Pouring the dram

I visited Auchentoshan on 09th of April 2017. The first thing a visitor should know about Auchentoshan Distillery is that it’s only operating on weekdays. In other words, a visit on week-end will be a bit dull as the lauter tun (mostly called mash tun) will be empty, the fermentation in the washbacks over and the distilling process obviously not going on in the still room, no spirit flowing through the safe. It is still worth it very much though. Basic visit will cost £10.

The distillery, owned by Morrison Bowmore (part of Beam Suntory group), is located in the Lowlands, on the border of the River Clyde (enable them to use river and canals for distribution back in the days), on the right bank, at the very west end of Glasgow, between Clydebank and the Erskine Bridge. It is not the stereotypical Scottish landscape as it is still more or less still in town rather than in the countryside as, since its establishment (in 1823), the area obviously become more populated due to the city of Glasgow growing. But it use to be long time ago as the name of the distillery actually means in Gaelic ‘the corner of the field’. The distillery was standing on the corner of barley fields, making the sourcing very local!

Barley is now source from East Lothian and Berwickshire. As per the yeast, it’s coming from South-Africa. Finally, the water is coming from Lock Katrine. It’s interesting to be noted it is the same water source as Glengoyne Distillery (Highland Single Malt). It has become the main source of water for Glasgow and its surrounding since 1859 as early in the 19th century, there were a lot of water related issues: clean and safe water was needed following a lot of disease outbreaks and Lock Katrine was ideally situated uphill and became the main source of water supply for Glasgow after engineer John Frederick Bateman led the piping project.

The entrance is pretty and bucolic: legend has it the pond is a converted bomb crater. But there are contradictory stories and pictures about it! For sure the area has witnessed the Clydebank Blitz on the 13th and 14th of March 1941. Sources vary as well about the number of the number of warehouse hit, from 1 to 3, and the amount of whisky lost in fire or in the Clyde varies from 53 casks to a million litters! Some whisky might have disappeared for tax avoidance conveniently blaming the blitz. About whisky disappearance, the tour guide pointed the fact the Angel’s Share was used as a scapegoat quite often in the past in the whisky industry. Actually, workers were recurrently helping themselves with a little dram of the freshly distilled whisky, making the good old rule of thumb of 2.5% of evaporation the first year quite invalid! CCTV, security, and tougher HMRC controls unfortunately ended most of the fun!

The tour is starting on the Visitor Center, the shop. One can have a little wander before (and after obviously, I left with a couple of glasses and a water carafe, prices of the goodies are very decent). There are a few interesting things to look at, especially for those who are discovering this particular Scotch, which was my case.

On the current range indeed, the labelling doesn’t specify ‘Lowland Single Malt’ but just ‘Single Malt Scotch Whisky’, probably for marketing reasons as people unfamiliar with the matter may think Lowland is lower quality, especially in opposition with Highland. The exposure of the label ‘Lowland Single Malt’ in the retail environment and popular subconscious is pretty low in comparison with Speyside, Highland and Islay for example. Firstly, there are not a lot of malt whisky distilleries in the Lowlands indeed (however, the volume of spirit produced is however very significant if we consider the grain distilleries for the blend industry or the gin industry), the grain distillery of Alisa Bay (owned by William Grant & Sons, 12ML capacity but output a tiny proportion of single malt, the bulk of the production being used for the company’s blending operations, and ‘Lowland’ is not advertised on the single malt bottle), Annandale Distillery (which restarted production in 2014 after almost 100 years of dormancy and only currently sells casks), Bladnoch Distillery (1.5ML capacity, in and out of business several times in the past century, they are one of the only one advertising ‘Lowland Single Malt’ on the label by the way), Daftmill Distillery (created in 2005, their first distilled batch is still maturing and no bottle has been sold yet), Glenkinchie Distillery (owned by Diageo, 2.7ML capacity, like Auchentoshan the label doesn’t usually state ‘Lowland’), Kingsbarns Distillery (very recent also, no bottle sold yet, the first bottle should be up for sale early 2018). So the Lowland Single Malts are pretty rare but it’s not creating such hype as they are suffering, most probably, from the fact there are plenty of mass production units in the same area for the blend industry. For comparison sake, the Girvan Distillery (Willian Grant & Sons) can output 103ML per year, North British Distillery (Joint-Venture between Diageo and Erington) can output 65ML per year, Strathclyde Distillery (Pernod-Ricard) can output 40ML, and Glen Turner Distillery (La Martiniquaise), can output 25ML.

