Maltster and servant

Maltster and servant

A keen collector of first-hand information on whisky, Martine Nouet had the fantastic opportunity to make a whisky-lover and -writer's dream come true: work in the Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries for a week. Have a dram of her dream.

Production | 16 Dec 2001 | Issue 20 | By Martine Nouet

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How close can a whisky writer approach whisky, apart from nosing and tasting? Visiting a distillery certainly brings you nearer to your subject but there’s still a sense of distance. The knowledge journalists patiently collect through visiting distilleries and interviewing whisky makers may be first-hand, but we remain spectators, not actors in the play our lives revolve around.Having toured a good 50 distilleries without a single second of boredom (people who say if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all don’t have a clue!), I should perhaps feel content and consider myself a well-informed whisky writer.
I had a vague feeling I could try harder: on investigating this feeling, I concluded that working in a distillery could make a significant difference to me professionally, giving a more complete picture of the whisky world. This became my goal – and also my dream.The opportunity for fulfilment came when, in the course of a conversation with William Grant’s Managing Director, I was invited to Glenfiddich. It was agreed I would begin training the day after the Glenfiddich and Balvenie cask selection I had been invited to. Day one: manual labour
A nosing of a 1926 Balvenie in the warehouse and tasting a wonderful selection of old vintages is a rather cordial start to what I anticipate will be a week of hard physical labour. But I feel a little heavy-hearted when my colleagues depart for the airport, like a schoolgirl experiencing boarding school for the first time saying goodbye to relatives.But this is no time for a grey mood. Ian Millar, Glenfiddich Distillery Manager, shows me the schedule: I’ll work with a different team every day in order to learn the basics of all the stages that make up a malt in just a week. Engineer Rob has found a perfect pair of overalls for me. He confesses his wife helped him get the right size – she works in a fashion shop in Elgin. Finding work shoes in my size was more difficult, though we finally found comfortable, practical boots. Now I’m ready to get my hands dirty!“Come to my office tomorrow morning at 8 o’clock sharp”, Ian says, holding out a huge, heavy handbook – the Distillery Manager’s manual. “That’s your homework for the week. Read it and come and see me with any questions!” Ian tells me later in the week he did not expect me to go through the whole book, as he was just joking. But I took it seriously and I digested the entire 300 or so pages! It’s not as light and pleasant as Glenfiddich Reserve, but the notes and technical information I took from it will be a great help with my work for years to come.Day two: barley moving
I’d been told the first day will probably be the most physical of my work experience – my body will remember it for the rest of the week! At the ‘barns’ (Balvenie maltings) my teachers are Keith and Steven, who seem amused to have a woman work with them; a touch of incredulity is in their faces – a ‘she won’t cut it’ kind of thing. First job of the day: take the plough and spread a huge heap of steeped barley on the malting floor. When you see them do the job, it looks quite easy. Believe me, keeping a machine that’s in more of a hurry than you to get the job done is more difficult than it looks! The worst is to come. We put on an extra overall and a mask and we go up into the kiln. The atmosphere is warm, choking and damp. “We turn the malt twice a day,” says Keith. “Now your turn!” I can hardly breathe with dust penetrating my double overall and mask. Is hell worse than this? I doubt it. I sweat and swear (discreetly), but do the job.I am really quite proud of myself – Keith is flabbergasted! The rest, shovelling barley into the steeps, turning green malt with a shiel seems easy in comparison. “I hope you don’t get the monkey!” Steven jokes. Exposed to constant drafts in a damp and cold atmosphere, workers often suffer from lumbago: they call it ‘the monkey’. It’s fascinating feeding the kiln with coal, and strangely relaxing as it creates a burst of sparks and a pleasant crackling sound.The Balvenie is a lightly peated malt: the maltman adds only 30 or so shovelfuls of peat to the fire over 24 hours. A tiny amount of barley – 65 tons in 2000 – is produced at the company farm, but this ‘home barley’ is mixed with external supply. The barley malted at The Balvenie is about 10 to 15% of the total amount of malt used in the making of The Balvenie single malt. I wonder if small batches using only ‘home barley’ would make a difference to the final product – that would be interesting to taste.Day three: steam work
Walking through a distillery as a visitor, you might think workers are just there to check an almost entirely computerized process and press buttons. How wrong! My day in the stillhouse is a delight for the nose but a real pain for the legs. Before enjoying the pearlike and malty aromas of the spirit run, you have to control the heat in the wash still and spirit still, which means climbing up and down dozens of stairs all through the shift (mine was from 8am to 3pm). The wash still is the most difficult to manage. Once you’ve charged it, you open the inlet valve to let steam into the coils and keep checking the sight glass in the middle of the head. If it gets dark, it’s a sign that foam is going up the neck – you’ve got a ‘fouler’, which means the total ruin of the distillation. This must never happen. To prevent excess foam, the stillman adds soap to the wash (don’t worry, this doesn’t make the spirit smell or taste of soap – though I have read about a distillery using lavender-scented soap with disastrous results). “You don’t have a lot of physical work here, but you have plenty to remember,” Ian, the stillman, explains as he sprays
