In the recent couple of years, there has been some grumbling about the drop in quality of releases by Scotch independent bottlers (IBs). Aside from some of the opinions on lowering quality, some have also found that the prices don’t match the quality they’re used to. My recent Compagnie Des Indes Uitvlugt piece that touched on whether rum IBs really should be considered as dependent bottlers made me think about these opinions.
I’ve been a spirits geek for close to a decade now. Dabbling in any spirit, except vodka, has allowed me to notice how the big brands in different categories tend to be marketed. When it comes to presenting the more technical aspects of whisky, the mainstream brands tend to only emphasize wood and age. This type of propaganda has conditioned consumers to think wood and age are all that matters. Heck, even the most well known YouTube whisk(e)y personalities mainly discuss wood and aging.
Do they know of the importance and effects of the steps before aging? Or do they just choose not to talk about it since it can be too geeky for their regular viewers? I don’t know. Still, I’m disappointed. They’re the independent voices I expect to push the conversation forward. Spirits production isn’t as simple as relying on casks, after all. Still, I can see why the big boys are persistent with pushing wood. They have the advantage of being able to buy lots of casks, waiting for them to age, and then out-pricing competition.
I’m not implying that the big boys are being dishonest. There is truth to the fact that wood contributes to a lot of flavor in spirits—but it’s not the whole truth. A lot of unaged spirits like Joven Mezcal, Blanco Tequila and certain unaged rum are full of flavor. This wood and age-focused marketing tend to make customers feel cautious about a whisky’s lack of age or color more than anything. Other factors like the raw material, fermentation and distillation are just as important when it comes to spirits, but they are usually left out and ignored.
Because I’m a nobody in the spirits industry and am stating an uncommon opinion, some might mark my words as rubbish. After all, I don’t fit the stereotypical image of a credible spirits enthusiast. Male? Yes. Caucasian? Nope. Middle aged? In 15 years. Has easy access to distilleries? Sorry. Strong Western accent? Nah. Additionally, there’s a prevailing idea that the popular opinion is the right opinion. So, what are my credentials? I passed WSET Spirits L2 with distinction, and I’m currently taking WSET Spirits L3. I’m saying this because I’m not oblivious to the fair amount of discrimination still present in the booze industry. I’ve been to bars where some men don’t want a cocktail made by a female bartender. I live in a region where the stereotype that a foreigner is automatically a spirits expert is still rampant.
Before I get to the more technical details of spirits production, I think it’s good to ask a couple of things. First, how do IBs (independent bottlers) source their stocks? Second, is there a disconnect between the customer and the bottler?
From the few IB-brand tastings I’ve attended, I’ve learned that they usually buy casks of aging stock from distilleries. This tells me that the IB doesn’t really get to choose the quality of the distillate and cask. This can prove tricky, as the single cask they chose might be good now, but whisky in a cask is a living thing. It changes over time. The quality can get better, or it can get worse.
Some of these casks stay in the distillery’s warehouse to age further. The IB, from time to time, would have samples of the whisky sent to them to see how it’s progressing. (Safe to say this sending of samples adds to costs?) Some of these casks would be sent to the IB’s own aging warehouse. I know Signatory does this because I’ve seen videos showing casks with distillery names on them. Douglas Laing also mentioned that they will age more of their sourced single malts in their soon-to-be finished Glasgow distillery. Of course, the IB also has to pay for renting warehouse space while the whisky is aging in other distilleries. This may be an added cost most consumers don’t consider.
What I hear less of is an IB sending their own casks to the distillery to be filled with whisky. At least with this process, the IB has more control of their eventual product. The IB can source their own cask and choose how long the staves have been seasoned and how much it’s been charred. I can see this being more expensive since it involves shipping casks to a distillery versus only having to be sent samples by the target distillery.
It’s also not said enough that IBs have been buying or constructing their own distilleries so they have stock to trade. This was less of an issue for them when the distilleries were more independent. According to older industry folk I’ve met, a handshake was more than enough to seal the deal back in the day. Unfortunately, it’s been said that corporations can be meaner than the mafia.
What I meant by a possible disconnect between the customer and bottler is that expectations may not have been met. One of the reasons why whisky drinkers get into IBs is because they’re touted to be better than distillery or original bottles (OBs). But this comparison only mainly applies to accessible brands. You’re over with the regular Caol Ila 12 that’s bottled at 43% ABV? Try a single cask of IB Caol Ila of around the same age bottled at at least 46% ABV. But what if the IB Caol Ila doesn’t have the profile the drinker fell in love with in the OB 12 year? That’s always a risk one has to take due to the unpredictable nature of single casks. This is why single malts are mostly blended.
