Totally unaware about it, I turned out to be the last person from Russia who visited Scottish Glen Scotia – I was there on May 26, 2019, and just one week later it was announced that the whisky business of Loch Lomond Group is sold to investors from China. Actually, there is nothing special in this fact, Glen Scotia had many different owners, if not to mention that this particular case allows you to come up with an attention-grabbing headline.
But let’s go step by step. I had to go to Campbeltown in order to become, as it turned out later, «the best scholar of the week» at Springbank Whisky School. And I certainly could not miss this opportunity to realize a long-desired visit to Glen Scotia distillery. I used a coach to travel from Glasgow to Campbeltown, and I chose this way of transportation especially in order to retrace the path of Alfred Barnard, which he had done in 1885. Here’s what Barnard wrote about this trip in his immortal book «The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom»:
«We had a splendid day for our journey, and the road lay through some of the most delightful and romantic scenery in the county. After passing through the village of Tarbert, crossing the peninsula to the West Loch Tarbert Pier, from whence the Islay boats depart, we came in sight of the sea which we had in view for the rest of our journey. In this part of Kintyre most of the charms of nature are united. First we passed country lanes overshadowed with trees and farm houses mostly of a superior kind, whose smiling cornfields testify that cultivation is carried on to the highest perfection, then villages, so called, which scarcely reach the size of hamlets, and wide natural meadows on which herds of cattle were grazing. Coaching merrily along we were soon sunk into the recesses of a small valley, shut in by woods and overlooked by romantic elevations, and then in a few moments we were out of this seemingly remote concealment, looking down upon the broad waters of the loch, and across an expanse of luxuriant country terminating in a rocky shore and the wide ocean.»
To my surprise, I saw almost exactly the same picture that Alfred Barnard saw almost 150 years ago. Landscapes were beautiful, houses and villages were superior, bright-green meadows on the hills begged to paint them onto the canvas. Of course, there were some differences, for example, I couldn’t see any cornfields: maybe it was just still early for it.
Campbeltown is the former whisky capital of Scotland. This small town was once home to 37 distilleries, and 26 distilleries worked here simultaneously. A lot of water, a lot of peat, enough barley and good location, which was convenient to send whisky to the United States and which was inconvenient to control whisky production – all that contributed to the development of distillation in Campbeltown. At the end of the 19th century, Campbeltown sends to customers more than 5 million liters of whisky annually — a huge figure in those days.
However, the introduction of Prohibition in the United States caused a sharp decline in demand for whisky from Campbeltown, and it turned impossible to find other markets to maintain the production volume. Whisky was available in excess, and malicious tongues say that whisky from Campbeltown was not competitive enough to survive. Loss of markets has forced almost all the distilleries in the city to shut down.
At the conclusion of the conversation about the region as a whole, I shall note that the third distillery of the region, Glengyle, gave its first spirit only in the year 2000. Glengyle was restored by the Mitchell family, the owners of Springbank and Cadenhead, and the founders of Glengyle. After that SWA commissioned Campbeltown as a separate whisky region. We may assume that it was done rather as a tribute of respect for the historical contribution of this territory into the history of whisky production rather than an evaluation of today’s significance of Campbeltown whisky industry — now all the three distilleries in the city do not produce collectively even a million liters of whisky per year. However, there is no doubt that Campbeltown fully deserves this title.
The history of Glen Scotia distillery reflects all the twists and turns of the whisky production history in the region. The distillery was built in 1832 and had the name “Scotia”, “Glen” was added only a hundred years later, in 1935, two years after the distillery was acquired by Bloch brothers. The building, which houses Glen Scotia, was rebuilt considerably at the end of the 19th century, and you may see what was on the block near Glen Scotia in the early 70-s of the last century on the picture below.
In 1920 the Prohibition comes into force in the United States and by the year 1929 only three distilleries — Springbank, Rieclachan (closed in 1934) and Scotia – remains in Campbeltown. However, production at Scotia stops in 1930 already, and the distillery stays «silent» till 1933 when owners changed. Thought Scotia resumed production, the load was unstable, it stopped and started distillation again many times until finally, in 1939, the distillery worked almost all the year through. Unfortunately, due to the Second World War, whisky distillation was suspended in the UK from 1942 till 1945.
In 1954 Hiram Walker & Sons came into possession of the distillery, the company which already operated 18 distilleries in Scotland. However, Hiram Walker almost immediately re-sold Glen Scotia to a local company, A. Gillies & Co., associated with the previous owners, with one of the Bloch brothers. In 1970 this company was absorbed by ADP, and three years later big reconstruction works begin. Reconstruction was finished in 1977, and newly opened distillery starts to sell its whisky not only for blends but also as a single malt, and even exports it.
Economic problems of the late 70-s — early 80-s and whisky overproduction resulted in the fact that Glen Scotia was mothballed in 1983. In 1986 the distillery changed the owner again and in 1989 it resumes production. In 1994 Glen Scotia was sold to Loch Lomond Distillery Company and again became silent for another 5 years. The distillation started again only in 1999. So, it turns out that in addition to pauses in production in 1930-s and during the World War II, Glen Scotia did not work from 1983 to 1989 and from 1994 to 1999 also.
Even knowing that the distillery worked in the 2000s, we must realize that production volumes could be very small those times. So, in 2008, Glen Scotia produced only 80 thousand liters by the efforts of only three employees.
In 2014 Loch Lomond Distillery Company was sold to a specially established Loch Lomond Group, and all the distilleries of the group started to relive a renaissance, all we are witnesses to that. In a period of just five years, the value of the assets has grown so much that it made it feasible to sell the business to investors from China.
Do I care, as a consumer, of another change of owners at Glen Scotia, especially considering that now it is a company from Asia? To some extent, yes. It seems to me that the last team, the Loch Lomond Group, has done a great job to revive the past glory of Glen Scotia. In 1885 the distillery produced 385 thousand liters of whisky, and in 2008, as I have said, only 80 thousand. Glen Scotia now makes more than 500 thousand liters of whisky per annum and has in its portfolio quite remarkable releases, such as Victoriana or Double Cask, which were developed by Loch Lomond Master Blender Michael Henry. The previous owners made investments in the good casks inventory, they re-thought and developed a product range, etc. At the same time, if the same people, whom I met at the distillery, will remain to rule the production, we should not worry for the future of the distillery. On the contrary, it is perfect if someone, who loves to make whisky and knows how to make whisky, gets extra money from investors to make most of the own wishes true.
