Whisky Distilleries

Virtual Tour of The Balvenie Distillery

The Balvenie Distillery (Photo Credit: thebalvenie.com)

With international borders still close in most countries, travel is made impossible. For those of us who miss Scotland and her beautiful people, we will have to wait some more. We were, therefore, absolutely delighted when William Grant and Sons invited us to go on a virtual distillery tour at The Balvenie. The highlight, however, was the promise that David Stewart, Malt Master for The Balvenie, would be available for a chat.

A wee trip to Speyside

Some of you know that I love The Balvenie, especially the single barrel range of 12 and 15 years old. I also adore their tea-spooned blended malt, Burnside, with its huge fruit notes and oakiness that does everything to lift the whisky up. Therefore, a tour at The Balvenie distillery is a big treat. I turned up at the Youtube page bright and early (well, in Scottish time at least), and waited for the tour to start.

James, our tour guide for the day

Our tour started with Brett Bayly turning up on screen looking all prim and proper with his suit. He looked a wee bit uncomfortable, but hey, he was enjoying The Balvenie 12 years old Doublewood. I think that should take away all the discomfort! Next online was Gemma Paterson, the lady of the distillery. Gemma is the Global Brand Ambassador for The Balvenie, and she is a familiar figure for anyone who knows The Balvenie well. James was last onboard, but he was sitting happily onsite at The Balvenie distillery, ready to bring us on a tour!

As with all proper distillery tours, we started at the glorious floor malting, which The Balvenie has kept intact since 1929.

The Malting Floor

The mountain of barley at the Malting Floor

It was the first time that I saw such a huge malting floor. I did not manage to visit Speyside on my last trip to Scotland, but I did see a malting floor at Laphroaig distillery. Compared to what I saw during the virtual tour at The Balvenie, the malting floor at Laphroaig was smaller. The Balvenie distillery also employed very manual processes. The malt man loads up a machine that would transport a batch of raw barley from the floor to the steeping tank, where he adds water to encourage the germination process to start.

Once the malt man completes the steeping process, he lays the barley on the ground to grow. After that, the barley goes into the kiln, where they dried the barley either with coal fire or peat. Let’s go take a look at their kiln.

The Kiln

James took us down to see the fire, where it was warm and toasty for him. The kiln looked cool, but it’s very hot to touch. Using a metal hook, he eased the door opened and showed off the gentle fire. The small fire generated enough heat to dry and stop the germination of the barley, but not hot enough to burn them. As a real life experiment, he took a small piece of peat (the distillery produces their own peated malt too) and throw it into the coal fire. Will the peat contributes to a small phenol level in the current kilning process? Perhaps.

The Still House

Next, we headed off to the still house, where The Balvenie distillery produces their new make. The distillery houses 5 wash stills and 6 spirits stills. The wash stills have a capacity of 9100 litres which the spirits stills hold 12,750 litres each. The total distillation hours are 15.5 – 16.5 hours. Balvenie takes the cut of the heart between 74% to 64% abv, pretty much like most other distilleries. Finally, 4250 litres of spirits will be obtained from the original 53,000 litres of wort. A word on the cut of the heart – the peated malt has a lower and more precise cut that is lower than 70% abv.

The second picture showed James’ finger on the bulb of the spirit stills. This is an important part where the shape of the copper still encourages more reflux, creating a higher rectification during distillation. The higher rectification creates a cleaner spirit with fruity notes. The final step of the distillation process is at the spirit safe. Here, the still men will work manually to check on the spirit coming off the still. The new make is collected between 74% abv to 64% abv for the unpeated malt. The cut of the heart is lower when they are distilling peated malt.

Warehouse 24

A distillery tour is not complete without a peep into the warehouse. James took us to warehouse 24, where some of the older casks of Balvenie are still sleeping.

It is a huge warehouse but not filled to the brim with casks. Each cask is given enough space to breathe and do its magic on the whisky it is holding. Some of these casks dated back to the days where David Stewart, the Malt Master of The Balvenie, first became the Malt Master!

In the warehouse, James shared the story of the copper dog, a device used to sneak whisky out right under the watchful eyes of the excisemen. There is a story behind the copper dog and a man named Dennis, but I would leave the story untold. It’s more exciting to hear it first hand when you visit The Balvenie Distillery after the pandemic. James demonstrated how a man can use the copper dog to draw whisky out of a cask. It was pretty exciting, but perhaps, he was making too much noise trying to “steal whisky out of a cask”!

The Copper Dog

A copper dog is a device usually made of copper, although it can be made in stainless steel. The first picture showed the copper dog as it is, a container with a long chain. If you are a warehouse man in the past, you may get your mate to distract the exciseman and you use the copper dog to draw whisky from the cask. All you need to do is to drop the copper dog into the cask, draw it back up, and cap it. Put it back into your pockets and share a dram with your mate later on.

In James’ demonstration, he poured the whisky into a wee glass container to show us what the whisky was – a Balvenie 16 years old in a sherry butt.

Meeting David Stewart, the Malt Master at The Balvenie Distillery

At the end of the virtual tour, Gemma Paterson introduced David Stewart, the Malt Master. David joined the distillery in his youth (see the picture above) and has spent his entire career at WG&S. David is the most experienced malt master in Scotland, having 59 years of experience. He also nosed about 500,000 casks across his career. Meeting David was a treat, even if it was an online chat. He shared his experience of creating one of the most well-loved Balvenie expression – The 12 Years Old Doublewood.

David designed the “wood finishing” process in 1982 (gulp! I wasn’t even born yet) and began to experiment with it. Over time, he developed a sound concept and used it for the 12 Years Old Doublewood. To make the whisky, David takes a batch of whisky matured in American ex-bourbon casks and vat them together before transferring them into sherry butts for 9 months. Then the whisky are again put into a marrying tun for another 2 to 3 months before bottling. While each bottle of the Doublewood is labelled as a 12 years old, the process makes the whisky just slightly short of 13 years old.

