(Fettercairn marked with red pin. Map made with Google Maps)
From The Dalmore distillery we went on yet another gorgeous drive over two mountain ranges to reach Fettercairn, a distillery named after the town where it is located. As you can see on the map below, after you come down from the mountains where much of the vegetation is heather (brown at this time of year) like low scrub bushes, you hit the eastern farmlands with rich soils and plenty of water coming off the hills.
The Fettercairn distillery is about a five-minute walk from the center of Fettercairn with its one pub and stone arch commemorating a pit stop from Queen Victoria. It is surrounded by fields and there are cattle grazing across from the distillery.
The distillery is full of much original equipment from 1824 with a few technological improvements. They no longer do floor maltings (I think only five or six distilleries still do) but otherwise things look pretty old-fashioned here.
(Fettercairn Distillery. Cows in foreground.)
The mash tun is an old copper-topped one with mechanically-driven (see below) stirrers inside. The drainage at the bottom of these older mash tuns is different from newer models, so to compensate the barley must be ground to a courser level.
(Above: Copper-topped mash tun. Below: Inside the mash tun.)
The distillery also has wooden washbacks where fermentation happens. Most wooden washbacks I've seen are made from Doug Fir pine from Oregon.
Unlike at The Dalmore distillery that uses the brown-colored peat-rich river water, Fettercairn uses water from an underground spring for mashing, fermentation, and reducing to barrel proof. It is crystal clear and rich with minerals- you can taste a sort of metallic-granite flavor and it is very drying in the mouth, almost a tannic feeling.
(Stills at Fettercairn)
Fettercairn has two pairs of stills and the still for the second distillation (the "spirit still") has a pretty unique feature.
On yesterday's post about The Dalmore I noted that the still has a reflux box (don't know the technical name for it) in which cold water runs around the top of the neck of the still to encourage only the heavy flavor molecules to cross over.
At Fettercairn they do this in a different way: during the part of the distillation when they're getting the heart of the spirit (the part that will actually be put in barrels rather than recycled), cold water runs down the outside of the neck of the still. I've never seen anything like this on a still before.
It's hard to capture in pictures, so I took this short video. I think this is supercool, but I'm a nerd.
After the whisky is distilled and put into barrels it is stored in traditional dunnage warehouses- old, earthen floor warehouses in which barrels are stacked no more than three-high. There are thick walls and in this case a slate roof. The walls are super moldy and reminded me a lot of the aging warehouses in Cognac.
In these dunnage warehouses (about 12 of them for Fettercairn, all local), there is not a great deal of temperature difference between the top and bottom row. This is quite different from a racked warehouse (think of the tall bourbon warehouses), in which casks are stacked several stories high and temperature, evaporation, and rate of aging vary greatly in different parts of the warehouse.
Now for the bad news: Fettercairn is not available in the US. Even in Scotland its pretty rare to find it as a single-malt. They released a new bottling called Fior that's really tasty and they can't keep it on the shelves. They also sell some 30-year-old and 40-year-old expressions but who can afford such things?
We tasted several barrel samples and they were really wild- a 2004 ex-bourbon had a salty finish and a bourbon grain taste. A 1997 sherry refill cask sample tasted fruity-savory with flavors of sundried tomato and cranberry. The 1974 and 1973 ex-American oak hogsheads were insane floral explosions of lilac, jasmine, rose, and other candied flower flavors.
I assume that most all Fettercairn goes into blends, as most whisky goes toward blends even if it is from a notable single-malt. I do wish they sold this single-malt in the states because:
1. It tastes good.
(The Dalmore distillery indicated by red dot. Map from Google Maps.)
From Jura, we took a boat to the mainland and then drove diagonally northeast to reach The Dalmore. It was a long and gorgeous drive into the Highlands that took the better part of a day.