The author would like to express his great gratitude to Iain McAlister for the outstanding distillery tour; to David Lind and Grisha Shalamov for helping to make it possible.
Materials from the book by Alfred Barnard «The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom”, 1887, and from the book by Angus Martin «Glen Scotia Distillery: A History”, 2019, were used to make this article.
How do you think, what country in the world has the highest single malt scotch consumption per person? The United Kingdom? No. The United States? No, it is not. However, I suppose that you guessed right from the very beginning: it’s Taiwan, where single malt scotch per capita consumption is more than double of that in France, the nearest pursuer and the European leader. In addition, Taiwan is one of the most important single malt whisky markets for Scotland in the absolute figures too – it is the fourth in the world.
Also, the remarkable fact is that lately Taiwan is discussed in the whisky world more as a whisky-producing country than as a whisky consuming country. And for me as for a whisky connoisseur, it means the only one thing – there will be more whisky for me from now on! When in 2015 a whisky from Taiwan became the best whisky in the world according to the WWA, it became clear that it is necessary to learn more about Taiwanese whisky. In 2017 I went to Taiwan for the first time to see the Kavalan Distillery (by the way, Kavalan had more than a million visitors that year – compare it with almost two million visitors to 75(!) available for visiting distilleries of Scotland for the same period). And at the beginning of May this year I managed to visit another distillery in Taiwan – Nantou Distillery, which produces its whisky under Omar and Yushan brands.
A little bit more about history. It is considered formally that whisky production in Taiwan started following the country’s accession to the WTO, which took place on January 1, 2002. It happened after 10 years of negotiations on the terms of the accession and 3 years of transition and adaptation period. Taiwan became the 144th member-country of the WTO and it was forced to cancel the existed state monopoly on alcoholic beverages production. And in 2006 the first private distillery, Kavalan, owned by King Car Group, opened its doors. This distillery claims to be the first manufacturer of whisky on the island.
In fact, whisky has been made in Taiwan also before that, it was produced by the state-owned Taiwan Tobacco & Liquor Company (TTL) starting from the year 1984. Another story is that it was a product designed solely for domestic consumption, malt spirits were purchased abroad and grain spirits were made in Taiwan. The blend of them had JADE brand and that whisky was sold inside the country. The distillation of malt spirits in Nantou started in 2008 – and this year is considered the official foundation date of the TTL whisky distillery, though liqueur production at the site in Nantou has a long history. At that period it was getting more and more difficult and more and more expensive to buy malt spirits in Scotland, so it was decided to start own malt whisky production.
The success of Kavalan in whisky sales forced state-owned TTL to review its product range and to start marketing of own single malt whisky in 2013. The first editions were whisky classic – releases matured in ex-bourbon and ex-sherry casks. This whisky got its first recognition already in the year 2014 – gold and silver medals at the International Spirits Challenge. And in 2017 another release from Nantou, Sherry Cask Cask Strength, won the nomination of «the best Taiwanese whisky» by the WWA (World Whisky Awards).
So, Nantou Winery is a big production site, but I was interested first and foremost in everything related to the production of whisky. Unlike in Japan, Taiwan has legislation defining what whisky is, but there is nothing that might surprise us. Mostly standard things like “not less than two years in wood containers” and “not less than 40% ABV bottling”. By the way, Omar keeps whisky in casks for not less than 3 years.
Barley does not grow in Taiwan, so all the malt for whisky production – peated and elegant — is purchased in the UK. I mentioned already about the water — despite the fact that Nantou uses water from a well, the water goes a long way descending from the surrounding mountains. Nantou does not treat water for production but filters it for dilution for casks filling and bottling stages (by the way, Nantou has its own bottling line at the site). The local water has a high minerals level and low pH.
Three «waters» — 65, 72 and 85 degrees Celsius – are used for washing the grist. However, these temperatures may vary depending on the time of year in accordance with changes in the ambient temperature.
At the Nantou distillery they do not believe that the spirit character depends a lot on the duration of fermentation. In addition, Nantou has experimented with wooden wash tuns, but decided not to use wood in the warm climate – there were a lot of problems due to bacterial contamination. As for the yeast, Nantou uses dry distillers’ yeast.
Distillation equipment was brought to Nantou from other TTL production sites in 2008. It was a pair of different pot stills – one was Italian and the other one Scottish, from Forsyths. Later, in 2009, two more Scottish stills were added, one of which was new. All stills have different shapes so, in order to achieve a sustainable character of the spirit before casks filling, spirits received on the different pairs of stills are mixed. Pot still have the following sizes: 9000, a pair of 5000, and 2000 litres. The current production capacity of the distillery is 400 thousand liters of pure alcohol per year.
The strength of the «heart» is 69-71% ABV. Distillery works on peated malt during one month in a year, it is quite a lot. Peated malt has peatiness level of 50 ppm. Usually, tails are cut not lower than 64% ABV, but when distillery works with the peated malt the cut is done a bit later, at 62% ABV, in order to catch more phenolic compounds and to make a new make more oily.
Now we come to the spirit maturation. Nantou buys casks in the United States and in Europe, and these casks are used not only to age whisky but also for ageing other products, including fruit distillates. Both casks of American and European oak are used. If it is an ex-bourbon barrel, Nantou requires the charring level 3.
Casks are filled at the alcohol strength slightly over 59% ABV. Why? Due to Taiwanese laws requiring a very serious firefighting and control equipment to be installed in the warehouses storing solutions with more than 60% ABV. It is cheaper to dilute new make.
As already probably all whisky connoisseurs know, the hot climate of Taiwan makes casks to work extremely actively, whisky matures much faster. Perhaps, we should not try to develop any sort of formula for compliance between ageing in Taiwan and in Scotland (for example one year of maturation in Taiwan equals three years in Scotland, and so on), but blind tastings unequivocally confirm that the Taiwanese whisky, while being formally young, quite successfully competes with much more aged releases from the British Isles.