Another disconnect is that there may be too much of an expectation, and it leads to disappointment. What if someone is just new to IBs? Or is trying a single malt that doesn’t have an easily accessible bottling such as Tormore or Dailuiane? If the customer only looks at the age statement, ABV, bottler and online scores, they might be disappointed if they don’t like the distillery profile. After all, single malts like Dailuaine are something more experienced drinkers look for. It isn’t recommended to drinkers who aren’t yet at a certain point of their whisky journey.
On to the pre-aging steps of spirits.
Raw material – Grain
If you’re still with me, let’s start with the most basic and necessary factor in spirits production. Since Scotch single malt bottled by IBs is the topic, let’s focus on barley. After all, no barley means no single malt Scotch. In the more casual brand tastings, barley is just mentioned in passing unless it’s a brand like Bruichladdich, who promotes a whisky’s terroir. Some of the more technical and independent tastings I’ve been to say the variety of barley used by the Scotch industry universally changes from time to time, but the more recent varieties are said to be chosen for their higher starch content.
Sugar in barley is stored in the form of starch. Starch is a more complex form of sugar. Yeast needs to eat sugar in order to convert it to carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol. However, yeast cannot break down starch, which is why starch must be broken down via heat. Malting activates enzymes in the barley and being cooked in the mash tun breaks down the starch into simple sugars. which gives it access to the yeast. Agave is another type of raw material that needs to be cooked in order for its complex sugars to be accessible by yeast. Sugarcane sugar and sugar from fruit like grapes are already in simple form. So no form of heat is needed.
Part of the malting process is steeping barley in water at a certain level and kept at a certain temperature. This tricks the grain into germinating (sprouting), which makes it start consuming the starch-turned-sugar inside. The kilning process stops barley from fully sprouting and consuming all the sugar. (This is where peat flavors get introduced to barley, using peat to stop the germination instead of coal or gas. A former Scotch brand ambassador said gas is more used by the larger malting companies. Coal is just more shown to keep a romantic aspect.)
More starch = more fermentable sugar = more alcohol = more profit. But what most don’t know is that more alcohol doesn’t really guarantee more flavor. Some more flavor comes from impurities such as protein, nitrogen and acids in the grain. I’ve heard they can only be in small amounts such as less than 1% of the grain’s component, but a small decimal of difference can make a huge impact in the resulting distillate.
The barley will then be milled and turned into flour. It’s mixed with hot water, which turns it into a mash.
Milling and mashing are also important, but these are factors I don’t have enough knowledge on. I’m not one to pretend to know about topics on which I don’t have a grasp.
Yeast is added into the mash. The aim is for the yeast to eat and convert the sugar into alcohol. Carbon dioxide is another well-known byproduct of fermentation. This is why some distilleries capture and sell the Co2 made during the process. In the production of single malt, this would result in beer without hops. Sounds simple, right? Not really.
What brand marketing fails to communicate is that fermentation also produces impurities called congeners. (This is why vodka, a neutral spirit, has no flavor: it’s all ethanol. The impurities that would give it flavor have been stripped out via multi-column distillation.)
Congeners give alcohol its aromas and flavors. Esters is a kind of congener. The more geeky and/or funky rum brands like Habitation Velier and Jamaican rum talk about this. Ester counts (gr/laa) are used to indicate the funkiness to expect, just like PPM in whisky is used to give an expectation of how much peatiness is to be expected.
Esters are chemical compounds derived from acids. Part of what one smells and tastes in alcohol are from esters. There are many kinds. For example, if you sense bananas, you’re picking up isoamyl acetate. If you sense peaches, you’re picking up benzyl acetate. The longer the fermentation, the more congeners are produced. More congeners mean more flavors. This is generalizing things, of course, as other factors such as the shape of the still, type of condenser and type of washback can affect the end result.
There is also something called secondary fermentation. This isn’t really a second fermentation, as the yeast are mostly done with converting sugar into alcohol. Instead, malolactic fermentation is occurring. Here, malic acid is converted into lactic acid by lactic acid bacteria. This is an extra and unnecessary step in spirits production and usually lasts for at least a week up to a few months—not preferred when trying to meet large demands. That said, it’s favored by some cultures like Jamaican rum as it contributes to some of the key characteristics of Jamaican rum.
Fermentation – Washbacks
Aside from the factor of fermentation time, the material of the washback also matters. Washbacks are where fermentation takes place. The more common ones today are made of stainless steel. These are easier to clean and maintain and keep the fermenting wash more consistent. Temperature is very important here. Stainless steel is good for temperature regulation. If the temp is too low, the yeast stops working; too high, and the yeast gets stressed out. A fermentation that stops midway is not good. Stressed out yeast won’t produce ideal flavors. An unhygienic washback might also introduce unwanted bacteria to the wash. None of these are good for fermentation. Choosing this is fair, as it’s expensive to lose a batch of fermenting wash when something goes wrong.
