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Certified I.B.D. Distiller working to support the Craft Distilling movement sweeping North America.

Glengoyne Distillery – You Have to Visit Here

So…..21 years ago I was getting set to marry my sweetheart. In fact April 5, 2018 is our 21st Anniversary. Shortly afterwards, she advised my she was heading to Glasgow, Scotland for a Rotary International Conference. When she came home she was raving about this place called Glengoyne that she had visited. Something about tasting drams of Scotch at 10am in the morning…and I was told it was a Rotary Conference she was at! Hah!!! To this day, Jeanne still talks about her visit to Glengoyne and in fact expresses a preference for only Glengoyne Scotch. So, here I am in Edinburgh at school right now ( Heriot Watt University – Brewing & Distilling). Today is my 54th Birthday and as a treat to myself, I took the train from Edinburgh to Milngavie and a bus to the front door of Glengoyne Distillery. I was met by the beautiful and charming JoAnne who would be my tour guide. When she found out I was studying at Heriot Watt, she opened up to me and shared all sorts of excellent technical information with me. Quite the opposite from the treatment I had last October at Blair Athol Distillery…but that is another story for another day.

I had a chance to blend my own Scotch using cask strength samples of various ages from various barrel types. This was called the Malt Master Tour and I highly advise it. The tour of the Distillery was top shelf all the way. Now I know why my dear wife was so impressed 21 years ago.

If your travels take you to Scotland – you just have to visit Glengoyne Distilling. Get yourself to Glasgow. From there, either take a train or a bus to the town of Milngavie (locals call it Miln-Guy). From there take bus B10 to the front door of the Distillery. Ask if JoAnne can give you the tour and as I say – give serious thought to spending some $$$$ and doing the Master Malt Tour. You will come away with a whole new appreciation for Scotch. You will also start to understand why our Canadian Whisky distilled to 95% ABV is total piss! I dare say, after a visit to Glengoyne, your Whisky sipping will take on a whole new dimension.

My goal now…..dare I say it…..is to contact the owners of this fine location and see if I can arrange for a 3-4 month work opportunity. That would be like a dream come true……

Abuelo Rum – You Have Got to Try This !

Recently when reading Dave Broom’s Rum-The Manual book, I noticed that he had a profile for Abuelo Rum from Panama. Funny how things happen – I am in Panama at the moment and I am seeing small bottles of Abuelo Rum (Anejo) in stores for $2.

How good can $2 Rum be? Well… surprise, surprise. This is some of the most wonderful Rum I have had in a good long time. It puts to shame the products from the big name, global purveyors of Rum. The brand is owned by a company called Varela Hermanos, S.A. Its history dates back to 1908, when Don José Varela Blanco, a young Spanish immigrant, established himself in the town of Pesé in the central part of Panama. He built a sugar mill, the first such mill in the recently formed Republic of Panamá.

The rest as they say, is history. Today, Abuelo has its cheaper $2 anejo version, plus a 7 year old expression plus a 12 year old expression and now a release that is blended with 30 year old rum.

If what I am tasting in the cheaper anejo stuff carries forward into the longer aged 7 and 12 year olds, I think it is time to go shopping for another suitcase. A goodly amount of Abuelo is coming back to Canada with me.

The Botanist Gin – A Profound Disappointment

For those of you that now know me, you will appreciate that I tell it as it is. I do not tip-toe around big brand names showering them with fancy descriptive adjectives. This is why you will never see my comments in the big global spirits magazines. I am a non-conformist in the eyes of the big name spirits brands. However, I do believe in giving high praise when it is due. Give me an excellent spirit and I will write glowingly about it in no uncertain terms.

Now, to the point of this post. Yesterday I was in the grocery store here in Panama City. My wife wanted some Gin and the selections were sparse at best. Hard liquor is not a big seller here in this hot climate. As I was reaching for the Gordon’s Gin on the top shelf, I spied on the bottom shelf a bottle of Botanist Gin. Sampling this Gin has been on my list of to-do’s for a while now, so I thought – why not here, why not now?

