Friday, March 28, 2014

Florida Scotch dinner, part 2

This is the second part of a two part post. If you haven’t read the beginning, please start here.

When it comes to traditional whisky making techniques, the methods utilized by Springbank are about as comprehensive as it gets. While a few bits of modernity can be seen around the distillery, it is in many ways a working museum.

They utilize a wide range of cask types at Springbank, but most of the less traditional ones are reserved for limited edition bottlings. Bourbon barrels and Sherry casks are exclusive to their standard lineup, but the proportions vary from one expression to the next. In the case of the 12 year Cask Strength, it is 60% fresh Sherry hogsheads and 40% refill Sherry butts (just for reference, the 10 year bottling is from 60% Bourbon barrels and 40% Sherry casks).

As I mentioned above, Springbank does employ the direct firing method. But that is only on their wash still, and that still also uses an internal steam coil. Their other two stills are heated indirectly with internal steam coils.

I also made note of Springbank’s condensers above. The wash still and the #2 low wines still have the modern shell and tube arrangements, while the #1 low wines still uses the traditional worm tub.

Like Glengoyne, Springbank distills at a very slow speed. The photo below shows their three receiver tanks. You can see the dipsticks going into the tanks (all three are visible, but the one on the right is the easiest to see). During distillation, the liquid level in the tank should rise 7 cm every thirty minutes. This is checked and recorded in a log book. If it is rising too fast the steam valve is closed a little to slow down the distillation, and if it is rising too slowly the steam valve is opened a little to speed things up.

Where Springbank really stands apart from other Scotch producers is the parts of the process that lead up to distillation. First, they only use barley that was grown in Scotland, where many others source barley from England or even continental Europe. When I first heard this I thought it was just a matter of national pride. But I later learned that Scotland’s far northern location (which gives it a long summer with many hours of daylight) and its position right in the path of the Gulf Stream (which gives it a cool damp maritime climate) provide a long, slow growing season which results in barley that is low in nitrogen and has a high starch content, and that is ideal for making whisky.

The barley itself has evolved over time, especially since the 1960’s. New varieties are constantly being introduced in the hunt for better disease resistance and higher yields (both in terms for the tons grown per acre, and the amount of sugar available per ton). Golden Promise was the industry’s variety of choice from the mid 1960’s through the mid 1980’s. The succession then went: Triumph, Chariot, Optic; all of which had overlapping runs of about 15 years. Newer varieties come and go more rapidly, but Optic, whose prime years were 1995 to 2010, is still around. In fact, Optic is still the barley of choice at Springbank, at least as of mid 2012.

The next step is malting the barley. In Barnard’s time almost all of the distilleries did this in-house, on traditional floor maltings. That rapidly changed in 1960’s when most of the distillers embraced mass production in an effort to meet the demands of the post World War II whisky boom. Large malting companies had mechanized and automated the process, making it far less labor intensive and in turn less costly. I mentioned above that many single malt producers reduced their peat levels in the 1960’s to meet the requirements of the blenders who bought most of their whisky. Purchasing malted barley made this a little easier as they could just specify the peat level (in parts per million phenols) of the malt they were buying, rather than making and fine tuning adjustments to a process they were doing themselves.

There are currently only eight distilleries in Scotland that maintain traditional floor maltings. Most of them only malt 20% to 30% of what they use and purchase the rest malted to order. Springbank is typically touted as the only distillery to malt 100% of their own barley. In actuality, their sister distillery, Glengyle (which produces Kilkerran single malt) does as well. Glengyle currently only produces whisky one month a year, when Springbank is closed for maintenance. So Springbank’s malting floors are available for and able to cover the malting needs of both distilleries. The old malting floors at Glengyle are still intact, so when they eventually expand production, a little restoration work could easily have them back in action.

Many whisky writers say that traditional floor maltings are now used for no reason other than as a tourist attraction. I spent a long time trying to figure out if this was true. It seems logical that automating the malting process, a lot of which is temperature and moisture content sensitive, would make for much more consistent results. I couldn’t think of any quality advantage to be gained by the traditional method. Then it struck me; it’s the ability to maintain the flavor of the local peat. As you move around Scotland, the organic matter that makes up the peat varies from place to place. Highland Park buys unpeated malt and heavily peats the 20% that they malt in house. The two are mixed together to achieve a moderate peat level that showcases the floral, Heather driven smoke flavors of Oarkney’s peat. The staff at Laphroaig hand cut peat from their own beds. It is composed of an unusually high amount of lichens and mosses. Even malting just 30% of the barley they use is enough to let the pungent iodine-medicinal flavors of their local peat come through. I’m not sure what the peat local to Campbeltown is composed of, but it comes through as a soft, dry, earthy smokiness. And that characteristic is even more evident in Springbank’s heavily peated Longrow single malt.

