines and it feeds into the spirit still.

The Worm Tubs

The process repeats in the spirit still and the liquid goes into worm tub #2 before condensing into new make. The new make makes its way into the spirit safe. Ardnahoe takes its cut of the spirit between 68% to 63% abv. The head is 69% and above, while the tail is 62% and below. Both head and tail go back to the wash still for the next distillation.

Many people told us how magnificent the views are in the Still House of Ardnahoe. Unfortunately, we visited on a gloomy, rainy morning and all we could see were low clouds over the Paps of Jura. While the weather did not do us a favour that day, we enjoyed the cold and the rain!

Back at the visitor centre

As Ardnahoe currently sells some of its casks to individuals and brokers, we were not able to visit their warehouse unless we are cask owners. Therefore, we headed back to the visitor centre where our guide promised us a couple of drams to warm us up!

Once we got back to the warmth of the visitor centre, our guide took us to another room where about six to eight bottles sat patiently. All of them were from the Hunter Laing series. In case some of you are wondering, Hunter Laing Group is an independent bottler. They buy casks from other distilleries and bottles them under their name. One popular series under the Hunter Laing Group is the Hepburn’s Choice.

It is from one of the Hepburn’s Choice series that I chose a Tamdhu Bourbon cask. Tamdhu, as we know it, bottles exclusively in sherry casks. It was, therefore, pretty exciting to see a bourbon Tamdhu! I was quick to spot the rare dram and chose it as my complimentary dram. (We had another amazing Tamdhu bourbon cask last year in Taiwan too, but that’s another story for another day!)

Tamdhu 2007 9 Years Old Bourbon

Looking at how low the fill level is, we know that this is a popular bottle. Despite the young age, the Tamdhu presented itself strongly with vanilla cream, coconut, fresh apples and a hint of oak. I enjoyed it so much that our guide poured me a second dram of that!

The other WhiskyGeeks member chose a Scarabus, a mystery Islay single malt. While we did not know for sure what the dram was, we had a lot of fun guessing it. Our final guess was Lagavulin, but our guide refused to confirm or deny it.

Scarabus

Our guide enjoyed our company so much (I think!) that he offered us a second dram! As he had already poured me a second dram of the lovely Tamdhu, I did not take advantage of the “second dram”. My partner chose another Hepburn’s Choice for his second dram, one that is named “Nice N Peaty”.

Nice N Peaty 2006 11 Years Old

The mysterious whisky in this bottle had us arguing for some time. All of us could not agree on the distillery. While we had no conclusion, it was great fun talking about it with our new-found friends from the USA.

All good things came to an end, and we eventually had to bring our remaining drams out to the shop as our guide prepared for the next tour. The shop and cafe, however, provided us with another surprise.

The Ardnahoe Cafe

Once in the cafe, we took in the views and were really awed by the majesty of nature on Islay.

The Paps of Jura

Braving the cold once again, we walked out into the crisp, cold air outside the cafe and took this picture of the Paps of Jura. Due to the weather, the low-lying clouds hid the summits of the Paps, but we could still see them in all their majesty across the sea.

Lunch was simple and yet delicious, with a sandwich that filled the tummy up really well! The experience at Ardnahoe was excellent and we appreciate the friendliness of the team at the distillery. We hope to visit the distillery again in the future as we learnt that there are more tours available now, including one that goes to the warehouse!

 

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Chichibu 2: The Sequel

Great news for fans for Chichibu whisky: Chichibu’s second distillery is now producing more Chichibu for the world! Recently, Daniel, a friend of mine, visited Chichibu in January of 2020 and spoke with Yumi about Chichibu 2!

The unique feature of Chichibu

Chichibu 2020 Washbacks. Photo Credit: Daniel Wen

Each washback contains 10kg of yeast which undergoes fermentation for 4 days, compared to an industry standard of 48 hours. This longer fermentation time allows for slower lactic acid bacteria fermentation that contributes to the character of Chichibu’s new-make spirit. The cut of the heart of the distillate is also not just determined by measurements, but a human nose to ensure that the new-make spirit smells clean!

 What about Chichibu 2?

In Chichibu 2, the washbacks are wooden as well but made of European oak instead of Mizunara oak. Unlike Chichibu 1, Chichibu 2 has directly heated stills which could possibly produce a new-make spirit that is more robust and complex. I mean, there has to be a reason why Glenfarclas stuck with direct heating even after trying steam coil distillation. Chichibu 2 will use the same yeast as the original distillery but the fermentation time in Chichibu 2 is slightly longer.

Unfortunately, at the time of this article (March 2019), Yumi cannot answer how different the two Chichibu new-make spirit tastes. Production and testing started in October 2019, so adjustments may still be ongoing, and data might need processing.

One thing is sure, Chichibu 2 will produce 5 times the capacity of Chichibu 1! Currently, Chichibu 1 stands at a capacity of 60 000 – 90 000L of Pure Alcohol annually. That will mean more Chichibu to go around… in about three or more years.

More about Chichibu 

Chichibu sources spring water from the nearby Arakawa (荒川) river. The water is clean and soft, suitable for fermentation and dilution.

Barley

Bags of malted barley in Chichibu distillery 2020. Photo Credits: Daniel Wen.

Chichibu distillery is currently using barley from various sources. 70% is from Crisp malts in the UK, 20% is from Europe, and 10% is local Japanese barley! The grist ratio is at an industry standard of 70% grist, 20% husks and 10% flour.

The peated expressions of Chichibu currently use peat that comes from northeastern Scotland, in between the Highlands and Speyside.

Casks in Chichibu

The team at Chichibu also creates a unique Chibidaru cask. The Chibidaru is comprised of Mizunara cask ends (the circle) with American white oak staves.

Chichibu

Mizunara cask at Chichibu distillery 2020. Photo Credits: Daniel Wen.

Mizunara (above) is somewhat porous and loses whisky quick. But this innovation minimises leakage and while still providing Mizunara flavours. Chibidaru casks are also smaller than the standard bourbon barrel. This small 130-litre cask offers a greater surface area to volume ratio than the standard barrel. Due to its smaller size, these Chibidaru casks rest atop of the casks in the warehouse. This position exposes the cask to a slightly higher internal temperature with more temperature fluctuation due to its smaller size. *flashbacks of heat transfer lectures* The combination of small cask size, higher average internal temperature and increased variation allows Chibidaru casks to mature whisky faster.

