Out with the old, in with the new? Not quite...

Can whisky-making be taught properly at university, and is our understanding of science leading to better whisky? Gavin Smith looks at the issue
By Gavin D. Smith
If you walk into any pub on Speyside where retired distillery workers congregate and ask them whether things were better in their day, you’ll receive the resounding answer ‘yes!’ Partly, of course, this is human nature. Nobody wants to admit that someone who has succeeded them has found a better way of doing what they did.It is a fact, however, that for better or for worse, many distilleries have lost the ‘human touch’ as a result of increased automation and resultant cutbacks in staffing levels. Time and again, retired distillers point out that when they were young, there would have been as many as 50 staff employed in a lot of distilleries, whereas now two or three men per shift operate the entire plant.These days, they say, experience counts for nothing, and making whisky is no longer a craft, it is simply a clinical process controlled by a computer.According to ‘Big Angus’ McAffer, retired stillman at Lagavulin, “the whisky we made tasted different, it wasn’t so ‘forced’ the way it is today. Nice and smooth and easy to take, it was. When you were running spirit from a spirit still you damped the coal fire with a shovelful of dross so it was only trickling, and there was no trace of feints, it was running more slowly than it is now. They are doing more mashing now, and more distilling, so they’ve got to push on.”It is certainly true that the necessity of increasing the scale of Scotch whisky production and making cost savings in a very competitive environment has shaped the industry as we know it today.Almost all distillery maltings have long gone, removing significant numbers of jobs, and in many cases new spirit is now tankered away for remote filling, eliminating the necessity of staff undertaking filling and warehousing roles.The process of whisky production from barley to glass has been truncated in most distilleries. What the visitor sees is, in a sense, just the ‘middle cut’ of the process.So are the old men right? Did their ‘hands-on’ approach give the consumer better whisky?The International Centre for Brewing and Distilling at Edinburgh’s Heriot Watt University offers the only university undergraduate honours and masters degrees in brewing and distilling in the United Kingdom.It turns out modern distillers, armed with the latest scientific knowledge, and many people working in the Scotch whisky industry at management level today are Heriot Watt graduates. Alan Rutherford is a former Scotch whisky production director for UDV, and is now visiting professor of distilling at the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling.On the subject of whether ‘old ways’ or ‘new ways’ are best, Rutherford reckons that “there’s no clear left or right here.There’s a lot to be learnt from the old guy who has worked in a distillery for 30 years.You mustn’t throw out the experience, and the two are not incompatible. You should combine knowledge and experience if you want excellence. But you wouldn’t take your car to be serviced by somebody who isn’t a qualified mechanic.“There was a need to improve yields and consistency,” he explains. “You need to understand the chemistry and the biology of distilling to achieve this. Many of the old ways of doing things that were arrived at by trial and error were only explained by science at a later date. There’s a mixture of chemistry, physics, chemical engineering and biology – elements of all modern pure and applied science – in whisky distilling.“As a qualified scientist early in my time in the industry I would say ‘let’s change this and that’, but often on closer examination there were good reasons for carrying on doing things as they were done.“The scientist can think of ideas that assist the business goals of making distilleries more efficient. But the scientist can also argue against increases in efficiency too, at times. As a scientist I was able to argue why they couldn’t do certain things for extra efficiency. For example you can’t drive stills for seven days because of the copper chemistry of pot stills. You need to let air in at least once a week to allow the copper to rejuvenate.“The chap who had been in the stillhouse for 30 years would know that, but he wouldn’t know why, and he would therefore have found it harder to argue against it than the scientist. The industry is far better equipped now to tell the business world what can be done and what can’t be done to make good spirit. Distilling science can solve problems, optimise production and increase consistency without taking many risks.”On the subject of consistency, Jim McEwan, master distiller at Bruichladdich on Islay, recalls that “in the old days, sometimes the stillman would be absolutely drunk, and the fires would go out. And then he’d wake up, and on would go a big fire, and he’d try to make up the time he lost when the fires went down, and the still was off the boil.“Occasionally when I’m nosing older whiskies I find a dram that’s really feinty, it’s very oily, very greasy, like mutton fat, and I look at the cask and it’s a good American refill or a sherry, and I know the fault does not lie in the casks. It lay with the man 25 years ago, because he had six drams a day, because he had coal fires to operate, and that doesn’t happen now. There is less chance of a bad batch.”Discussing some of the changes that have occurred in whisky-making, Alan Rutherford says “gravities in the washbacks have increased, from the high 1040s up to 1058 or even 1060 in some cases.You get more throughput that way and it’s also more energy-efficient. Improved yeasts have led to improved fermentation too, and better control of distilling helps consistency of spirit. Then there are things like rejuvenation of casks – casks being scraped and re-charred. That is science-based.“In theory, fermentation is pretty complete after about 48 hours,” notes Rutherford, “so why not stop then, you might argue. But you can’t because it often changes the spirit character. Short, 44 to 48 hour, fermentations give new make a nutty, spicy character. If the character of your spirit is heavy, sulphury, meaty, then it’s no good cutting back fermentation times from around 100 hours, because it will alter the spirit character significantly. The old distiller knew that, but so does your young Heriot Watt graduate.“It may seem logical to operate shorter fermentation periods and running the stills almost continuously can seem the way forward in terms of increasing production, and a few years ago a number of distillers were doing it, but it changes spirit character a lot, and most of them have done back from doing that at its most extreme.”Bruichladdich is a traditional, ‘hands-on’ distillery, a consciously labour-intensive operation, which now runs its own cooperage and bottling plant. Jim McEwan considers that “historically, I think, the quality of the spirit when it was well made was far, far better in some cases than what we are getting today.“I don’t believe the quality is as good, you’ve not got the same complexity. A good stillman, a good mashman, could just nurse it. I think it was better because of the hands-on approach.“I’m not being sentimental, because I’ve worked for a large company and I know how it works. I just feel that this important ingredient, this human part, is missing.“My own feeling is that there has to be progress and quality control, but it’s always at the cost of people,” declares McEwan. “The first thing accountants do is remove jobs, put in automation.“The marketing folk talk about the heritage and the history and how proud we are of our spirit, yet they’ve removed the most important ingredient, totally, which is the people.“They are the cornerstone of the industry, and we’re missing that cornerstone.”