The Balvenie 12 Years Old Doublewood

The Doublewood launched in 1993, and immediately took the limelight. The whisky gains its distinctive character from its maturation in two wood types, and these casks give the whisky unique characteristics that would not be available in the other wood. While the bourbon casks soften and give the whisky its roundedness, the sherry casks add depth and flavour to the whisky. It is truly one of the most delectable offerings from The Balvenie!

Comments from WhiskyGeeks

We really enjoyed the tour, and also the media kit that was delivered to us. It holds a copper dog (yay!), the beloved Balvenie Glencairn glass, a 12 Years Old Doublewood and a 12 Years Old Triple Cask. The team is definitely looking forward to drinking the whiskies. The tour gave us a good overview of the distillery and we are now looking forward to visiting the distillery in Scotland for real when the pandemic is over. We want to thank Gemma, James and Brett for the lively tour and David for taking his time out to speak with us.

For now, let’s drink and stay safe! Slàinte!

BenRiach distillery

The first time I visited BenRiach distillery was in Autumn of 2018, but a lot has changed since then, so Whiskygeeks sat with the Global Brand Ambassador for BenRiach, GlenDronach, and GlenGlassaugh,

The first time I visited BenRiach distillery was in Autumn of 2018, but a lot has changed since then, so Whiskygeeks sat with Stewart Buchanan, the Global Brand Ambassador for BenRiach, GlenDronach, and GlenGlassaugh, to have a chat about BenRiach distillery and their new bottlings. If you’re curious about the new 2020 bottlings of BenRiach, you can find the article here! With the new bottlings of BenRiach popping out last year and some new bottlings coming out soon, why don’t we take a look at BenRiach distillery’s history and production?

BenRiach distillery
Panda on some casks at BenRiach distillery!

History of BenRiach Distillery

In 1897, John Duff, who also built Longmorn and Glenlossie, started building the BenRiach distillery. In 1898, the BenRiach distillery was complete and started making whisky. Unfortunately, it closed 2 years later due to the Pattison Crash happening around the same time, which devastated many whisky businesses. It wasn’t until 1965 that Glenlivet Distillers Ltd revived the distillery. Ownership of BenRiach continued changing hands until 1978 when Seagrams took ownership. They started peated whisky production and released BenRiach as a single malt. Pernod Ricard took over in 2001 until it was bought over in 2003 by an independent consortium. One of the co-owners is the famous whisky blender, Billy Walker. Billy Walker is also responsible for the capitalisation in the middle of the distilleries name, just like GlenDronach.

In 2016, Brown-Forman acquired the BenRiach Distillery Company Limited. Dr Rachel Barrie took over the role of master blender for BenRiach, GlenDronach and Glenglassaugh.

Barley

Back in 2018, I learnt that the distillery uses concerto barley. However, after speaking to Steward, we learn that BenRiach isn’t using primarily concerto anymore. This isn’t surprising as distilleries are now moving away from the concerto variant. As of early 2021, BenRiach uses a combination of 3 varieties of barley. Although not specified, we could make an intelligent guess by looking at UKMalt. The spring varieties for distilling malts: Laureate, KWS Sassy, and LG Diablo!
Whisky distilleries need to change the variant of barley it uses from time to time. Aside from the better properties, newer barley variants may possess, this stops diseases from adapting to any one barley variant. Therefore, this ensures that the whisky industry would not be affected by crop diseases, which is exactly the issue the banana industry is facing today.

The peat used to kiln the peated barley (at 45ppm) BenRiach distillery uses is also currently from Aberdeenshire, Tomintoul. This peat is more vegetal and more herbal than Islay peat. BenRiach distillery has also been quietly working on their floor-malted barley onsite! The floor maltings run for about 8 weeks a year, resulting in approximately 10 tonnes of floor-malted barley.

BenRiach Maltings. Taken in 2018!

The malted barley is milled to become grist or crushed barley. This grist goes into a Traditional ‘plough and rake’ mashtun, much like those at Deanston and Bruichladdich. In the mashtun, the grist steeps in hot water to extract the barley sugars.

Fermentation & Distillation

Fermentation of wash at BenRiach depends on the workweek. The sweet sugary liquid, or wort, extracted from the barley spends 55-80 hours fermenting in Scottish Larch washbacks, together with some liquid ‘creamed’ yeast and becomes a strong beer called wash.

BenRiach distils 3 types of spirit. On top of the double-distilled unpeated and peated spirit, BenRiach triple distils their unpeated malt. Every year, the distillery dedicates 5 weeks to peated spirit production around the end of September and 1 week to triple distillation in the summer.

Unfortunately, in 2018, visitors could not take photos in the distillery building, but they did allow photos outside the building. So I snapped a photo of one of their stills!

BenRiach Distillery Still
Outside the Still Room of BenRiach Distillery in 2018

Maturation

Stewart assures us that BenRiach ships their ex-bourbon casks over to Scotland whole now and they are never looking back at flat-packed casks. Under Brown-Forman’s ownership, BenRiach has many connections to Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey distilleries. Therefore, these casks coming to BenRiach distillery would undoubtedly be of high quality.

BenRiach has acquired the nickname of chameleon malt amongst some seasoned whisky drinkers. This is due to how well BenRiach fares when finished in another cask. To find out more about maturation and bottlings (old and new), click this link here!

Future of BenRiach

I am very excited about the new release of the BenRiach 16yo under Dr Rachel Barrie that has been hinted at. Floor-malted BenRiach whisky might take some time to mature before its eventual release. Still, with distilleries like Glen Garioch bringing back floor-maltings, BenRiach will be prepared, should floor-malted whisky be popular and in-demand. BenRiach has changed its bottles and the styles of whisky in them, much like a chameleon, and I’m absolutely excited about what BenRiach does next!

Let’s talk about Grain Distilleries: Girvan Distillery

Grain whisky distilleries don’t get as much coverage and I think it’s quite a shame. There are many exciting innovations that may seem foreign to a traditional pot still Single Malt distillery. Today, I am starting with Girvan!

The grain distillery is situated near the coastal town of Girvan, which it is named after. William Grant & Sons (WGS) owns the Girvan distillery. WGS also own Glenfiddich, Balvenie, Kininvie, Alisa Bay and Hendricks in Scotland. Girvan distillery is in a site just over 1.5 kmsq that also contains Ailsa Bay distillery, Hendrick’s gin distillery, company offices, a cooperage and more than 40 warehouses.