In most stacks of casks, the wee Chibidaru casks will be on top with 2 rows of 200L bourbon barrels below it, and the bigger 480L sherry butts at the bottom. Chichibu is also very experimental with the casks they use.

Rum Cask, 2020. Photo Credits: Daniel Wen

On the left are some Chichibu whisky sitting in Barbados rum barrels. Click here for more information on rum!

There was even an ex-tequila cask spotted in the warehouse! Unfortunately, that cask that I spotted 3 years ago is still maturing.

 

The near future of Chichibu

As mentioned earlier, Chichibu is using local barley, and Chichibu local barley might take a while to reach markets. Although the distillery intends to use more local barley, it is improbable that the distillery can move to use 100% local Japanese barley, especially with their plans of increased production.

Talks are underway to use local peat sourced from a company that is approximately 1km away from Chichibu distillery. Imported peat will still be the primary source for the foreseeable future.

The team at Chichibu hopes that the new distillery will push increase production. This would alleviate pressure off the first distillery, which can start doing unique experimental craft whisky. But look out, there may be a plan to do direct retail in the future if production allows!

Ardbeg Distillery – The Making of an Untamed Spirit

Ardbeg Distillery

After our fantastic Laphroaig tour, we moved on to the next distillery along the coast. Ardbeg distillery is yet another famous Islay powerhouse that produces excellent whisky! It used to be known as the “smokiest whisky”, but in recent years, the title belongs to Bruichladdich’s Octomore series. Nonetheless, many whisky lovers still refer to Ardbeg as the “smokiest whisky” because they think that Octomore is more peaty than smoky!

What’s famous at Ardbeg?

Ardbeg distillery is not only famous for its whisky. It is also renowned for its food. The haggis, nips and tatties came highly recommended, as well as some of their other food choices. We decided to have lunch there before we went for the tour. It was the perfect decision. The food was amazing! You would, however, had to go there to find out just how good they were!

A short walk around the distillery

Ardbeg building behind the visitor centre

After lunch, we took a quick walk-around at the distillery while waiting for our tour to start. We found this quaint building at the back of the visitor centre, with chairs fashioned out of casks. It took a lot of patience to take a photo without someone sitting on those chairs! We wished that we could take those chairs home with us though; they would look grand at my home bar!

Starting the Ardbeg Tour

Ardbeg Bus

All tours at Ardbeg began in the area outside of the visitor centre, where a big Ardbeg bus stood. A child had cheekily placed his bike in the middle while he ran around. Our friendly guide came promptly at the start of the journey. After giving us a safety briefing, she took us back into the visitor centre where we gathered again under the Ardbeg signage for a headcount.

Once everyone was accounted for, we were off to the second floor, and into the actual distillery!

Step 1: Grinding of Barley

Barley

Ardbeg does not have a malting floor of their own. They buy customised malted barley (Concerto, smoked to 55ppm) from Port Ellen Maltings. Each batch of malted barley (30 tons) arrives at the distillery each week, and the malting team at the distillery grinds them into grist, husks and flour.

Bobby Mill

Say hello to the Bobby mill of Ardbeg. It is the machine that grinds the barley. There are only 4 Bobby Mills in Scotland. The four distilleries that have them are Ardbeg, Ardnahoe, Bruichladdich and Glen Scotia. The machine mills five tons of barley in each run. The team runs the mill for three to five seconds before catching a sample to weight and check if they got it right. The mill runs for 16 to 17 times in a week. The barley is grounded to 70% grist, 20% husk and 10% flour. The Bobby mill is a manual machine. The team depends on experience to know how long to run the mill as there is no control panel.

Fun Fact: Ardbeg bought their Bobby mill in 1921 at GBP300 as a secondhand! Imagine how much the Bobby mill will cost today!

Step 2: Mash House

Mash Tun

After visiting the relic that is the Bobby mill, we proceeded to the Mash House, where we got into more action. The mash house is the location where the team produces baby whisky. To extract the sugar from the barley, the mashing team puts the barley into the mash tun and adds three steams of hot peated water to it. The first steam of water (17.5 thousand litres) is at 68 degrees C. The water sits in the mash tun for 15 minutes to fully extract the sugar before draining. The second steam of water, also at 68 degrees C, goes in after, and flows out immediately to join the first steam. The last steam of water at 80 degrees C. removes the last bit of sugar available in the barley. It is also drained immediately.

Washback

The liquid at the end of this process is no longer ordinary peated water. It has become wort or sugar water. The team cooled the wort to 18 degrees C before pumping it into the washback. Once ready for fermentation, the wort received 22.5 tons of yeast. Ardbeg sets fermentation at 55 hours in the summer, and 56 to 58 hours in other seasons. The long fermentation allows for flavours to form, but the process is exceptionally smelly!

Yeast in Action

The end product of the fermentation process is known as the wash. The wash is technically a beer. It needs to go through the next step to become the clear liquid we know as new make.

Step 3: Distillation

The Ardbeg Stills

The next step is the distillation, of course! 11.5 thousand litres of wash charges into the wash still at each run and undergo the first distillation. The interesting fact about this process is that the still actually can hold up to 18 thousand litres, but Ardbeg only charged 11.5 thousand litres into the still for every distillation. After the first distillation, the low wines (from the wash still) go into the spirits still for the second distillation.

Ardbeg cuts the heart of the spirit at between 73% abv to 69% abv. Anything above 73% abv is the head, and those below 69% abv is the tail. The head and tail will join the next charge of the wash in the wash still.

Step 4: Maturation

All new-make needs to mature three years in oak casks before they can be called whisky. Unfortunately, we were not able to see the warehouse at Ardbeg due to renovation. However, our guide brought us out of the distillery to enjoy some excellent views!

View from Ardbeg distillery

She also showed us the new building that will house the new Ardbeg stills at the distillery when the renovation completes. There will be four new stills at Ardbeg, and the two old stills will be melted. The new stills will double the production of Ardbeg whisky from 1.4 million litres a year to 2.8 million litres. Our guide shared that the distillery hopes the increased production will eventually push prices down for their whisky so that more people can enjoy the goodness of Ardbeg.

Step 5: Tasting

The tour group returned to the visitor centre, where we entered the bar located next to the cafe. Our guide ushered us into a secret room at the back, and when all of us were comfortably seated, she told us that we would be getting a dram from a choice of five bottles.