In average the angels’ share here is 6-8% per year, and that is 3-4 times higher than in Scotland. So, this is not 15-20% (I ran across such giant figures on the Internet), but, of course, there are annual differences, plus losses depend on size of cask, time of maturation (the less whisky volume is in the casks, the more whisky evaporates), kind of warehouse, etc., so, figures may be bigger. The last Taiwanese whisky I purchased was matured in a wine barrique and lost approximately 38% for the 5.5 years of maturation; it corresponds to about 8.5% of loss per year.
For single malt whiskies Nantou chose the name «Omar». In Gaelic this word means «amber», it is also said that Scots called their country the same name. The choice of this name is a tribute to Scotland’s people and Scotch. However, the international sales growth of Omar whisky, in France in particular, showed that this name is more associated not with whisky but with a something of Middle East origin, and this brand-name is perceived mostly negatively. So, last year in addition to Omar brand another brand-name appeared – Yushan. This is the name of the local dominant mountain and it is of 100% Taiwanese origin. This brand is now used for a single malt whisky (at a commercial strength, which is 46% ABV for Nantou produce) and blended malt whisky. Omar brand remains solely for connoisseurs-level single malts, like cask strength editions and unique finishes.
Finally, we came to the whisky itself. I was lucky to try a core range of Nantou and several limited releases. But let’s start with the new make: Nantou makes moderately fruity spirit, quite pungent on the nose without dilution, there are no off-notes, it has a good dense texture. With water it releases, first of all, aromas of baked apples, it becomes fresh and light: an excellent base for ageing.
Omar whisky aged in bourbon and sherry casks is already well known in the world; it is sold in Russia also (though only 46% ABV version, while there are cask strengths releases of these whiskies). In my opinion, this is a wonderful whisky, especially ex-bourbon versions. This time I was happy to try these releases again – they have become more mature, more interesting. May they have started to approach the limit of their maturation here, in Taiwan, on the border of tropical and subtropical climate? I don’t know, but I must say that the 8 years old single cask ex-bourbon release was just absolutely stunning and fabulous. Unfortunately, and no wonder why, it was no longer available at the distillery and I was not able to buy it.
If to speak about Nantou’s specialities, they are cask strength batches of whisky finished in casks previously used for the ageing of their other liquors, fruit distillates.
So, Nantou Distillery has whisky finished in casks which held lychee liqueur, a brandy made from local grapes of Black Queen variety, and orange brandy. Of course, it is very individual and subjective, but my favourite was the whisky finished in casks after lychee liqueur. After 4 years of maturation in ex-bourbon barrels, this whisky was finished for a year in lychee liqueur casks. It is a very bright and easy drinkable whisky, I could not feel 55% ABV completely. It is my next choice after the great ex-bourbon releases from Nantou and I could not resist buying a bottle of this whisky at the visitor’s center shop.
Whisky finished in grape and orange brandies casks are quite unusual. Black Queen grape has a thick skin full of tannins, and these tannins from the grapes go as a surplus to the woody work of the casks. It is very interesting and, basically, I liked this whisky, it willingly takes water and I would like to have more time to work with it in order to describe better.
Orange notes in the appropriate whisky finish were easily detectable from the very beginning. To my regret, I felt quite a lot of the orange peel bitterness probably coming from the brandy, although I have not tried that drink and I do not know anything about the technology of its production, namely, what happens with orange zest. Despite the fact that I love moderately bitter whisky, this whisky lacked the balance a little bit in my opinion.
The peated version of Omar whisky is made from 50 ppm malt, as I mentioned already. This is quite a powerful smoky whisky, it has medical and iodine notes, but, surprisingly, I found also the maritime theme and even some salt in it. There is also much oak there. Interestingly, I had a chance to try the peated Omar whisky at three ages – three years, four years and five years. It is clear that all that were single cask releases and the result is highly dependent on a specific cask, but on the contrast to wine casks maturation, where 5 years is already quite a sufficient maturation period in the local climate, for the peaty whisky I clearly saw that from year to year this whisky becomes just better and better – the peatiness level falls exposing the other advantages of whisky and increasing its complexity and balance.
What would I like to say in conclusion? It was a wonderful trip. Whisky world has become really very broad, and whisky-loving Taiwan now gives it back a superb whisky. Everything you need for that is just a desire and a passion. I would like to express my great gratitude to all the members of the TTL/Nantou crew for their love for their work – there is nothing better than to see passionate people at work!
What do you associate Italy with? With the Roman Empire? With an amazing cultural heritage — sculptures, paintings, architecture? With the fashion industry and designers’ clothing? With a light and melodious music? With spaghetti and pizza, mozzarella and parmesan cheese? With a wine, Martini, Campari or limoncello? With ristretto or espresso? Organized crime, the mafia? It is not possible to count what Italy has given the world… Meanwhile, for me, Italy is quite naturally associated with whisky. Why? Maybe you will be surprised, but in the 1970-es Italy was the world’s biggest (!) market for single malt Scotch. Such names as Samaroli, Silver Seal, Valinch & Mallet, Wilson & Morgan – names of independent Italian bottlers – are well-known for the true whisky connoisseurs. It is also not well known that a five-year-old Glen Grant, a single malt, began its journey from the Italian market in 1961, two years before Glenfiddich, which is considered to be the first single malt brand in the world, was launched in the United States. And it was a man from Glen Grant, with his experience of single malt sales in Italy, who was invited to the Macallan, which is considered to be the second brand of single malts in the world (launched in 1968): the Macallan team created a true marketing miracle finally, but that miracle had its start with dumping sales of seven-year-old single malt release at the same Italian market.
Visitors at distilleries often ask a question about the strength of a water-ethanol mixture before casks filling. And often they have an answer to this question, but rarely they have any explanation why this specific level is chosen. That is why this matter is discussed quite regularly at different whisky-related conferences on the Internet. Though it seems that everything is quite obvious, the figure of 63.5% ABV for Scotland is well-known, nonetheless, this matter still remains a kind of a mystery, raising many questions. What kind of questions? Here they are, sometimes quite simple:
Does every distillery fill casks at 63.5% ABV? If not, why?
Are there any legal restrictions for the casks filling strength?
