Lessons with the cask force (Bowmore)

Lessons with the cask force (Bowmore)

Making whisky is all about rolling up your sleeves and getting down among the peat as Dave Broom found out at Bowmore distillery\r

Distillery Focus | 16 Oct 1999 | Issue 6 | By Dave Broom

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6 o'clock in the morning! God knows when I last went to work at the same time as the sparrows are breaking wind in the trees. Still, whisky doesn't wait for lazy journalists, so it was down the road into a bright Bowmore dawn. I've been round my fair share of distilleries, seen their workings and enjoyed a leisurely dram at the end. But every time, there would be men quietly getting on with their job. I knew the theory of whisky making, but what actually were they doing? Which is how I was there at 6am on the first of a five-day stay waiting for my indoctrination.The new shift arrived looking surprisingly awake. It was straight into the malt barns for David McLean and me to get 21 tons of floor-malted barley into the kiln. The two fires, topped with peat, were lit; the blue smoke rising with the hot air, slowly swaddling the malt with its fragrant blue blanket. Peat would have to be added at regular intervals throughout the next 15 hours, before the kilning would be completed with a long period of hot air drying. It takes time. "You don't want to dry it quickly," David explained. "The shell will crisp up, but the centre of the grain will remain soft so you can't mill it properly. It's all about time and patience."That said, there was no rest for us. This is a non-stop process. There were floors to be turned, a new one to be laid, fires to be checked. It was the beginning of May. The rain had stopped and the landscape of subtle gradations of grey was suddenly lit up. The air and the water in the burns were warm. Outside people were hoping it was the start of a good summer. Inside the malt barn David was cursing. "Heat's our enemy. We have to keep the barley at a even temperature. If it gets too hot you'll run the risk of mould and the germination gets too quick. This is already beginning to smell." It smelled like germinating barley to me.He told me to slip my hand under the surface. It was warm, moist, almost clammy. "That's why we turn it - to get air into it, to keep the temperature down and stop the rootlets matting together. Better get grubbing. It'll be like trying to pull a bag of cement uphill." He set off, dragging the grubber (a heavy cast iron plough) slowly through the dunes of barley. It looked easy enough. It wasn't. Half way through my first row it felt like I was pulling a cement mixer. We methodically turned the whole floor leaving it in neat ripples, looking for all the world like some trendy hessian floor covering. It would be grubbed again in four hours.A new floor had to be laid. Position the chariot – a weird barrow with two enormous wheels that looked like it had been nicked from Asterix the Gaul – under the steep tank, open the gate and let the damp barley grains fall into the bucket. Wheel it out into the floor where, with three flicks of the wrist, you leave three equal piles of malt. Trouble is, the chariot's surprisingly sensitive so I ended up dumping piles of sopping malt all over the floor, almost throwing myself over the top of the chariot, forgetting to shut the gate, while David was doing the work, spreading the barley evenly across the floor. He took pity on my pathetic efforts and handed me the shovel. I thought I'd copied what he'd done. He took one look and pointed. "You've got a dead sheep over there," he said, gesturing at a large hump of barley. Back to the chariot I went.It was time to grub another floor. Bowmore's brand ambassador, Jim McEwan arrives and decides to teach me how to do it the old way – by hand. Together, armed with flat broad spades we worked steadily, hitting a rhythm: in, up, throwing the malt in an arc to our side. If grubbing was hard this was back-breakingly harder. "There used to be gangs of men doing this," recalled Jim. "We'd go past on our way to school, look in and they'd be working, a fug of pipe smoke in the air, and they'd haul us in to have a shot." Hopefully they'd have laughed as much at his efforts as he and David were at my cack-handed attempts.Whisky making is about rhythm, it taps into the tempo of the seasons. It may have become better controlled, but in Bowmore that old rhythm is maintained. These guys don't need gizmos and gadgets. They check temperature by feel, readiness by taste. It's about texture, sound, sight, artistry. I try to tell David this and he look faintly embarrassed. "Ach, you just get a feel for it," he says with a smile and goes off to check the kiln once again.After lunch (or was it breakfast?) it was time to report to the filling store and learn how to roll full hogsheads downhill, which is a bit like trying to take a cat for a walk on a lead. They rush off in weird directions, hell-bent on crashing into doors, railings, other casks. "Keep your hands on the top!" yells Ian McPherson, the assistant manager who's overseeing the filling. "You'll take your bloody finger off!" The sweet smell of new make is in the air, the routine relentless. By the time the barrel is left by the wall it's time to get the next one, stencil the volume, shout out the cask number and out we go once more. Just as I think I've perfected a new casual rolling technique the hoggie sets off on another suicidal mission.Filling finished, the ‘hoggies’ are taken to one of Bowmore's racked warehouses. Less romantic than the damp, crepuscular old buildings by the sea wall but, according to warehouseman Ginger Willie also possessing their own microclimate. "Get up here!" he shouts at me. "Feel the difference in temperature." True enough. The bottom floor is cool but the top tier is damp and warm – and matures the whisky differently. None of the men like the racks. "They're efficient enough I suppose," says Ginger Willie, "but those old ones by the sea wall are still the best – the humidity is high, they don't lose so much of the angel's share, they keep the maturing nice
