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.