Archive for Islay

Putting the “MORE” in Octomore

You have to appreciate the chutzpah (חוצפה) in creating the most heavily peated malt…ever. According to Bruichladdich, as released today, they have achieved (wait for it…) 309 ppm phenol level in the latest Octomore: Check it out. This is astounding…it’s over 3x the nearest ultra-peaty whisky (Ardbeg Supernova).

No earlier than July 2014, you’ll be able to buy this product (it has to be at least 3 years old to call it Single-Malt Scotch Whisky). Get in line. I’m already in that line with all the other peat freaks. 🙂 If it’s as good as they say, it will be an astounding whisky, even at a young age.

Stills, Waste and Other News

In late 2009, Bruichladdich released the fourth (and final) Port Charlotte whisky: It’s 8 years old and is bottled at 60.5% ABV (cask strength). The name of this expression is “Ar Dùthchas” and it honors the long history of human habitation on this island (it literally means “land of our heritage”). PC8 will be available in the US no earlier than mid-2010 (presuming that this year will be like past years…), with 2500 cases having been released for worldwide distribution. Readers in the UK can already buy it.

You’ll remember that Port Charlotte is heavily peated (40 ppm), a description that was apt when it was first distilled on 23-Oct-2001, though the “peat explosion” of the first decade of the 21st century has seen Bruichladdich produce 125+ ppm whisky (known as Octomore; there have been several releases at different stratospheric peating levels), while Ardbeg has released the 100 ppm Supernova.

In other news, Bruichladdich has installed an unusual Lomond still (the spelling might be “Lomand”…) for undeclared purposes (though their press release did mention that Jim McEwan has designed some enhancements for it). It should be obvious to the most casual observer that the Bruichladdich team has enthusiastically embraced whisky production in all its forms. We’ll have to wait and see what they produce in this new/old still.

Bruichladdich has also taken a further step toward sustainable operations by installing an anaerobic digester device that will convert spent barley into fuel to generate electricity, possibly heating water for mashing and/or directly fueling their stills.

Bruichladdich has made admirable strides in producing a 100%-Islay product, including providing a reason for Islay’s barley farmers to grow organic grain. Now they are trying to make their whisky “green” by reusing/consuming their waste products. If their experiment proves successful, their initial capital outlay will create benefits in reduced operational expenses downstream. The whisky business creates a lot of organic waste products and it would be excellent if they could be turned into a local source of energy instead of just…wasted.

Hurricane Bill Heading for Islay

Well, Bill will be a sub-tropical depression, not a hurricane anymore, by the time it gets there around noon on Wednesday 26-Aug-2009. Still…watch out for wind and lots of rain! Depending on the storm’s track, BowmoreBruichladdich and Kilchoman could get hammered since they are on the west side of Islay.

Luckily it’s hitting Islay during the quiet Summer months when most distilleries are not in production.

Two Silos, One Silo, No Silos

Diageo’s Port Ellen malting facility on Islay is now completely devoid of storage silos. When one of their two silos collapsed on 14-November (a rude awakening for the neighbors at 0600!) it damaged the other silo. I wrote about the first silo collapsing as soon as I heard about it. Because of the collateral damage, the second silo was demolished a few days later. Thankfully, no one was injured or killed. I have no idea what was done with several hundred tons of spilt barley or malt.

Diageo says this event will have little to no impact (no pun intended) on their whisky production.

The best coverage of this story is on the Islay blog, which ran several stories on the topic. There was some coverage in the BBC as well, but not nearly as detailed.

Diageo Malting Plant: Silo Collapse

I was sad to learn that the Port Ellen malting facility on Islay was damaged yesterday. Luckily no one was hurt, but hundreds of tons of barley was in the silo when it collapsed.

Grain elevators in the US mid-west frequently explode because of airborne dust which is highly flammable, even explosive. Presumably we’ll know in a few weeks what the cause of this silo collapse was; it could have been explosive dust, or perhaps a structural failure.

What’s a malting plant? Malting is one part of the whisky production process that is centralizable. Malting is the process whereby the barley is sprouted by wetting it and letting it sit, historically it was spread out on a large malting floor, for several days. The need for a large floor was why malting benefited from economies of scale, however modern malting has improved upon the floor malting which can be adversely affected by weather (variations in humidity, primarily). Malting is still, for the most part, centralized even though floor malting has pretty much disappeared.

Malting is how the whisky producers crack open the barley to expose the sugars to the yeast that will be used in the next phase of production. If the barley seed were sprouting in a farmer’s field, the carbohydrates inside the barley seed would be used by the nascent plant to provide energy for its initial growth. Whisky producers need those carbohydrates (sugars), so the plant can’t be allowed to grow beyond its initial sprouting. The sprouting process exposes the tightly locked complex carbohydrates and enzymes. To stop the growth process before it goes too far, the barley is heated and dried which stops the growth and preserves the sugar for the yeast.