We quickly rushed back to our rented apartment and poured ourselves each a wee dram, straight up at room temperature intent on savoring the bouquet of 22 botanicals teasing our senses. This is where the profound disappointment quickly set in. My senses were assaulted with the overwhelming aroma of industrial alcohol. No juniper-forward notes. No hints of citrus in the background. Just nasty industrial solventy, feinty alcohol.

I then tried adding some Tonic (Schwepp’s to be exact), thinking that maybe a G&T was the way to enjoy the Botanist. I thought maybe the Tonic would tease out some of the 22 botanicals. No way. I now had a G&T with notes of feinty industrial alcohol. Yech!! My wife’s first reaction was to suggest that maybe this bottle had been distilled and prepared under licence by a distillery in Central America who had botched the recipe. I quick look at the bottle showed that no – this was a product of Scotland.

I am seriously under-whelmed with the Botanist. Obviously the corporate powers behind this brand have done a masterful job at marketing this product. I say this because I have had people in the 5-day Workshops that have spoke of the Botanist in hushed reverence like they were describing their admiration for the Queen of England. Such is the power of brand name advertising.

So – craft distillers, you have nothing to fear in the Botanist. It is a poorly done product and one not worthy of your hard earned dollars. See what I mean when I say I tell it like it is……


Brown Colored Piss in a Bottle

To be very frank – I am growing increasingly more worried about the state of the craft distilling movement all the time. The urgency to get a product to market is doing the craft movement no favors at all. The vendors that play into this urgency need to dial it back. Case in point – craft distillers have discovered that they can buy staves and cubes and chips of toasted oak from a number of N. American sellers and toss this crap into a tote of distillate. After 3-4 weeks….et voila….Whisky !! But, it is not Whisky. It is brown colored piss in a bottle. Craft distillers then run around blathering about small batch, handcrafted and somewhere in there is usually a colorful marketing tale about someone’s grandfather being a gun-totin’, cattle-rustlin’ Moonshiner. To the consumer – all of this is very new and very attractive. But, if the whisky is piss in a bottle, how does that benefit the consumer? How does that benefit anyone? Sadly, there is a reluctance on the part of craft distillers to embrace science. Maybe it is more of a fear? Who knows. My message in all of this is – you do not have to be enrolled in a M.Sc. program at Heriot Watt to understand the science. You do not even need to be enrolled in the IBD exam offerings. All you need do is read a basic book on Microbiology and then apply some of what you learned to reading scientific papers. And these papers are readily available to you. Case in point – last evening I went to Google Scholar and typed in something about Oak Aging and Whisky. Next thing you know I was pulling out my credit card and spending $10 to buy a 1981 research paper written by a gentleman at the Seagram’s Research Center in Kentucky (back when Seagram’s actually still owned production facilities). A read of the paper reveals some key mechanisms. In an oak barrel, ethanol oxidizes to acetaldehyde and thence to acetic acid. It is the combination of the acid and ethanol that generate esters (flavor and aroma). The wood lignins break down under the influence of ethanol into aromatic aldehydes. The hemicelluloses break down into various polysaccharides that impart sweetness to a Whisky. Adding distillate to the barrel at between 55% and 65% is shown to be the optimal strength. Add the distillate at higher proof and you accomplish nothing. Charring of the oak alters the celluloses and hemicelluloses and makes them more reactive with the ethanol. Hence, charred barrels will deliver a better flavor profile. Time in the oak is also key. A good amount of the color and flavor is developed in year 1 of aging, but the extraction of color and flavor continues for years on end. The temperature of the aging room affects the extraction of color and flavor too. Age at a warmer temperature and the relative proportions of esters and aldehydes will shift. Hence temperature can be used to help a distiller arrive at a desired flavor profile. Re-using a barrel again also is a risk. I see a lot of craft people running around wild-eyed and crazed in search of used barrels from Jack Daniels. Hello? Jack Daniels has already used that barrel for maybe 6 years. Adding your distillate and leaving it sit will earn you nothing. The barrel needs to be re-furbished. I saw this recently in Scotland where it was made very clear to me that the incoming used Bourbon barrels from the USA are sent to a cooperage in Inverness for refurbishing.