Available choices

If you are disappointed, please don’t think that Ardbeg is stingy. We went for their regular tour, and not the warehouse tour, which means that we only get one dram each. Both of us chose the Ardbeg Drum because we had all the other expressions before. The Ardbeg Drum reminded me of pineapples, which was stunning for us! Our guide stayed with us, and we had a wonderful time chit-chatting. Towards the end of the session, we even laughed at the expense of others when our guide shared her stories of how people mispronounced distillery names!

Before we went off, I managed to take a photo of Shortie, Ardbeg’s mascot!

Shortie!

Shortie belonged to one staff member of Ardbeg. He was always naughty and ran around the distillery looking for treats. As a result, the distillery decided to name Shortie the mascot for Ardbeg. Even though he was no longer around, his spirits lived on in every person at Ardbeg distillery!

 

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Laphroaig Distillery – The Controversial Islay

Laphroaig Distillery

Laphroaig distillery is home to the world-famous whisky of the same name. It is a whisky that causes heated debates over how it tasted, and can seriously make one person look demented in the eyes of another. However controversial the whisky may appear to taste, Laphroaig distillery is a place that excites whisky drinkers all over the world.

Entrance to Laphroaig Visitor Centre

We visited Laphroaig Distillery on a sunny morning for a tour and tasting. Having a driver who used to work at Laphroaig Distillery as a Stillman made it extra special for us as our dear driver introduced us to everyone at the visitor centre! We arrived earlier than expected, and excitedly, try to explore the little museum located at the visitor centre. It is a small area detailing the history of Laphroaig, as well as providing some explanation to what peat is.

Peat Explained

Laphroaig Distillery Tour

After going through the museum, we met our tour guide for the day and started our tour.

Step 1: Malting Floor

Malting Floor

Laphroaig malts some of their barley at the distillery and buys the rest of them from Port Ellen Malting. The first step of malting barley is naturally seeping them in water. Barley seeped in water for roughly 48 hours. The time depends on the temperature and how fast the barley reacts as the barley needs to get a moisture content of 45% before they are used in the next step.

The team at the malting hall changes the water regularly to keep the water fresh. Draining the water also helps to allow the barley to breathe before refilling it to continue the seeping process. Once the barley is ready, they will be spread onto the floor. The ideal temperature during the germination is about 18 degrees C to make sure that the barley is ready for the kiln. However, due to weather changes, the distillery needs to monitor the temperature carefully and make changes when necessary. In cold weather, the team keeps the barley warm by closing the windows; in hot weather, the windows are opened to keep the barley cool and well-ventilated.

During germination, the team works hard to keep the barley fresh by turning them regularly. The process helps to ventilate the barley and prevent them from sticking to one another. It also allows the barley to breathe and germinate properly. During the tour, the guide allowed everyone to help turn the barley using a shovel that they kept to the malting floor. We were very excited to try that as it would be the first time that we get to do it!

Turning the Barley!

Here we were! Holding the shovel for the first time, and scooping barley in the attempt to turn it! It was great fun, honestly, with every one of us making a pose for pictures and videos! The barley germinates better with the regular turning, and soon, it would be ready for milling before moving on to the next step.

Step 2: The Kiln and Smoking

The germinated barley needs to be dried to stop the growth and make it useful for whisky-making. Maltsers transferred the barley to the kiln when it is ready. The kiln is responsible for both the smoking and drying of the barley. They do the two processes separately. Smoking using peat takes about 12 hours while the drying time depends on the moisture content. The team needs to dry the barley down to 2% moisture.

The place the barley rest on

To smoke and dry the barley, the team sends the barley to this “resting floor” above the kiln. The guide took us in to take a look and also to have a feel of getting smoked! The germinated barley gets spread out on the floor before they lit the fire below for the smoking and drying process.

The Kiln

This is the kiln at Laphroaig. As it was one of the slower periods in whisky-making, we got a chance to see the kiln when it was not in use. The team will pile peat into the kiln, light it up, and the smoke that rises will reach the floor above where the barley lies. As mentioned earlier, the smoking process takes 12 hours. After that, drying takes place. As mentioned earlier, the distillery takes part of its malted barley from Port Ellen Malting. We understood from our guide that the malt from Port Ellen is around 40-45ppm while the malts from Laphroaig is around 50-55ppm. To achieve an average, the distillery mixes the two malts to get a good balance.

Peat Lesson

An Aside: Peat at Laphroaig

Our knowledgeable guide also worked us through a lesson on peat on Islay as well, explaining how Laphroaig cuts its peat.

We learned that peat location plays a big part in the kind of peat smoke the distillery wanted. Islay peat is the product of salt-sprayed heather, ferns, gorse, sphagnum moss, moorland grass and seaweed. The combination gives Laphroaig its signature salty, medicinal and coastal notes that creates controversial reactions all over the world. The distillery owns peat beds on the east shores of Loch Indaal, near to the Islay airport. The team looks after the peat beds, making sure that they are in the right conditions for the cutting which is usually done between April to September every year.

Laphroaig distillery is the last distillery on Islay that is still hand-cutting its peat. Usually, hand-cut peat is wet enough to make lots of smoke, which is perfect for Laphroaig.

Step 3: Mashing and Fermentation

We moved on to the mash house, where our guide treated us to more information about the whisky-making process. The mash tun gets three lots of water to extract the sugar from the malted barley. The first lot of water is at 63 degrees C; the second lot at 80 degrees C, and the last lot at 90 degrees C. The first and second lot of water move to the washbacks, while the last lot of water goes back to the mash tun as the first lot of water for the next mash. The sugary liquid, or wort, then cools to about 19 degrees C and moves to the stainless steel washbacks.

Washback

Laphroaig used liquid yeast, and the team adds it to the wort in the washback. Fermentation happens, and it yields a low wine (beer) at roughly 8.5% abv. Again, we were excited when our guides offered to let us taste the low wine!

My cup of Laphroaig “beer.”

Laphroaig also makes excellent “beer”! It is slightly peaty and smokey, coupled with plenty of sweetness. In my opinion, it tasted even better than the one we had at Kilchoman! Considering that I dislike Laphroaig, I believe I would instead drink its beer (if the distillery ever decides to release one)!

Step Four: Distillation

Spirits Still (four in the back); Wash Still (in the foreground)

Our group trotted to the Still House like a bunch of eager children who had been promised chocolates. Once there, we wowed over the seven stills standing proudly in front of us. There are three wash stills and four spirits stills. Each wash still holds 10,400 litres, while the spirits stills vary in their volume.

