Pouring the dram

That’s us back in the Highlands. When arriving, the first feeling is that it smells like a distillery but it doesn’t look like a distillery. Indeed, Deanston distillery is not a purposed built distillery and has very rich history: it was built at the end of the 18th Century as a cotton mill. On the banks of the River Teith (next to Doune on the west of Dunblane), the situation was perfect for a mill and a gigantic wheel of 36 feet (called Hercules, the other one, smaller, was called Samson) was helping in the process as the mill increased its activity. It was run by emigrating highlanders coming down south to find some work, creating a growing community (basically the village of Deanston), with accommodation, school for children and it had even its own currency as there was a shortage of coins at the start of the 19th Century. But the cotton industry declined and the mill closed in 1965. It took a bit of time to convert (notably the old weaving shed is now a warehouse) and the first spirit was distilled on January 1967 and the first bottle of Single Malt released in 1974. In 1982 it stopped operating for 8 years and reopened in 1990 thanks to a new owner, Burn Stewart Distillers (now named Distell Group, they also own Bunnahabhain distillery and Tobermory distillery). Pioneering in the use of gas for lightening back in the days, it’s also now one of the only distillery powered only by electricity (most of them are using gas to provide the required heat for the stills).

So not a particularly pretty distillery (there is no traditional pagoda roof, it’s built of red bricks) but very charged in history for sure. And it came in the spotlight in 2012 as the distillery is featuring in The Angel’s Share, the Ken Loach movie (great movie by the way). There is a cask signed by Ken Loach and the cast (Ken Loach signature is clearly readable, as well as John Henshaw’s, Paul Brannigan’s, Gary Maitland’s, Siobhan Reilly’s, Jasmin Riggins’,…) and other cask signed by I guess the full team. Will there be a special edition bottled from the cask? Story to follow for sure! It must have helped the distillery to get a few more visitors since the movie, the distillery is close enough to Glasgow, Stirling and Edinburgh to justify a day trip.

On the standard tours, 9£ with one dram, £12 with two dram, reasonable price in my opinion for what is on offer. On top of this, as I visited in December 2017, it was really quiet and only 3 of us were on the tour, almost a private visit (it actually happened in Glen Grant a few days before, I was the only one!). To be noted, no offer to take the dram away, get your sample bottles ready if you are driving!

The tour is starting by a very well done film, going through the aforementioned history of the distillery. The room is not the most comfortable room (basically a corridor, wooden bench and TV in a corner) but that’s fine. On the way to the TV room, visitors are passing by a very well set up tasting room, probably used for tours with a wider tasting experience.

Then the actual tour is starting at the back of the distillery were casks are standing there empty, awaiting to be sent to the filling station. Nothing out of the ordinary there, mainly bourbon casks sourced in Kentucky (American white oak obviously) and a few sherry casks as usual for special editions and shorter maturation cycles (they are too expensive), very few butts by the way. Sherry casks are probably used for finishing to expand their lifespan and reduce the number of cask required. Also to be noted, the distillery uses some virgin casks, also for finishing, and one of the dram at the end of the visit was a so called ‘Virging Oak’. Interesting question would be what is the use after the first finishing: it’s not virgin anymore, it’s not an ex-Bourbon cask,… But it would still have a lot of ‘virgin’ wood flavour in it.

Deanston distillery is keeping a mill touch, a nice reference to the past: there is still the hydro-energy plant on site (since 1937). Not only they are self-sufficient, but they also export electricity back to the grid, a total of 1,300MWh per year, enough to provide power to almost 400 houses all year long. The river Teith has a big debit, this is why the wheels were installed back in the day. The capacity of the current turbines is 400kW. There is some pretty interesting machinery here!

The visit goes through the malt bins and the malt mill, where the process of malting is explained, with the usual props: barley, malt, the usual piece of peat, a little container of peaty malt, the grist,… Only Scottish barley is used and they also produce an organic edition. The bins (4 of them) are 25T and last a week. So, the production should be something like a bit more than 2ML of pure alcohol per year. The mill is a good old Porteus, not the first time we see one of those for sure! Long lasting quality!

