Monday, 13 August 2012

Whisky galore

Traditional means of producing Scottish whisky remain alive and well on the Scottish west coast island of Mull at the Tobermory Distillery. This opened in 1798 and is best known for its Ledaig and Tobermory Single Malt whiskies made exclusively on-site from malted barley. 

The distillery is only yards from the harbour of arguably Britain’s most picturesque village of Tobermory, made famous with younger television viewers through the BBC Children’s Programme Balamory.

With the local tourist industry struggling, then in a village of less than 800 people the distillery, with eight full and two part-time staff, all local people, is like other distilleries in Scottish rural locations, an important employer. Scottish whisky is currently enjoying strong sales in newly emerging markets in Asia, South America and Africa. Diageo, producers of Bells and Johnnie Walker has just announced an investment of £1bn, which will create up to 1,000 new jobs.

A 24-hour five-day a week four stage production process, consisting of malting, mashing, fermentation and distillation, is needed to manufacture 750,000 litres of spirit annually.  Much of the machinery is old and well used. This though wasn’t why production had stopped when I visited. Two years ago a six-month halt saw workers competing to sweep an already spotless courtyard.

“We have a private water supply up the hill and when it dries up we just have to wait. We can’t take water from the tap as that’s full of chemicals and we need pure water,” explained chargehand Tom Watt, whose brewing skills, like all employees, have been learnt from the previous generation of workers.

Water, barley, sourced locally wherever possible, and yeast are the three ingredients in whisky. The individual flavours are the result of the drying process after barley has been converted into a simple sugar, the use of heavily peated fires resulting in the Ledaig whisky tasting very different from the natural drying Tobermory whisky.

Both though are distilled using a unique technique. Due to a lack of space the ‘swan-neck’ well-used flavour-adding copper pot stills used at other distilleries have been replaced by a double-turn. This helps add an additional twist to the flavour at the end of a production process lasting between 80-90 hours. At the conclusion of which says Watt “the art of collecting the stills can also play an important part in determining the flavour and quality of the spirit before it goes for maturing.”

This fifth stage of production takes much longer and whilst the 10 year-old Ledaig is left to mature in former Spanish sherry casks the same age Tobermory spends its life in former bourbon casks from the US. In another flavour twist the 15 year-old Tobermory though spends time in both.

Watt says this makes “the production of Scotch Whisky an art, one acquired over hundreds of years and which we are very proud of.” We’ll drink to that! 

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