What is the reason for this figure, 63.5%?
And so on. Let’s try to find answers to these questions, not limiting ourselves only to Scotland, though Scotch will have a lot of attention. I bet you will hear something completely new.
Let’s start with the legislative restrictions. Are there any? Yes, but in the only one country — in the USA, where it is forbidden to fill barrels with a mixture having alcohol more than 62.5% by volume (125 US proof). Why is the upper limit set? Due to the same reason why any straight whiskey must be aged in new barrels in the United States – in order to support the woodworking industry. Whiskey is distilled usually using columns at a relatively high strength there, and filling barrels at the original new make strength would significantly reduce the need for new wood containers. An entry limit of 125 proof (62,5% ABV) appeared only in 1962 when the US Treasury raised it from 110 proof. Before that the barrel entry proof was set as an interval between 100 and 110 proof (50-55% ABV), it was done after the Prohibition and 100 proof was taken a base for duties calculation. Before the Prohibition, there were no legislative restrictions on entry proof, meanwhile Bottle-In-Bond Act of 1897 stipulated for the first time that whiskey of that category shall be not only aged in casks (not less than four years) but also shall be filled in bottles at 100 proof (50%ABV). This law just secured the good practice of pre-bottling era, when people were buying whiskey as a bulk, coming with their own jugs to taverns. Those times distillers practised filling barrels for whiskey transportation at around 103-107 proof (51,5%-53,5%) to secure that it will be delivered to customers at not less than 100 proof (50% ABV) – this strength considered to be right for drinking then.
So, that is the way legislative initiatives in the United States emerged and evolved at the intersection of consumer preferences and the wood industry lobby. There are no legislative restrictions nowhere else – neither in Scotland, nor in Ireland, nor in Canada, nor in Japan, and so on.
Does everybody fill barrels at 63.5%?
No, not everybody, even if we talk about Scotland only. However, let’s see first what are practices in other countries – fortunately, the world of whisky is very wide today.
As it has become clear, it is simply prohibited to fill barrels at 63.5% ABV in the United States, but often distilleries do not fill them at 62.5% also, they lay barrels at significantly smaller strength. For example, Wild Turkey had been diluting its new make to 52,5% for a long period, but then gradually shifted to 57,5% via 55%. Michters’ lays barrels only at 51,5%, Makers’ Mark at 55% and Four Roses at 60%. It happens not only because of the old memories, there are also other factors. First of all, new virgin oak is used in the USA and it should be used cautiously. Further, barrels “work” very actively in a dry climate and at considerable temperature differences (which is also aggravated by multi-level warehouses of American distilleries) and in such conditions water evaporates faster than ethanol, so, the strength of the spirit goes up in a significant part of barrels (usually from the middle to the top of warehouses).
As for Canada, there are many practices there, as well as there are many types of distillate produced. The “base whisky”, which is made using columns at high strengths, is laid at 76-78% ABV usually. The “flavour whisky” is produced in different ways (double distillation using column and pot still, single distillation using column, single distillation using a pot still with a column, double distillation using only pot stills) and it is filled into casks in different ways. For example, Hiram Walker & Sons, the largest distillery in the North America, fills barrels with corn, rye or wheat spirit at 58% ABV, meanwhile Glenora Distillery adheres to the Scottish tradition and lays its malt whisky at 63.5%, although at the very beginning they tried to start maturation process at a higher ethanol volume.
The Japanese follow the Scottish with 63.5%, and Swedes, for example, at Mackmyra, fill casks at a little less volume of ethanol, at 63%. In Taiwan there are no legislative restrictions for casks filling, but there are very strict requirements for fire-fighting equipment and control of warehouses if to lay casks with the mixture above 60% ABV, so, distillers prefer not to reach this figure. For example, Nantou Distillery fills casks at 59.5%.
In France Armorik
also filled casks at higher strengths, but some
time ago they began to lay casks at 63-64% of alcohol by volume.
Ireland amazes with its variety. Midleton and Tullamore DEW fill casks at 64% ABV, Teeling – at 62%, Waterford does not dilute its new make and lays it at around 71%, Dublin Liberties is going to do the same way, and Walsh has still not decided what to choose and continues experiments with different strengths.
Here we came back to Scotland finally. Indeed, most of the whisky distilleries use here the figure of 63.5% ABV. But not all. Here are some examples of distilleries laying casks at a different level of alcohol by volume in the water-ethanol mixture: Highland Park works at 69.8%, Aberlour at 69.1%, Bruichladdich at 70-72%, Knockando at 63%. I would like to remind you that we are talking now about malt spirit, as grain spirit is filled into casks in Scotland at a higher entry proof, 70-71% in standard.
Where did the standard of 63.5% ABV come from?
To understand why someone follows «the rule of 63.5%» and why someone does not, let’s look for the most probable reason for this standard to appear in Scotland.
The practice to lay casks at 63.5% ABV (in British proof 11 over-proof, or 111 proof) exists for quite a long time, we may found evidence of such casks filling strength in the first third of the 20thcentury. But let’s go back, far more back, long before 1915 (it became mandatory to age whisky in wood containers in Scotland in that year), namely – to the first half of the 19th century. Those times casks were used to transport spirit from distillers to rectifiers – companies which by the re-distillation process “rectified” or purified the spirit, compounding it with various vegetable substances to impart flavour. In that way very popular drinks were produced in England then – British brandy, British rum, gin, different cordials. Scottish distilleries also supplied their spirit to English rectifiers and had to follow the legislature, which stated that the raw spirit may be sold by a distiller to a rectifier only at two different strengths – 23 over-proof (123° or 70,2% ABV) and… 11 over-proof (111° or 63,5% ABV). Shall I tell you now why later, when whisky ageing became mandatory and a kind of a casks filling standard was in need along with the appearance of excise warehouses, these strengths, well-known to the industry, were kept: grain spirits were filled at around 70%, and malt spirits at 63,5%?
Excise officers were always present at the casks filling process and certified a volume of alcohol in the mixture. Existance of the same ABV in all the casks simplified the calculation of duties at releasing casks from excise warehouses.