Spirit Safe

The first distillation through the wash still increases the alcohol percentage from 8.5% abv to around 20-25% abv. The lyne arms slope upwards to get more reflux, which helps to increase the strength of the distilled spirit. The second distillation goes through the spirits stills and alcohol percentage goes up to above 80% abv. Laphroaig takes the cut of the heart between 78% to 62%.

Step Five: Maturation

Whisky cannot be whisky if it is not matured for a minimum of three years in Scotland. We headed off to the warehouse once we completed the still house tour.

Laphroaig Warehouse

A quick look at the warehouse showed rows and rows of casks lying in the dark and moist environment, waiting for their turn to shine as whisky in a prized bottle. As our tour was a cask strength whisky-tasting tour, we knew what laid ahead.

The Best Treat at Laphroaig

Our guide finally bought us to a low-lying warehouse where we see three casks waiting for us. Our group sat down and waited with bated breath as our guide explained the procedure of tasting the three cask-strength whiskies and how we should bottle our favourite into the glass bottles provided. The three casks consisted of a bourbon barrel, a Manzanilla Sherry butt and a Fino Sherry butt.

Our guide showing us how to draw whisky from the cask

We were all given a taste of the three casks, and then our guide waited for us to decide on the whisky that we wanted to bottle. Some of the participants rushed to the casks, but we took some time to decide. Our final choices were the bourbon barrel and the Manzanilla Sherry butt.

The Final Look

Bottling took longer than expected due to the crowd in our group, but we finally got our hands on the finished products! The above picture showed my bottle nicely sitting inside a beautiful package. Sadly, the box did not survive the flight back, and we had to throw it away in Edinburgh. Nonetheless, the bottle and the glass survived!

Friends of Laphroaig

Back at the visitor centre, we claimed our rental for the plot of land that we “own” on Laphroaig’s peat bed. While we did not have time to visit our little plot, it was good to get our rental “payment” of it.

Our rental payment

If you are a friend of Laphroaig, remember to claim your rent at the visitor centre when you visit the distillery. It is available once a year and if you are lucky to visit them every year, claim it! We moved on to the next distillery soon after our tour as we were on a tight schedule, but Laphroaig distillery truly gave me one of the best distillery tours on Islay.

 

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Kilchoman Distillery – The Farmhouse

Kilchoman Distillery

Two team members from WhiskyGeeks went on an Islay-centric Scotland tour in September 2019 and we had a whale of a time! Coming back from Scotland was torturous, but such is life! It took us many months to get our bum to settle down in front of our computers to start writing, but here we are, finally!

Let’s start our journey with Kilchoman, the second newest distillery on Islay. The distillery started distillation in 2005 and have since expanded their production to 220 thousand litres of pure alcohol a year! New washbacks and stills will be installed soon, and we can expect increased production after that.

Going on a Distillery Tour

It was fun going on a distillery tour, mainly because you get to see all the machines and get behind the storefront to see the actual production hall. On Islay, the distilleries normally consist of different buildings on the distillery grounds, and Kilchoman is not any different. We started the tour at the shop, where our lovely tour guide met us. She distributed our tour souvenir, a mini Glencairn glass and a lanyard, as we will be using them along the way. After the usual safety briefing, we were off!

First stop – The Malt Floor

Entrance to the Malt Room

Kilchoman does some of their maltings onsite using Islay grown barley from the nearby Rock Side farm. Roughly 30% of the distilled spirit comes from Islay grown barley, while the rest comes from Port Ellen Maltings. Each malting is carried out in the traditional way of spreading the barley on the floor for germination to take place.

Traditional Malting Floor

Workers malt around 40 tons of barley at a time, by steeping them in water and allowing for 5-7 days of germination and drying.

Barley germination in progress

During the germination, the plant shoot, or acrospire, will start growing. The malting is complete once the acrospire grows to around three quarters or more of the length of barley. Once the maltsters see that the barley is ready, they will start the kilning process.

Second Stop – The Kiln

The Kiln

The kilning begins by igniting dry peat to get the fire going before adding wet peat to create peat smoke. The workers will smoke the barley for 10 hours and leave it to dry until the malt reaches 5% moisture content. This malting onsite leads to a 20ppm phenol content in the Islay malt. To follow the traditional way of malting, Kilchoman lets the barley rest for four days after kilning and before milling them for mashing and fermentation.

Third Stop – The Still House

The Still House

Kilchoman is a farmhouse distillery, which means that space is limited. To make work effective, the mash tun, washbacks and stills are placed in the same location.

After milling, 1.2 tonnes of grist goes into the mash tun. To extract the sugars, the workers add three streams of hot water at 56degC, 85degC and 95 degC. 6000L of sugary liquid, or wort, goes into the washbacks, along with 20kg of dry yeast. This wort is then left to ferment for approximately 84 hours to become wash, a strong beer at 6-8% abv.

Our tour guide asked if we would like to try the “Kilchoman beer” and proceed to pour us some when she got a resounding “YES!”

The Kilchoman Beer

The wash tasted sweet, with a yeasty, lightly fizzed note at the back. It was good! So good that we asked for a second helping. Personally, I think that Kilchoman should consider making their own beer. I would buy them if they make it!

The Distillation

The Stills

Since the stills are pretty small, only 3000L of wash goes into the wash still at a time. After the first distillation, 1000L of low wines at approximately 19% abv goes into the spirit still for the second distillation. The remaining 2000L became pot ale, which is used to fertilise the crops at Rock Side Farm. Pot ale is useless for making whisky, but its organic compounds made them perfect as fertilisers.

The low wines from the wash still, and the heads and tails from previous distillations are then added into the spirit still at approximately 26% for the second distillation. Kilchoman takes the cut of the heart between 76% and 65%; this means any distillate above 76% are foreshots, and any distillate below 65% are feints. These foreshots and feints are added to the low wines in the next distillation. After 3.5 hours of distillation, the spirit still produces 3.5 litres of spirit, which will be watered down to a filling strength of 63.5%.

Fourth Stop – Not the Warehouse

Sample Casks

Unfortunately, Kilchoman distillery has a policy that does not allow visitors to see their warehouse. It is due to safety reasons though; they have nothing to hide! Instead, we got to see some sample casks which the tour guide explained their way of storage before she led us to the next exciting part of the distillery tour.