Also not too far, technically in the Highland producing region though, there is the Cameron Bridge grain distillery (Diageo) which can output 140ML per year (actually the largest capacity in Europe), and the Loch Lomond Distillery (Loch Lomond Group) which can output 18ML per year (that being said, they do produce some single malt also). So the area in a large sense is producing a lot of whisky and Lowland Single Malts are a bit lost and are struggling to stand out. In comparison, Auchentoshan is outputting a bit more than 1.5ML.

But there is appetite in the Lowlands and a few other projects are undergoing: Ardgown Distillery, InchDairnie Distillery, Lindores Abbey Distillery,..

One has to really hunt in order to find somewhere where it’s written ‘Auchentoshan’ and ‘Lowland Single Malt’! Got it!

Anyway, also, there’s a focus, as it seems to be the case these days in the industry, on the flavour and the cask rather than on the age. The recipe of whisky is very precise and quite inflexible: malted barley, yeast, fermentation, distillation, maturation. There is not much flexibility indeed (apart maybe when we’re talking about peat, which is not the case at Auchentoshan). So the only flexibility is on the cask. For that matter, American Oak is well advertised on their mainstream classic bottle, basically, it is a second hand cask, initially filled with one batch of Bourbon. In the US, Bourbon casks are brand new and used only once (and the minimum maturation is 2 years while it is 3 years and 1 day for Scotch), in a bid to provide a regular stream of work to the timbers and the coopers after the Great Depression. Second hand Bourbon casks are cheap as there is no stress on the supply.  A Bourbon cask can be purchased at £80, this is to compare with wine barrels and Sherry cask, respectively £1,000 and £700. There was by the way a cask crisis a few years ago as the European Oak Sherry casks were becoming very rare. European Oak is most certainly a better wood to use anyway, all other things equal, as it provides more complex and spicy flavour due to its tighter grain, while American Oak is much more on the vanilla and fresh fruits side. One of the advantage of American Oak is that it is pretty constant, there won’t be any drastic change from one cask to another making the production process easier and more stable, more predictable, while European Oak is more diversified and can vary from one cask to another in terms of taste and quality but it is also giving the Master Distiller a larger range of taste to play with when he’s doing the assembly. Finally, the USA is thinking about repelling the ruling of 1938, this would potentially create some issue on the second hand casks market if Bourbon distillers were allowed to refill them.

But this is the power of marketing, advertising American Oak gives an exotic touch… But not only. By focusing on the cask and the flavour, the age of the Scotch is completely omitted, and we’d probably be talking about a 7 years old Scotch as it I said that it is assembled with casks dating from 7 to 10 years old (the age on a bottle is the age of the youngest whisky used in the assembly) or even lower and could technically contain 3 years old spirit. This is obviously a way to put a premium touch on a lower range, and the colour is a giveaway, it is quite light, suggesting it has not spent a huge amount of time in a cask and suggesting the cask was not filled with something very colourful on its first life. The retail price range is £20/£25 which is relatively cheap for a single malt. Taste wise, it is light and smooth, vanilla and citrus taste is interesting, as well as a touch of apple. However, it feels very diluted, actually a bit too light, adding a couple drops of water make the feeling of dilution worse (still it is 40% ABV!). The tour guide qualified it as breakfast whisky: indeed, as a light aperitif it could be very appropriated, it’s not going to numb the palate and ruin the meal or the wine still to come. Also it could be appropriated for cocktails provided there’s not much ice in them, it feels diluted enough already, so adding too much ice would feel like drinking juice by the time the glass is emptied. As a matter of fact, they also advertise an Auchentoshan & Ale cocktail, with the American Oak, lemon juice, honey syrup and pale ale. This is quite refreshing and sweet… Dangerously good! In conclusion, a very light Scotch, probably good for beginners, for those who don’t intrinsically like Scotch and want to be initiated, it is very easy to drink and very good for cocktails.

The second flavour (which I also tasted) is the so called ‘Three Woods’. It is basically the American Oak with two additional successive maturations, the first one in an Oloroso cask, the second one in a Pedro Ximénez cask. No age mention either. The real idea behind this trick is to save lifetime on expensive Oloroso and Pedro Ximénez casks and add flavour to the light American Oak. As well, as colouring… The colour is quite dark indeed and probably suggests it is older than it actually is. The cask flavouring trend is indeed a way to make the whisky look and taste older than it is. However, marketing trick apart, this is a very surprising taste in mouth, chocolate, cinnamon, gingerbread and wood. A bit stronger as well with 43% ABV. It is much more what one would expect from an older Scotch. Some might find it a bit unreal, a bit artificial, some could sarcastically label it as ‘sherry bomb’. This is the obvious debate emerging from the cask flavouring trend. Definitely to be drunk more as a night cap rather than an aperitif, also very interesting for those who are scared about the strength of more mainstream methods, it’s still very smooth indeed.