(The Dalmore distillery)
There are many things that make up the final flavor profile of a single-malt scotch, including the variety of barley, the peating levels of it, the water used in the mashing and fermentation, the size and shape of the stills, the size and type of barrels used to age it, where the barrels are aged, and of course the length of aging of the whisky.
The water for The Dalmore comes from Loch Morie, and inland lake. The water then runs through a river to the distillery that is located on another body of water, the Cromarty Firth. As the water travels through a whole lot of peat on the way, by the time it reaches the distillery it is brown in color. This water, not filtered, is used in the mashing and fermentation, and to dilute the whisky to barrel proof for aging.
You can see how it might add to the flavor of the whisky.
In the previous post I talked about Jura's tall stills that produce a light and fruity spirit full of high esther notes like pear. At The Dalmore the stills are quite differently shaped and this impacts the spirit.
Photography wasn't allowed in the still room so you'll have to make due with my artistic renderings below.
The stills for the first distillation almost look decapitated- they just stop with a flat top and the lynne arm is not a gentle curve from the top, but a tube sticking out from a foot or two below it.
(Artistic rendering of stills at The Dalmore. Not to scale.)
The still for the second distillation isn't quite as ugly, but it's even more interesting. I think this is the first time I've seen a water-filled reflux section on a still in Scotland. On the tubular pipe near the top of the still is a section that is rinsed with cool water inside.
This makes it difficult for light elements to reach the top of the still, leaving the more robust heavy molecules to cross over to the condenser. You get a spirit that's a lot less light and esthery, very much unlike Jura we'd visited the day before.
Thus The Dalmore comes off the still as a big bold heavy liquid before it goes into wood. It is then the job of the Master Blender, Richard Patterson in this case, to tame the spirit as it ages and shape it into the final product.
I thought that the role of the Master Blender was simply to take what was given to him- a bunch of scotch in barrels- and mix it together, but it is much more than that, at least at The Dalmore.
Patterson chooses the types of barrels (going to Jerez to pick out the sherry ones personally) in which the spirit will be aged, decides on the flavor profile he's seeking for a particular bottling, manages the aging process and checks up on the spirit to see how it is doing as it develops, and puts the blends together. It is product development, wood management, and blending.
Keep in mind that this is still just for a single-malt scotch whisky, a blend of whiskies from the same distillery. A vatted malt or a blend would involve whiskies from other distilleries and grain (column distilled) whisky also. Patterson does this for the Whyte & Mackay blended scotch whisky that is not available in the US.
On this trip I learned a great deal about the different roles of the master distiller and the master blender, and how some spirits need gentle nudging as they age to get them to the right final flavor profile, and others need an aggressive and more hands-on approach to bring them into line. Funny enough, the lighter, softer spirit is made on an island and the full-bodied bruiser comes from the Highlands.
Last week I visited my 50th distillery/blending house at the Isle of Jura. What made it extra special is that we hit it at 1:30 in the morning.
Though the Isle of Jura is closer to mainland Scotland than Islay, to reach it you take either a plane or ferry to Islay then another quick ferry to Jura. (Jura is the red dot on the map below. Islay is the island to its left.)
(Map produced using Google Maps.)
Jura has far fewer inhabitants than Islay- I think around 200 compared with Islay's 3500- and just one distillery compared with Islay's eight. We arrived on the island after a drive and boat trip, then had time for dinner and a visit to the pub.
It was after we left the pub (they kicked us out at 1:15AM) that we noticed the lights were on in the distillery. "Do you want to see it now?" asked Willie Tait, Jura's Master Distiller, to the last two journalists standing.
"Um, yeah!" we said, and in we went.
(Late night in the distillery.)
The next morning we gathered up everybody for the real tour. Tait calls Jura "A Highland whisky made on an island," which is short for "unpeated." Islay/island whiskies are known for their smoky flavor, which comes from drying sprouted barley with peat smoke.
In the olden days when the first Jura distillery was built back in 1810, the whisky would have been heavily peated as the barley would have been dried locally.
