People

Meet the awkward squad

The basic process of making whisky is similar throughout the world. But there are always some who have to be different. Dave Broom meets the misfits
By Dave Broom
There is something about the misfit which attracts me. Iconoclasts, outsiders, people who challenge the norm, look at it from an original, if skewed, perspective and who by doing so, make the field wider.This questioning nature is at the heart of distillation. It’s part of a whisky distiller’s job to ask the awkward questions, for the simple reason that they need to produce as many different flavours as possible; and the reason they need to do that is because of blends.A deep irony lies at the heart of today’s whisky consumption. Malt is revered because of its individuality. Conversely, blends are rejected because they are perceived as having less character. Yet malts’ singularity is primarily the result of blenders demanding that they should be this way because that is what their blends needed!The personality of each distillery wasn’t created to satisfy the whims of the 21st century malt drinker, it was established to give the blender as wide a palette of flavours as possible and that has meant looking at the whisky-making process and tweaking it into some pretty strange shapes.The following three Diageo-owned distilleries are among the strangest of all. They’re the firm’s awkward squad. My guide around them was Douglas Murray, who is in charge of new make quality at Diageo. He’s a chemist, but don’t hold that against him.MortlachDespite being the first distillery built in Dufftown, Mortlach is hidden from view. It has no visitors’ centre, its entrance is on a sharp bend in the road half way down a hill. Even its name seems to have come from the darker side of Tolkien’s mind.The whisky itself doesn’t disabuse you of this notion. Mortlach overwhelms you. Its aroma is one of roasting tins, leather, dried fruits. It’s Sunday lunch – or standing on the terraces at a football game with a cup of Bovril in your hand wondering if the second half will be any better. Diageo divides its distilleries’ new make character into 14 different aromas. Mortlach’s is ‘meaty’.“We needed to introduce a terminology which everyone in the firm could understand,” Douglas explains. “Twenty years ago all that would have been written in the daily reports was ‘in character’, though occasionally you’ll find someone writing ‘Oxo’ which leads us to believe that the still has always been making this style.”Of course,” he adds with a smirk, “we call it meaty, but there’s no meat in the whisky! You could say the same about salt...”So, how does Mortlach become meaty? The malt is unpeated, while the semi-lauter mash tun is operated in such a way so as not to drag any solids through. Were that to happen an overriding ‘nutty/spicy’ (aka malty) character would dominate in the new make.Fermentation time has its part to play, 57 and 59 hours, sufficiently long to produce a complex range of congeners. Are we talking meaty yet?“Not meaty, but we reckon we’re creating the meaty precursor,” Douglas says, going on to explain that while the fermentation has created the potential for meatiness to appear, it will only appear if the stills are run in a specific way.Mortlach’s character is all about its stillhouse, which contains a weird collection of pots looking as if they’ve been bought at a coppersmith’s yard sale. There are six in total (three wash, three spirit) but none are the same shape, ranging from a strange triangular looking beast (No.3 wash) to the tiny No. 1 spirit known as ‘The Wee Witchie’.One glance and you know things are about to get complicated. It takes six months of training for a new stillman to be able to figure it out. I think of it as a bastardised triple distillation, though Douglas prefers to consider it “a bit of brilliant lateral thinking. And, to be accurate, it’s 2.7 distillations.”The easiest way to understand it is to think of Mortlach having two still houses. No.3 wash still and No.3 spirit still work in tandem and operate a normal balanced distillation and have their own safe, low wines and feints receiver and ISR.Meanwhile, No.1 and No.2 wash stills run together. The low wines from both flow into a spirit safe where the first 80 per cent of the run is collected. This acts as the charge for No. 2 spirit still which is then run as normal. The weak end of the wash still run is diverted into a separate receiver and becomes the charge for the Wee Witchie. This is distilled once and collected in its entirety.The distillate is then put back into the same still, the process repeated and everything is collected again. Only on the third charge of the Wee Witchie does the stillman collect the middle cut. (The foreshots and feints are then mixed with the charge for the second of the ‘dud runs’) You now have three spirit receivers each with a different strength (and therefore flavour) of spirit and each filling of Mortlach must include one from the Wee Witchie.So where does meaty come from? “It comes from the very low-strength charge of Wee Witchie,” says Douglas, though then he adds, “you first have to have sulphury to create meaty.” How then do you make sulphury? “By exhausting the available copper in the stills.”During distillation, copper holds onto any heavy (sulphury) components. This is why a slow distillation and tall stills tend to produce a lighter spirit. Conversely, the more a still is run the less active the copper becomes and as a result the spirit becomes heavy )and sulphury) in character.In Mortlach this heaviness is maximised thanks to the stills all having steep lyne arms which plunge into worm tubs. There is less copper available in a worm and the colder the tubs are the quicker the condensation. In both cases this helps to produce the required heavy/sulphury character.Though present in the new make, that sulphur disappears during maturation leaving a whisky which is broad, beefy and rich and which has the weight to revel in the