Also available but not tasted, the ‘Blood Oak’, essentially an assembly (so not a successive maturation like the ‘Three Woods’) with French wine barrels and American Oak, ‘Heartwood’ , an assembly with Oloroso and American Oak, ‘Springwood’ a selection of finest American Oak casks. So there’s a full segment of undated and unaged whisky, it is probably good to target a younger audience or beginners… And rotate the spirit stock quicker!

The current fashion of emphasis on the cask flavour to make some kind of diversion about the age, is also most probably cash flow driven and can point some issues in long term planning. Firstly, when you produce Scotch, you have to produce and store your production for a minimum of 3 years and 1 day, but more realistically for 10 years to produce some premium single malt: it’s a very long time with no cash flow and the working capital needed is huge, as well as the initial investment. There is some ways to get some cash flows earlier: reselling some fresh production to blenders, or making a spirit that does not need to be matured… And gin is the currently fashionable magic answer! Just adding a basket of juniper berries and other florals component in the still and job done! The Isle of Harris Distillery is a perfect example, they opened in 2015, they do produce a very fashionable and well marketed gin. Meanwhile, they are still maturing their whisky and a few more years will be necessary to be able to taste the first dram. However, it’s going to be interesting to see if their gin business is not going to cannibalise their whisky business, it is probably a challenge for a single human size distillery to perform on these 2 markets on a large scale at the same time, you are obviously bounded by your production capacity. Anyway, the emphasis on cask flavouring can also point to obvious stock management issues on the long term, and some mistake in demand planning. If demand is stronger than expected, if you cannot meet it with older casks because it wasn’t anticipated 10 years ago, you have to dig in youngers casks and it’s better to avoid being transparent on the age as a single drop of 3 years would make the bottle a 3 years bottle. The supply is very inelastic and demand planning is a real issue.

It can lead to some disappearance, the one I have in mind it the Scapa 16 years old. The distillery, situated in the island of Orkney, was producing a quite extraordinary 16 years old. But they basically ran out of them! And they are now focused on the flavouring with notably their so called unaged ‘Sirken’. Malt whisky industry is growing at 5% per year in the world, and the stock older than 11 years old is decreasing by -6% per year. If Scotland, with an estimated 20M casks maturing, is safe and won’t run out of whisky, the age distribution of the stock is a current issue.

We’re digressing, back to Auchentoshan. On their standard mainstream range, there are three ageing: 12 years old, 18 years old and 21 years old. The 18 years old and 21 years old are advertised as ‘Limited Release’. Obviously, the other ranges are consuming a large share of the spirit produced, so not a lot left for 18 and 21 years old. Anyway, very often, the next to last of the range is one of the most interesting (it’s a purely subjective comment). Indeed, 18 years old is the age of the lowest whisky of the assembly, the Master Distiller will have a range of whisky available from 18 to 21 years old and can even go above if necessary (one could argue the range available for a 12 year old is even larger, true in theory but you want to keep the retail price decent for a 12 years old). While the 21 years old will be assembled with not much older whisky as the availability is lower and the temptation to make special (and expensive) edition with a much older cask is great! So the Master Distiller can probably play with and adjust the taste of the 18 years old a bit more than on the 21 years old. But I haven’t tasted them on this occasion. Talking about special editions, there was a 1975 vintage (38 years old in fact), a 24 years old ‘Noble Oak’ and their famous 50 years old (be quick, rumour has it there are only 4 remaining, for £5,000 it is yours).

But back to the visit, after all it is why we came for! Brian was the tour guide, a former policeman, really enthusiastic, talking with passion and taking more than the official allocated time to make the visit really excellent and worth it, he wasn’t minimalist by any means and on the tasting bar, guests shared a very convivial moment… Could have spent the whole afternoon there! Thank you Brian.