Fifth and Final Stop – The Bottling Plant

The machine that helps to bottle Kilchoman Single Malt

The bottling process is a combination of manual and machine work. The bottling team needs to ensure the cleanliness of the bottles before feeding them to the machine, which will do the bottling. In the above picture, you can see the process of filling the bottle. The filled bottles then passed through the glass portion of the machine where the cork gets fixed onto the bottle. The final process gets the bottles sealed and labelled! The bottling team then completes the process by putting the bottles into their boxes and packed them into cases of six.

End of the Tour – Back at the Distillery Shop

Our tour guide led us back to the distillery shop and ended the tour. You must be surprised to see that we did not appear to taste any Kilchoman whisky. We did! It just did not flow nicely in the narratives earlier. We had a Sanaig in the malting room and it was surprisingly good! We got to admit that we are not big Kilchoman fans largely because we find it spicy, but the Sanaig was really awesome.

Sanaig and peat 

Back at the shop, we considered having a meal at Kilchoman because we heard that the food was awesome! Alas, we cannot, as we needed to move on to the next distillery. Nonetheless, we had enough time to explore the little farmhouse at the back of the distillery and the below pictures were what we found!

The Kilchoman Cat and Hen

There were some other hens running around but they ran away when they saw us. Hahaha…

It was a fantastic visit to Kilchoman, and we look forward to seeing more of them after their expansion.

 

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Balblair Distillery – True Highland Spirit

Balblair distillery made it into the news recently for their change in packaging and labelling of their whiskies. Instead of vintages, the distillery decided to follow the conventional method of stating the age of the whisky on the bottle. It is a welcoming change for drinkers who are too lazy to count the years (like us)!

We wanted to see how things may change with the new packaging, and Lady Luck shines on us – SAMPLES! Our friend over at AsiaEuro kindly gave us some samples to try, and of course, we gladly took over. Who says no to whisky, right? Before we go into the tasting, let’s take a look at the history of the distillery.

History of Balblair Distillery

Balblair was founded in 1790 by John Ross in the Highlands of Scotland. As a Highland distillery, Balblair uses water from the Ault Dearg burn. Even though the distillery moved its location in 1895 when Charles C Doig rebuilt it, the water source remains unchanged to this day. It is important to note that water source for a distillery is crucial, and we applaud the efforts that Balblair takes to maintain the integrity of its water.

John ran Balblair from 1790 to 1824 singlehandedly as a striving business. Andrew Ross, his son, joined him at the distillery in 1824 and it remained in the Ross family for another 70 years. In 1894, Alexander Cowan took over the tenancy of Balblair distillery. The business remained as a small-scale distillery until 1948, when Robert Cumming bought it. Robert expanded the distillery and increased production and ran the bigger distillery until he retired in 1970.

By this time, Balblair is known as an excellent Highland single malt whisky producer, and it is no wonder that the distillery attracted buyers. When Robert Cumming retired, he sold Balblair to Hiram Walker. Finally, Walker sold it to Inver House Distillers Limited in 1996, where it remained till this day.

Whisky Production at Balblair

We do not get a lot of information on the actual whisky production methods at Balblair as the information is not available. Let’s move on to the tasting notes!

Whisky Reviews

Credits: balblair.com

Balblair 12 Years Old

Nose: confectionary sweetness, lemon zest, sour mash
Palate: lemon zest, vanilla sponge cake, resin,
Finish: heather, resin, lemon zest, vanilla
*We did not add water to the 12 Years Old.

Balblair 15 Years Old

Nose: cookie dough, brioche, chocolate, cinnamon, black pepper and honey. With water, we get a hint of ginger too.
Palate: chocolate cinnamon honey and yellow pears. With water, there are more honey, cinnamon and black pepper.
Finish: vanilla citrus, cinnamon and milk chocolate. With water, we get dark chocolate, walnuts and marzipan.

Balblair 18 Years Old

Nose: hints of new magazines, cinnamon, milk chocolate, rich honey, vanilla sponge,
Palate: cinnamon, chocolate, brioche, walnuts, cashews, lemon zest, grapefruit zest
Finish: cinnamon, black pepper, lemon zest
Again, we did not add water to the 18 Years Old.

Our team was quite divided on our favourites after the tasting. Suffice to say, we enjoyed all three expressions, but the 15 Years Old did win the vote with a 2 out of 3. Have you tried these yet? What are your thoughts?

 

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Singapore’s first Single Malt!

Singapore’s first Single Malt distillate was filled into a Four Roses ex-bourbon barrel! In a collaboration between Brass Lion Distillery and The General Brewing Co., the wash was carefully formulated and distilled.

The Process

The team used a barley strain called Maris Otter for the mash. This malted barley used for the mash was especially unique, as it is a pale malt that Scottish distillers do not use. The mash then underwent fermentation, utilising a blend of 80% high gravity yeast and 20% ale yeast. Brewer Daryl Yeap noted that the high gravity yeast could survive a higher alcohol content and produce a high alcohol yield. He went to explain that the ale yeast contributed fruity flavours to the new-make. In crafting a truly Singaporean whisky, the fermentation was at a very local temperature of 30 degrees Celcius, which possible due to the thermotolerant yeast used. After 36 hours of primary fermentation, the wash sat for another 36 hours to allow unique and funky flavours to emerge.

This 2000L wash at 9.5% reached Brass Lion distillery for a double pot still distillation. Although Brass Lion’s hybrid consists of a pot still and a modern column still, the low wines did not get distilled in the column still. Instead, the low wines underwent distillation a second time through the same pot still. A strict numerical point did not determine the cut of the heart. Instead, Javin Chia analysed the new-make distillate in most of all the distillations and took the cut of the heart. This process bears a striking similarity to Chichibu’s method of nosing to determine the cut of the heart rather than a fixed numerical figure.

Challenges

As this is Singapore’s first legally distilled Single Malt New-Make Spirit, the team faced many challenges. One challenge was getting Singapore customs to understand how whisky duties would work, taking into account the angel’s share. Executing a brew without hops presented the brewery with new challenges. The wee pot still had a volume of 150L, and approximately 130L can be distilled each time.  After a gruelling 22 distillations done, Brass Lion obtained 180L of new-make spirit, which would go into a bourbon barrel.

The New-Make Spirit

Nose: The nose was generally malty, with notes of cereal biscuit aromas, butter, and peanut nuttiness.

Palate: The arrival gave notes of unripe green apples and cereal. The texture was buttery, and after a bit, lemon rind notes start to appear.

Finish: A lovely malty, and buttery finish

Unlike most new-make spirits that I have tried, this did not have strong notes of sour mash. Furthermore, the malty notes of the Maris Otter shone through. This very drinkable new-make is likely due to the commitment of Javin and the Brass Lion team to smell and analyse the distillate.