How did Girvan start?

Before Girvan distillery started, the Distillers Company Limited (DCL) was supplying WGS with grain whisky for their Grant’s Blended Scotch. But then, WGS aired an advertisement on the television for their Grant’s Standfast Blended scotch, shown below. DCL saw that move as direct competition and threaten to cut off their supply. Given that this is the mid 20th century, where blends reign supreme. Losing their supply of grain whisky will affect their ability to continue producing Grant’s Blended Scotch.

Grants Stand Fast Whisky. Source

After that dispute, WGS wanted their own supply of grain whisky and they decided to build the Girvan distillery. Within nine months, the construction was complete and the distillery was functional! Charles Gordon, who oversaw the construction of Girvan distillery, had the first spirit distillation run on Christmas day of 1963. This choice of the day pays homage to Charles Gordon’s great grandfather, William Grant and Glenfiddich distillery, which also first ran their stills on Christmas day as well. Today, the distillery operates a continuous process 24/7 and also has a capacity of over 100 million litres of pure alcohol per annum! How does this distillery achieve this feat? Let’s take a look at the production to find out!

Malting and Mashing

Girvan uses approximately 10% Malted Barley and 90% Wheat in the grain bill for several reasons:
1) Scotch Single Grain must have some amount of Malted Barley in it as dictated by the SWA.
2) The enzymes in malted barley to help break down starch into fermentable sugars.
3) Wheat is inexpensive.

Like many grain distilleries, the wheat Girvan distillery uses for grain whisky distillation is unmalted, which saves money and time as there is no malting process for the wheat. The malted barley and wheat go through separate mills and mashes with hot water separately as well. The slurry is then mixed together before the fermentation.

Fermentation

Unlike a traditional pot still distillery, the mash does not go through filtration into a liquid wort before fermentation! Instead, these grain solids, that would have normally been “draff”, mix with the sugary liquid mixture to form a porridge-like slurry.

This mash slurry then ferments in one of 29 fermentation vessels for around 60 hours. After two and a half days, the “wash” slurry is around 10-11% abv. The slurry then enters the column still.

The stills at Girvan

Girvan has a handful of column stills but some of them have been decommissioned. No. 1 Apps (Apps short for Apparatus) was the first Coffey still that was running since the distillery started in 1963, until its decommissioning in 2016. No. 2 Apps and No. 3 Apps are also decommissioned.

Column Stills at Girvan Distillery. Source

The currently running stills are No. 4 Apps and No. 5 Apps, which uses a Multipressure System (MPS) that the distillery started installing in 1992. This MPS technology allows for vacuum distillation, which means the column still is operating under atmospheric pressure. In other words, this lower pressure distillation means that ethanol will boil at a lower temperature, a bit like how water boils below 100°C when one is up high in the mountains where the air pressure is lower. You can see a video about that here!
This MPS vacuum distillation help saves energy as well, as the column operates at a lower temperature!

Distillation

Simplified Diagram of distillation at Girvan. Source

After the fermentation, the slurry enters through the top of the column, as shown in the diagram above. At the bottom of the analyser section, the column is heated by direct steam injection. That is to say, the hot steam interacts and heats the slurry directly, with solids and water flowing to the bottom whilst the alcohol vapours and congeners (flavour compounds) rise to the rectifying section. This separates the grain solids from the alcohol and congeners. To help visualise this process, I recommend the video below from Girvan distillery!

The distillers take precaution to ensure the wash entering the still is approximately 80°C and below 86°C. This tight control on the temperature is due to the compromise of wanting a higher temperature for faster distillation and wanting a temperature below 86°C so that the congeners and grain solids will not burn. This not only ensures a fruiter grain spirit as the congeners do not burn but also ensures process safety!

In the rectifying section, the fusel oils are also taken away, which will
1) Allow the final distillate to be softer.
2) Prevent a build-up of fusel oils in the column to ensure smooth continuous operation
3) Be sold to the cosmetics industry and reduce the waste Girvan produces

The stainless steel columns also have sacrificial copper to help purify the distillate similar to a copper pot still in a single malt distillery. However, the sacrificial copper unit needs to be replaced like a shaving cartridge. Below is a photo of sacrificial copper packings from Chris Burgess, Distilleries Process Leader at WGS.

Sacrificial Copper Packings. Source

Not just a Grain Distillery, but a Green Distillery

Girvan is a prime example of a Green Distillery. Remember all the grain solids that fall to the bottom of the rectifying section? All that biological by-product are used to make biogas, which can then help power the distillery itself. In fact, this process is so efficient that it not only meets the 4.8MW power demand of the distillery but sends the excess 2MW of power back to the power grid to power residential households!! That is truly amazing!

Girvan distillery deserves more attention

Now here’s my biggest issue with Girvan Distillery: No Visitors Centre! >:(
This remarkable eco-friendly distillery which was the first to implement the MPS system back in 1992, truly deserves praise and attention. Furthermore, planning a steady-state continuous distillation requires careful planning to make sure heat and materials (like grain solids and fusel oils) do not accumulate, and everything runs smoothly. This ensures product quality, efficiency and a low carbon footprint!
Now hopefully they release more Girvan, maybe a quarter cask or a sherried octave! <3

Sources:

Girvan Official Website.
Scotch Whisky Cereals Technical Note – 3rd Edition (Scotch Whisky Association)
Girvan Distillery decommissions No.1 Apps (Spirits Business)
Sustainable Planet: Refine Fuel Consumption by Paul Studebaker.
Sustainable Energy using Anaerobic Digestion of By-Products (University of Strathclyde).
How to make greener whisky? Power Grid Internation.
Whiskypedia: Girvan.
Not Backing Down By Gavin Smith (Whisky Magazine).
Tom’s Whisky Reviews – Girvan Distillery Tour.
Distillery Stories: The Girvan Distillery by Greg (Great Drams).
Distillery Visit: Girvan (Whisky for Everyone).
Girvan Distillery (Miss Whisky).