The visit is starting with a little explanation on the whisky regions in front of a map, with a particular focus on the frontier between Highlands and Lowlands with and the interesting case of Glengoyne which use the same water source as Auchentoshan and is just on the other side of the frontier (so just in the Highlands for the distillery, but the warehouse is interestingly on the Lowland side) but has more a Lowland character and share for that matter some taste commonalities with Auchentoshan. There was also an explanation about the peat process (mainly in Islay) and the tour guide was very critical about the process, qualified as ‘a waste’, giving notably Laphroaig as an example (criticising in fact a whisky owned by the same company, Morrison Bowmore, which is actually now owned my Beam Suntory). Nowadays, apart from obviously the tradition, there’s no reason to use peat: there is other combustible available, and most of the distilleries are purchasing the malt directly from suppliers, so there’s no need to dry the malted barley on the malting floor, even in wettest places like Islay, were drying quickly was an issue if an additional source of heat was not used. So nowadays, the peat is added artificially in the production process of the maltster! Big debate, some love it, some hate it! Also, one on the Speyside, we were told one of the reason there are so many distilleries, is because, back in the days, there was a lot of tax avoidance and evasion. Tax inspectors were leaving from Glasgow and Edinburgh. There was basically only one road to go up there (well, there is more or less still only one road, the A9), so accomplice were strategically placed watching for Her (or His) Majesty’s Tax Inspector. When spotted, the message was relayed back in the distilleries, and everybody was in a rush to hide the booze. But fooling them was not that easy. One of their tricks was to look for the Baudoinia Compniacensis fungus. This fungus love the carbon in the ethanol and alcohol evaporating from warehouse makes the environment very favourable to its development… And unfortunately, it is black, so easily spottable on walls and trees!

The traditional malting process was then explained, however it was slightly ambiguous and it has led some of the guests to believe the malting process was still undergoing at the distillery. The origin of Monkey Shoulder was explained (however, the William Grant & Sons premium blend was incorrectly described as a blend of Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie single malts, officially it’s three unnamed – and probably the recipe changes – Speyside Single Malts, and Glenfiddich is officially not blended anywhere but it’s common mistake to attribute the blend to those three distilleries, all neighbours in Dufftown and all owned by William Grant & Sons): turning barley by hand was an intense and tough job, workers were developing an arm and shoulder condition nicknamed ‘Monkey Shoulder’. It was not the first time the tour guide mentioned other brands and it was very appreciable. On the table, there was two sample of malt, one peat free, one peaty. And it is very interesting to compare the smell on dry malt, quite easy to differentiate them!

The mash tun is in the same room, it was empty and clean over the week-end. It’s quite interesting to see empty, one can realise how big it is: every batch is 7T, every 8 hours. I like a bit of maths, 3 batches per day for 5 days, it’s 15 batches per week, 780 batches per year, 5,460T of malt per year at let’s say 400L of yield per tonne of malt, this is 2.186ML of pure alcohol per year, which would add up to the 2.733ML of spirit production. This is slightly above the capacity so very likely there are not 3 batches per day, Monday and Friday aren’t 24 hours anyway. I’d bet on 10 batches per week, this would add up to 1.822ML of spirits, it seems to be more slightly more plausible.

It is not really a surprise when you know the process already: making the grist, 3 stages of water to extract as much sugar as possible (reusing the last water as the first water of the next batch, Scots don’t like to waste!), while stirring and increasing the temperature, draft sold for animal feed,… Anyway, it was really well explained, with a great deal of passion you could tell.

A little joke on the way to the washbacks: there’s a ‘family’ picture on the wall, the production team. It only takes 8 employees to take care of the whole production process. There are 9 people on the picture, indeed, the manager, with a white shirt, doesn’t’ count as he’s (allegedly) not actually doing a lot. It obviously made everyone laugh! There are 4 washbacks of 38,000L in Oregon Pine (cheap, tall, and with much less veins than European species. There’s always a risk the vein could pop out under the action of fluids (dilatation) and the force of more or less 30T of liquid pressure. Adding the yeast to the sweet liquid and the fermentation will take place, more or less making a strong beer. The downside of the distillery not operating on week-ends is not seeing the fermentation going on, the bubbles, the strong smell. The tour guide explained the fresher’s initiation ritual: half a pint of this strong beer on a cold day… Full of yeast, fermentation would still going on inside the body and well, let’s say the poor guy would feel the pain and the laxative effect…

