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Arelationshipthat'sonfire

ScottishwhiskyandSpanishsherryhavelonghadaspecialrelationship.Butasthepursuitofbetterqualityintensifies,thelinkisbecomingstronger.DominicRoskrowreports
By Dominic Roskrow
We’restandinginalargeoutbuildingthatispartfarmyardbarnandpartconcretewarehouse.It’sgloomyinside.Highupinthewallssmallsquarewindowsallowstreamsofsunlighttopiercethesemi-darknesslikespotlights.Buttheyserveonlytohighlightthewooddustand
smokethatpollutestheairandinvadeseverypore.Inthesemi-darknessmenareworking;lotsofthem,andthenoiseofmetalonmetalandwoodonconcreteisdeafening.Withtheexceptionofsmallpiecesofmachineryit’sascenethathasprobablychangedlittleinhundredsofyears;adirty,labour-intensiveone.Withinsecondsourthroatsandnosesaresorewiththedust,andareheadsarehummingwiththehammering.Thiscouldquiteeasilybedescribedasmanypeople’sideaofhell.Andhellisasgoodadescriptionasyou’llfindforthefarbackcornerofthisplace.It’shothere,andflamesleapoutfromthefloor.Aman,bathedinsweatanddirt,halfapeandhalftroll,isprowlingaroundthefire,hisarmswrappedaroundabarrel.Occasionallyhelooksup,hisfierceeyesflashingblueinthegloom.TheycallhimElDiablo,withgoodreason,andhespendshisdayplacingcasksovertheflamesandthenpouringwaterfromabull’shorntomakethefireflare.Westandtransfixed,oblivioustothedirtandnoisearoundus.It’snotrepulsionthatwe’reexperiencinghere,it’sexcitement.Forweallknowthatinthismassofmireandmayhem,magic’sbeingmade.We’reinJereztoseejusthowintrinsicallylinkedtheworldsofScotchwhiskyandSpanishsherryare.Andthiscooperage,whichproducesjust75barrelsaday,iskeytothewholeoperation.WeeksfromnowIwillbeintheBluegrassCooperageinKentucky,ahugecarfactoryofaplantwherehundredsofbarrelsarechurnedoutdailyanditwillhavevirtuallynothingincommonwiththisthrowbacktothemiddleages.This,though,isthewayourhostsEdringtonpreferit.Notbecauseitmakesagreatmarketingstory,whichitdoes,butbecauseJerez’ssideofthisuniqueSpain-Scotlandpartnershipiscrucialtothewhiskycaskstory.Forasscienceandtechnologyinfluencetheproductionofwhisky,andmoreresearchisdoneintocaskmanufactureanditseffectonwhisky,theexpertsarefine-tuningtheirmethodsbyturningtotheoldwaysofworkingwithwood.It’snosecretthatdistilleriessuchasTheMacallanrelyheavilyonSpanishoakcasks.PerhapswhatissurprisingisthatformostolorososherrytheSpanishtendtouseAmericanoakcasksandnottheirownproduct.It’snotacaseoftheSpanishoff-loadingacasktoScotlandoncethey’vefinishedwithit,asthebourbonproducersdoaftertheyhaveusedtheirbarrelsonce.Theyhavetobesourcedspecially.SoEdringtonbuysitsownSpanishoak,makesitintocasks,andthenbuysOlorosograpestoputintothem.IndeedwholebodegasaredoingnothingbutmakinggrapesforEdrington.Whenthenewwineisproducedintheautumnthecasksareusedforfermentingthewineandthenmaturingitforanothertwoyears.Whenthegrapesaren’tavailableOlorosowineisboughtinandaddedtothecasks.WhathappenstothatsherryafterEdringtonhasdonewithitisunclear,butitishighlyunlikelythataftertwoyearsinnewoak,andSpanishoakatthat,it’sgoinganywherenearadecentbottleofsherry.AllthismeansthattherearebodegasinJerezgrowinggrapesfornootherreasonthantoconditioncasksdestinedforScotland.AnditmeansthataveryspecialbondhasdevelopedbetweentheworkforcesinSpeysideandJerez.ThisrelationshipispersonifiedbyGeorgeEspie,managingdirectoroftheClydebankCooperageandthesortofroll-your-sleeves-upmanagerthatyoususpectisashappierclamberingoverwoodstavesorsplutteringthroughthewooddustthansittingaroundacoffeetablediscussinghistrade.