The sun shines bright on Loch Lomond

Loch Lomond (Source)

Loch Lomond is the largest Scottish loch. It is a beautiful place with many exciting tourist attractions along the way. One could stop by the Loch to try and spot Nessie, followed by a lunch picnic if one is so inclined.

The team at WhiskyGeeks, however, was after the treasure to be found at Loch Lomond. The whiskies at Loch Lomond Distillery are not just one or two styles like many other distilleries. We attended an online tasting with the Master Distiller of Loch Lomond Group, Bill White and Whisky Blender, Ashley Smith to learn more.

The History of Loch Lomond

Before we dive into the whisky part, let us take a walk down memory lane to see how Loch Lomond and its distillery started.

If you are wondering why our title talks about the sun shining on Loch Lomond, it is a line from a traditional Scottish song “The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond”. Published in 1841 in Vocal Melodies of Scotland, the song referred to the Battle of Culloden Moor where the Scottish soldiers, led by Bonnie Prince Charlie, was unsuccessful in their attempt to overthrow the King of England, George II.

The song tells the story of two soldiers who were imprisoned at Carlisle Castle. One of them would die while the other would go free. According to Celtic legend, if a Celt dies in a foreign land, his spirit would travel back home via “the low road”, which is the road for the soul. In the song, the soldier to be executed sang, “O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low road”. The story is bittersweet, and you can learn more about the song from here.

The Loch Lomond Distillery

Loch Lomond distillery has its history seeped in the six Celtic clans that surround the loch. These clans include the Colquhoun, McFarlane, Galbraith, Macaulay, MacGregor, Menzies and Buchanan. The above map taken from the Loch Lomond distillery website showed how the clans surrounded the loch. We are not sure why or how Stewart and Cunningham come into the picture, though.

The Original Loch Lomond Distillery

If you looked at the map, you would see on the top, a mark named “Original Distillery”. This is the site where the first Loch Lomond distillery was built. The former Loch Lomond dated back to 1814, at the northern part of Loch Lomond near Tarbat. It is no longer there today, and nobody knew what happened or when it closed. Wikipedia said that it closed in 1817, but it is still unverified today.

The current Loch Lomond distillery opened in 1964. Built by the owners of the now-defunct Littlemill Distillery (the irony!), the distillery is now down south of Loch Lomond, in the village of Bowling. Malt production started in 1965 and continued to 1984 before the distillery was mothballed for three years. It restarted production after Glen Catrine Bonded Warehouse bought the business in 1987. The owners then began grain distillation in 1993 and added two new malt stills in 1999. In 2014, the private equity group Exponent bought the distillery. After five years, Chinese Hillhouse Capital bought over the Loch Lomond Group in June 2019.

Production at Loch Lomond Distillery

Source: Tintin Comics: Tintin and the Picaros.

Loch Lomond is a whisky for the everyday drinker and the geeks! No wonder Captain Haddock from the TinTin series loved it! With eight styles of single malt distillation, single grain and various kinds of yeast used, this sounds like a Japanese whisky distillery in the heart of Scotland. With so many variables, let’s shed some light to get our heads around Loch Lomond whisky

Barley and Fermentation

Many Japanese whisky distilleries play around with various yeast types and distillation styles, like those from Mars or Suntory; and in that regard, Loch Lomond does something similar. Despite that, Loch Lomond only uses Scottish barley. Other than unpeated barley, the distillery takes in peated barley at 25ppm and 50ppm. The barley is peated by a maltster, but the peat used originates from Carnoustie.

Many other distilleries have fermentation times of 48-50 hours as that is enough to maximise alcohol yield, as seen in the graph below. However, Loch Lomond takes a whopping 92 hours for its fermentation! This longer fermentation encourages esterification and adds fruitier flavours.

Graph of Ester Conc and abv over time. Source: Loch Lomond Slides

Distillation

There are eight styles of single malt distillation and two styles of single grain. I know this is a lot to take in, but it is all summarised in the picture below from Loch Lomond’s twitter.

Loch Lomond Spirit Styles. Source: https://twitter.com/LochLomondMalts/status/1115922419271729152

The straight-neck stills are a bit confusing. The High Strength refers to the higher average strength of distillate due to the increased reflux from a cooling ring (see: partial condenser), and Low Strength refers to the lower average strength of distillate when the cooling ring is not used. With the added reflux for their High Strength distillation, the stillmen increases the heating of the straight neck pot still to keep the distillate flow rate, and hence the duration of distillation, constant.

Now let’s talk drams! 😀 (Note: I will be giving my commentary rather than just tasting notes)

Single Grain

Single Grain. Photo Credits: whiskystore.com.sg

Single Grain. Photo Credits: whiskystore.com.sg

Unlike almost all other scotch single grains, the mash bill is comprised of 100% Malted Barley. The spirit runs off a continuous still at 85% rather than 94%, which means that more cogeners will be present in the spirit, giving more body and flavour than almost all other Scottish single grains.

Inchmurrin 12yo

Inchmurrin 12

Inchmurrin 12yo. Photo Credits: whiskystore.com.sg

Entirely from Straight Neck Stills with reflux, this unpeated Whisky is very fruity. In my opinion, I found it to be especially orange-y. There will also be a Single Cask 10yo released exclusively for Whisky Journey 2020!

Sneak Peak of Inchmurrin Single Cask. Photo Credits: Loch Lomond and Whisky Journey

Loch Lomond 12yo

Loch Lomond 12

Loch Lomond 12yo. Photo Credits: whiskystore.com.sg

As seen in the helpful photo summary, Loch Lomond 12 Official Bottling is a blend of unpeated and medium peated Whisky. According to Ashley Smith, whisky blender at Loch Lomond, about 15% of this bottling is medium peated Whisky! This recipe gives this single malt a wonderfully complex blend of fruitiness and peat.

Loch Lomond 18yo

Loch Lomond 18

Loch Lomond 18yo. Photo Credits: whiskystore.com.sg

This OB is a rather dignified 18yo single malt! Although the fruitiness and peat were not as prominent as the 12yo, the musky and waxy notes take the lead. If you enjoy the waxy notes in Clynelish, you will enjoy this too!