So this whole reading process of this one 1981 paper took me all of an hour and the information gleaned is amazing. With such data and information so readily available to us in this information age, why take shortcuts by adding sticks and cubes and staves to distillate? Embrace the science and make a truly fantastic product. Take that truly fantastic product and wrap it in the story about your gun-totin’, Moonshinin’ ancestor and believe me you will have people breaking your door down to buy your Whisky. Then, the big commercial distillers will really have something to fear….

Residual Alkalinity and Distillate Flavor

Finally….I get the water thing figured out thanks to my German brewing books I am using in my M.Sc. studies. Gotta love that German know-how….Here is what you do……. from your water report, take the Alkalinity value, the Calcium value and the Magnesium value. Start by calculating your Effective Hardness which is Calcium (ppm) / 1.4. Next, take Mg / 1.7. Add these 2 figures to get Effective Hardness. Subtract the Effective Hardness from Alkalinity to get Residual Alkalinity (RA). A nicely balanced water will have RA of about 40-50. If your RA is above that, you run the risk of making a distilled spirit where the taste is blaaaah and un-balanced. Let’s take some actual values from a real situation at a craft distillery in the south part of the Okanagan in BC (name withheld for privacy). The local water has Ca of 18 ppm, Mg 34 and Alkalinity 238 ppm. So, 238 minus [(18/1.4) + (34/1.7)] = 205. This water is not exactly the most balanced and could very easily interfere with flavor balance on a distilled product. Plus, the Calcium to way to low for making sure the yeast can function. This distillery (last time I checked) was adding Gypsum to up their Calcium to 100 ppm. At 100 ppm, the new RA becomes 238 – [(100/1.4) + (34/1.7)] = 146. Better, but still not balanced. What this distillery can do (could do?…should do ??) is a novel approach that involves adding a 25 kg bag of Chocolate Malt to every mash. The acidity of the Chocolate Malt grains will be offset by the RA (residual alkalinity) and their distiller will likely notice a significant improvement in distillate flavor and an improvement in taste complexity. And, of course, their distiller will be adding acid to reduce the high pH of his water. There are 2 approaches for this – (1) add actual acid or (2) add a couple pails of the leftover liquid from a distillation run to his next mash. This leftover stillage is highly acidic. This method is what the Kentucky Bourbon makers call the Sour Mash method.

Yeast – How Much to Add ???

Up until recently, I was offering a standard formula for yeast pitching rate in my Workshops and writings. Amazing how some deeper schooling can raise one’s level of understanding of yeast. During my recent trip to Scotland, I went to 3 distilleries and in all cases noted that they were adding more yeast than I normally would.

Recall there are 4 stages to the fermentation cycle. Lag Phase, Exponential, Stationary and Decline. The Stationary Phase is where the pyruvic acid is metabolized to ethanol. During this phase, the yeast soon realizes that the ethanol is actually toxic and stands to harm the cell walls. So, the yeast reaches out into the grain mash and imports amino acids (FAN=free amino nitrogen). The yeast carves the NH3 molecule off the amino acid and then proceeds to excrete the remaining structural shell (now called an alpha keto acid). These alpha keto acids form the basic structure for the development of higher alcohols and esters. The longer the Stationary Phase drags on for, the more higher alcohols and esters the yeast generates as it shores up its cell walls against the surrounding toxic ethanol. Hence, the longer the Stationary Phase – the more unique the flavor profile of your distillate will be. as I noted earlier, in Scotland, the distillers are adding a considerable amount of yeast (double what I have been suggesting in my teachings and writings). This is because they are aiming for a certain flavor profile and have been aspiring to that same profile for 100+ years in many cases. They know how much higher alcohol they want in their final spirit. So, as a craft distiller, consider ramping up the amount of yeast you add to a ferment. See how the flavor profile of your distillate changes. See how much you shorten up on your fermentation time. You might be surprised…..

Seaweed and Distilled Spirits ??