“ThepeopleweworkwithhereinJerezarepassionateaboutwhattheydoandwesharethatattitudewiththem,”hesaysbeforewesetoutforthecooperage.“WhenpeopletalkaboutabottleofTheMacallanbeingmadeover12yearsthat’swrong.Itstartsmuchearlierthanthat–withthe100yearsofgrowingthetrees,thecuttingofthestavesandthetransportingdowntoJerez,thelongtimetheyarelefttolosetheirwatercontentandthentheyearstheyspendwithwineinthembeforetheyareshippedbackascompletebarrelstoScotlandforfillingwithnew-makewhisky.“ThepeopledownhereunderstandthatandtheladshereandatClydebankhavedevelopedaspecialfriendship.TheydoworkexperiencebothinSpainandScotland,andalthoughtheycan’tspeakeachother’slanguagetheygetonwell.Theyhavestartedplayingfootballagainst
eachother.It’saveryspecialrelationship.”ThatrelationshipisatthecoreofthewayEdringtonsetsaboutproducingitswhiskies.Thereare,ofcourse,fareasierwaystosourcebarrels.But,arguesGeorge,takingadvantageofgenuinesavingsisonething,andcuttingcornersissomethingelseagain.ThetraditionalistsinJerezandSpeysideareunitedintheirbeliefthattherearenoshortcutstomakingqualitywhisky,andfads,fashionsandthewaysofmarketinghavetobekeptintheirrightfulplace.“Weseeourselvesasguardiansofthiswhisky,”hesays.“Whatwedotodaywilldecidewhatisdrunkin12,18orwhatevernumberofyearstimeitis.Wearealwayslookingatwaysofdoingthingsbetterbutthatrefersasmuchtoqualityascost.Andyoushouldn’tcompromiseonquality.”GiventhegreatimportancethatsherryplaysintheMacallanstory,itcomesasnogreatsurprisetodiscoverthatEdringtonhasinvestedheavilyindevelopingitsunderstandingofwoodandthewayitimpactsonitsproducts.Itleadsthefieldinthisrespect,anditseesthewholeprocessasongoing.Ithasalreadyputconsiderabletimeandeffortindiscoveringhowrackingofthefilledcaskseffectsthewood.Andnowitisinvolvedinacomplicateddata-gatheringexercisetoprovideitwithanevengreatersetoftoolsbywhichtofine-tuneitswhiskyproduction.ThreeoakforestsindifferentregionsofnorthernSpainarecurrentlybeingcloselymonitored,differenttypesofSpanishoakarebeingused,andtestsarebeingcarriedouttoseewhathappenswhenthecasksaresentbacktoSpainayearearlier.“Sowewillhaveahugeamountofinformationabuttheregionthewoodcomesfrom,thetypeofwood,andwhatdifferencesitmakesifthewineiskeptinthecaskayearless,”saysGeorge.“FromthiswemightconcludethatthebestGlenrothescomesfromcasksusingadifferentwoodtypeandfromadifferentregionofSpainthantheonesusedforTheMacallan.”Suchconclusionswillbetheresultofstate-of-the-artscientificanalysisandthedifferencesintermsoftastemightbeminiscule.It’swherethesciencecomesintoitsownanditallseemsalong,longwayfromthelabour-intensivesweatshopwhereElDiablorulesoverhisownminiHades.“That’sthepoint,though,”saysGeorgeaswerelaxlateroveradrink.“It’snotfarawayatall.What’shappeninghereit’stheothersideofthecoinandwhyEdrington’sproductsaresospecial.It’stheheartofthewholeprocess,andwithoutit,itjustwouldn’twork.”