Inchmoan

Inchmoan

Inchmoan 12yo. Photo Credits: whiskystore.com.sg

As mentioned in the summarised table of spirit styles, Inchmoan is a blend of 50ppm distillates from both the swan-neck pot still and the straight-neck pot still. Despite that, the dram was a lot more balanced than expected, with fruity notes along with loud notes of minerality, earthiness and smoke!

Miscellaneous Nomenclature

Other than the names you would see in the core range, you may see other names pop up in old bottlings or independent bottlings like Glen Douglas, Old Rhosdhu, Craiglodge, Croftengea and Inchfad. The first two of those names being unpeated, and the last 3 being peated variants.

Inchfad and Croftengea are heavily peated (50ppm), while Craiglodge is lightly peated (25ppm).  The ‘Old Rhosdhu’ name used to refer to a style of single malt distilled at Loch Lomond up to the year 2000. Today Rhosdhu is used internally to refer to the single grain distilled from 100% malted barley.

Where to find Loch Lomond Whiskies

The WhiskyStore is the official distributor of the Loch Lomond whiskies. You can check out their online store to see the expression on sale!

The Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond

If you are thinking of visiting once the pandemic tones down, do remember that the distillery does not accept visitors. You will have to try and contact them via email to check if you can visit. Otherwise, take a trip down to Loch Lomond and enjoy the beauty of the place.

 

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    Travels to India: Paul John Distillery Tour

    Credit: Paul John

    Scotland is considered the motherland of single malt whiskies and it is where anyone who is fond of whisky will head to. Ireland is the other “flagship” location for anyone who loves whisky. Since the 1990s, however, more and more whisky distilleries are popping up in places that are outside of the United Kingdom. The most famous ones are, of course, Japan, and to some extent, Taiwan.

    Do you think about India when you think whisky? Probably not. Nonetheless, the rise of Indian single malts started with Amrut, and now Paul John is catching up!

    History of John Distilleries

    John Distilleries opened in 1996 in Bangalore India.  The founder, Mr Paul P John, set out to win the market with a variety of excellent products, including whisky, brandy and wines. In 2008, Paul John Distillery opened in Goa, India. From the onset, Mr Paul P John wanted to set a high standard for the whiskies that came out of the distillery, so he chose his barley, yeast and water from local sources. Paul John Distillery is famous for its use of the six-row barley, which is harder to process for whisky production. The high standards of the distillery produce excellent Indian Single Malts that are enjoyed over the world today.

    Paul John Distillery Tour

    As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, there is no way we could have travelled anywhere. So the importers for Paul John whiskies decided to bring the distillery to us instead. The Whisky Store worked with the distillery to have their Visitor Centre Manager bring us virtually to the distillery and invited us to see the magnificent building that they have.

    I was very excited to attend because I personally enjoyed Paul John single malts!

    Introduction to the visitor centre

    The Visitor Centre Lobby (Credit: WhiskyStore’s Zoom Session)

    We started the tour with a bird’s eye view of the magnificent visitor centre at Paul John Distillery. The company built the distillery after the Portuguese style of mansions. Some visitors even assumed that the visitor centre bought over an old Portuguese mansion! The inside of the visitor centre is huge and airy.  The symbols of India, as well as the style of furniture, are aplenty within. A visitor walking into the visitor centre will definitely feel like walking into a grand Indian palace of sorts.

    Visitors at the distillery will be treated to a film in a small theatrette first, where they get a sense of the history of Paul John Distillery, before walking down an aisle full of awards and certifications. The recognition of premium whiskies dot the walls of the aisle, showing off the skills of the craftsmen found at Paul John.

    The Production

    The excitement built up as we “walked” into the production site. Our guide, Pankaj, first brought us to the granary, where they store the barley. Sacks and sacks of barley can be seen as the background as he walked us through the three ingredients to making whisky – barley, yeast and water.

    The bags of barley at the background with our handsome guide in the foreground. (Credits: WhiskyStore’s Zoom Session)

    Pankaj explained that Goa is not suitable for the growing of barley, and all their barley is grown in the Northern part of India, at the foothills of the Himalayas. Paul John uses a unique 6-row barley varietal that gives a thicker husk which, of course, make it more difficult to mill and use in whisky production. As we know, almost all other whisky distilleries in the world use the 2-row barley. The reason for using the 6-row barley is simple. Thicker husks mean more protein in the barley, which produces the signature cereal notes, buttery flavour and oily texture that you find in Paul John whiskies.

    Milling and Malting of Barley

    Paul John does not do the milling and malting of the barley itself. The distillery outsources the process to a local company which do all the work for them before delivering the ready-to-use malted barley to the site at Goa.

    The interesting fact here to note is that Paul John buys peat from Scotland for all their peated barley. The peat comes from both the Highlands and Islay. The different barley is then used for different expressions of whiskies, which we will go into later on.

    The milling ratio at Paul John is similar to many Scottish distilleries – 70% grist, 20% husks and 10% flour.

    Mashing

    The Mash Tun (Credits: WhiskyStore’s Zoom Session)

    The distillery uses a combination sort of mash tun. Pankaj calls it a combination of the traditional mash tun and a lauter tun. I am hazarding a guess that it is a semi-lauter tun, but that would probably need to be checked.

    I find the mashing process rather interesting as Paul John uses four batches of hot water for mashing instead of three. It probably got something to do with the higher proteins found in the 6-row barley, but I could be wrong. The team uses two tons of barley and 12 thousand litres of water for mashing in their mash tun. The water is delivered in four batches, the first at 65 degrees Celsius, the second at 75 degrees Celsius, the third at 85 and the last at 95. The sugary liquid obtained from mashing (called wort) is then transferred to the fermentation tanks.

    Fermentation

    Stainless Steel Washbacks (Credit: WhiskyStore’s Zoom Session)

    Paul John has 14 stainless steel washbacks with volume ranging from 16,000 litres to 18,000 litres. In a usual cycle, 11,000 to 12,000 litres of wort goes into the washbacks to ensure sufficient space for fermentation to happen. The distillery uses distiller’s dry yeast as it performs the best under the climate at Goa.

