You could be forgiven for thinking that whisky-making was invented by Roald Dahl.
Worts, washbacks, worm tubs, muggle-wumps; they all sound like words that have been lifted straight out of a sensitivity-censored copy of The Twits.
Muggle-wumps aside, they’re all terms that lose a bit of their weirdness with repeated hearing. And then, every so often – usually when heard through someone else’s ears – a diminished word or phrase regains all of its potent weirdness and smacks you in the face.
Worm tubs. They sound really fucking weird!
When the topic of tubs came up at a tasting event last week, I re-realised just how odd they sound. And I also realised that I’d never really paid much attention to them before. I had a rough idea and a picture in my head but not enough knowledge to confidently mansplain the condensing process to my mildly interested girlfriend. My response to her question “what are worm tubs?” – spoken loud enough for the trendy and well-informed barman to hear – was to smile and turn to face the bigger boy who duly answered the question for me. Pitiful.
The gist of the pourer’s patter was that worm tubs – the traditional method for turning spirit vapour back into liquid during distillation – are an endangered species, having been largely replaced by newer “shell-and-tube” condensers – which sound a lot like mediaeval contraception devices – across the majority of Scottish distilleries.
He wasn’t wrong. It turns out that only ≈10% of producers still use worm tubs but – due to a resurgence in traditional whisky-making methods – they are making a bit of a comeback with new distilleries. Both Brora and Ballindalloch (recently reactivated and releasing whisky, respectively) opted for the more traditional worm tubs for their spirit condensing duties.
To properly review one of the whiskies we tried at the tasting – a worm tub-inspired Craigellachie 13 Bas-Armagnac Cask finish – and to be able to casually drop my newfound knowledge into conversation with my girlfriend, I needed to learn about worm tubs.
For more on the former, read on. The latter went a little something like this.
WTF is a worm tub?
It turns out that my knowledge of the whisky-making process is what we might call patchy. Like a pub bore talking politics, I tend to repeat what I know and gloss over the finer details of the vast amounts of stuff I don’t. But, having done some research – which even involved scanning a real book – I can now confidently add the condensing process and associated apparatus to the small but growing list of things I think I know about whisky.
So, what is a worm tub? Think of a coiled copper snake trapped inside a massive dim-sum basket full of cold water. Alcoholic vapour – generated from heating spirit in a connected pot – is force-fed into the snake’s mouth through a tube. As the hot vapour passes through the body of the submerged snake the cold water in the dim-sum basket cools it down and it returns to liquid form. The condensed liquid then flows out of the snake’s tail into a box that keeps the spirit safe from muggle-wumps. It’s all very Roald Dhal.
Shell-and-tube condensers perform the same task, but their design means there are more copper tubes in contact with the spirit. More copper contact results in a lighter, fruitier style of whisky. Worm-tub whiskies tend to be heavier and meatier.
Incidentally, the choice of condensing method can have a huge impact on the final product. In 1985, Dalwhinnie decided to replace their original worm tubs with the cheaper, easier-to-maintain shell-and-tube varieties. The change had such a marked effect on the new make spirit – presumably not in a good way – that they reverted to worm tubs in 1995.
With the (robust) science out of the way, we can turn to the whisky.
“Inspired by our worm tubs, we’ve sourced casks from other producers of oak-aged spirits who also employ worm tubs to make their liquid wares” reads the blurb for the Craigellachie Bas-Armagnac Cask Finish release.
Which, in a world of tenuous, marketing-led cask-finish connections, feels like a pretty good rationale to me. The only question left to answer is whether it worked or not.
Craigellachie 13 Bas-Armagnac Cask Finish – Review
Colour: Pale straw.
On the nose: The first thing that came to mind was burnt apples and bonfire toffee. It’s got a meaty, slightly sulphury smell that’s certainly not unpleasant. Cinnamon and cloves are present, and it all works together pretty well. I found it a little more complex, with added depth, compared to the standard Craigellachie 13.
In the mouth: The thick, oily meatiness you’d expect kicks things off. A bit of the complexity present on the nose is lost at first, with some of the more delicate notes – like cinnamon and citrus fruits – taking time to cut through the heavier flavours. There’s less sulphur than expected and a slightly smoky underbelly which builds in the mouth. The finish is short and leaves an interesting rubbery aftertaste which is far more appealing than it sounds.
Roald Dhal did good. It’s not going to blow your mind but It’s a nice spin on an entry-level whisky that offers something a bit different from the standard Craigellachie. And at £55 it’s reasonably priced, in the current climate at least. It will be interesting to see what comes next in the Cask Finish series – a muggle-wump-inspired experiment perhaps?
Photo courtesy of @thirsty_foodie, who joined us at the tasting event and beautifully captured the whiskies and the evening.