By Rob Allanson

Lost in Distillation

Musings about the art that has been practised for centuries
Would you have the guts to do it? Do you think you would have the tenacity, drive, passion and conviction to see it through? I am not sure I can say I would, but it would certainly be an exciting adventure. As someone once said to me, it is better to fail doing something you are passionate about than live with regrets about not trying. Dream bright and try to reach the stars and all that might entail. If you put your skin, heart and soul in the game, try your best, no one can reproach you for it even if you fail. If you succeed, the sky could be the limit.

I am of course talking about starting your own distillery; even your own blending, bottling or club sampling subscription service. Surely it is something all us whisky geeks have thought about at one point or two. Perhaps even scribbled plans on a napkin or beer mat one evening with a couple of friends.

I am always amazed, and slightly in awe of the people who have tried to achieve their dreams in the industry. Let's face it, starting a new enterprise, particularly a distillery is no mean feat. The fact the series we have been running on starting up a distillery has run to four issues shows the thought that has to go behind it, from the napkin to those casks of maturing whisky you can call your own. The thought struck me when I have been visiting some of the newest distilleries in the world, everyone that makes that jump into the unknown shares a common moment with every other distiller on the face of the earth. Be it whisky, rum, gin, sherry or vodka. After all the planning, preparation, discussions, doubts, fears and nerve wracking meetings with the money people, everything is focussing down to one point - the first drops.

For me this is the biggest and greatest of moments. When that crystal clear little stream runs off the stills, this is the point that the distiller's life has led up to.

It is also a point that links each new distiller to the past and the lives of distillers we are all familiar with. Say what you like about the established big companies, at some point in their history, there was that one defining moment when the new-make flowed for the first time.

Of course, there are a series of firsts that happen leading up to the moment. There cannot be any prouder moment for the fledgling distiller to see their stills being manoeuvred into place, the first mash, that pitch of the inaugural batch of yeast, then fingers crossed hoping it works and fermentation follows as expected. But I don't really think these compare to that moment of firing up the stills with the intention of creating a new liquid being. This twinkling little sprite is what will forever define what your heart and soul, and a reasonable chunk of money, has led you to.

I have had the privilege of being in a couple of places during the last few years where the first spirit has been running off. In the lead up, you could have cut the tension in the still room with a knife, probably something health and safety would prefer you don't do. But there is a tangible sense of relief once that gorgeous, fruity or nutty, malty or even slightly sulphur note starts to fill the room. That is the start of sometime wonderful.

I have even had the chance to have a go myself, create a little spirit using a couple of small stills in the last few years. I suppose if you are not blessed with a technical engineering or chemistry background the initial stages can seem a bit dull. I am from an arts background so fit firmly in that category. But once you know what is happening you start watching for the signs, and that's when it gets exciting. The temperature in that humming still starts to rise slowly. The liquid starts to swirl gently. Just so you know, the first time I did it it was in a glass still, we did not have the inspection hatch open. Then almost imperceptibly at first condensation, followed by… yes there it is, those higher alcohols start to come off. Magic.

If you are inspired to take the plunge… do it. There's plenty of knowledge out there to help you, and you never know, ask the right people and you might have someone like Jimmy Russell help you out.