Whisky - it's all about oak really, isn't it? Okay, so you've got your pure sparkling burn water and your finest barley floor-malted in the old-fashioned way, and you've got your expert brewer and your master distiller and all that burnished copper; but without that long, slow, microbiological love making session between spirit and cask, what have you got? Well, not whisky, that's for sure.
But you might just have something...
It's not unprecedented for a new distillery to issue a limited-edition bottling of new make - Kilchoman's Two Year New Spirit springs to mind, and Glenglassaugh's reopening in 2008 was followed by a number of different new make releases - but always as a postcard to the fans, an update on progress, even a collector's item; never as a brand in its own right. Until recently the only exception has been Loch Ewe, which in its quest for 18th Century authenticity scarcely ages its spirit at all. But then Loch Ewe is egregious, more of a living history lesson than a commercial distillery; owner John Clotworthy never meant to set an example for others to follow, and for many years nobody did.
Innovation and experiment, though, are as critical to the character and indeed to the survival of craft distilling as they have always been to microbrewing; and reaching back into the distant past for inspiration is not only fascinating in itself but has also turned out to be a natural direction of travel for some craft distillers - as indeed it has for many microbrewers. So far Abhainn Dearg, Annandale, English Spirit and Strathearn have released malt spirits that fall broadly under the new make heading (and an appropriate descriptor for the product is a bit of a thorny question, as we shall see); and Cotswold is planning a presentation pack for Christmas.
You might be excused for thinking that filling some new make into bottles is at bottom just a rather gimmicky way of generating some badly-needed cash while the main event - the magnificent single malt quietly mellowing and maturing in oak - awaits its nativity. But that couldn't be further from the truth.
For Mark Tayburn of Abhainn Dearg on Lewis - Scotland's most westerly distillery - the motivation for bottling Spirit of Lewis after just three months in oak is somewhat akin to John Clotworthy's. "The Hebridean uisge baugh of the 18th and 19th Centuries didn't need to mature," he says. "It was made on small stills and was unpeated, and all the maturation it had was the time it spent on its way to market in second hand port and sherry casks bought from the wine merchants in Stornoway.
"Everything we do at Abhainn Dearg is 100 per cent Hebridean, and Spirit of Lewis is a reflection of that."
There's a similar spirit of inquisitiveness at Strathearn near Perth where Tony Reeman-Clark bottles three expressions of new make. The spirit is triple distilled, and is briefly barrelled in small kegs of chestnut (spicy), cherry (fruity), and mulberry (mellow).
"It's not just a question of making money," says Tony, whose all malt oak aged Highland gin is selling strongly and enough for cash flow not to be a huge problem. "We like to play around with a lot of different things here, and we decided to try and take whisky back to what it used to be. And we discovered that if it's fermented and distilled carefully enough you get a good middle cut that can be drunk immediately."
John Walters of English Spirit - a doctor of biochemistry - also ages his English Malt Spirit for a very brief period in small casks, but of new oak. "We do it very differently from the way they do it in Scotland," he says. And he means it. The malt is mashed for no more than an hour, to reduce the extraction of tannin from the husks. It's fermented to 6.5% ABV and then distilled not three but five times, with only the middle cut and "maybe a hint of tails" collected for bottling. The procedure is as much refining as distilling, he says; and the result is that in blind tastings visitors to the distillery near Cambridge have estimated the spirit as being 5 -15 years old.
Rascally Liquor (both peated and unpeated) from Annadale Distillery takes this oakless heresy to extremes; it's bottled straight from the receiver. In a previous incarnation distillery manager Malcolm Rennie had masterminded Kilchoman's Two Year, and his method of creating a new make smooth enough to drink absolutely fresh - using a single wash still but two spirit stills - prompted consultant Dr Jim Swan to suggest that the unpeated version was good enough to bottle.
"Then he tasted the peated version and nearly cried," says distillery owner David Thompson. "I tasted it too and it blew my socks off. We originally thought it might make a cocktail base like vodka, but actually it's got so much character that it's a drink in its own right."
An identical epiphany awaited Dan Szor of Cotswold, who had planned a release of a three year old in due course, but not a new make. Then he tasted it. "It was so good there were tears in my eyes," he says. As a result, there'll be a presentation bottling of a one-year-old in two expressions, sherry cask and port cask, in time for Christmas.
Could immature spirit ever make it as a sub category in its own right, though? Will there ever be a shelf in the spirits aisle set aside for what is, in essence, malt eau-de-vie? Well, it would want a generic name rather less functional than new make first. Mark Tayburn and Tony Reeman-Clark call their versions uisge baugh, which is after all exactly what it is. But then, uisge baugh is just the Gaelic for whisky; and if a straight translation were permitted then others might want to use the French word for whisky, which is whisky. And while malt eau de vie would conform to European spirit drinks regulation 110/2008 - well, it doesn't exactly trip off the tongue, does it?
The craft distillers who bottle and sell new make swear by it regardless. Tony Reeman-Clark plans a two year old to mark Strathearn's second birthday in October. He admits that the quantities are small, but reckons that exclusivity only enhances the drink's appeal. And he believes it could revolutionise cocktails, "Imagine a martini made with uisge baugh instead of gin," he says. "It would be malty, sweet, biscuity - it would add so much depth!"
Mark Tayburn says he's been surprised by Spirit of Lewis's popularity with his customers. "I've had customers think it was a 10 year old malt," he says. "People ask for it by name, and as long as they ask for it, I'll supply it."
David Thompson says even experts at trade shows have fallen for Rascally Liquor's complexity. Annandale has invested heavily in branding and packaging from an upscale London design house, and as far as he's concerned it's a brand he aims to develop. "We've been selling it to people taking the distillery tour and they're genuinely surprised by it and quite taken with it. It's on our website as well now, and it's going into specialist whisky shops because they're ringing up and asking for it."
And John Walters says that not only is English Malt Spirit a firmly-established part of his portfolio, but he's also contract-distilling wash from an increasing number of microbrewers. "Its youth and freshness could well turn out to be a plus factor," he maintains. "After all, who wants to have to wait 12 years?"
Dan Szor is not quite so bullish. Cotswold is a large enterprise capable of producing 60,000l per year, and Dan is an oak man with his focus firmly fixed on the hundreds of oak barrels he already has slumbering in bond. Perhaps revealingly, he says: "If the new make is this good, just think what the whisky will be like."
And Whisky Magazine's very own answer to 'The Stig,' official taster Chris Goodrum, is also sceptical that malt eau-de-vie (or whatever you want to call it) will ever become a mainstream product to be ranked alongside blends and single malts.
In his day job at Nottingham-based wine merchant Gauntley's, Chris samples a lot of new make and, as he puts it, "It can be really heavy going".
"What the Glenglassaugh new make releases had going for them was a lovely sweetness and softness that was really quite approachable," he says. "You could drink them on their own or use them instead of vodka. But then you take a distillery like Bruichladdich, whose new make is very oily and pungent, and you really wouldn't want to drink it.
"But this is a very interesting development, and with brewers like Blue Monkey and Adnams bringing out malt eaux-de-vie based on Imperial Stout and Broadside respectively, I feel that this could become a legitimate category, especially with devices such as limited runs and numbered bottles conferring some exclusivity.
"It's not something the major distillers would ever be interested in, probably; but there are always enough enthusiasts and connoisseurs in the market for rarities and curiosities to sustain short runs."
"However, the quality and the price both have to be right!"