caustic in the wash still to clean it before rinsing copiously. “In the old days, we used to go in the wash still and clean it with
caustic and sand. It was steaming hot down there. A dirty job, as we called it. We were given a dram by the brewer for doing the job. At The Balvenie, workers had clearic (new spirit) and at Glenfiddich they got the golden stuff (matured spirit). The better you worked, the more drunk you got. Thank God that time’s over !”I leave with the stillhouse’s heady gingerbread fragrances with regret. I have homework to do!Day four: distill life
A whole day at Glenfiddich. Willie checks the mash tun while Archie the cat exercises himself, lazily stretching on the floor. There is nothing like the smell of the mash when hot water starts being drained and the draff appears in the bottom of the tun: a mixture of hay, cooked cereal, malt extract … Tunroomman Bob remembers his father used to give him a drink of wort when he was a kid. Most of the distillery employees have relatives who work in the neighbouring distilleries. In every
department there is a warm community feeling, a sense of familiarity.A lorry is delivering yeast. I give the men a hand: a very small one though, as carrying 25kg packs of yeast is not my cup of tea. I enjoy the red fruit aromas of fresh yeast though. Strawberry, raspberry maybe? A visit to a distillery is a fantastic scent-sation. I think distillery guides should emphasise these smells and concentrate less on the technical side. ‘Open up’ would be my slogan if I were a guide. I can’t resist taking some wort home. I have inspiration for a recipe: poached pears in wort with a custardy wort sauce and caramelised nuts. Chief Guide David Mair is recruited as a guinea pig. He just loves it! “That sweet wakes up the child in me!” he says with a smile.Day five: rolls Joyce
Now that I have taken part in the making of the spirit, I am eager to learn about filling and maturing. Joyce, the filling store team leader, welcomes me warmly. She is the only female team leader. She does not seem bothered by working in a predominantly male environment. The work of the day is to roll 414 litres of full casks to the filling line and empty them. That sounds odd to me – why empty casks in a filling store? “These are distillery puncheons which have been filled with Glenfiddich spirit 12 years ago,” Joyce explains. “David Stewart, our Master Blender, has checked them and found the spirit is too light in colour. So we empty them and transfer the spirit into sherry butts to mature an extra year or two.” Distillery puncheons are no longer used as they are less efficient. These puncheons will be reincarnated as hogsheads.Another physical job. Distilleries could make extra income as fitness centres! On the filling line, I have to make sure the casks empty properly while the spirit runs down the gutter. I feel in seventh heaven, fascinated by that golden, scented stream babbling down to the receiver. I can’t wait to visit the warehouses. Cask rolling is a skilled job. While the warehousemen push hoggies (hogsheads) with one hand, I have to brace myself against the staves to shift them. I experience the atmosphere of the three types of warehouses. What a difference between the traditional ones – dunnage warehouses – the racked ones and the palletised ones. In the former, casks are only stacked three high and the earth floor maintains a steady and cool dampness. Racked warehouses are much larger and higher, and are automatically temperature controlled. However, there is still space between casks. Palletised casks are piled upright on a pallet, packed like sardines and stacked up to 12 high.Casks from palletised warehouses are mostly used for blending. While a single warehouseman can only move around 300 casks a day in a racked warehouse, he can shift up to 1,000 in a palletised warehouse as it is entirely trailer operated. There are 45 warehouses with the following ratio: 35% traditional, 35% racked and 30% palletised.Day six: fish in a barrel
I particularly enjoyed the cooperage. I had the feeling of being initiated to a truly ancient craft. Wm Grant & Sons is the last company to keep a cooperage on-site. Watching Ian McDonald make an American barrel into a hogshead by adding further 15 staves to the original 30 is a fascinating sight. Once re-assembled, the staves are bound by iron hoops. Hammering them down requires strength and precision. “Now,” Ian says, “you’re going to build a barrel. I’ve chalk-numbered the staves, just follow the order.”Quite a job indeed. Before I’ve finished, Ian has already made two butts. But I’m proud of my barrel: it looks ‘real’. We char the barrel next door and roll it back for the waterproof test: water is poured in with compressed air, to spot the slightest leak. I give a sigh of relief: my cask has passed! At the end of the day, I am presented with a ‘most creative’ award for my achievements in barrel rebuilding. I’m not sure if being creative in barrel building is a mark of craftmanship but I am really touched by the thought.Day seven: bottling out do not stay long at the bottling plant – just as well for the bottles, as I prove to be rather poor at this. I have to check every Glenfiddich Solera Reserve bottle label and clean any trace of paste on the glass. Most workers here are women. The atmosphere is very friendly but quiet. Though the pace is far from being furious, there is really no time to speak: on top of that, you have to wear earplugs for noise protection. Everything seems to be alright, I carefully wipe each bottle, when suddenly they all stream in and chink together dangerously. Oops! I can’t cope and shout for assistance. The line has to be stopped and my fellow workers rescue the restless bottles. I don’t expect an award at the bottling plant!Before that short but intense experience as a distillery worker, I had no idea of the amount of handling and the pure effort involved in the making of whisky. That single, fabulous week has made me familiar with an unsuspected ingredient in whisky: the raw sweat of hard work! From now on, when I talk about whisky I will add it – as well as enjoyment – to the basic barley, yeast and water.
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