Of course, I would like to think personally that just a nice figure in British proof — 111° — played a certain role when the filling level was chosen, but the reality is always more prosaic – duties and taxes.
A kind of standard was in need not only in order to simplify duties calculations and payments. What is more important, the same strength of casks filling was necessary in order to realize casks trading and exchange between different producers of blended scotch. Since the blended Scotch whisky conquered the world at the beginning of the 20th century, the issue of an equal exchange of spirits was very vital (as you know, there are from 20 to 50 different malt spirits in one batch of blended whisky). All the distilleries were able to fill at 63,5% ABV, though they had different new make strengths, and at some distilleries new make proof was relatively low due to the sufficiently lower level of tails cut. Certainly, the strength of the matured whisky in casks was slightly different at the moment of sale/exchange, but it was possible to neglect this moment, considering that climatic conditions are almost identical practically everywhere in Scotland and lost of ethanol during maturation period is comparable.
It is yet necessary for me to work a little bit in the London Library sometime in order to understand why legislators appointed 123 and 111 proof as strengths for raw spirit trade in the first half of 19th century, but it was surely not related to the science, as there were no scientific researches on the interaction of spirit and wood those times. The science came later, in present times, in the second half of the 20th century. And these scientific studies have shown that at approximately 58% of the alcohol by volume in the spirit the ethanol-water mixture achieves the maximum possible interaction with a cask: the distillate absorbs the largest number of elements from wood.
The difference in the spirit interaction with the wood is explained by the fact that various proportions of water and ethanol in the solution (more precisely, different surface tension, viscosity and solvating power of mixture) in different ways penetrate into the wood and extract compounds from it. Water and ethanol «wash out» different components from wood. Alcohol «works» with lipophilic compounds, sterols, lactones, lignin-derived compounds. Water dissolves sugars (arabinose, glucose, xylose, fructose), tannins, glycerol, hemicelluloses. So, once chosen strength of 63.5% (111 proof) turned to be close enough to the ideal strength for spirit interaction with а cask. And interacting with a cask is a cornerstone matter for receiving a good whisky, so, this practice spread from Scotland to most of the other countries.
Why don’t everyone use this standard?
Why then do
some distilleries abandon this seemingly universally accepted standard of
63.5%? There are several reasons for that.
Methods of tax control have changed and improved, excise officers stopped to go to work in their offices at distilleries in Scotland since the early 1980s, though even before that not all the distilleries stuck to this standard. Further, now not all the companies are interested in casks exchange or sale, some companies sell almost all the volume of whisky they produced as a single malt whisky.
Besides, some distillers believe that changes in the extraction of wood-derived compounds are not so critical with the increase of the spirit strength up to 69-71%; another believe that decrease of the spirit strength would do the work better (and we may agree with both if to analyze the graph presented above). In both cases they choose alternative strengths to lay casks.
At the same time, the abandonment of new make reduction before casks filling, besides the fact that the technological process becomes shorter for one operation, helps to save significantly on required casks quantity. Thus, filling at 70% against 63.5% saves more than one barrel for every 10 filled (it is necessary to add more than 20 litres of water in order to bring 190 litres of 70% spirit to 63.5%). If to remember that it is necessary not only to buy and deliver these barrels, but also to store them somewhere for years… So, warehouse logistics also becomes much more effective when you decide to refuse from spirit reduction (and here we may also recall the Taiwanese requirements for fire-hazardous warehouses).
Simultaneously a distiller receives an opportunity to mature whisky for a longer period — both in terms of reduction of wood-derived components extraction level, and in terms of having the eligible strength of whisky in those climatic zones, where during ageing period evapourates from the water-ethanol mixture faster than water does. After all, we know that now almost everywhere you can not bottle whisky with the strength less than 40%.
found the origins for 63,5% ABV to become a kind of an industrial standard for
casks filling, and we also managed to find quite a lot of reasons to follow
this standard – financial, chemical and commercial. At the same time, it is
also quite possible to understand those who do not follow this standard, as a
result of legislative, economic and/or technological issues.
It is interesting that not all distilleries reveal data about the strength of distillate laid, arguing that they do not want to disclose their technological secrets. In my opinion, it is a bit strange, because thought whisky production process has become well-researched and very transparent now, it is so multifactorial and so specific for each distillery (terroir-like), that no disclosed data will allow to repeat the organoleptic profile of any distillery. In this regard, I always refer to the example of Springbank: boards with the description for all processes with all the figures are hanged on walls at each technological stage – whether it helped to anybody to become a second Springbank?
It is important to remember that the volume of alcohol in the water-ethanol mixture is only one of the factors that affect only one of the stages of whisky production – maturation. And at this stage, there are a lot of other very important factors: a type of the wood of the cask, cask volume, quantity of the previous cask fills, cask charring level, what was held in that cask previously, how and where it will be stored, etc. Therefore, the information about cask filling strength is extremely interesting but does not allow us to make any specific conclusions about what kind of whisky awaits us in the future.
I would like to express my deep gratitude for the help to the following gentlemen:
Don Livermore, Hiram Walker & Sons
Lauchie MacLean, Glenora Distillers
David Roussier, Distillerie Warenghem
David Lind (Loch Lomond Group) & Igor Shalamov (Ladoga Group)
Everybody knows that it is possible to distinguish a real malt-maniac from a person who came to a tasting session accidentally by several questions, which such a malt-maniac asks the session host. One of these questions, of course, is haughtily asked: «and how much ppm are in this whisky?». Undoubtedly, the professionalism of the host is determined by a knowledge of the innermost information about the amount of phenolic ppm in the whisky he or she is presenting. Information about this figure makes connoisseurs whether to nod with their heads, crouching, or to smirk, slightly shaking their heads.
If to speak more seriously, at one of the master-classes at Moscow Whisky Live 2018, the host suggested that we can not understand anything by investigating these phenolic ppm figures. The argument was that phenols level, measured at malt, “reaches” a new make in a completely different volume after the process of distillation on various equipment of different distilleries. That is why the initial value of phenols volume in the malt is not informative and does not matter. In addition, there are a lot of phenolic compounds in general, some of them come from maturation (wood), that is why it is also useless to measure ppm level on a matured whisky.
