Pouring the dram

After a long break (more in the redaction than in the visits), we are back. And four our first Dewar’s owned distillery! And it might be the only one as it is officially the only Dewar’s distillery with a visitor centre. Dewar’s is a smaller player in the Scotch Whisky market, far behind Diageo, Pernod Ricard and William Grant & Sons. Their flagship brand, Dewar’s (including the famous Dewar’s White Label) has sold 2.6M 9L cases in 2017, this is to compare with 18.3M for Johnnie Walker, 6.9M for Ballantine’s and 4.5M for Grant’s.

Aberfeldy distillery visitor centre is branded as the ‘Home of Dewars’. To be perfectly honest, it is done in a very nice way, the corporate ownership is not smuggled into the subconscious, it is clearly branded and the exhibition is very much about Aberfeldy and Dewar’s: visitors are not tricked. However, first warning to visitors, there are no picture in production area, health and safety… That being said, I am still looking for an example of an incident triggered by a camera flash or telephone waves… To be honest, I’d be more worried about a telephone falling into a washback rather than anything else! But policies are polices and must be enforced. ‘Smuggled’ picture can be found online but the Single Malt Tour abides to the rules.

John Dewar & Sons was created by John Dewar in 1846, the company was blending whisky and ambitioned to become a global market leader. For that matter, Thomas Dewar, John’s son, travelled the world extensively to promote the brand and published a journey book called ‘A ramble round the globe’, a very interesting read, reedition easily findable on Amazon, still looking for an original one though! By the end of the 19th Century, the brand was so successful that stock management had become tricky and it’s when Aberfeldy was built: built in 1986 and opened 2 years later. It was build in order to support the blending operations and Aberfeldy Single Malt only became a standalone product by the 1950’s.

The name is referring to, let’s make it simple, Aberfeldy village. The village is situated on the west of the A9, between Pitlochry and Dunkeld, on the bank of the River Tay (great river for salmon fishing). Loch Tay is also pretty close. The water source of the distillery is the Pitilie Burn, the distillery is in the Highland producing region. The location was chosen thanks to the availability of water and the proximity of the railroad track. There is a famous (for it’s name) village a few miles down the road: Dull. And it is twinned with… Boring (in the USA, Oregon state)! Scottish humour!  

Another Portheus Mill. Unbreakable. Still does the job! There’s however a notable difference with some of the other distilleries we visited. Indeed, so far, we’ve seen a lot of milling that is adjusted to 70%/20%/10% husks, grits and flour. In Aberfeldy, the malt is going through the 4 rolls and is sent to the mashing as-is. There is no post-mill adjustment of the proportion of the three ‘layers’. The mash tun is stainless and will produce 35,000L of wort, using the usual 3 waters process, at 65 degrees, 75 degrees and 85 degrees (the last water is looping in the process, pretty much as usual). The draff is sold to farmers as animal feed: no anaerobic digestion plant nearby! But there is a biomass boiler onsite in the distillery, it has been financed by the UK Green Investment Bank in 2014 (it’s not the first distillery receiving a grant, Tomatin did in 2013). The carbon footprint of the distillery has been reduced by 90%.

The distillery is performing 3 mash per day, 7 days a week. Should it be a relatively standard 8T batch, it is 8,736T of malt per year, making roughly, assuming 400 PSY, 3.5M litres of alcohol, which is more or less the advertised capacity: it makes sense!

As most of the distilleries, the malt floor has become the visitor centre and the malting process is explained very theoretically with the three steps: steeping, malting, kilining. No peat is used in the malting process.

Another small difference in the washbacks. We heard a lot of Oregon pine, not this time! The 8 wooden washbacks are made of Siberian larch, they have a lifespan of 60 years. There are also 3 stainless steels washbacks, they have a lifespan of 100 years and are much easier to clean as chemical can be used. In wooden washbacks, only steam will go through. The fermentation, triggered with 150L of yeast, lasts 3 days, this is quite long and will enhance the fruity flavours. The yeast is liquid yeast for distilling use (although emergency se of dry yeast is technically possible): 8T malt for 150L of yeast, this is 18.75L of yeast per ton of malt, this is quite low. To give an idea of the yeast contribution to the cost of production, the price per litre should be around £0.75, so a batch of 150L of yeast is £112.50, this is £0.28 per litre of pure alcohol assuming a yield of 400 litres per tonne. The wash will be around 8% ABV before being sent to distillation.

