Distillery Focus

Under the spanish sun

The distillery in Segovia, Spain, is one of whisky's best kept secrets and yet this year it is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Dominic Roskrow joined the fiesta.
By Dominic Roskrow
Anyone who thinks that Mediterranean countries such as Spain have the wrong climate for whisky production should visit Segovia in mid winter.The region lies about 75 minutes by car north of Madrid barricaded from the capital by the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains.To reach it you pass through the lengthy Guadarrama Tunnel, which passes under Manzanare National Park, the road rising gradually,until you emerge into crisp and chill of the mountains, the snow piled by the side of the roads, the mountains themselves providing a stunning backdrop.The distillery itself is no less impressive. It is sited close to the village of Plazuelos de Eresma, a short distance from the compact and stunning town of Segovia itself. It nestles in a valley and nothing can quite prepare you for the surprise of seeing it for the first time as you approach it down a steep curving road-track. It is surrounded by lush trees, the Rio Eresma crashes past it on the valley floor, steam engulfs its pagoda roof. It’s a little slice of Scotland in the most unlikeliest of places.This is Distilerio Molino del Arco, run by Distilerias Y Crianza del Whisky and a distillery that is now part of the Beam Global portfolio.Or should that be distilleries. For this site is something of a whisky one-stop shop, made up of a single malt distillery, a grain one, maltings, blending rooms, vodka and gin distilling, a bottling plant and a packaging operation that employs 50 people and which puts together a number of combined packages including whisky and olives, whisky and playing cards and whisky and coke. Oh yes,and the site has its very own power station, capable of not only running the distillery but of providing enough electricity to sell back to Spain’s national grid.It takes a while to get your bearings as Spanish decor meets traditional distillery. Here there’s the working pagoda, there a pretty courtyard with Iberian flowers and terracotta pots; here a dramatic statue to distillery founder Nicomedes Garcia Gomez, there a traditional pot still placed on the lawn. It is just as it should be:an operating distillery with a distinctive Spanish twist.No newcomer to the business, either. It may well have slipped under the radar of most of the whisky world, but Distilerias Y Crianzas or DYC for short – and yes, they are aware of the amusing connotations – has been making whisky here for 50 years. Set up in 1959, it operated as an independent company to provide Spaniards with whisky when it was difficult to obtain supplies of Scotch in Franco-controlled Spain.The first whisky was produced three years later and was soon established in the Spanish market.And it’s some market. Even in these recessionary times, Spain is strongly geared to eating and drinking out of the home, so the majority of alcohol sales are in the on trade,making the size of the market in monetary terms relatively high. Most recent figures show that in volume terms Spain has overtaken America and is now only second to France. But there is a view that in terms of money is may even be out-performing France in top spot.And while Scotch whisky has performed well in Spain, so has DYC, so much so that it is now enjoying some export success in countries including India. Young drinkers, rejecting their parents’ propensity for Spanish brandy, turned to the whisky as a status symbol. And aided by humorous and irreverent ground-breaking advertising DYC became the whisky of choice for a generation.To augment its supply of malt it bought the Lochside Distillery in Montrose, though it is an unfortunate side effect of its success in Spain that the Scottish operation was closed and the distillery eventually demolished. A young blend known just as DYC is now number four selling whisky in Spain and dominates the regions of Andalucia, around Madrid and across central and southern Spain.It sells an impressive one million cases a year.An eight year old version of DYC was released in 1974, and it now accounts for about 20 per cent of total sales, 250,000 cases, and last year a pure malt was added to the range. To mark the 50th anniversary celebrations the distillery is releasing its first single malt.If you have the chance to visit this distillery, take it. Technical manager Luis Garcia and general manager Manuel Cabanas are my guides for the morning and admit that the distillery has not done as much as it could have done to promote itself, but that is set to change this year due to the increased interest in whisky among the Spanish public.“We offer daily tours around the distillery but our visitor facilities need to be improved,”says.“But changes are taking place this year and we hope that through the distillery’s celebrations more people will learn of us and come to visit.” Few distilleries offer as much under one roof as this one, and it takes some taking in. The maltings are vast, and the pagoda’s not for show. Drying, and some peating, takes place on site, almost uniquely today, the malting provide enough malt for the whole distillery’s needs. When you consider that it’s producing enough malt for about eight million litres of grain whisky and 1.15 million litres of single malt (and the potential to go up to two million), it’s some operation. Of the grain whisky about five million goes into whisky blending, the rest to the plant’s other spirits.Indeed the distillery’s success is in great part due to the quality of the grain produced here. It’s deliciously sweet and full,and perhaps unsurprisingly it dominates DYC and DYC eight year old, contributing a ratio of 75:25 and 70:30 grain to malt respectively.Despite the size and importance of the grain plant, this is no factory operation,however. In fact it’s something of a hotchpotch, combining sizeable industrial-like equipment with dinky boutique stills set side by side to startling effect. It is like no other distillery