I could also add several more points to these arguments. Peatiness also depends on the timing the tails are cut, and that increases variability even if to work on an identical malt on the same equipment. As well peatiness level decreases during spirit maturation in wood containers, and such a maturation is also held under different conditions in different casks. So, shall we forget about phenolic ppm forever and all whisky-geeks are disgraced? It is not so straight and simple, let’s try to sort it out.
What are phenols?
Phenols are aromatic compounds that contain in their molecule a hydrocarbon group (6 carbon atoms in a ring linked with hydrogen atoms), the basis of many organic compounds, to which one or more hydroxyl groups (OH) are bonded. Polyphenol compounds contain several hydrocarbon (aromatic) rings with one or several hydroxyl groups bonded to them.
Phenol compounds are present in plants everywhere, give them colour and aroma, play an important role in such processes as photosynthesis, resistance of plants to infectious diseases, growth and reproduction, etc.
Sounds too scientific? Now you may forget everything you read above and remember only that in barley, in peat, in casks’ wood – everywhere there are a lot of different aromatic hydrocarbons. Tannins are also phenolic compounds, for example. Peat is formed from plants, as you know:
So, why doesn’t peat have a specific smokey smell while whisky has? In fact, peat (especially wet) smells as peat (somebody could distinguish this smell like the smell of earth, but if you live in areas with peat, you know that it is a bit different). Before peat is heated (burned), peat has no smoky aromas and its samples look pretty alike. The valley peat from the centre of Scotland could look similar both by an appearance and an analysis to valley peat of Islay, and basin peat from Islay – to any other basin peat. Here is a spectrogram of peat from six different locations in Scotland, which looks very similar (three fields on Islay, two in the central part of Scotland, one on Orkney):
Where are smells of smoke and medicine which we are looking for? And why do peaty aromas of whisky differ? We should burn the peat for that. As a result of pyrolysis (heating with limited access of oxygen), hydrogen atoms in hydrocarbon ring are substituted, if to simplify a little bit, by other groups of atoms. As a result, besides phenol itself (carbonic acid), more complex compounds are formed. We are particularly interested in cresols, methylphenols, ethylphenols, guaiacoles. Namely these phenolic compounds «stick» to malt during the drying process and then get into whisky, giving it smell of smoke, medicinal/tar aromas and ashy tones. The difference in aroma depends both on peat composition and on technological features of the malt drying process.
The proportion of phenols that get into the wort from barley husk is insignificant, so, the overwhelming part of phenols comes from peat. Therefore the term «peatiness» is fully correct.
Sometimes you may come across information that peatiness of whisky could also arise from natural water which is used in the production process. This is not true – even in case there are some organic substances in the water, these substances do not have relation to the smoky character of the whisky. Here is a water analysis on the components we are interested in for some distilleries:
As you see, there are only insignificant, far below the detection threshold level (33 μg/l), doses of 4-ethylguaiacol. By the way, if to assume that phenolic compounds in whisky have any relation to water composition, we should also agree that any tea made with untreated water from any bog must have smokey and medicinal aromas — check it yourself and you will see that this is not true — and here we speak about more complicated distillation process, where only volatiles find their way to the final product.
The same could be said about heavily charred casks – analysis of matured spirit made from unpeated malt showed the presence of phenol compounds in it, but no smokiness was observed. There are such derivatives of phenols as 4-ethylphenol (threshold level of determination of 425 μg/l) and 4-vinylphenol (605 μg/l) in the wood, which may give smokey aromas, but these compounds are not transferred in any significant quantities into the water/ethanol mixture while aging.
So, this is exactly drying of green malt on peat within a certain interval, when the moisture of sprouted grains is within 35-15% (according to other data – not less than 25%), what is fully responsible for a whisky peaty flavours. This process «anchors» the necessary types of phenol compounds in the malt.
How is this peatiness screened and measured?
The existence of phenolic compounds can be determined by spectrograph or chromatograph (and also by electrophoresis method). A spectrogram allows to determine the total number of phenolic compounds in a substance only, chromatography works better, it is possible to see what specific phenolic compounds are present. Given that we need to screen aromatic derivatives of phenolic compounds which give a smokey character to whisky, it is easier to measure peatiness on malt, as it contains mostly the phenols of the required spectrum (remember that there are also some tannins in the barley husk). If to measure phenolic compounds content on the matured whisky, you will see also “non-smokey” phenolic compounds, which were washed out from the wood.
In general, peatiness could be easily measured on a non-matured newmake, but, basically, nobody needs that – whisky producers obtain their malt in accordance to the required specification in terms of phenolic compounds content from malting companies and just continue to broadcast these figures to curious consumers.
Here are spectrograms of distillates made in 1975, analysing peated and unpeated malt:
As we can see, a group of phenolic compounds is clearly identified. And below we see a chromatogram, where it is possible to look at a layout of specific phenolic compounds:
The number of phenolic compounds is measured in “parts per million” or ppm, which we love so much. If to make it simple, it is one ten-thousandth part of a percent, i.e. 55 ppm equals to 0,0055%. What is ppm figure for the peatiest whisky for today, Octomore 8.3? 309 ppm, which means there is 0,03% of phenolic compounds in the liquid.
It is quite difficult to control peatiness level while malt drying (different moisture of malt, different peat burning temperature, etc.), so, malting companies simply mix peated and unpeated malt to make a mix with a required level of ppm to meet customers’ specification.
How does it smell like and how do we perceive it?
And now let’s finally see how it smells like:
Not bad, isn’t it?
So, now we understand what phenolic compounds are, how they get into whisky, how they smell and how they are measured, and also why they are mostly measured in malt, not in distillate or in matured whisky. But we have only slightly touched the topic of perception thresholds of phenolic aromas, and here we have very interesting things.
Look at the distribution of various phenolic compounds in the well-known islands’ malts:
Here is the quantitative expression for these compounds:
And here is phenolic aroma contribution of that compounds in the products:
So, we see that we have phenol itself, for example, quantitatively twice as much as guaiacol, but guaiacol is far more perceptible in the aroma. This happens due to the fact that guaiacol perception threshold is 4-5 times lower than that one of phenol, we are much more sensitive to the aroma of guaiacol. Thus, different amounts are necessary for different phenolic compounds in order to be spotted by a human nose. Combustion of different types of peat at different temperatures during the malt drying process, together with various modes of distillation on various pot stills, give us an unimaginable quantity of combinations of a peated whisky with accents on a different peat-related aromatic spectrum – medicine, tar, bonfire, ash, etc. And all that we can have at the same phenolic ppm level in the malt.