I am learning the most fascinating stuff as I get further immersed in my M.Sc. studies. For example, seaweed is comprised largely of plant proteinaceous material. But, seaweed also has a sugar component to it where the sugar is of a di-saccharide made of 2 galactose molecules joined together. There are actually 3 structural variants of this disaccharide present in seaweed and we call them iota-carrageenan, kappa carrageenan and lambda carrageenan. The iota and kappa forms carry a positive ionic charge and are attracted to proteins. Hence, brewers will add seaweed to their brews to assist protein material to settle out in the boil kettle or whirlpool vessel. If you have ever home-brewed beer, you know all this already for you were using Irish Moss from your local brew store to clarify your wort during the post-boil. Lambda carrageenan does little to assist the brewer, but it has been recognized for its foam stabilizing properties. You know this already and have eaten it. Look at a typical ice cream container and the ingredients might include carrageenan. During chilling in the ice cream factory, it helps the ice cream remain as a single phase and not a separated mess. And the connection to distilling you ask? Again, you have had it before. Bailey’s Irish Cream. Note that it does not separate into alcohol and cream phases. It stays as one nicely mixed liquid in the bottle on your shelf. Thanks lambda carrageenan! I just got a pack of this stuff from the good folks at Monashee Distilling in Revelstoke, BC. Thanks Josh!! I am going to play around making some Holiday Cream Liquor from some nice 18% cream and using the copious amounts of Bourbon that I (allegedly!!) might have in my possession from some potential research I reportedly did recently. I will let you all know how it turns out. The maker of this carrageenan is www.ModernistPantry.com. And fyi, if you are ordering some Cream Liquor from Josh at Monashee Distilling, he does not use the lambda carrageenan (that’s why I ended up getting it…). Instead, he mixes his cream and alcohol at extremely high rates of speed and shear using a special mixer. This causes the cream fatty molecules to separate. It takes about 6-7 weeks for the busted up fat molecules to get re-acquainted. Hence, Josh’s Mountain Creamer product will carry a shelf life of 5-6 weeks before the alcohol and cream separate into 2 phases. But, no worries. If it takes you 5 weeks to consume a bottle of Josh’s product, then there is something seriously wrong with you…You will be lucky if a bottle lasts 5 days…By using this hi-shear mixing method, Josh is able to call his product a true organic creation without any added powders or stabilizers.

Philosophical Thoughts on Whisky in Canada

This we trip to Scotland has given me pause for thought. I am struggling with the question – what is whisky?

Technically it is an alcoholic spirit beverage made from barley and other cereal grains. But, the bigger issue is how is it made and to what degree is it elevated?

Technically the definition for Whisky in Canada says that aging 3 years in small wood earns one the right to call it a Canadian Whisky. There is nothing that sets any restrictions on ingredients. A Canadian distiller could use barley, wheat, corn, rye, oats…etc…

The generally accepted protocol seems to be for a big commercial distiller in Canada to bring the distillate off a column still at 95% (almost a Vodka-like material) and then blend that base with distillates of other grains that are perhaps less than 95%. After that, it all gets aged in small wood (casks less than 700 liters), which are oak for the most part. Where this column still notion came from, I do not know. What drove the urgency to create a spirit so clean that it only needed 3 years of aging, I do not know. The 3 years in itself seems to hearken back to Canada’s days as a British colony where the Brits set the laws. But the 3 years is simply a minimum. The urgency is then further added to when one realizes that by Canadian law we can actually add up to 9.09% of other stuff (including wine…) and caramel color. Add artificial flavor and the law says only 2 years of aging is needed. So the next time you are having a Canadian whisky – ask yourself what are you drinking. If the label does not explicitly say how old it is…you might be shocked at what is in that libation. Now I understand why 2 years ago when I was at a spirits conference in London, speaker Dominik Roskrow went on a wicked tirade against Canadian whisky makers, whom he regards as a bunch of mad laboratory scientists.

In Scotland, technically 3 years is also required. But, so many of the distillers have stayed true to the old method of distilling using goose-neck pot stills and then aging for 10,12, 15 years and more. Somehow, this artistry got lost when Canada became a nation.

In the USA, the artistry was partly maintained as the USA became its own nation in 1776. US law demands that bourbon, for example, shall come off the still at 80% or less. Then, law further states that a “new” oak cask shall be used. Then law says the maximum alcohol strength in the aging cask shall be 62.5%. Then the law says, age it 4 years minimum or face the embarrassment of posting an age statement on your label. This has served to elevate the status of American bourbons and whisky’s on the word stage.