After malting and milling, it’s time for mashing. This is where hot water is mixed with the barley so it can steep at specific temperatures which will activate enzymes, causing starches to convert into sugars. This happens in a vessel which has changed over the years. The older style, called a mush tun, is made of cast iron with an open top and slotted brass floor plates that separate the liquid from the grain. The newer version, called a lauter tun, is made entirely of stainless steel with a closed top (if the top is copper, that material was chosen for cosmetic reasons). The mash tun is generally deeper and has what is called a stirring gear, which rotates as it circles the vessel, keeping everything well mixed. Water, which is added through one large pipe, is drained off then refilled successively three or four times. The lauter tun is a shallower vessel so the water travels through less grain. A sparging arm rotates around in the tun, slowly sprinkling hot water down onto the grain. Mixing blades attached to the arm mix the grain and water. This arrangement allows a continuous flow of liquid through the lauter tun.

A lauter tun will do the job faster, and it will produce a wort (sugar laden water) with a higher original gravity (higher sugar content). At Springbank, they use a traditional mash tun, but they also run significantly more water through it than they really have to. This probably helps to pull every bit of sugar out of the grain, but the real reason they do it is to dilute the wort and send it off to ferment with a very low original gravity. The original gravity of the wort has a definite effect on the flavors produced during fermentation. By starting with such a low original gravity, Springbank is, to a certain extent, emulating the results that would have been achieved by the low yielding barley strains that were common prior to the mid 1960’s. This also means that they end up with  a wash that is between 4% and 5% abv, where they typical modern distiller will be in the 9% to 11% range. I assume this means the stills have to do more work to get that liquid up to the target of 72% abv.

Speaking of fermentation, there are a few more factors at play here. Tradition washbacks (the fermentation tanks) are made of wood. Larch and Oregon Pine (the Scottish name for Douglas Fir) are commonly used. Many distillers have switched over to stainless steel washbacks, which last longer and are easier to maintain. Distillers with wooden washbacks say there are micro-organisms in the wood that have a distinct effect on the flavor of the whisky. At every distillery I visited that had stainless washbacks, I was told that they had no effect on the flavor. I guess that point is up for debate. But the length of fermentation is certainly not debatable. Prior to the 1970’s, fermentations lasting up to a week were the norm. Most of the alcohol is produced in the first two days of fermentation, but a lot of flavor development happens in the ensuing days. As production levels needed to rise in the 60’s and 70’s, fermentations times were cut back. Combined with faster distillation cycles, this resulted in many single malts losing their distinctive fruity character (typically citrus, tropical, stone and/or pome fruit flavors). Most distillers ferment for two to three days now, but Springbank holds on to the long fermentations of yesteryear, with five to six days being typical.

Although they have no impact on the taste of the whisky, a few other sights around Springbank are worth noting. The riveted seams on their wash still hearken back to the days before welding copper became commonplace, and they are a thing of beauty.

Modern distilleries have electric motors placed anywhere that mechanical motion is required. In Barnard’s time, a steam engine or a water wheel would run a series of belts, pulleys and shafts; transferring that energy to various locations around the distillery. Many of these ancient drivelines have been kept in tact at Springbank, and the old steam engine replaced by one big electric motor. The system provides a wonderful insight into how things would have looked in the 19th century.

Springbank 12 year Cask Strength, 50.3%
nose: Big and sharp. Malt, fruit and moderate peat smoke followed by a distinct oxidative quality.
palate: Robust, full bodied. Bold fruit up front (apple, orange, baked berry fruit). Springbank’s signature soft, dry, earthy peat character follows shortly thereafter, but is less intense than I expected. A hint of brine comes through as well.
finish: Long with warming spiciness (dare I say, even a little hot?), a bit of fruit and peat smoke linger on as the spice notes slowly recede.
overall: Unbridled, a bit of a wild ride. Adding a healthy splash of water tones down the aromas but seems to accentuate the peat notes. I’d still call it full flavored with water added, but that seems to have tamed the beast. Everything is still there, but now it seems more refined and well-integrated. It’s rare that I add water to a whisky, even those at cask strength, but I think it makes a nice improvement in this case.

The last single malt of the evening would be accompanied by a round of hand rolled cigars, so something heavily peated was in order. I chose 10 year Ledaig because I’m quite fond of it, I like introducing people to relatively unknown scotches, and it related nicely to the last few points that I wanted to discuss.

Ledaig is the heavily peated offering from Tobermory. It’s the only distillery on the isle of Mull and has had checkered history since it was established in 1798. The last 21 years however, has been a period of relative stability under the ownership of Burn Stewart.