and slow."Jokes and insults fly around. They're bewildered by my job. "You get paid for making up all that stuff about whisky?" They shake their heads. "We follow those writers around ... oh yes, this smells like the midden at the back of old Bessie's farm." 'Christ! It smells of whisky!'Suitably chastened, a couple of days later I join the night shift. Complex
There's something about a distillery at night. It seems to come alive, glowing with energy, whispering, hissing and steaming. In the malt barns, the appropriately-named David Turner was the poor soul who had to suffer my 'help'. We'd grub the floors, talking about the mechanics of the job, different strains of barley, about how each floor behaves in a subtly different way and about teamwork. The little details were falling into place.Alastair Thomson was mashing and giving his own opinion on whisky-making. "They say the moment when whisky starts being made is when the hot water hits the grist. For me, it starts with the guys in the barns. If they don't get it right, it won't be the same. It's a chain. They pass it to me, I look after it and then pass it on."He keeps nudging the thermometer to get the hot water at exactly the right temperature. It's complex stuff made look easy. "Don't rush it," David Turner had said to me as I was ripping through the malt. "Take it steady." It's the same with mashing – the grist has to flow in evenly, the worts have to be drained slowly. "You need patience to make good whisky," says Alastair. We go to the washback and add five bags of yeast, banging them on the side of the wooden vat, listening to the faint splash as they hit the cooled worts.I ask him if he's looking forward to the silent season. "Aye, but...have you ever been in a distillery that's closed? It's like something has died." Across Lochindaal you could just make out the outline of Bruichladdich. One of the finest distilleries on the island, inexplicably silent. Part of Islay's community is dead. It's time to see Willie McKechnie, a stillman at Bowmore for 20-odd years, a big quiet man getting on with his job as the sky begins to lighten. He makes it look easy. Filling the wash stills, while monitoring the temperature and flow rate of the spirit stills. Valves, conversion charts, gauges, hydrometers a calculator in his head, a hundred things to do at once, he works with unruffled calm. How does he do it? He just smiles: "You learn." He starts the middle cut. You just know that he doesn't need equipment and charts to hit that split-second when the foreshots give way to sweet smoky new make.He's worried about the onset of summer. "The barley's getting ahead of itself, the water is heating up. It's not good for making whisky." He pauses and grins. "The BBC should phone us up for the long-range forecast: the barley's heating up at Bowmore. It'll be a hot summer." We chat about the old days, of the men who'd sneak in and drink the wash, how the town used to turn out for its end of day dram, of how the old guys tried to get one over the excise men. Tales that would make heath and safety and customs and exciseís hair stand on end.For me whisky-making was now no longer a clinical process but a living, creative routine where every scrape and crunch, every hiss and hum, rattle and bang had a meaning. Every smell was interlinked. The men weren't workers, but creators.After a (brief) rest it was time to meet with Norman Campbell, one of Islay's last professional peat-cutters. Nowadays, peats for the maltings are cut industrially, paying scant attention to the subtle ecology of the peat moss. Norman does it the old way. On his own, a dot under a huge sky, carefully removing the top tier of vegetation, patiently showing me how to ease the long-shafted blade into the rich, chocolate fudge of the peat and, with a flick of the wrist cut a tranche, lift it out and place it on a pile. Easy to describe, hard to do and harder to do for hours on end.It's another skill in danger of being lost, just as the skills of the men in distilleries across Scotland are being overlooked as the industry becomes efficiency-obsessed. Few distillers appear to take the time to listen to the guys who are making their whisky, who know their equipment like it’s part of their body, who know the problems, the quirks... and the solutions.What firms have forgotten is that it's people that make whisky, not machines. Spend one day with the guys at Bowmore – or any other top distillery – and you'll come away filled with some of the deep pride these men have in their work and the fierce love they have for the dram. Bowmore's a great whisky not just because of peat, stills, warehouses, wood and the salty air, but because the men have given something of themselves to it.At 10 o’clock we watched a molten red sun dipping into the Atlantic. In the distillery the lights would be on, the calm, never-ending routine continuing, one shift to another, one generation to the next – and Norman would still be up on the moor, skylarks singing above his head, cutting his peat. I pray that will never change.
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