 

Whiskygeeks is very honoured to be invited to the barrel-filling and showcase of Singapore’s first legal Single Malt New-Make! I am confident that the spirit will evolve into something spectacular.  Special thanks to Javin Chia and Brass Lion!

Frongoch Distillery – The Royal Welsh Whisky of Old

The Royal Welsh Whiskies – Picture from Penderyn Distillery

Wales is not high on the whisky map. It is well-known as an industrial country with coal mines, and gold. Whisky was never one of their “virtues”.  Many people did not even know where Wales is or that it exists.

Wales has a short whisky history. The current distilleries are Penderyn Distillery, located in the Brecon Beacons in Southern Wales, and Dà Mhìle Distillery in Western Wales. Penderyn is the only distillery exporting its Welsh whiskies outside of UK, to countries such as the United States, Germany, France and Singapore.

The History of Whisky in Wales

Unknown to many, Wales was home to a whisky distillery about one century ago. Known as Frongoch Distillery, its location was about two and a half miles from Bala on the way to Trawsfynydd. R. Lloyd Price, the owner of the Rhiwlas Estate and Robert Willis, a pretty unknown person, registered the Welsh Whisky Distillery Co in Frongoch, Bala, in 1889 and built the Frongoch Distillery.

The Rise and Fall of Frongoch Distillery

An Old Picture of Frongoch Distillery. Picture from BBC.

Frongoch was the perfect site for the distillery due to two crucial things – the pure, peaty water from the Tryweryn River, and the readily available transportation network via the nearby railway station and ports. The first Welsh distillery was a magnificent building in its heydays as it received fundings of £100,000 to build and run it. When it opened its doors in 1890, it was a beautiful place with a malthouse, kilns, peat store, offices and accommodation for its 30 workers. There was also a dedicated excise officer located on site.

Sadly, the distillery did not survive. The company went bankrupt in 1910 and Frongoch Distillery became an empty shell. The premise remained uninhabited until the outbreak of World War One in 1914. During the war, the distillery and its grounds became a prisoner of war camp for captured Germans and Irish.

In 1916, during the Easter Rising in Ireland, the English army detained some of the most prominent figures of the uprising at Frongoch. There were two camps on the premises, the North and South camps. The South Camp was in the old buildings of the distillery. The prisoners included Terence MacSweeney and Michael Collins. Frongoch Distillery in Wales remains a vital link in the history of Ireland even up to today. As a prison during the war, it held the best of Ireland’s revolutionaries for the freedom of Ireland.

The Whisky of Frongoch Distillery

It was said that full production at Frongoch would reach 150,000 gallons per annum when the distillery opened. The first Welsh whisky went to customers in 1891. All of them went to North Wales and the border counties. The owners changed their policy after the first batch, choosing to increase the years of maturation. This was a time before rules and regulations came into the whisky industry; such a move from the owners showed their passion and dedication to the craft of whisky-making.

Interestingly, the Welsh Whisky Company Co. received a royal warrant from the Queen on 26 July 1895. As a result, the prefix “Royal” could be used in front of the whisky. Hence, the Royal Welsh Whisky was born. Shortly after the receipt of the royal warrant, the market released the first Royal Welsh Whisky in the history of Wales.

 

Advertisement of the Royal Welsh Whisky. Picture from WhiskyInvestDirect

Details about the flavours and taste of the whisky did not survive the years, unfortunately. Advertisements such as the above picture tell us that the distillery released the whisky as a five years old malt made from the finest malted barley, but there was nothing that spoke of its flavours or taste.

Based on the location of Frongoch, the ample peat available likely meant that the whisky was peated. It was also comparatively more expensive than the typical Scotch whiskies of the time. The old report of the Wine & Spirits Trade Record also pointed to the fact that the Royal Welsh Whisky might have been more similar in style to their Irish counterpart than Scotch in terms of their choice of using a “Pot Still” and selling the whisky both in bulk and in bottles. Sadly, there were no concrete details to find out more.

The modern Royal Welsh Whisky

The Royal Welsh Whisky of Penderyn. Picture from Spirits Castle

Fast forward to the modern era, and we have Penderyn Distillery as a successor. As the first Welsh distillery to export its whiskies outside of the United Kingdom, the distillery owns one of the original Royal Welsh Whisky bottle (picture at the top of the article). There are three other surviving bottles. One of them is a resident at Cardiff’s St Fagans National History Museum. The other two belong to private collectors who bought them in an auction at £7,300 and £7,200 respectively in 2016.

In 2019, Penderyn Distillery decided to honour the history of whisky-making in Wales with the release of their version of the Royal Welsh Whisky. It is part of Penderyn’s Icon of Wales series and released in March 2019 to celebrate St David’s Day. The new Royal Welsh Whisky sports a peated Portwood finish.

We wonder if the distillery opened the original bottle to try before deciding on the flavours, although it would be very much like drinking a historical relic. Nonetheless, we are excited to try the newly-minted “Royal Welsh Whisky” from Penderyn Distillery.

Royal Welsh Whisky from Penderyn Distillery

Nose: Guava, melons, pineapples surface with black pepper in the nose, with a very muted peat note at the back. With time, vanilla surfaces with soft peat.

Palate: Tropical fruits, muted peat and hints of smoke at the forefront. With time, vanilla cream, peat and smoke come together in a harmonious and beautiful expression.

Finish: Oaky with sweet fruits that develops into fruit peels. With time, the finish is long, and wisps of smoke come and go elegantly.

The Royal Welsh Whisky will benefit from patience and airing time. The dram evolves over time, with the characteristic of its Portwood finish disappearing after 30 minutes and the Peated finish comes full power. It is a beautiful dram that changes with time, giving you a surprise at every turn.

 

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Nantou Distillery (Omar whisky) visit!

Nantou distillery has been making Omar, a Taiwanese whisky, since 2008. The distillery tours there are quite like those of Scotland. The tour guide makes the experience more intimate, more personalised and less commercial. Nantou distillery’s willingness to experiment makes them unique, especially to whisky geeks like myself! I know many of you are more interested in the whisky; so I will leave the technical production details to later in the article!

Omar Whisky

Nantou winery makes different fruit wines and liqueurs which can be used to season casks for unique cask finishes. Omar whisky has released whisky finished in casks of Lychee Liqueur, Plum liqueur, Black-Queen Wine and Orange liqueur.

