There’s a big tenth anniversary happening tomorrow the likes of which cannot be ignored. It’s an event that will be of historical interest to most people who find themselves on this page, yet it’s one which most people get by in their day to day lives not really thinking about.
Of course I am talking about Bruichladdich
bottling their first ten year old
since re-openning their gates back in 2001.
The resurrection of the Laddie is a fantastic tale of hard work, perseverance, determination, blood, sweat and tears and can be recounted in the brilliant book by Stuart Rivans, Whisky Dream: Waking a Giant
. A must read for any fans of Scotch Whisky.
It is not this story I would like to tell today, because as I mentioned, it has already been told quite superbly. It is one I may revisit in future posts though. What I would like to share on the eve of the Bruichladdich 10, is the story of exactly what goes into a bottle of whisky… a story we all (including myself up until last week) think that we appreciate.
I have just come back from a week of working on Islay. A Whisky Adventure like no other. I was invited out to work at Bruichladdich for 4 days, with a day off in the middle to work at Ardbeg. A privilege it was impossible to turn down and one which made me appreciate even more the effort which goes into a bottle of our favourite tipple.
Here’s what we know from various distillery tours:
To call a whisky a Single Malt Scotch Whisky it must,
- Be made from malted barley, water and yeast and be fermented with natural enzymes from the barley, no sugar can be added to the mixture
- It must be distilled in copper pot stills
- It must be distilled in Scotland
- It must be matured in Scotland, in oak for a minimum 3 years
- It must be a minimum 40%abv
- It must be the product of one distillery
You Malt It:
Barley is brought into a maltings where it is dressed, steeped, germinated and kilned to a distillery’s specifications before being transported to the distillery. We tend to forget the farmers who have to grow the barley to a specific standard, and then sell it to the industry. (Bruichladdich have actually convinced Islay farmers to grow barley on the island for them, this accounts for upwards of 40% of their yield per annum, and has led to a change in rural landscape on Islay.)You Mill It:
The mashman then mills the barley to a specific grind to ensure he gets the most out of his crop. You Mash It:
This grist is then mixed with water at a very specific strike temperature (generally 63.5C) to kick-start starch conversion into soluble sugars.You Ferment It:
The Worts (Useless Information Alert!: short for worthy liquids) are then drained off through an underback, cooled and fed into a washback ready for the addition of yeast to start fermentation. The final waters are recycled and used in the next batch. We miss the use of the excess heat from the cooling process being reused to heat the waters for the next batches.
Bowmore even use this heat, as well as heat from other parts of the process for kilning!You Distil It:
After a few days fermentation, our yeast is spent. The high alcohol beer (7-10%abv) is then ready for distillation. Distillation happens at least twice at Scottish malt whisky distilleries and is used to concentrate the alcohol level to upwards of 70%abv. We don’t get told that the stillman knows which dials are wrong, and which stills generally misbehave. We also never see the fact that a hot still is emptied as a second one is filled, this ensures that the wash is heated and takes less energy to boil. Engineering ingenuity at its best!
You Cut It:
After distillation, the spirit is cut into the foreshots, heart and feints. This is a process targeting certain aromas in the spirit. It can be measured using hydrometers. These hydrometers are calibrated to 20C, any fluctuation in temperature means we need to cut at different points. Of course, the feints and foreshots are recycled in the next batch.
(I must admit, even here, I’ve skimmed over on a lot of detail. This was a recap on what we all knew already. I can go into more detail on these processes, should I get requests for them.)
You Mature It:
This spirit is then pumped to the warehouse to be filled, and now the hard work takes on a whole new level!
Most of us are well aware that the Scotch Whisky Industry uses second hand casks for most of its production. This was traditionally a money saving technique, but is also seen as vital to achieving a certain balance in our whiskies. I like to think of casks like teabags, every cup of tea made with a single teabag becomes gradually weaker in strength of flavour and colour, the same goes for casks. Every refill gives less to the whisky. Casks therefore are the most important component in whisky as we know it today. We need to use one for at least 3 years to even label our spirit Scotch!
The question is, how much do you know about our oak?
3 years ago I was invited to Jerez in Spain to learn all about oak, and even got the chance to build a sherry butt with a team of my Whisky peers. This was an eye opening and humbling experience, and still did not cover the whole story!
An oak cask starts it’s life centuries before we even put whisky into it as an acorn. It then grows straight and true in the forests of Europe, America and Japan before being felled to be honourably coopered into vessel for holding whisk(e)y.
- The cask I helped to make had been felled in the north of Spain.
- Here it was cut into staves (you get a maximum 2 sherry butts from an oak tree in Spain).
- These staves were then shipped to Jerez in the south
- They were laid to dry in the Spanish sun for 4 years
- Then they were coopered into 500 litre sherry butts by 2 Spanish coopers or 6 random whisky geeks
Coopering involved many stages , including cutting, assembling, adding hoops, wetting, toasting, shaping, adding the ends and testing for pressure and water-tightness.
These casks are then filled with wine for a minimum 2 years and we ship 500 litres of Spanish fresh air up to Scotland to fill whisky into. This is similar to the process undertaken by the American and French coopers these days too.
Got the story? I thought I had too…
It wasn’t until 8:30am on Islay, half-way through breakfast with an ever so slight hangover that I realised I had no idea! Jim McEwen came in, threw some safety gloves at us and told us to get up to the filling store. 240 bourbon barrels had arrived and we, along with the entire Bruichalddich team were there to get them off-loaded and stacked (4 high, 3 without a forklift) so that the lorry could make the next ferry back to the mainland.
What a workout. Already a new level of appreciation for the labour in my bottle. Could it get any higher?
Of course. We learned at Ardbeg and Bruichladdich that a full bourbon barrel weighs around a quarter of a tonne. And we also learned that shifting them was fun, if there was less than 5 of them! We had to roll these monstrosities onto a loader and turn them with brute force, before spinning them so that when they enetered the rack (9 levels up in the warehouse) they landed bung up…
Only NOW can you leave them to mature for your minimum 3 years.
After maturation in the Bruichladdich warehouses the casks are then disgorged into a tank before being put back into cask for a further marrying period of at least 6 months.
They are then disgorged again before being tankered to the in-house bottling line where they can be bottled, labelled, boxed and shipped out.
See that limited edition Bruichladdich sitting on your shelf? The label was probably put on by hand. It may not have appreciated in value on ebay, but hopefully this article will have raised its worth in your eyes and of course in your mouth.
So lets all raise a glass to the Progressive Hebridean Distillers!
p.s. didn’t mention chill filtration or spirit caramel, because Bruichladdich don’t use those techniques…
In my glass: Bruichladdich Sherry Classic