    Paul John ferments their wort for 50 to 60 hours and once the fermentation is done, the wash sits in the washback for another 10 to 12 hours before they pipe the wash to their copper stills. The wash, at around 6 – 6.5% abv,  is fruity, with notes of pineapples and jackfruits.

    Distillation

    Copper Pot Stills and Condensers (Credit: Paul John)

    The aspiration to distil excellent single malt whiskies in Goa drives Paul John to install premium, locally-made copper pot stills when they opened in 2008. Over the years, the distillery expanded and more stills are added. The wash is doubled-distilled, once in the 12,500 litres wash still and then again in their 6,000 litres spirits still.

    Pressurised steam heats up the stills for the distillation and the wash converts into low wines in the wash still. The low wines increase the alcohol percentage to 17-19% abv. To create more flavours, Paul John uses condensers and coolers to ensure high reflux during the distillation process. In the second distillation, the alcohol percentage rises to above 70% abv.

    The Spirits Safe (Credits: WhiskyStore’s Zoom Session)

    The heart of the cut is between 65-70% abv but the number is not the most important. Distillers must taste the new make before they decide to make the cut. Once the alcohol percentage drops below 65%, they stop collecting the liquid as their new make. The flavour profile of the new make is still fruity, with apples, banana and pineapples taking dominance.

    Maturation and Management of Casks

    Racking System of Cask (Credits: WhiskyStore’s Zoom Session)

    There are 20,000 casks maturating on-site at Paul John Distillery. They have three warehouses to store them. One of them is underground, while the remaining two are above ground. As you can see in the above (not so clear) picture, the warehouse that we went to show a racking system that is similar to how American distilleries store their bourbon. Pankaj explained that the flavours vary from cask to cask due to the way they store the casks, which echoes the Bourbon industry in the USA.

    There are many experiments going on at Paul John. They use a host of different casks, ranging from typical bourbon casks to Oloroso, Pedro Ximenes (PX), Virgin oak and fresh Limousin Oak casks. Customised casks from Casknolia also boast Tawny Port casks. Our guide shared that all the casks are only used twice before they are either renewed or sold.

    The casks came from various places in the USA and Europe. One little nugget of information that I like to share is that Paul John buys bourbon casks from Heaven Hills. Now, I am not a bourbon person, but I really enjoyed Heavens Hill bourbons after a friend gave me a sample to try. It’s flavourful without being way too sweet like many of the other bourbons. I would really love to try the Paul John expression that uses the Heaven Hill’s bourbon casks when they are bottled.

    Angel Share

    I wanted to give angel share a little spotlight here because of the hot climate at Goa. Angel share is up to 8-10% a year in India, which is pretty high when you compared that to Scotland at 2-3% a year. Whisky matured at Paul John ages faster, so whisky that matured for 4 years in Goa is almost the same as whisky that matured for 16 years in Scotland. Importantly, the acceleration also ensures that the flavours build up faster in the cask.

    Paul John Distillery matures their core range of whisky for a minimum of 5 to 6 years before bottling. They have a recent whisky matured at 4 years and have received acclaim for it. However, due to the young age of their whiskies, Paul John chooses not to put the age of the whiskies on the label to prevent the biases of age from the consumers.

    Whisky Tasting

    We went back to the visitor centre after the warehouse tour and tasted five whiskies. Of course, we are drinking them from home! The five expressions are Nirvana, Brillance, Christmas Edition 2019, Edited and Bold. Out of the five, I love the Brillance best, followed by Bold and Edited. Nirvana is mild and nice as a starter and the Christmas Edition 2019 is perfect for a long night of enjoyment.

    I would like to give a special mention to Brillance, which is matured for 5 to 6 years, in both first and second filled bourbon casks. The flavours are balanced on both sweet and oaky, making it the perfect fit as your daily dram.

    Both Edited and Bold are peated, with Edited using Highland peat and Bold using Islay peat. As you can see from my preference, I have a thing for Islay peat and lesser for Highland peat. Nonetheless, both of them are good drops!

    Where to buy Paul John Whiskies

    We hope you have enjoyed our story on Paul John and learned a little more about Indian single malt whiskies. We do apologise for the bad photos as we had to screengrab them from the Zoom sessions! It’s the most authentic photos that we want to portray that made us do screengrabbing!

    If you would like to purchase bottles, head over to The Whisky Store and grab them!

     

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      Arran Distillery: The Past, The Present and the Future

      Arran is the first (legal) distillery on the Isle of Arran since Lagg distillery closed in 1837 which was highly revered back then. Arran distillery marks the revival of whisky-making on the Isle of Arran, so let’s dive into how Arran distillery all started!

      Photo of Lochranza distillery in the morning. Taken in 2018.

      How did it start?

      The late Harold Currie who left us in 2016 held many titles, and amongst those titles, he was the Managing Director of Chivas Bros and saw the merger of Pernod-Ricard. After his retirement, he was approached by David Hutchison, who is one of Glasgow’s best-known architect. Moreover, he has ancestors from the Whiting Bay village of Arran and owns property on Arran. With the connections and experience Currie possesses, along with the technical ability for David to help design the distillery, they decided to start a distillery on Arran! In 1991, Harold Currie and David Hutchison set up the company called the “Isle of Arran Distillers Ltd” with a head office in Pathhead, Edinburgh.

      Location Location Location

      One of the first things to decide is the location. The location determines the cost and water supply, and therefore, the maximum capacity of the distillery. In addition, certain locations might pose limitations on the area of the distillery takes up.

      The Isle of Arran has been described as ‘Scotland in miniature’ due to its geology and topography. The island has beautiful granite peaks and gorgeous glens around the north that is reminiscent of the Highlands and juxtaposes with the green arable lands in the south that resembles the Lowlands. Therefore, on the Isle of Arran, one location might differ significantly from another.

      A distillery requires a good water source of a certain quality for its operations. The pH, mineral content, supply and general cleanliness are some of the essential factors. On that basis, Blackwaterfoot, Whiting Bay, Corrie and Sannox were struck off leaving Lochranza that can provide good quality water.