Batch 4 Lychee Liqueur Cask Finish

This Lychee liqueur finish has a balanced Lychee note that does not overpower the whisky. I enjoyed the tropical fruit notes of pineapple and mango alongside notes of pear drops!

Batch 1 Orange Liqueur Cask Finish

This dram is for the orange lover with notes of orange puree, orange zest, and orange flower water alongside some lovely notes of vanilla and honey from its prior maturation.

I am particularly fond of their bourbon cask strength, both peated and unpeated! But do not fret about the age statements. Due to a higher average temperature, maturation speeds are a lot faster than Scotland. A 3-year-old whisky at Nantou would taste similar to an 8 to 12-year-old whisky matured in Scotland. The 8-year-old cask strength is a special release; it feels like a 15-20-year-old scotch.

Omar 8yo 2009 Cask Strength

This 8yo is very soft and demure, giving notes of old oak, vanilla, pears and mandarin oranges!

Omar 3yo 2014 Peated Cask Strength

The 3-year-old peated cask strength displayed a high calibre of maturation, with the right balance of peat smoke. Water will draw out more smoke for people who love that note! This delicious yet affordable single cask would be good smoky daily dram!

Omar 10yo 2008 PX Sherry Cask

For sherry bomb lovers, this is an absolute sherry nuke or WMD! This is the result of 8 years in sherry hogshead before finishing in a PX cask for two years. This dram holds notes of Christmas cake, cinnamon, chocolate, plums and dried fruit!

Barley

TTL buys barley in bulk from multiple maltsters. Most of the unpeated barley is from maltsters in England, while most of the peated barley at 35ppm is from maltsters based in Scotland. The moisture content is also similar to specifications required in Scottish distilleries, around 4%.

Milling & Mashing

The barley is milled into grist with the standard ratio of 70% grist, 20% barley husk and 10% flour. Distilleries maintain specific ratios to assist in the filtration of wort and to prevent choking in the pipes. The grist is sent to a German semi-lauter mash tun with a charge of 120000L. Hot water is added three times; the first and second streams form the wort. The third stream, called the sparge, picks up the remaining sugars, but it is low in sugar. The sparge is not mixed with the first 2 streams, but to maximise sugar recovery. This is done by reusing the sparge for the first stream to be added to the next batch of grist.

Fermentation

The wort goes into one of the stainless steel washbacks to undergo fermentation, turning it into a strong beer called wash. In this stage, the yeast will start eating the sugar in the wort and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol. For Omar whisky, this fermentation process takes an average of 72 hours using French distiller’s yeast. This is slightly longer than the 48 hours of fermentation in most modern Scottish distilleries. The wash from Omar is around 7-8% alcohol by volume (abv).

Distillation

Pot stills

The wash goes into one of 2 wash stills to be distilled into low wines. This distillation removes the barley solids leaving mostly ethanol, water and aromatic compounds. The low wines are pipped into the spirit still for its second distillation to reduce water content. Nantou Distillery currently has 2 Wash Stills and 2 Spirit Stills. One spirit still is different, as it, strangely enough, has a window. The stills are of varying sizes, one at 7000L, two at 5000L and the last one at 2000L.

Cut of the Heart

There are three components in the spirit still distillate. The head comes first at a high abv, followed by the heart, which is what goes into the barrels, and lastly comes the tail which has a lower abv. The cut of the heart affects the new make spirit and how the whisky tastes. If the cut starts at a higher abv, the new make spirit gets lighter, fruity notes, but also more undesirable flavours from the heads. If the cut ends too low, it gets heavier flavours but risk lowering the final abv.

The master distiller decides how to balance these two points. For Omar, the cut of the heart is somewhere between 73% and 64%. This means that the stillmen sends distillate above 73% (heads) and below 64% (tails) into a tank to be redistilled. The heart that is within the range will go into barrels for maturation. Due to Taiwan’s legislation, Nantou Distillery reduces the strength of their new make spirit to just below 60% abv before filling in casks.

Maturation

Cask Management

Nantou distillery receives the sherry and bourbon casks whole so that the cask maintains its inherent quality. Nantou distillery uses ex-bourbon casks up to 3 times. As for Sherry casks, there is no fixed numerical limit. Craftsmen will keep utilising the sherry cask until they deem it to be too exhausted to provide flavour. According to the tour guide, the sherry casks usually provides stronger flavours in Nantou’s climate, therefore using refill would give a more balanced dram.

 

3rd and 4th fill Bourbon casks are usually used for seasoning with wines or liqueurs. This is extraordinarily creative, because a 3rd or 4th fill cask may not provide as much cask influence, but they can act as a sponge to soak up the previous liquid. This means that such a seasoned cask would deliver the flavours of the previous content without over-oaking the product. These seasoned casks are used for the various Omar whisky finishes.

Warehouse

Most of Nantou distillery’s warehouses are racked for easy access to the individual cask. Amongst the racked warehouses, Nantou distillery also has a specially designed warehouse with space for future tasting events. This warehouse has an architecture heavily influenced by the sherry bodegas in Spain. The casks stacked up to three high and is a mimic of the solera system in a sherry bodega. Though the ceiling is lower, the arcs near the ceiling are similar to Bodegas in Spain. As a comparison, these are some pictures of the bodegas I visited in Jerez de la Frontera. On the left is Bodega Diez Merito, on the right is Bodega Fundador.

 

Distillery Expansion

Omar is looking to expand its production capacity by adding 3 more pairs of wash and spirit stills! The distillery is also undergoing renovation to accommodate larger tour crowds. In addition, Omar is continuing to experiment with new and different finishes! It is an exciting time ahead for Omar whisky and Nantou distillery is a must go on your Taiwan trip!

 

Special thanks to Nantou Distillery, Chairman Chung, and Ben for this enjoyable experience!

Guest Writer: Hongfu’s take on Glengoyne’s Production

Glengoyne is a beautiful Highland Distillery with a warehouse just across the road in the lowlands. They have a long reputation of using quality casks and produces whiskies that are sweet, unpeated and sherried. It came as no surprise to me when M&S chose to feature a 14-year-old in their range! Glengoyne holds many special memories for me – Jonathan Scott conducted my first proper whisky tasting at The Single Cask @CHIJMES, and I had Glengoyne 21 year old as a gift on my 21stbirthday from a generous friend!