Jura had no distillery for a long time- the current one opened in 1963- and by then everything had changed. Most barley is dried in large commercial facilities then shipped to distilleries. Each distillery can specify the level of peatiness of their malted barley (in phenolic content), and Jura for the most part specifies none at all.
(Malted barley ready for use at Jura.)
The barley is brought to the distillery, milled to break it up, then washed with hot water to release sugars, fermented, and distilled.
The stills on Jura are quite tall- 28 feet- and this produces a spirit that is very light in body, emphasizing the high esther notes ("pear drops") in the whisky.
(Tall stills at Jura.)
Jura is aged in a few kinds of wood. Much of it is what Tait called "American oak." These casks are ex-bourbon barrels that also were used to age scotch and have been rebuilt into hogshead sized barrels that are a little bigger than the bourbon ones. Unlike "ex-bourbon" barrels that are also used on Jura, the American oak barrels aren't still soaking with bourbon and don't add as much character to the spirit- they just let it age slowly without flavoring it so dramatically. Jura also uses ex-sherry butts in smaller amounts.
Tait emphasized that with Jura the point is to get the distillation just where you want it, then not mess around with the spirit too much in the barrel. (You'll see how this is the opposite of what happens at The Dalmore in another post.) Most Jura starts off in American oak then can be finished in other casks to nudge it a little in one direction or the other.
The main Jura bottlings are the 10 and 16 year-olds. The 10 is full of pear flavor and Tait says he would even recommend it served on the rocks as a pre-dinner aperitif. The 16 is more full-flavored and rich, striking a nice balance between friendly flavors and the depth that comes with aging.
Jura does use some peated barley in its production. The Superstition bottling uses 13% malted barley peated to 40ppm phenol, with the rest un-peated barley. Tait calls it a gentle introduction to peated whiskies. I call it tasty.
The last bottling, which is new to the US market, is the Prophecy. It was distilled in 1999 from all peated barley, and aged in some Limousin oak and Oloroso sherry along with the usual American oak and ex-bourbon casks. It's bottled at 46% and non-chill-filtered. So I guess that one is an island whisky made on an island.
Much more to come from my trip in later posts...
The last time I was in Glasgow Scotland, actually just a month ago, I hit all the cocktail bars I meant to except one. I returned to Glasgow on another scotch trip last week (I know!), this time with Isle of Jura and The Dalmore, and luckily I got a second chance.
The bar is at the Blythswood Square Hotel and I think was previously a Royal Air Force club of some sorts. The bar program is directed by Head Bartender Mal Spence. Spence was previously in Edinburgh and hired his own staff locally and from Edinburgh to work here.
The cocktail list includes classics like the Clover Club, Cobbler, and Southside, plus originals including the Last Word spin-off the Donna Lee (gin, lemon juice, maraschino, Yellow Chartreuse, egg white and pink grapefruit) and the Duchess Of Bedford (Hendrick's Gin, Earl Grey Tea tincture, lemon, maraschino, St. Germain). There was a lot of grapefruit, maraschino, and Yellow Chartreuse in the original drinks (they lean toward refreshing rather than spiritous), and egg white is all over the place on the menu.
The drinks are very reasonably priced, starting at 3.50 (English Pounds) with several drinks at 4.5 pounds to encourage experimentation.
We only had time for one drink each and were there early in the night so I can't describe the scene, but it's a nice-looking bar and one I'd surely revisit when next in Glasgow.
No, I'm not 50 years old, but I visited my 50th distillery/blending house here in Scotland at the Isle of Jura distillery. I'm lucky to have seen so many places around the world and look forward to seeing many more.
I'll post more information about the trip later, but here's the glamour (note European spelling) shot.
After my visit to the Bowmore and Auchentoshan distilleries, our group stopped by the headquarters of their parent company, Morrison Bowmore. (This company is in turned owned by Suntory, and is distributed in the United States by Skyy Spirits.)