There are 4 stills, 2 wash stills (16,600L) and 2 spirit stills (15,121L). The wash still is firing at 74 degrees and is taking the ABV up to 25%. Spirit collection is starting at 75% ABV, new make spirit is filled in the cask at 63.5% ABV. The farmers again will take the pot ale, at 2% ABV, happy cows! The stills are visible from the street!

Only 5,000 casks are maturing onsite, the bulk of it (tour guide said 1.3M of them) is maturing in Glasgow where the company owns a botting facility. The cask are the obvious old bourbon casks and sherry casks, mostly resized to 250L. The warehouse is slightly disappointing in the sense it is a mock warehouse, a warehouse for the visitors. The old office of the taxman is still there though.

On site, it is traditional dunnage warehouse while other facilities are probably palletised. The Angel’s Share is the classic 2%, great information provided, in India (an emerging whisky producer) it can be up to 15%! It is obviously highly related to the climate and probably with the savoir-faire of the coopers. Indeed, the tour guide said the advantage of Scotland is the fact there is only 2 seasons: cold and extremely cold! It tends to keep the maturation loss pretty low. The Scotch Whisky industry is making a lot of research on how to reduce the maturation loss, however, the maturation loss is removing some unwanted flavours, so refraining it from happening is the extreme that probably won’t be reached. Indeed, wrapping a cask in plastic could most probably help, but the benefits on the volume would be offset by the fact the taste would be off. There is the usual cask with Plexiglas end to visualize the Angel’s share after 12 and 18 years.

In a Dewar’s Blended Scotch Whisky, there’s up to 40 different whiskies. And there’s sometimes whisky that is coming from distilleries that are out of production. This is what the display intends to show. Interesting fact about Dewar’s is the fact that they do not own a grain distillery, in other words, they are relying in on external supply for the entirety of their grain spirit supply. There is still over capacity of grain distilling in Scotland, therefore, it should not be an issue in the short term.

On the tasting, Dewar’s White Label, Dewar’s 12 years old, and Aberfeldy 12 years old. There is a driver’s kit, very responsible! White Label is very much what to expect from a Blended Scotch whisky of that range, honey and vanilla are omnipresent. Dewar’s 12 is more powerful, the ‘maltness’ is more present, and it is understandable, the price range is very close the 12 years old single malt. It is surprisingly floral and sweet. Aberfeldy 12 taste like a Highland Single Malt should, very well made, apple, nutmeg, honey, a very gentle single malt.

Visitors can enjoy the exhibition: an iPad is provided for the interactivity and the commentaries, this is very well made. There is not much point to put a great amount of pictures there. Firstly, we are primarily interested in the distillery and the whisky making, then, living a bit of surprise for the visitor also makes sense. There are however very interesting pieces of history like the John Dewar’s desk, a 19th century accounting book,… This small museum worth by itself a visit.

Also, a nice wheel with trivia: guess the aroma! Play it’s not as easy as it looks…

The shop is also nicely done. A few outstanding bottles, including a 35 Years Old Royal Brackla which was at the time of its release the most expensive bottle on the Bacardi’s (Dewar’s owner) portfolio: £15,000, lovely packaging, isn’t it? Surely there’s more expensive delights by now! It’s always interesting to speculate in a shop: is the bottle real or mock whisky? A such bottle is exposed to theft or breakage, even behind a glass… Is the real deal inside a safe? If it’s a display prop, employees better be aware to avoid selling £15k coloured water! That would be fun…

Further reading:

The top 10 best-selling Scotch brands: https://www.thespiritsbusiness.com/2018/06/the-top-10-best-selling-scotch-brands/4/

A Ramble Round the Globe – Reedition: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ramble-Round-Globe-Classic-Reprint/dp/0259910082

A Ramble Round the Globe – Original: https://archive.org/details/arambleroundglo00dewagoog

Aberfeldy Distillery secures £1.2m green bank investment: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-business-27500843

The $15K Royal Brackla 35 Year Old is Bacardi’s most expensive single malt whisky: https://luxurylaunches.com/gastronomy/bacardi-royal-brackla-35-year-old-single-malt-whisky.php

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