Then, after the fermentation, the distillation is coming. Auchentoshan is triple distilled and they are very proud of it, it produces a smoother and purer spirit. So the 3 stills are used successively: 17,500L, 8,200L and 11,500L, they are obviously made of copper. Here again, shame, on a cold and wet day, not to feel the heat and the smell, but one can come on a weekday. What was really excellent was that there were bottles with sample of each distillate, this enables to make a comparison of the clarity and purity of the distillates. It’s interesting indeed to compare the clarity of low wines, strong feints and the spirit. After the 3rd distillation, the spirit is around 80% ABV, and a little glass was there and we were unable to dip the finger in: smooth and strong, very similar to some kind of eau-de-vie, surprisingly different than a Vodka (the production principle is basically the same, however the stills are column stills for Vodka production, also in copper but sometimes in stainless steel, but to be fair, Vodka production usually uses a cheaper source of Starch like wheat, sorghum, rye, potatoes, so the taste difference could come from the cereal). The residual (known as spent lees, but strangely the label reads foreshots, they are kind of the other extreme) is sold for industrial application and has a strange blueish, greenish colour, most probably a bit of copper oxidation, Verdigris). One really disappointing point is about the spirit safe, not sure if it’s because spirit was obviously not flowing through, but the explanation was really quick and focused on HMRC’s control but the principle of the tap to discard (well, reintroduce) to first bit and the bottom end of the distillation was completely omitted.

The fact it is so strong when put to maturation can be seen as an issue. Of course, one can hear the argument of how pure and smooth the spirit will be after a triple distillation, very true. But pushing the reasoning to the extreme, we could imagine putting to maturation pure ethanol, raising the question: is the non-alcoholic part useful? Tough to say ‘no’, the cereal flavour, pine flavour, copper flavour will be brought mostly by the water, so maturing pure alcohol would make the differentiation only up to the cask. All other things equal, maturing at 80% instead of 60% ABV is probably good, as there is still a decent level of water and the spirit is purer. But later in the process, this can be an issue, and it is one of the reason why it can give the impression diluted taste. A 70cl bottle will contain 28cl of pure alcohol, filling with the 80% distilled spirit, it will be 35cl. So you top up the bottle with 35cl of water, straight from the tap. In other words, half of the bottle has content that has not touched any wood! As a matter of comparison, if the spirit is at 55% in the cask, the bottle will only need 19cl to be brought down at 40%. The ABV of the fresh spirit is limited by law to 94.8%, we’d fall in the neutral spirit classification as there would not be enough non-alcohol component in the spirit and it would fail giving an actual taste to it.

The visit continues in the warehouse, very appreciable for a £10 visit. And not a kid on warehouse, a real one, walking across the casks. The smell (wood, moist, whisky) and atmosphere is just incredible, almost magical and mystical. Visitors can see different casks (American Oak, Sherry,…), see the colour code (first fill, second fill, third fill),… It was one of the highlights of the visit for sure.

The visit concludes at the bar by the aforementioned tastings, very convivial, at an oval bar and guests were sharing a nice moment with our tour guide.

So to conclude, it is a very worthwhile visit even when it is not in operation. I will certainly taste the 12, 18 and 21 years old at some point, one has to remember a couple of full drams would take you on the danger (and illegal) side as far as driving is concerned, so one driving for a tasting session should be conscious about this. However, the culture of spitting is much more present in the wine industry, and most of the taste can be perceived still by smelling and holding the liquid in the mouth. When studying for the WSET, we were spitting even on spirit. So what about putting spittoons in distilleries? I hear the argument that the feel at the back of the throat is important when alcohol level is higher, and it cannot be felt without swallowing indeed.

Further reading:

Auchentoshan website: http://www.auchentoshan.com

Auchentoshan Distillery: https://www.diffordsguide.com/producers/18/auchentoshan-distillery/history

Toshan Tales: http://www.markdermul.be/toshanman/20110713.html

The history of water in Glasgow by George Wyllie: http://www.scottishwater.co.uk/about-us/video-library/video-library/the-history-of-water-in-glasgow-by-george-wyllie

Lowland Single Malt Whisky: https://www.thewhiskyexchange.com/c/312/lowland-single-malt-scotch-whisky

Why don’t people spit at beer and liquor tasting?: https://vinepair.com/articles/beer-wine-liquor-tasting-spit/

Love Bourbon? Thank the timber industry and the Great Depression: https://vinepair.com/wine-blog/love-bourbon-thank-the-timber-industry-and-the-great-depression/

The Nine Lives of One Bourbon Barrel: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/04/02/the-nine-lives-of-one-bourbon-barrel.html

The truth about Scotch Whisky shortage: https://scotchwhisky.com/magazine/in-depth/8939/the-truth-about-the-scotch-whisky-shortage/

Goodbye Scapa 16 Year Old: Parting is Such Peat Sorrow: https://thewhiskeywash.com/whiskey-styles/scotch-whiskey/goodbye-scapa-16-year-old-parting-peat-sorrow/

SPICe Briefing – The Scotch Whisky Industry – Scottish Parliament: http://www.parliament.scot/Research%20briefings%20and%20fact%20sheets/SB09-76.pdf

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