Besides, different people have different sensitivity to aromas of phenolic compounds. I ran across the information that about 2% of people in the Britain have «phenolic anosmia» – they can not determine a presence of smoke in a low-peated whisky. By the way, what whisky could be called low-peated? Usually, it is a whisky which was produced from the malt with peatiness level less than 5 ppm. In general, if to take into consideration the appearance of new ultra-peated whisky, it is possible to offer the following gradation:
There is one more interesting thing – it seems that a sort of “Marginal Peatiness Paradox” exists. It was repeatedly confirmed by various tasters that ultra-peated whiskies such as Ardbeg Supernova (100 ppm) or Octomore 10YO (167 ppm) may be perceived as less smoky than they should be, i.e. even less smokey than those with peatiness level in malt of 55 or even 40 ppm. It says us that probably human organoleptic apparatus may have a kind of a limit for the perception of a smokey spectrum, and with the excess of some threshold of phenolic compounds content, we stop to feel an increase of peatiness, while a taster may begin to feel other taste components even better. Isn’t it where hides a secret of success of such ultra-peated releases? On the other hand, during writing this article I intentionally conducted a blind tasting of such releases as Octomore 8.3 (309 ppm/5 years), Octomore 8.1 (167 ppm/8 years), Port Charlotte 10 YO (40 ppm/10 years), Port Charlotte Scottish Barley Heavily peated (40 ppm/7 years for the youngest spirit) and Mackmyra Svensk Rök (22 ppm/4 years for the youngest spirit). I recognized unmistakably the first two most peated whiskies in the corresponding sequence both by aroma and by taste. Nevertheless, I remember one case when I was exposed to the Marginal Peatiness Paradox too.
Some figures, finally
Did you notice that we have smoothly switched to a conversation and discussion with references to measurements in ppm? But how it could be if ppm do not tell us about anything?
Let’s go back to measurements. So, we have a malt with a certain amount of phenols. During the production process, we lose a part of the phenolic compounds – quite a bit during the fermentation stage and much more during distillation. Distillation decrease phenolics content, firstly, depending on the shape of pot stills – not all compounds can make their way to a distillate through high pot stills with a significant reflux – and, secondly, depending on the time of tails cut – phenolic compounds have a boiling temperature above the ethanol, i.e. comes in distillation closer to tails. Thus, if distillery tries to get lighter spirits and cuts tails early, then a significant part of phenolic compounds does not get in a new make.
The question is what these volumes are and what is the spread? Let’s look at the data available on the Internet:
We see that phenolic compounds quantity in a distillate is 2-3 times less than in malt on average. This is the figure we may keep in mind.
Now let’s see what happens during maturation, what are approximate losses in peatiness. Unfortunately, I could not find yet any more or less adequate scientific data for understanding that. Moreover, the data available is highly controversial. There is also no information about the methodology of measurements in matured whisky – so that we could be sure that no phenolic compounds extracted from wood during maturation are measured (tannins, ellagotanins, etc.)
Let’s look at some of the available data, data for Laphroaig (from Peat Smoke and Spirit by Andrew Jefford):
Here is another data, this study was conducted by Balvenie while working on its smoky release Peat Week (information sourced from Dmitry Cherkashin, brand-ambassador of Balvenie, a tasting session on November 2, 2017):
We see here fundamentally different and contradictory data for the same Laphroaig. Meanwhile, Lagavulin has even bigger phenolics level after ageing if to compare with the newmake analysis data! (tannins are also measured?)
How shall we understand and use ppm figures?
So, is this a problem for us in developing measurement criteria for the peated whisky? I don’t think so. In fact, we do not need to understand ppm figures in the absolute, to the comma, we need just to have an ability to compare one whisky with another whisky, an ability to have some anticipation and expectation. That is why I think it is quite enough to have an understanding of ppm level in the malt in order to create maybe not ideal and not very accurate, but a certain system of coordinates. The main point is that everybody shall use the same system of coordinates, otherwise there will be a lot of confusion. For example, once AnCnoc began to print on bottles the data of peatiness in the final product – matured whisky: Rutter 11 ppm, Flaughter 14.8 ppm, Tushkar 15 ppm, Cutter 20.5 ppm. When I tried the last one, I did not know that it was 20 ppm in whisky, not in malt – the gap between the expectations and the reality was so huge that I immediately checked the way the peatiness was measured: it was obvious that it was not 20 ppm in malt, it was much more, it was comparable to Ardbeg releases. So, this system of coordinates works!
As we have already understood, if to use a measurement of peatiness in malt, it is necessary to remember about a considerable variability in the production process. Probably, theoretically, we may reduce that dispersion by making extra studies, by comparing distilleries’ technological processes for prediction of peatiness level in a distillate and in an aged product. Everything is knowable, we may go on with analysis on pot stills shape, or with analysis of smoke of peat from different deposits on a gas chromatograph. The other question is, do we really need it? Is it necessary to check harmony with an algebra? Even with the data available now, if we know not only a figure of ppm in the malt, but if we understanding all the background of this matter, if we know something about a distillery, about maturation, basically, we can understand more or less what peatiness awaits us in whisky — by intensity, and, perhaps, by a character. And then we may compare our expectations and reality. And this is the most interesting thing! We do the same things with ex-bourbon whisky, with sherry-matured spirit, with finishes, etc. The distillery, age, barrels, etc. – we either know something about that and expect something or we try to guess blindly. So, why not to do the same thing with peatiness, using as a guideline phenolic ppm in the malt, though this figure does not fully reflect the real figure of peatiness in the liquid?
So, keep asking brand-ambassadors and tasting session hosts about ppm levels, gentlemen, keep asking, do not hesitate! And shake your heads!