And now we have the craft distilling revolution unfolding before our eyes. Craft distillers are relying on our lax laws and are calling their whisky products grain mashes, moonshines, spirit drinks. Some have even found a weakness in the law that technically allows one to call it whisky without even aging it. Excise Canada officials are trying hard to get that “horse back into the barn”. What worse, I see craft distillers now throwing oak sticks and chips into a container to give their so-called whisky some color and oak notes in a hurry. Add some toasted oak chips to some clear distillate sometime and count the days until the liquid is brown, to see what I mean…

These craft distillers, in my not so humble opinion, are making PISS IN A BOTTLE. I am growing ever more worried that the craft movement is going to collapse under its own weight. Consumers in this day and age of readily available information via the internet and easy travel opportunities are getting savvy quickly. I fear they are going to turn their back on craft if craft does not move fast to understand the science behind spirits making. As I caution people in the Distillery Workshops, “Betty Crocker has left the building”. In other words, if you think that making spirits is like baking a cake out of a cardboard box, then maybe craft distilling is NOT for you.

I am now seeing a rumbling of sorts coming from at least one of the big boys. Pernod Ricard owns the Wiser’s brand name and their Vice President is Don Livermore. By the way, Dr. Livermore obtained his pH.D. from Heriot Watt where I am currently working on my M.Sc. Dr. Livermore was quoted in a recent edition of Quench magazine as saying he “hates craft”. I say look out! This is a man who understands the science and who has the corporate horsepower to start bringing some uniquely innovative products to market that will take a nasty swipe at the idea of craft.

So craft people, I say the time to bid farewell to PISS IN A BOTTLE has come. It is time to play the long game and start making whisky that is properly nurtured. The French even have an expression for this. They call it ‘elevage’, meaning to raise or nurture. Forget about running to vendors looking for oak chips from old Scotch barrels and old Bourbon barrels. Get off your lazy asses and embrace science. You want some smokiness in a whisky? Buy some smoked barley with a high phenol content and add it to your mash. How much to add? You figure it out. Betty Crocker has left the building. Better yet, build a little cold smoker and smoke your barley with local woods from your area. Want something that tastes like Bourbon? Never mind adding chips and stuff. Figure out a mash that will give you a nice tasting Bourbon. Better yet – read my book called The Recipe. I give you all that you need. In short – start playing the role of the craftsman. That is what craft distilling is all about. It is not about cutting corners and trying to sneak one by the consumer. The customer is still early in his relationship with craft. Based on the number of craft distillery failures I am now starting to see in the USA, I say this relationship is about to go through a rough spell, even here in Canada.

On on this dire note, I have a wee dram of 15 year old cask strength calling my name. If I listen carefully, I think I can hear choirs of angels singing….

My Faith in Corporate Whisky – Restored……

Last week I was supposed to have done a tour to nearby Glenkinchie Distillery, but at the last minute the tour company advised they had to cancel due to the fact I was the only one who had signed up.

Last evening, sitting at my hotel desk writing a term paper on the use of Near Infrared Reflectance Spectroscopy as a tool to help malting companies, an email popped up advising that there would be a Glenkinchie tour today (Oct 13th).

Early this morning, I made my way into Edinburgh and found the tour office. Soon enough the bus arrived and we all boarded. The driver announced that straight away we would be heading to Glenkinchie – a Diageo owned distillery.

What ??????? Oh….no….here we go again I thought. I very nearly got off the bus and called it quits…My Blair Athol experience of earlier in the week was just that bad !

When we arrived at Glenkinchie we were met by our tour guide Gavin and sure enough there were the words I was dreading…” sorry folks, but this is a working distillery, so no cameras allowed…”.

But, Gavin turned out to be extremely knowledgeable and he had a very good presentation manner. And…he answered my questions – even the tough technical ones. At the end, there was none of the Blair Athol high pressure sales crap (as I encountered earlier this week) where you were more or less told what the dram of Scotch tasted like. Gavin was very good and he reminded us that we would all taste something different depending on our taste buds.

To that end…the Glenkinchie 12 year old aged in ex-Bourbon and finished in sherry butts gave me a great big beautiful face-full of fresh raspberries & black currants. Very nice!!