on earth.From a whisky enthusiast’s point of view the centre-piece of the distillery is the still room where the malt is produced. It contains six stills, all of different sizes and all sizeable. The spirit stills take 12,000 litres running off 25,000 litre wash stills. They make a light, appley but very clean malt. It’s blemish-free and undoubtedly well made.Certainly there’s enough promise to suggest that it deserves a run out in its own right, and hopefully this year’s inaugural single malt will mark the start of a long and successful journey for Spanish single malt.You get the feeling that there’s a confidence issue here, though,and Luis Garcia and his team are feeling their way tentatively towards the single malt market.The distillery’s pure malt is a vatted malt, for instance, and is made up of malt from the distillery with what is described as bought-in ‘Euro malt’. This, it transpires is a mix which definitely includes Laphroaig and presumably malt from Beam’s other Scottish distillery, Ardmore.As you’d expect with a distillery owned by Beam, the distillery does not cut corners when it comes to the quality of what it is producing.Spirit is matured in quality Beam bourbon casks and there are about 250,000 litres maturing on site.The blending rooms and laboratories, with designated tasting areas, are state of the art and beautifully pristine.We end our tour in the distillery’s own power station, a vast electricity plant with two giant Rolls Royce ship engines. Quite how this works is lost in translation – not the Spanish as much as the science – but in essence the plant produces enough electricity not only to maintain a plentiful amount of power for the huge distillery operation but to sell back to Spain’s electricity board.The complete tour of this vast and impressive site take a good couple of hours and the visit ends late morning. But we’re not done yet. We are in Spain, so it’s time for a proper lunch and a trip in to nearby Segovia.The town is stunning. Set in to a steep hillside and decorated with jagged rock, it boasts an old Gothic cathedral, the last of its type to be built between 1525 And 1768 – yes, it took nearly 250 years to complete – a monastery, a traditional university and a delightful Plaza in the centre of the town that can only be reached by narrow cobbled roads. But it is the Roman aqueduct which takes the breath away. More than 2000 years old and more than 60 metres high, its arches stretch over the town, dwarfing the cars that pass beside it, a remarkable feat of symmetry and engineering.Up in the Plaza a local market is winding down and a handful of tourists, even in the depths of winter, are casting an eye over an array of small bars and restaurants.We are guided to one of the town’s very best. And it’s at this point that I sense a slight change in attitude among my hosts. Eating is a serious business here, almost ritualistic, an important part of a proud regional as well as national culture. My hosts don’t know me, or my attitude to food, and I can’t help feeling that they are watching me closely now,perhaps seeking signs of approval, or perhaps of weakness.At this point those of a nervous disposition should look away now.Lunch in Segovia is not for the faint-hearted; indeed it is positively X-rated.Segovia’s speciality is suckling pig, and if there’s any doubt in anybody’s mind what we’re talking about, there’s the menu with a picture of the owner holding up Pinky and Perky. If they look somewhat startled in the photograph, heaven knows what they looked like a few moments later.We start with a civilised sherry and some appetisers centred around a tasty meat that turns out to be ox tongue. Then it’s time for the main event.I should point out here that I am a Europhile and don’t have a nationalist bone in my body. But as they wheeled in lunch and headed straight for my place, I felt that this was some sort of trial, as adversarial as anything that takes place in the bullring we had passed on our way to the restaurant, and the reputation of my country was on the line.And sure enough, here is Peppa Pig, complete with curly tail and trotters. The waiters take a plate and roll it down Peppa’s backbone and then across the back, and the pig breaks up in to four quarters, a demonstration of the tenderness of the meat. Our table watches in reverential silence as Peppa is served to each of us, starting, obviously, with me. My portion still has an ear on. Everybody watches as I take a mouthful.The pork is delicious, succulent and sweet, so I make a ‘thumbs up’ sign , a pathetic symbol of international approval, and say something like ‘bravo.’And just like that, everybody relaxes and the wine begins to flow,and we begin one of the most memorable and enjoyable lunches I have ever had.This being Spain,we didn’t emerge in to the Plaza to well after 5pm and I was returned to my hotel full and happy, thanking my good fortune on having stumbled on such a special, special place and such great people. That evening I sat in a couple of bars near my hotel watching young Spaniards share and enjoy whisky but because I had to leave the hotel early the next morning, I retired just as Madrid was livening up, reluctant to end my Spanish experience.But it wasn’t quite over. At 4.30 the next daymy taxi tried to cut through Madrid’s narrow streets but was forced to wait as hundreds of revellers left the city’s clubs and bars. They waved drinks happily at us,wrapped arms round each other and sang their way down the streets. It was in stark contrast to the often dark and intimidating experience of Britain’s late night city centre streets.Don’t get me wrong: I’mnot trying to pretend Madrid doesn’t have its own dark side, its violence.But not on this morning. Here was a fiesta, an outpouring of vitality, an unthreatening display of youthful exuberance. It’s doubtful these club-goers had been drinking responsibly, but they were taking responsibility for their drinking. There’s a difference. More than that, whisky was part of the story, it belonged there, and that’s the way it should be.Even if they are a bit hard on their pigs.