Thanks for reading it up to the very end,
References and materials for a further reading:
(1), (3) Craig Alexander Wilson, The Role of Water Composition on Malt Spirit Quality, International Center for Brewing and Distilling, School of Life Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, September 2008;
(2) Barry Harrison (1,2), Joanne Ellis(3), David Broadhurst(3), Ken Reid(2), Royston Goodacre(3), Fergus G. Priest(1), Differentiation of Peats Used in Preparation of Malt for Scotch Whisky Production Using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy, (1)International Centre for Brewing and Distilling, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh; (2)Scotch Whisky Research Institute, Riccarton, Edinburgh; (3)School of Chemistry and Manchester Interdisciplinary Biocentre, University of Manchester, Manchester; The Institute of Brewing & Distilling, 2006;
(4) G. N. Bathgate and A. G. Taylor (Moray Firth Ltd, Inverness), The Qualitative and Quantitative Measurement of Peat Smoke on Distiller’s Malt, November 1976; The Institute for Brewing & Distilling, Vol.83, May-June 1977;
(5), (6), (7), (8) Tao Yang, The Impact of Whisky Blend Matrices on The Sensory Perception of Peaty Flavours, International Center for Brewing and Distilling, School of Life Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh, September 2014;
J. R. Mosedale, Effects of Oak Wood on the Maturation of Alcoholic Beverages with Particular Reference to Whisky, Oxford Forestry Institute, 1995;
Bo Zhang, Jian Cai, Chang-Qing Duan, Malcolm J. Reeves, Fei He, A Review of Polyphenolic in Oak Woods, International Journal of Molecular Sciences, 2015;
Broom D., Phenol Fables: Peat’s Secrets Uncovered; 18/05/2016, scotchwhisky.com
All people who are fond of whisky are whisky collectors in a certain sense. Even if a person has only five or seven bottles of any whisky in the bar, he often puts a photo of these bottles in social networks with a note «My collection». Nevertheless, there are more serious collectors, whose stockpiles consist of hundreds of releases. However, any collection of whisky is made for a certain purpose. Do you want to know what purpose you have? Pass this test. Do not think long on what answer to choose, just prepare a piece of paper and write down the figure after the answer you selected on this paper, and then summarize these points.
1. You bought a bottle of whisky for 150 Euro in order to:
Drink it on a good occasion (4);
Expose it to a line tasting (2);
Leave it as it is, it is just getting more and more expensive (6);
2. You started to drink an expensive long matured whisky and you realize that you don’t like a lot of things in it. You think:
Well, for such money whisky just cannot be bad (6);
This evening is clearly a fail (4);
Wow, never thought that such things could happen! (2)
3. How often do you participate in tastings:
1-2 times a month or less (4);
1-2 times a week or more often (2);
I can arrange any kind of tasting myself, if I decide to open some bottles from my reserves (6);
4. When you are offered an interesting bottle at a good price, you:
Will ask if there are any more bottles (6);
Are thinking to divide it as samples via your web-group (2);
Remember that a friend’s birthday is coming soon, so, it is probably better to take it (4);
5. When you are told about unique features of some whisky at a presentation, you are:
Taking notes (2);
Looking forward to starting the tasting (4);
Checking the price of the presented release in your phone (6);
6. You have a rare bottle of whisky and you are offered to sell it. You:
Plan to open it for a coming great occasion, so it is unlikely that you sell it (4);
Add 10% to the auction price and check the reaction (6);
Ask whether your vis-à-vis may have a bottle you have been looking for for an exchange (2);
7. You came to visit and after the dinner the host offers you a dram of a terrific whisky. You will:
Tell him how the price of this bottle has changed for the last couple of years (6);
Drink it with pleasure, as much as possible (4);
Ask the host to make a sample for you so that you may sit with this whisky quietly later at home (2);
8. Does it matter what kind of whisky you drink – single malt, blended, grain?
Sometimes grain whisky could be more interesting than a single malt (2);
The main point is that whisky should be good and you must like it (4);
Japanese blends could be equal in price to a case of single malt whisky! (6)
9. Is it allowed to add water or ice into a good single malt whisky?
Why not, you have to drink whisky as you like (4);
This is called «An Idiot Cocktail» (6);
You even have to add water in order to open up the flavour characteristics of the product (2);
10. Does duration of wort fermentation influence the organoleptics of whisky?
Rather yes, than no (2);
What’s the difference, the most important that they have to make a good whisky (4);
This is all a marketing stuff, they just want to earn more (6).
Summarize the points and see what category you are in:
(54-60) Businessman. The financial side of whisky is of the primary importance for you. Basically, you could be equally interested in anything else that could potentially generate revenue. Just we know that there is no better category than whisky. Your collection is your gold and currency reserve. Beware, crises are cyclical and the next is not far off!
(46-52) Businessman-Hedonist. Despite the fact that you like a financial approach very much and the figures of the growing value of bottles in your collection warm your soul, you love whisky not only for that, but also for the pleasure that a good dram brings you. Although you add more bottles to your collection than you take from it for drinking, you never forget to open something good for yourself.
(36-44) Hedonist. Your love for whisky is absolutely pure and selfless. In exchange, whisky gives you unforgettable moments of pleasure. You’re making stocks just because you don’t want to miss nice bottles, but your collection is a real bar. That’s why your friends love you so much!
(26-34) Hedonist-Geek. Whisky is beautiful, and what surrounds it is even more beautiful – heather hills, brave men in kilts, experienced old coopers and copper pot stills. With all that the content of glass becomes even more attractive, and your stories about whisky and whisky history leave a long-lasting impression on your friends. It is possible to find whisky of all kinds and types of whisky in your collection.
(20-24) Geek. How can they make such a magic drink? Why has someone succeed in it, and someone did not? What’s the secret? Raw materials? Equipment? People? The answer surely exists and you are looking for it, not having time to open another bottle from your collection, which resembles more a catalogued scientific library (even if to ignore a huge quantity of vials with samples). А scientist needs to have a sober mind. What to do, someone has to bear this burden.
P.S. If you are a wife of a whisky collector, and you “have devoted your whole life to this fool», you may also want to know more about your idiot-husband, who spends tremendous money on whisky. Ask him to pass this test and just replace in the last part the terms «geek», «hedonist» and «businessman» for the words «anorak», «alcoholic» and «huckster» 😉