With the help of Zerlina from WhiskyGeeks and Jonathan Scott of Glengoyne Distillery, I got an exclusive tour to learn the production of this delicious golden nectar! As a way of saying thanks, I asked Zerlina if I could write an article for WhiskyGeeks to share my experience at Glengoyne, and so, here it is!

My Glengoyne Experience

Glengoyne is a mid-sized distillery producing approximately 1 million litres per year. Glengoyne has two water sources. It uses the water from Loch Carron for production and Blairgar Burn for heating and cooling. 100% of the malt used is the Concerto variety coming from Simpsons, a malting company just to the right of Edinburgh. That might change in the future as more distilleries start switching to the Laureate variety. Some other distilleries have allegedly had their highest yield in their wash during experiments, so this seems promising for the future of this barley variety!

The Production Process

Mashing

The mill crushes the malted barley to grist to break open the husk of the grain. The rollers of the mill grind barley to a standard ratio of approximately 20% Husk, 10% Flour, and 70% Grist. This ratio is vital to prevent clogs and blockages in the pipes. The grist mixed with water to form a mash, with a porridge consistency, which is similar to adding hot water to a bowl of oatmeal. A traditional rack style mash tun, which has rakes turning continuously, mixes the “porridge” mash. The hot water helps dissolve some of the soluble sugars and to start breaking down the starch in the barley into sweet soluble sugar. This process separates the sugars from most of the solids. Hot water is added three times at Glengoyne to extract almost all the sugars from the mash. Each stream of water is hotter than the previous one.

Glengoyne’s way

At Glengoyne, the first stream of water to mix with the grist is at 64oC, followed by a second stream of water at 78oC. The first and second streams break most of the starch in the grist into sugar.  The third and final water stream comes approximately between 88-90oC to take away any remaining sugar. The process strips almost all the sugar in the grist, much like how hot water dissolves more chocolate and much faster than cold water. The temperatures of the water streams gradually increase so as not to change the natural qualities of the malted barley.

Fermentation

The sugared water from the first and second streams is called wort. The distillery cools the wort to below 20oC before channelling it to the washbacks for fermentation. The temperature is crucial as yeast cannot survive in high heat. The sugary liquid from the third stream of water is called the sparge. Sparge is very hot and have low sugar content. The sparge isn’t wasted though; it is piped away to be used as the first stream for the next mash at 64oC. The remaining barley solids in the mash tun is called the draff, and though it has almost no sugar, it is high in proteins. The draff is sold to farmers as cattle feed. It builds a very strong relationship between Glengoyne and the farmers around the area. Draff also grows healthy cows and produces delicious Scottish beef!

Fermentation at Glengoyne

A 20kg bag of Pinnacle Distillers Dry Yeast (MG+) – Photo by Hongfu Teo

The distillery uses Douglas Fir Wooden Washbacks for fermentation. Douglas Fir trees have fewer branches with lesser weak points, making them strong and lasting as washbacks. Each washback can last a couple of decades.

Each mash pipes into one of six Douglas Fir Wooden Washbacks for a fermentation period of approximately 56 hours. The team adds MG+ Pinnicale Dry Yeast into the washback to start the fermentation process. The yeast will change the dissolved sugars in the wort into low strength alcohol. This fizzy beer-like liquid brewed in the washbacks is called wash, and when the team completes the fermentation, the wash has an alcoholic strength of approximately 8.5% abv.

Distillation

Glengoyne’s Stills (from left) – Wash Still and 2 Spirits Stills (Photo by Hongfu Teo)

This wash is then sent to the wash still, which is the bigger pot still with three windows on the left of the photo. The wash still takes away some of the water and all the solid particles. This is done by heating the liquid until it bubbles. The vapours rise to the top of the pot still and down the lyne arm, to a shell and tube condenser that turns the vapour into liquid. The distillate from the wash still, known as low wine, flows down the lyne arm at approximately 16L/min. This low wine has an abv of 24%. The low wines enter the tank called the low wine receiver.

The stillmen have to ensure that the wash does not boil over the still and go down the lyne arm by monitoring the bubbles constantly. This is to ensure that the low wine does not have solid particles. The window on the still is usually the indicator that this still is a wash still.

A Second Distillation

The stillmen split the low wines between the two small onion-bulb Spirit Stills (in the picture above) to be distilled a second time. The second distillation increases the alcohol percentage of the final product. The pair of spirit stills is on the right of the photo above. The distillate comes out of the Spirit still in three stages: the Foreshots, the New-Make and the Feints (aka the Head, the Heart and the Tail).

The foreshots are cloudy and undesirable as it contains a lot of alcohol and lighter flavors. At approximately 75% abv, the distillate becomes clean and clear and smells sweet. This is the start of the “heart” or new make. The stillmen collect the distillate from this moment as the new make. Heavier flavours appear at approximately 65% and the stillmen direct the distillate to feints. The foreshots and feints are then channelled into the still again as there is still a significant amount of alcohol in them. The figures of 75-65% are approximate because temperature affects the reading. Stillmen usually use charts to ensure that the Glengoyne new make spirit is sweet and clean.

The Slowest Distillation

Glengoyne also has the slowest distillation from the Spirit Still at a volumetric flow rate of 5L/min. This slow distillation allows the liquid to have prolonged contact with the copper stills. This copper contact takes away sulfur compounds, which is another reason why the Glengoyne spirit character is so unique, and clean.

The New Make

Casks on display at Glengoyne (Photo by Hongfu Teo)

The new make is usually around 71% abv, and Glengoyne watered it down to 63.5% before filling it into a cask. Glengoyne has a 3-fill cask policy so after the third use; they stop using the cask. This policy ensures that every cask provides adequate maturation to the new make. The distillery shipped Oloroso sherry casks whole from Spain and seasoned them for at least two years. The process also strips the rougher tannins off the wood, giving the casks more Oloroso character! The casks give Glengoyne whiskies notes of raisins, dried fruit, nuttiness, chocolate, cinnamon and Christmas Cake! The sherry casks also provide all of Glengoyne single malt’s colour; the distillery does not use E150a caramel colouring!

An Extremely Educational and Enjoyable Journey

It was a lovely trip to the Glengoyne distillery and a one which I learnt a lot from. Thank you, Jonathan Scott, for the insightful tour! I am sure that I will be back again in future!

All this talk of Glengoyne is making me thirsty. Now, excuse me as I pour myself a dram of my favourite Glengoyne Core Range Bottling; the 21yo aged in 1stfill Oloroso cask… for 21 years!

Slainté!

 

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