      Planning and Finance

      In November of 1991, the team approached the local Town Council for approval. However, this proposal incurred some harsh resistance from the residents of Lochranza. Residents voiced concerns over potential pollution and the over-industrialisation of their town. But after a bit of compromise and a pinch of humour, the majority of residents had their worries eased. The residents also recognised the benefits the distillery will bring to the island as a whole.

      Earlier, the company came up with an estimated cost of the distillery to be around 1.5 million pounds. However, the costs quickly escalated to 2.5 million pounds, and the company needed more capital. In 1993, the company offered a £450 Bondholder Scheme to the public, offering 6 bottles of blended Arran Whisky after 5 years and 6 bottles of Arran Single Malt after 8 years. There was even a 10% discount for anyone who purchased before 6th December 1993! The company launched another offer of single malt ‘units’ which was defined as a dozen bottles of 70cl bottles. By autumn of 1994, the sale of bonds accounted for 60% of start-up capital. Fortunately, Currie managed to gain more investors and shareholders through his connections. This allowed the construction to begin in 1994.

      The Early Years

      The construction to be temporarily halted due to some golden eagles which were spotted nesting near the site. However, they finished their construction in June of 1995. During the official opening in August, Harold Currie addressed the crowd, amongst it was a much younger Jim Murray. Surprisingly, the eagles flew past the distillery on that day. Maybe, it was a good omen!

      Gordon Mitchell was Arran’s first master distiller! He started his whisky career at Lochside distillery and later joined Cooley distillery in 1989 up till December 1994. As the distiller of a completely brand new distillery, he designed Arran’s new make spirit during the pre-production testing before the official first still runs on 29th June 1995. The quality of the spirit character astounded John Lamond, Master of Malt and Keeper of the Quaich. Gordon continued for over a decade, making Arran whisky and fulfilling the Bondholder schemes. Gordon also had a hand in distilling experimental Arran whiskies, like peated Arran and bere barley, both in 2004.

      In August 1997, the Visitors Centre of the distillery was opened and graced by Queen Elizabeth. The distillery gave two casks to the Queen for Prince Harry and Prince William. The opening of the visitor centre was also greeted by big names actor Ewan McGregor, Whisky writer Michael Jackson, and Takeshi Taketsuru, nephew and adoptive son of Japanese Whisky Legend Masataka Taketsuru.

      In 2001, Isle of Arran Distillers became a patron of the World Burns Federation. This later saw the launch of the Robert Burns blend and single malt! Around this time, Arran also did many cask finishes using casks that once contained Calvados, Cognac Marsala and port. Later, a Champagne Grand Cru cask finish was also introduced!

      Master Distiller James MacTaggart

      Wefie with Mr James MacTaggart in 2018!

      James MacTaggart took over Gordon Mitchell as Distillery Manager of Arran in 2007. James had worked at Bowmore distillery for 31 years and played a part in some of the best Bowmores revered by Bowmore fanatics. At Lochranza distillery, he handles the quality control, buys quality casks for whisky maturation and chooses select casks for bottling.

      A piano belonging to James MacTaggart, in the warehouse. Photo taken in 2018.

      In addition, he determined the malting specifications at Glen Esk maltings so that the barley Arran distillery used could be up to his standards and expectations. He started requesting for peated barley as well, at 20ppm and 50ppm. That effort would bear fruits 3 years later when Arran distillery launched the first release of Machrie Moor, a peated Arran!

      In 2019 James moved on from the position of Lochranza Distillery’s Master Distiller to the Director of Production and Operations which oversees both distilleries. In his place, David Livingston took over the role of Distillery Manager. James was also responsible for mentoring and getting Graham Omand to take up the role of Lagg Distillery Manager.

      Arran in 2020

      Photo of Arran Whisky Core Range from 2019. Photo Credits: Arran Whisky News

      Arran distillery has come far from doing just cask finishes in the early 2000s. There is a core range featuring a 10, 18 and 21 age statements, a revamped cask finishes range, various limited editions, a lovely cream liqueur and single casks bottlings. The core range bottles were also rebranded in 2019, with the cask finishes range expected to follow suit!

      Lagg Distillery and what lies ahead!

      Lagg distillery under construction back in 2018.

      In 2019, Arran Distillers revived Lagg distillery, and it would serve to produce peated whiskies for the company and allows Lochranza distillery to focus on unpeated whiskies. Due to Lagg distillery being on the south end of the island, it is below the highland boundary fault line, and it is technically considered a lowland whisky. That leaves the Isle of Arran with both a highland and lowland distillery. Perhaps Arran should become its own whisky region!

      During the construction of Lagg distillery, the team also started planting apple trees in the field near the distillery. To the date of this article, close to 3000 apple trees have already been planted. It is likely that whisky might not be the only thing that will be made at Lagg distillery!

      New wee apple trees growing near Lagg distillery. Taken in 2018

      To continue the culture of experimentation, Isle of Arran Distillers has announced plans for a blended malt by putting new make spirit of both distilleries into various casks. This “Project North & South” will be maturing until it is deemed ready! According to Global Brand Ambassador, Mariella Romano, in 2020, Arran also has some local barley casks ageing in the warehouse. In another Facebook live video, the comments indicate that there is Champagne cask in the works!

       

       

      This article contains a lot of recorded history from the book “The Arran Malt: An Island Renaissance” by Neil Wilson. If you wish to know more about the history of Arran, you can get the book at the distillery website or from amazon. Special thanks again to Euan Mitchell, James Mactaggart and the wonderful people at Arran for that unforgettable time in I spent on Arran in 2018.

      Caol Ila Distillery – The Contributor of JW Blends

      Caol Ila Distillery

      Our visit to Caol Ila Distillery was the beginning of the end of our Islay trip. It was unfortunate that the distillery was undergoing renovations when we were there. It resulted in our tour getting cut, but the compensation we got was more of their gold nectar!

      The Caol Ila Visitor Centre

      Walking to the Visitor Centre

      Due to the renovations, our vehicle was not allowed to go right up to the gate, so we parked far away and walked up to the distillery. The safety measures put up at the distillery were impressive, so we felt safe during our time there, even with all the construction works all around.