There is a very interesting mash tun! It’s not usually the funniest and prettiest part of the process to be fair, but here, it worth spending some time on it, just watching it. Very old fashion, open-air mash tun. The mashing process is lasting 4 hours, 11T, 11 times a week (so this is actually more like 2.5ML of production per year, at full capacity, the can probably reach 3ML). They use the water from the river, 3 waters (40,000L at 64 degrees, 19,000L at 78 degrees and 35,000L at 90 degrees, the last one looping in the process as per usual). The draff is going to, as it’s more and more the case these days, to anaerobic digestion. Farmers are increasingly unhappy as it’s now common in the industry: no wonder, they used to get it for free more or less… It’s still very heavy in protein (something like 20%/25% so great nutrition potential indeed) so price, for animal feed, should tend towards the half of the soybean meal prices (which is 45% protein) rather than 0! Once mashed, the yeast is added to the 59,000L batch and it’s sent to the fermentation.

There are 8 steel washbacks and the fermentation is very long, from 80 hours to 100 hours. Long fermentation is producing a more estery and fruity wort.

Then the magical still house. It is always a special feeling, especially in winter where it’s cold outside: the heat, the smell, the magic behind the process… There are 4 stills, made by Archibald McMillan, 5,400 gallons for the wash stills, 3,700 gallons for the spirit stills. The first cut is done when the froeshots are reaching 75% ABV (before that there’s too much methanol, that can make you blind!) and the spirit collection is stopped at 63%. As usual feints are looped back into the next batch of low wines. It was one of the only places where pictures were forbidden (health and safety grounds, although I am still looking for an incident triggered by electronic equipment) but taking picture from the outside was permitted.

The filling is done at a 63.5% ABV. 80% of the production of new make spirit is sold to other whisky companies (for blending mostly) to ensure regular and quicker income. Also, some companies are buying casks of other distilleries to bet on the distillery to run out of stocks at some point. Indeed, in case of a sock gap, if some cask can be recovered from customers, for sure the stock holder can resell it with a margin excedding the cost of warehousing! It was also not permitted to take picture in the filling station, but we can imagine it just there!

There are 7 warehouse and 30,000 casks on site. The visit goes through the Warehouse 2, the stone roof is 1 meter thick, perfect to keep the temperature cool and constant all year long. As usual, the Angel’s Share is said to be 2%, a 20 year cask will be half empty and a 43 years cask has only 70L in it! Guests are offered to knock on the casks to try to appreciate the maturation loss.

There is a gin still, not currently in use… Behind the closed door Gin Rectifying House… Very mysterious!

The visit ends up in the shop. This is probably the most disappointing part of the visit as the drams are pre-poured and there’s no real briefing or sharing with other guests as you stand in the corner of the shop. But the drams were very interesting, pretty small though, manually pre-poured, probably less than 1cl. Is that enough for a dram? Not sure…

The 12 years old is very light, quite malty for a Highland Single Malt, oaky with a clear ex-Bourbon influence. However the finish is quite short. The Virgin Oak is a NAS, it comes at a cheaper retail price. So one can speculate on the story, it’s to have a quicker rotation of the stock and the new oak maturation (a finish of probably around 6 months) is for marketing purposes and to try to make the whisky older than it actually is as it will absorb the first strong initial taste from the wood. Does this work in that instance? Yes. The new oak is bringing some more woody and oaky influence, without masking the other particularities. It is spicier, creamier and sweeter. A nice little dram at a non-inflated price. So, hats off.

There are a few nice vintages (Tobermory 42 years old, £2,500, Deanston 40 years old, £1,000) but the core range of Deanston is a bit lost in other brands own by Distell Group (Bain’s, Scottish Leader, Black-Bottle, Bunnahabhain, Ledaig,…). I left with small tumblers though, always good to get a little souvenir and have glasses in all shapes and size!

To conclude, it is a nice distillery to visit, charged industrial in history, nice to see for those who enjoyed the movie “The Angel’s Share”. The visitor experience is quite standard but it is a tour well performed for sure.

Further reading:

Deanston website: https://www.deanstonmalt.com

Distell Group website: https://www.distell.co.za

Mc Millan Website: http://www.mcmillanltd.co.uk/

Case Study – Burn Stewart Distillers: http://www.scotch-whisky.org.uk/media/43939/burn_stewart_case_study.pdf

Deanston launches organic 15YO single malt: http://www.thedrinksreport.com/news/2016/16496-deanston-launches-organic-15yo-single-malt.html

Distillery Visit – Deanston Single Malt Scotch Whisky: http://www.alcademics.com/2015/02/distillery-visit-deanston-single-malt-scotch-whisky.html

Fermentation flavours: http://whiskyscience.blogspot.com/2011/11/fermentation-flavours.html

How much is a dram of Scotch?: https://scotchaddict.com/how-much-is-a-dram-of-scotch.html


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