By Jim Murray

Whisky clones

Jim Murray ponders the relationship between increased automation in whisky making and brand parity.
It was only a matter of time before people started noticing. And worrying. So it was no surprise when Whisky Magazine's editor Jane Slade dropped me a line, "Can you help out on this one, Jim?" Too right I could.It was a letter from James L Pickett, "Dear Editors: It is my understanding that Dalwhinnie has undertaken an automation program that has made several employees redundant. The program is to automate the production so that the only people required are those monitoring the computer. I would be interested in knowing more about this program and how this might affect the end product. Should one purchase Dalwhinnie before the automation takes place?"As it happens, Dalwhinnie has not become an automated plant as such, more semi-automated. This means there are always two men on duty day and night, and you can see them battling with the crams to turn the stills on and off the old way. Dalwhinnie has even gone back to using worms as opposed to condensers in a bid to recreate that famous sulphury note detected in its make in its first few years, before being replaced by something more honey-intense. But further up the A9 road, things are somewhat different. In Dufftown, the Mortlach distillery relies on just one distillery worker to oversee the whole lot. The stills are automated, but he still has to look after the mill and tuns. At night he is joined by a second worker.Mr Pickett's question about how the product will be affected is a valid one. There is now a growing concern throughout the industry that recent modifications to distillery plants and a uniformity in practice, such as spirit running times, means that those charming idiosyncrasies distinguishing one distillery from another will eventually be ironed out. There has been a trend to make a distillery manager and his team every bit at home in one distillery as they are in another. And a number of blenders and technicians I have spoken to in Scotland over the last year feel that this could be the first step to distilleries making a malt so similar to each other that the difference will hardly matter. Which means some distilleries will become surplus to requirements because a replica spirit can be made elsewhere.They may be unduly pessimistic. The individual shapes and sizes of stills do offer a certain buffer against cloned whisky. As do experienced blenders like Allied's Robert Hicks who still travels to individual distilleries to lay down the law. But worldwide there has been an almost indecent haste in the way highly experienced whisky-makers and blenders have been made redundant or given early retirement to save the cost of a salary. No country has been worse affected than Canada where experience and knowledge have begun to count for precious little as companies contract. Similarly, Scotland's golf courses have become littered with surplus whisky talent in recent years and this cannot do the industry anything but harm.All us whisky lovers can do is wait and keep our fingers crossed. Tampering with something as delicate as whisky is either a brave or foolhardy thing to do. Ripping out the fires and rummagers to save a few bob is a calculated risk. It is a gamble which, if lost, could incur a loss to the industry far greater than any advantages that may be gained financially.