Wooden washbacks are less common now because they’re harder to maintain and control. Wood isn’t as good of a heat conductor as stainless steel. Back in the day, they were said to be made from European Larch. But these days, they’re more likely made from pine, with the exception of Chichibu as they use Mizunara. Springbank Distillery also still uses Larch, if I remember correctly. Pine is more used now due to its tight grain. (I’ve been informed that when brands refer to Oregon pine they might actually mean Douglas Fir. They are the same thing.)
Wooden washbacks are said to contribute to flavor because they can hold good bacteria coming from previous and currently fermenting washes. This good bacteria can contribute flavor to the next fermentation. Over time, there will be this unique bacteria existing in the wood that provides a unique flavor to the distiller’s fermenting wash. As a result, the wood shouldn’t always be cleaned if the distillery wants the bacteria to stay. The downside to this is that the washback has to be used regularly, or else the bacteria in the wood can go bad. Cleaning wood isn’t easy, either. Cleaning agents can’t be used; they might seep into the wood.
Fermentation – Yeast strain
This is connected with the length of fermentation and the type of washback. There are two basic types of yeast used these days. They are wild and cultured/cultivated yeast.
Wild yeast refers to the yeast all around us. Their existence is why fermented food like cheese, kombucha and kimchi were possible centuries ago, before humans started learning how to culture yeast. They’re also why humans were able to make mead and ale back in the day. This was important; these alcoholic beverages where mixed with usually unclean water to kill the bacteria in it. The saying “what grows together goes together” is sometimes tied to this. Distillers who use natural fermentation, AKA wild yeast, say their distillate’s flavor can have the characteristic of what flowers or fruits grow near the distillery or where their base material came from.
I don’t know of many whisky distilleries that use wild yeast or natural fermentation. It’s mostly sugarcane spirits such as Jamaican rum & Clairin, as well as traditional Mezcal producers who do this. For the moment, Colorado’s Leopold Brothers’ is the only whisky producers I know who use wild yeast. They partially ferment their Bottled in Bond Straight Bourbon with it. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wilderness Trail does this, too.
Because it is a wild fermentation, the washbacks are kept open, thus garnering being the name of “open fermentation.” The yeast wouldn’t be able to access the wash otherwise. I’ve also only heard of open fermentations being done in wooden washbacks. Distilleries such as Hampden have numerous wooden washbacks in their old, dirty-looking warehouses. The unique washback and warehouse environment helped create and maintain the distillery’s profile. It’s said that cleaning warehouses like those will destroy the unique conditions and affect the distillery’s profile. There are some Mezcal distillers that use hollowed-out tree trunks as their washbacks, too.
Almost, if not all, Scotch distilleries use cultivated yeasts these days. This means that they bought yeast and modified it to suit their specifications. Cultured yeasts are also fermented in closed fermentations. This is so other yeast and bacteria cannot gain access to the wash. Each distillery’s yeast strain is unique; hence, it’s well-guarded. Any change with the yeast can affect the distillery’s profile. Using different strains of yeast is one of the keys to making each distillery’s DNA different from each other. Examples of factors that affect a distillery’s profile are the shape of their still and type of condenser used.
The more common types of different yeast I hear of are baker’s yeast, Champagne yeast and distillers’ yeast. Baker’s yeast was surprising to me but a rum distillery in Belize is said to use this. Champagne yeast and distillers’ yeast are said to be similar. I don’t know if these types of yeast all produce a characteristic/s that are common to each other, though.
Aside from affecting the flavors the whisky will produce, the yeast strain also affects how fast the fermentation goes and what the resulting proof of the wash will be. There are more modern yeast strains made to make fermentation fast and yield the most ABV. These types of yeast are used in more industrial settings such as neutral cane and industrial Cachaca brands. I’m told that their fermentation time usually lasts for around 24 hours.
The resulting proof of wash will also affect the distillate. I’ve heard a few smaller scale distillers mention that a finished wash with a higher ABV may have less flavor, while yeasts that are rushed end up stressed. One of the main factors that can stress out a yeast is having a higher temperature than they like. A distiller who chooses a yeast strain and/or methods to achieve a wash with a high ABV is said to be more after yield than flavor. An example of a low ABV wash is Springbank. Their fermentations finish at around 6%. An example of a high-proof wash is Glenlivet. Their fermentations finish at around 10%.
This piece is already really long with there being close to 3,000 words, so I’ll continue and talk about distillation in part 2.
Images courtesy of the Whisky Foundation, Distiller, and Scotch Whisky.