There are hisses, squeaks and endless whirring; clanks, bangs and thuds. It all harmonises marvellously. There is something that quickly becomes evident when you spend time in a distillery. It’s the thing that rarely, if ever, comes up in conversations over a dram: the sounds of whisky. We continuously talk of the complexities and nuances of a single malt’s aroma and flavours. We comment on its hue and mouthfeel. A dram is, by all appearances, a quiet beast. But looks, as common wisdom goes, can be deceiving.
There’s the weighty swoosh of fine grist flowing into the surge of hot water and hurtling into the mash tun. There’s the whirr of the old, dependable machinery driving the massive claw that turns over the mash like some kind of Brobdingnagian bakery dough mixer. There are the powerful hisses of the steam being let out when the stillman modulates the still. These are the sounds of craftsmanship. They’re discordant, harsh and repetitive, but they’re also lovely; and acoustic. Plugged in, enhanced or manipulated sounds do not happen here.
“That building can hold more people than the entire population of Islay”
In fact, all of Islay could be described as acoustic. Roads curve and twist for distances lit only by the light of an oncoming car and the moon. Cows cross the road oblivious of the fact that they might be tying up traffic. Walking your dog can be an entire afternoon’s activity. The loudest noise at night is the sound of water splashing against anchored boats. I spent a few weeks on Islay in June getting schooled in the ancient craft of whisky making. The Bruichladdich distillery, where I stayed and where I learned, is suffused with a vintage aura.
I should have known to expect this. After all, when I had met with Bruichladdich’s master distiller Jim McEwan in Manhattan the prior November and we walked through Times Square to a pub, he looked up at a skyscraper and remarked: “That building can hold more people than the entire population of Islay.”
If you’re reading this magazine, you know that McEwan has garnered acknowledgements and awards galore for his commitment to and innovations in the industry. After more than three decades working his way up the ranks at Bowmore, the Islay native went across the Loch Indall to revitalise Bruichladdich, which was closed from 1994 until 2001. At Bruichladdich, one of the few remaining independently owned distilleries in Scotland, he is able to attend to his obsession with wood. He experiments aggressively with finishes, which he terms ACEs, short for advanced cask enhancement.
“Finish,” you see, has too much of a finite, conclusive implication. Many call Bruichladdich progressive (it is embedded in its slogan: Progressive Hebridean Distillers), and some call it iconoclastic. But everything that happens here happens against a Victorian era backdrop. Some things, like the stills, have been running strong against the headwinds of time since then.
Still #2 is the wash still closest to the entrance. It was coal-fired until November 1963. When you meet Budgie, one of the stillmen, you might take him for a quiet, focused type, but ask him a few questions, and you open up a Pandora’s box of information and anecdotes. Every day he keeps the wort flowing in and spirit coming out. He talks about the equipment he works with daily with an understated tenderness.
“You can see that the copper was riveted together, which was the assembly style back in the late 1800s,” he told me, pointing out the craftsmanship. The result is equipment that lasts decades with barely a drastic sign of wear. Sure, there are the miscolourings here and there, but what else would you expect of a vessel that accommodates thousands of gallons of boiling liquid daily for years. In 1963, the neck was replaced. Now, as Budgie puts it, the copper in the base is “that thick,” he says, holding his fingers apart as if showing the thickness of an unabridged volume of Bleak House. The copper in the neck is about this thick, he says, holding his fingers apart as if indicating the thickness of a slice of bread. “The copper was thicker then to work.
Nowadays copper is stronger, so it’s thinner. Copper developed to what it is now, like everything in life develops.”
"A ‘dipstick’ literally a thick wood stick, measures the volume in the fermenter"
There are objects and equipment throughout the distillery simply just seem like anachronisms. A ‘dipstick’ literally a thick wood stick, measures the volume in the fermenter. A tin cylinder attached to a green wax rope rigged to the fermenter’s cover is the crude system for drawing a sample of wash. A ledger in the humid still room is where the still men scrupulously record the specs of every distillation, times and temperatures and proofs. Flip through it. Documentation goes back years.
One Thursday around 10.15am, one of the stills whined. Budgie ambled over, reached up and opened an air vent to let the air in. There was a loud squeal. Calamity averted, liquid and vapour, heat and cooling returned to their intended course. Davey, the other stillman, came over and suggested a single run. It was on this morning, speaking to Budgie, the significance of sounds struck me. It was Budgie’s 25th wedding anniversary and his wife, who works in the bottling hall, was on the mainland visiting their daughter and granddaughter. He stayed behind to loosen the gauges and turn the spout in the spirit safe so that the critical middle cut doesn’t run out with a single drop of heads or tails, and make whisky.
Amid the clanks and whirrs, Budgie told me he likes to get up long before he arrives at the distillery, which is often a few minutes before 6am. He needs to power up for the day with extreme quiet, and once his family awakes, it’s not extremely quiet. Andy comes every morning to haul away the draff in a colossal truck that’s part of his family’s company. Budgie, an Islay lifer, is always floored by the diesel engine. “It’s the biggest growl on Islay yet,” he says as Andy pulls away.
Budgie is an Islay native. He grew up, like many, hearing stories of distillery work. His mother was a schoolteacher. His father was a tapper in a warehouse. He’d go around tapping casks to check if they’re full or not. If it rang out, it was empty. A dull thud means that it’s full.
“Caol Ila produces in a day what we produce in one week,” he told me at one point. Sounds like craftsmanship, indeed.