      Curly the Pig reporting in

      When we reached the visitor centre, the cask greeted us in a quiet corner. The cask served an important role though – it was the meeting point for all Caol Ila tours! Upon entering the little shop, we were quite shocked at the number of people squeezed into the tiny space. A group of Caol Ila fans turned up at the distillery without a prior tour booking, and they were unhappy that the team at the shop turned them away! There was a little commotion, but it was sorted out after one of the team checked the tour for the day after and managed to squeeze them in.

      The Tour Proper

      Our tour guide came to meet our group shortly after the commotion. She explained that as the renovation was on-going, we would not be able to visit the whole distillery but only the Still House, which was still untouched by the construction. We were quite disappointed, but there wasn’t anything we could do about it.

      The Caol Ila Stills

      Inside the Still House, our guide shared all the details of the production at Caol Ila Distillery with our group. We visited on a Sunday, and the stills were not running because the distillery only works Monday to Friday! It was surprising as most of the other distilleries work seven days a week, 365 days a year. Our group joked that it must be a good thing to be a production crew at Caol Ila! You get the weekend off!

      The Caol Ila Way

      Caol Ila smokes their barley to around 50ppm, and it should get a very smokey whisky like Ardbeg. However, their stills with the long lyne arms created a lot of reflux, and the result is a much softer smoke.

      The wash still at Caol Ila has a capacity of 58 thousand litres, but they only charged 19 thousand litres of wash in each distillation cycle. The aim is to create high refluxes within the still and increase the purity of the distillate.

      The distillery takes a cut of the heart between 75% to 65% abv of the distillate. Our guide shared that the process takes an average of 2.5 hours during a normal distillation cycle. The head is around 85%% abv while the tail is below 65% abv. The head and tail go back to the distillation cycle in the next charge, similar to most other distilleries.

      The team then dilutes the new make to 63.5% abv (industry standards) before putting them into their respective casks for maturation. An interesting point to note is that Caol Ila does not mature their whisky on-site, but send them to mainland Scotland to mature in a separate warehouse.

      Casks of Caol Ila

      Noticing that some unfinished casks were sitting around the distillery, one of us asked our guide if those casks were no longer in use. She said that while those that we saw were indeed staves that they discarded, Caol Ila builds their own casks. How they do it is to import bourbon staves from the United States of America, and their talented team build the casks up on their own, complete with their specification. Most of the casks are hogshead.

      Where does Caol Ila whisky go to?

      Our article title already suggested that Caol Ila is the main contributor for Johnnie Walker blends. Still, you may be shocked to discover that up to 85% of all Caol Ila whisky goes to Johnnie Walker! Before the boom of Caol Ila single malts, up to 95% of the whisky goes to the blends. Diageo reduced it to 85% in 2011.

      The Tasting Room

      The Tasting Room

      After the short but information session in the Still House, our group went to the Tasting Room, a large, upper room hidden by a wooden door! It overlooks the Sound of Islay and right opposite us, the Paps of Jura! Now you might remember that the Still Room in Ardnahoe overlooks the Paps as well, but we weren’t lucky during our trip to Ardnahoe to view them. However, we were lucky this time!

      The magnificent Paps of Jura

      Ta-da! This was the view right outside the window of the tasting room. Even though the clouds were still low, we could see the two peaks of the Paps, which were magnificent. Of course, our photograph couldn’t do justice to the beauty that we witnessed on Islay.

      What was on offer?

      Caol Ila 15 YO Unpeated, Caol Ila 10, Distillery Exclusive

      Our guide invited us to take our places at a large table where our drams awaited. First, we gave us each a branded Glencairn glass; then she began introducing the whiskies. The distillery upgraded our tour basically, to include two drams direct from the cask as a form of apology for the renovations. You should hear the mumble of appreciation all around the table!

      The list of whisky was as followed:

      1. 15 Years Old, Unpeated, Cask Strength
      2. 10 Years Old, Cask Strength, Feis Ile 2018
      3. NAS, Cask Strength, Distillery Exclusive
      4. 1996, 23 Years Old, 55.3% abv, Straight from the cask
      5. 2012, 7 Years Old, 60.7% abv, Straight from the cask

      1996 Caol Ila Cask

      2012 Caol Ila Cask,

      It was a treat like no other! We enjoyed the large pours from our guide, chit-chat about whisky in general, and made new friends from the Netherlands! We also met the couple whom we saw at Ardnahoe, which was really a pleasant surprise! After all the drams, our guide also encouraged us to walk around the room, looking at some of the artefacts that the distillery collected over the years.

      Used Barrels and a Colour Chart

      We noticed some interesting old bottles of Caol Ila lying around too. Check them out!

      Curly was really excited too!

      Unfortunately, we needed to clear the room for the next tour before we could ask more about these bottles. Nevertheless, it was really enjoyable despite the disappointment of not being able to visit the mash tuns and the washbacks.

      Return to reality

      Exiting the Tasting Room carrying our drams, we went back to the shop just to meet yet another group of disappointed visitors who did not pre-book their tours. This group was unhappy when they saw us coming back, and some heated arguments started between the unhappy group and the team at the shop. Thankfully, our guide arrived in time, and she stopped the commotion.

      As for us, we quickly side-stepped the incident by moving deeper into the shop to look at the bottles available.

      Feis Ile 2019

      Distillery Exclusive

      It was disappointing that these were the best bottles on offer at the distillery, and the rest were the core range. As we had already tried the two expressions during the tour, we did not buy them home. All we did was to buy a super nice Caol Ila Down Jacket instead!

      Saying Good-Bye to Islay

      Our travels on Islay is over, folks! Caol Ila was the last distillery that we visited so we will be starting other articles from next week. Our team did visit Bruichladdich for a tour, but because we wrote a lot of articles on Bruichladdich previously, we decided to omit the tour unless our readers request for it!

      We did not go on tours at Bowmore, Lagavulin and Bunnahabhain because we couldn’t make time for it. However, we visited their shops and bars to purchase bottles and drinks! This omission also meant that we have another excuse to go back to Islay in future!

      WhiskyGeeks hopes that you had a lot of fun touring Islay with us! Stay with us, though! There will be more interesting articles coming up. 😀

       

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        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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