The company has owned the Deanston distillery since 1991 and Bunnahabhain since 2003. In 2010 they made the decision to eliminate the chill filtering process for all of the single malts from their three distilleries. Chilling the whisky before filtering it causes fatty acids, esters and proteins to come out of solution so they can be removed. This procedure will keep the whisky from going hazy at low temperatures and is done purely for aesthetic reasons. But many believe it has the ugly side effect of stripping flavor out of the whisky too.

Chill filtering has been around since the 1920’s, but it didn’t become common practice in the Scotch industry until the 1960’s. While still prevalent, many single malt Scotch producers have started to move away from the practice. Since the compounds that would be filtered out are more soluble in alcohol than water, the non-chill filtered whiskies are normally bottled at a higher alcohol level; otherwise they could go hazy even at lower room temperatures. 46% abv is usually the minimum level, but some lighter style whiskies that have fewer of those compounds to start with may be bottled at a lower abv. Burn Stewart raised the alcohol level of all of their single malts to 46.3% when they did away with chill filtration.

The addition of caramel coloring is allowed by the Scotch industry. This is a practice that sort of goes hand in hand with chill filtering. Producers who do it claim they add a minimal amount to ensure consistent color from batch to batch. Many critics feel that the artificial coloring is often added in a heavy handed manner to make the whisky more visually appealing, to the point that is has a negative impact on the flavor. Like most Scotch producers who eliminate chill filtering, Burn Stewart swore off caramel coloring at the same time.

The last topic that relates to Ledaig is the location of the aging warehouses. Much like the use of local peat that I mentioned above, aging the whisky in warehouses located close to the distillery can impart a local flavor. As far as I know, this phenomenon only manifests itself in coastal locations, where the sea air can infiltrate the warehouse. Slowly over time, that air will impregnate the casks as whisky evaporates out of them, imparting distinctive brine-like notes. If there are other local climate factors that can affect the flavor of the whisky as it ages, I am unaware of them.

In the age of mass production, large companies that own several distilleries are often involved in blending too, and will have a centralized location for their bottling and distribution operations. In this case it makes sense (from a business perspective) to have most of their warehouses consolidated at the same location. But this has resulted in the whiskies of some coastal distilleries losing the maritime character that they once had.

In the case of Ledaig, the Tobermory distillery sold off its only warehouse to a real estate developer in order to raise capital in 1979. Once Burn Stewart took over, they started aging all of the Tobermory and Ledaig casks in the Deanston warehouses, located outside of Sterling; about as far as one can get from the ocean on the Scottish mainland.

Then, in 2003, the acquisition of Bunnahabhain and its surplus warehouse space gave them an opportunity to age these island malts on the edge of the sea again. Ledaig and Tobermory may not be aged on the same island where they are distilled, but at least they are once again resting quietly with throwing distance of the ocean.

Ledaig 10 year, 46.3%
What I’m tasting today comports with the notes I made back in December, so I’m copying them here for the most part.
nose: Fresh, hearty peat smoke mixed with fields of hay and a gentle floral aspect.
palate: The mouthfeel is oily, and it attacks with bold peat up front. An intense campfire comes to life on the mid-palate and then it slowly backs down allowing other flavors emerge. Grassy, floral, nutty and vanilla notes come together providing good complexity.
finish: Most of the flavors from the mid palate continue on and fade gracefully though the finish.
overall: It’s well composed throughout and has just the right combination of youthful exuberance and aged refinement

Just a few brief footnotes before I wrap up. The folks at Springbank are quite proud of the fact that their whisky has never been chill filtered or had artificial color added. I would have preferred to use the non-chill filtered versions of Glenfarclas and Glengoyne, both of which are bottled at cask strength. Glenfarclas 105 was out of stock and probably would have put me way over budget, but I do have a bottle of it at home in the queue for blogging. Glengoyne used to have a cask strength 12 year old. They recently changed to a 43% abv 12 year old and a “no age statement” cask strength bottling. Unfortunately, that cask strength Glengoyne is the only member of their standard lineup that isn’t imported to the U.S. All of the official bottlings from Cragganmore are chill filtered. I have read that much of the weightiness that is gained by their use of worm tubs is lost in the process. As I said in my tasting notes, it seems to be holding something back; I suspect chill filtering is to blame. I’m definitely on the lookout for a non-chill filtered independent bottling of Cragganmore.

After a long day of final preparations and making my presentation, a little fishing was in order the next morning. The keen observer will note that I’m wearing the exact same outfit that I had on while fishing in the same spot last year. What can I say? I live in the mountains; my wardrobe is sparse when it comes to beach attire.

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