I went so far as to ask Gavin what Diageo products he enjoys when at home. His answer again was very forthright. He apparently drinks Dailuaine Single Malt and Benrinnes Single Malt. He have me a wee taste of both and wow! – I was hearing choirs of angels sing. Needless to say, a bottle of each is coming back to Canada with me. And no, I will not share if you come to visit. You can drink my home-made Bourbon aged 12 months in oak. I will take care of the 15 and 16 year old Dailuaine and Benrinnes.

As I was about to leave, I was introduced to one of the managers on site. I took the time to tell him of my miserable Blair Athol experience. I thanked him for being open with questions and I thanked him for a great tour. I asked Gavin for some corporate photos that I can use in my Workshops and presentations. I hope (fingers crossed, breath held…) that Gavin can find me some.

I am glad I went on today’s tour. My faith in Diageo has been restored. I look forward to visiting other Diageo sites on my next study trip to Heriot Watt in February 2018.

Oh…and by the way…the following photo is of Kinchie Burn, the wee creek from whence some of the distillery water is taken from.

Edradour Distillery – You Gotta Tour Here !

Spending a busy week in Edinburgh holed up in the Library at Heriot Watt University working on assignments for my M.Sc. program. But all work and no play is a bad thing, so I took the time the other day for a couple distillery tours.

Not wanting to get dragged around on a tour bus with other tourists, I contacted Paul Mclean at Mclean Tours and arranged for a private driver / tour guide. Costly? Yes. Worth it? Indeed – worth every pence that I paid. I highly recommend Paul’s company for distillery tours. If possible, ask to see if Andy is available to be your guide and driver.

Our first stop was Edradour near the village of Pitlochry. 30 years ago when I took up Whisky drinking in a serious way, Edradour was my first ever Scotch. I had a great time being toured around by tour guide John and he was very accommodating to me when he found out I was an M.Sc. student at Heriot Watt.

This tiny ( by current corporate standards) makes only 100,000 Liters a year. No wonder I cannot find it in Canada anymore. The mash tank is the old cast iron design from the 1800s. The lautered mash is cooled in a Morton chiller from 80 C to 18 C. The fins shown in the photo following have creek water flowing through them to act as the coolant. The fermenter is made of 3 inch thick Oregon Pine planks. No glycol cooling on this fermenter ! The ferments start at 18 C and at the peak of temperature, the tank is only at 32C, so no harm occurs to the yeast. Distillation is in 2 steps – a wash still run and a spirits still run, 3600 Liters size and 2100 Liters size respectively. In the Distillery Workshops I drive home the point that less surface area in a still allows more heavy molecular weight alcohol molecules to pass into the final distillate. These then take extra time to mature, but they also generate more flavor ( distillates in Scotland usually come off these goose neck stills at 68-70%). Contrast this to Canadian Whiskies where the distillates come off the still at 95%. This then demands the addition of artificial things to make the Canadian Whisky suitable for the customer to mix with Coke. ( I need to be careful here…I may end up wanting to work for one of these big boys when I get the M.Sc. done). But, I digress.

At Edradour, the distillate is aged in ex-bourbon and / or ex-Sherry casks. There is a limit to how often these used casks are re-used. And so there should be a limit, for wood only has so much wood sugar in it to help the Whisky. Again, contrast this to more corporate producers who re-use the casks many, many, many times over.

My favorite ( and I have some in my suitcase…) is 15 yr old, finished in Italian barolo wine casks. And no, I will not be sharing – so stay away !

After Edradour, we went 2 minutes up the road to Blair Athol Distillery. Owned by Diageo, this was corporate to the core. Everything our tour guide Jill uttered was carefully scripted – I dare say by the top dogs at head office. Photography was forbidden. My technical questions were avoided and evaded. I was dis-heartened to say the least. What would be wrong with a couple pics and a few straight answers to some serious questions. Anyhow, guess which Scotch I WILL NOT be bringing home with me!

This tight lipped, stuffy corporate attitude at Blair Athol really ruined my day. As I think about it more deeply, I suppose this corporate attitude is what is driving the craft movement around the world. So sad that the “suits” at head offices just don’t get it…

Anyhow, back to the Library now to do more research into yeast metabolic pathways and also beer spoilage microorganisms.

I plan to tour a few more non-corporate distilleries in February when I am back here. And – yes it will be Paul McLean and his crew that will be taking me around.