attentions of European oak.No-one else makes a whisky like Mortlach, meaning that it is in high demand by blenders throughout the industry. It is worth tasting it as a single – the 16 year old is as good as any – and then think what this character would bring to a blend: grip, structure, weight and depth. If a blend is a piece of music, Mortlach is the bassline.BenrinnesMortlach isn’t Diageo’s sole meaty site. To find another, Douglas and I head up the slopes of Ben Rinnes to its eponymous distillery.Bar the light levels of peating in the malt, the set up here is similar to that at Mortlach, yet when you taste Benrinnes’ new make the meatiness is much more overt, the sulphur is barely there at all. Once again a combination of clear worts and a long (in this case 100 hour and 60 hour) ferment are used, as is a form of two and half times distillation. The key to the creation of that meaty character takes place in the stillhouse.At least the stills look normal, arranged in two sets of three on either side of two spirit safes which are angled in such a way that they remind me of the keyboards of some dreadful prog rock band.Each set of three stills operates in the same fashion which makes understanding that little bit easier. Here, the higher strength ‘heads’ from the wash still go into one receiver, while the ‘tails’ are diverted to another. The heads are then sent as part of the charge to the second of the spirit stills.The tails, meanwhile, are redistilled in the intermediate spirit still along with the foreshots and feints from its previous distillation. The middle cut is then collected to become part of the charge for the second spirit still along with the heads of the wash still distillation and the foreshots and feints of its previous distillation.This means that some of the new make will have been distilled three times, some of it twice. Still with me? Once again worm tubs are used for condensing, this time run at an even colder temperature than those at Mortlach.So... Douglas… where does the meaty come from?“That comes from the intermediate still.” But, why isn’t the new make as sulphury as Mortlach?”It is sulphury, that’s given by the wash still, but because the strength of the charge of the intermediate still is higher than that which goes into Wee Witchie here you get a more intense meatiness, which then masks the sulphur.”Once again it is the blender who has dictated what Benrinnes’ character should be and though it seems like splitting hairs it is important that its style of meatiness is different to that of Mortlach.Another bassline for certain, but not the same heavy riff as Mortlach. Also, as Douglas explains, meatiness has a further role in a blend: “It appears to help bind whiskies together. Although it may just be one element among 40, it contributes a hell of a lot more than 1/40th.”LinkwoodSo far, I’d seen ways of producing BIG whiskies. The next port of call was somewhere which does everything differently in order to produce a malt as light and fragrant as they come, Linkwood.Nose its malt and your brain is filled with the scents of spring: blossom, peach skin, apple. No sulphur here, this is about fragrance. It is a style which Douglas tells me is more difficult to make than any other because it involves either avoiding or suppressing any other flavours which may overwhelm it.The creation of this character starts at the mill where unpeated malt is ground to a specification which will provide a deep filter bed in the mashtun. It’s also essential to run worts as clear as possible as the smallest trace of solids in the wort would immediately be picked up as a malty aroma.There’s also a higher ratio of wort to malt pumped into the washback which produces a liquid with a lower gravity. In turn this gives a different alcohol production profile and therefore different congeners.A higher gravity would nudge the new make into what Diageo calls ‘grassy.’ Equally, the ferments are long and because of the lower gravity there’s less creation of esters and therefore less chance of ‘fruity’ character appearing.“The whole issue here is to stop characters forming,” he says. Weird? Told you.The stills are fundamental to the process. Unusually, the spirit still is larger than the wash. It needs two charges from the wash still to make up a single charge of the spirit. The distillation is long and slow to encourage reflux.Condensers inside the stillhouse are used rather than worms and are run hot rather than cold. All of the distillation at Linkwood is about maximising copper contact. There’s also a long foreshots run as those desired perfumed elements, perhaps surprisingly, come late on in the run.Once again, this is a style of whisky in high demand by blenders. Here is the melody, the subtle overtones of the blend.Linkwood is a perfumed spirit which can easily be overwhelmed by oak, but which can be used when young. If it is singled out for longer maturation it’s best in a cask which is almost exhausted. Mortlach and the Ben, on the other hand can be left in active European oak casks to pick up tannin which will give grip and structure to a blend.It would be wrong to think that it is modern technology which has created these wonderful oddballs.“We’re always playing catch-up,” says Douglas. “We haven’t dictated or engineered a style, all we are doing is working out what happens so that we can manage it better, ensure that it is consistent. This is all about discovering what is unique about a particular distillery character and retaining that.”That’s a humble way of looking at things, respecting the past and appreciating that the old distillers knew a thing or two, intuitively, about whisky making and the creation of different flavours; and that blenders have maintained that philosophy. Without these and other awkward whiskies the drink would be bland and one-dimensional. As for the fact that these three won’t be front-line malts?That’s the price you pay – and anyway you can always start drinking good blends again...