There we met with Senior Blender Iain McCallum, who is sort of a legend even though he’s less than 40 years old. He's engaging, fast, fun, and smart as heck. If given the opportunity to attend to an event he hosts, I highly recommend it. (If given the opportunity to go out drinking with him afterward, I recommend that too even though he may hand you a shot of Malibu mixed with coffee liqueur.)
In the aged spirits category, a brand may choose to promote its distiller (in charge of distilling), warehouse manager (in charge of aging), distillery manager (in charge of the whole process locally), or the master blender. We spent time with Bowmore's distillery manager on Islay and Auchentoshan's distiller in Glasgow.
The blender's job is (obviously) to blend whiskies from the various barrels into the final product to stay consistent with the desired flavor profile of the bottling. (Single malts are not single barrels, remember, and they may come from various years as long as they're distilled at a single distillery.) This person will not only assure quality of product, they'll have an incredibly good/trained nose and palate for doing this.
In the blending room, we sampled a few new bottlings coming out from Auchentoshan and Bowmore- but not for several months. More on those at a later date.
We also had the honor of tasting Bowmore Gold, which is every bit as wonderful as I remember it. The Black, White, and Gold Bowmore expressions are long-aged in Vault No. 1, the below sea level barrel warehouse on Islay. The thing about long aged Islay whiskies, particularly Bowmore with its lower phenol (smoky) content than other Islay whiskies, is that after a long time aging the smoke starts to dissipate and new flavors come through.
I finally had the opportunity taste the Black Bowmore, one of the most thrilling (also expensive) whiskies I’ve ever tried. It had a few flavor notes in common with Bowmore Gold (I was again reminded of the “banana sandpaper” that doesn’t exist in nature ), plus papaya and mango notes, and a mysterious and slightly darker nature. Wonderful, wonderful stuff.
(Iaian McCallum with a bottle of the original Black Bowmore.)The only disappointing (I use this term very relatively) part about the visit is that I didn’t get the chance to try the White Bowmore. But that gives me a pretty good reason to come back.
On the last day of my trip to Scotland with Bowmore, we went to another distillery, Auchentoshan. This distillery is located just outside of Glasgow, on a former estate.
Auchentoshan is in the Lowland region of Scotland, one of just five single-malt-producing distilleries there. It’s also unique as the only scotch distillery that triple distills all of its whisky. This gives it a lighter flavor profile than most single malts, and a thinner body/mouthfeel. This makes it both an entry-level whisky for drinkers new to the category, and one that can be easily mixed into cocktails.
Scotch whisky distilleries usually (always?) have stills in pairs for two distillations; a smaller one for the second. Rather than adding a third still at the end of the process, Auchentoshan has an ‘intermediate still’ between the other two.
(I couldn't fit all three stills in the picture. They do exist, though.)
The spirit is distilled to a high alcohol percentage before the final distillation that will make the cut of the heads and tails. (Previous to that, they're mostly concentrating alcohol. The final distillation/cut will pick out the desired flavor elements for the whisky by discarding portions of the distillate.) According to Auchentoshan's distiller Jeremy Stephens, the higher level of alcohol sitting in the still forces the volatile aromatics in the alcohol to rise to the top first, rather than the heavier, oilier compounds that they want to avoid in this whisky.
After a trip through the distillery, we took a spin through the one of the aging warehouses then went for a tasting.
The Auchentoshan line includes the Classic, which bears no age statement but holds scotch most between five and eight years old, all aged in ex-bourbon casks. The twelve year old contains about 25% whisky aged in ex-sherry casks. We sampled the 18 and 21-year-old expressions as well, along with a 1988 Bordeaux finished bottle that I really liked. The Three Wood is matured in ex-bourbon, ex-oloroso sherry, and ex-Pedro Ximenez casks.
And then it was on to the blending room... see the next post.