The earliest computers, installed in distilleries from the 1980s-90s, were essentially individual units monitoring temperatures and flow rates during mashing and fermentation. Valves could be opened and closed, for example, to start and stop the flow of wort into the washback by using a computer. Subsequent advances have been enormous. An operator can now see each stage of the production process displayed in detail on a single screen.
“If someone wants a fully-automated site the first step is determining production capacity, and in turn the size and quantity of production equipment, then we can start putting together a package,” says Doug Stephen, director, Grants (Dufftown) Ltd, part of Forsyths, which offers a comprehensive distillery design and installation service.
A key item on the shopping list is of course computer software.
“You can’t buy a software package off the shelf, it has to be written to suit your equipment and production regime. From an initial meeting with a contractor to commissioning and installing a software program in the distillery took six months. This included a few weeks of testing and tweaking the program at the distillery, running water instead of wort or wash through the equipment,” says Graham Coull, Glen Moray’s distillery manager.
Software is also designed to be future-proofed. “Computer systems date as everything else does. You always design a system to which you can bolt on extra programs and additional memory,” says Doug Stephen.
Once computerisation is installed, operators undergo training to maximise their use of the system.
“Operators first have to get used to automation. They can begin learning this by using a simpler program that controls cask filling and tanker filling, for six to 12 months.
"With no brewing or distilling knowledge it can take a year or so to reach a competent level, then a couple of years to really be in control of each stage of production,” says Stuart Watts, site director, William Grant & Sons.
Computerisation has of course changed the traditional role of an operator. “By delegating repetitive tasks to computers, fewer people are doing day to day activities.
"In theory a computer can run a distillery, but you wouldn’t have a distillery without a single human operator present.
"A computer can flag up problems but not solve them. Problem solving and decision making remains the role of the operator,” says Stuart Watts.
Computers offer certain advantages: not requiring lunch breaks or holidays. But they can of course crash.
So, what then?
“If a system goes down then another automatically takes over, as there are multiple computer units in a distillery,” says Stuart Watts.
Meanwhile, various distilleries have gradually computerised each stage of production. Glen Moray, for example, installed computers in the mash house and still house in 2012, when the distillery doubled production levels.
“A computerised system means you have far more information available, and enabled us to increase production with the same number of staff,” says Graham Coull.
Similarly, Tamdhu began by computerising the distillation process in 2013, with mashing and fermentation following in 2015.
This was a business decision when re-starting production at the site, following the purchase of Tamdhu by Ian Macleod Distillers.
“The entire process is fully automated and the most important benefit is consistency, controlling timings, flow rates and temperatures.
"As the process is never identical each time, the computer can make any small adjustments required as the software has certain parameters built in,” says Sandy McIntyre, distillery manager, Tamdhu Distillery.
Distilleries without computerised production, including Benromach and Bruichladdich, train operators to utilise a particular skill set.
“Operators have detailed training, learning exactly what to do and why they’re doing it. After three months training, operators work with supervision and support.
"They are using their senses more, sight, sound, smell, they instinctively know when something is going right or going wrong.
Aromas and sounds are very good indicators,” says Keith Cruickshank, Benromach’s distillery manager.
Adam Hannett, Bruichladdich’s head distiller, adds, “When newly trained operators have to make decisions for themselves that’s when they’re really learning. You become tuned into things, you’re watching everything, listening and checking the aromas, it’s down to experience and intuition.
"The process is never going to be identical each time.”