The malting process involves both sprouting (germinating), then drying the barley. The drying is facilitated by heat produced by burning coal and/or peat, which may impart desirable flavors to the malt. Once the malted barley has been produced, it can be shipped to a distillery for the next phase of the production process, wherein the malted barley is ground and mixed with hot water, which facilitates the action of the enzymes which convert the complex carbohydrates in the powdered malt into simpler sugars that are palatable to yeast. If you are familiar with the production of beer, you’ll recognize much of this process. Once the yeast is added, it produces, over the course of several days, a weakly alcoholic solution at about 6-7% ABV (as the alcohol concentration is increased, the alcohol kills the yeast, which puts an upper bound on the amount of alcohol that the yeast can produce). The next step, distillation, concentrates the alcohol.

How does distillation work? It’s not magic. Alcohol is more “volatile” than water. This is a term that has specific meaning for chemists, and it basically means that alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water. If you have a liquid that contains some alcohol and some water, and if you heat it in a precisely shaped container (e.g., a pot still), the alcohol vapor can be induced to condense back into liquid form.

If the condensation process were allowed to reach equilibrium, e.g., in a vertical tube, the alcohol would condense on the walls of the cylinder (if it were tall enough) and drain back down to the bottom, from where it would be heated enough to evaporate again. The reason it condenses is that the tube is cooler as one moves farther away from the heat. No matter how tall the vertical tube is, some alcohol vapor will escape over the top. My sense is that this is why the pot still is bent at the top, so the whisky producer can contain the alcohol and control the rate and amount of condensation within the still.

Also, keep in mind that the vapor that goes up the tube is a combination of water vapor and other volatile chemicals that boil at less than the boiling point of water. Even if the liquid is only kept at the boiling point of alcohol, there will still be water vapor present in the atmosphere above the liquid, since water evaporates even when the liquid is less than 100 °C.

Per wikipedia: “The boiling point of the alcohol ethanol is 78.29 °C, compared to 69 °C for the hydrocarbon Hexane (a common constituent of gasoline), and 34.6 °C for Diethyl ether.” The initial condensate, then, will contain lots of other volatile chemicals that may have foul odors or tastes (these odors and tastes come from fusel oils and other chemicals associated with alcohol production that may remind one of paint thinner, acetone, etc. — you wouldn’t want to drink them!). The tough part at this phase of production is that the foul odors and tastes will be soluble in water or alcohol, so they may be difficult to separate from the more desirable esters and phenolic compounds that whisky producers may want to retain in the finished product.

Once the pot still (actually, a pair of stills) has effectively burned off the more volatile components, the refined alcohol is allowed to freely flow to the “spirit safe” where the amount produced is measured very carefully for tax purposes. The operation of the still involves the careful attention of the stillman who determines when the proper product is ready to be collected, and who knows when to cut off the production before the still runs dry.

The spirit is usually distilled at least one more time before going into oak barrels for aging. Bruichladdich has produced “X4” that is quadruple-distilled and due to the concentration being increased at each stage of distillation, the ABV of the final product was well over 90%. Some Scotch is triple-distilled, as is most Irish whisky. The initial alcohol concentration of the spirit that goes into the oak barrels is about 70% ABV. Then the aging process reduces that concentration as the alcohol gradually escapes the semi-permeable membrane that is the wood while the wood works its magic of imparting its flavors to the liquid. As long as the alcohol concentration remains above 40% ABV, the liquid in the casks can be bottled and sold as Scotch whisky, provided it’s also at least 3 years old and meets a slew of other technical requirements.

Now that I have written some basics about distillation, I will go into some more detail about types of distillation and explain in a bit more detail why distillation works at all.

The Importance of Authenticity

I read with interest some rather serious allegations that Lagavulin doesn’t actually age all of its whisky on Islay. In fact, they don’t even put it into casks on Islay. They put it in a ship and take it to the mainland (well, as close as you get to “mainland” in Scotland…it’s just a bigger island, after all!), then they put it into casks and age it there.

As far as I am concerned, that’s not Islay scotch. Anyone in Scotland could make a peated whisky and age it in warehouses near those that Lagavulin is using. Why couldn’t they claim to also be an Islay product? Is the location of the still really all that matters?

My opinion (which really only matters to me!) is that in order to be labeled as an Islay product, the producer should use local peat, local water, locally malted barley from locally grown barley, local talent, local warehouses, and a local bottling line. Which of these is most important? I can’t say. What I *can* say is that a product that markets itself as having been aged on the shores of the Atlantic, to pick up the sea influences, should be looked upon skeptically if that claim is not true.

I am not saying that Lagavulin has a bad product. I am saying that I value honesty. I wish they wouldn’t try to make it seem like an Islay product. It undermines their credibility. Once you lose your reputation it’s very hard to regain it.

I look forward to seeing how this story plays out. As a whisky fan, one of the things I value about whisky is how it concentrates a sense of place into the bottle, and the personality of the makers. I certainly understand the profit motive, but at the end of the day, I am probably not going to want to pay as much for “Islay-style” whisky as I would for real Islay whisky (all else being equal). With that said, if Lagavulin didn’t make a big deal about their Islay heritage, and just sold the whisky, all that would matter would be whether or not I liked it. When I find out that a product isn’t what I thought it was, I can’t help but feel cheated. Again, I hope this isn’t true.

Whether or not you like products from Bruichladdich, it’s clear that they are very much about locally sourced (and increasingly organic) ingredients combined by local skilled crafstmen into a product that has Islay DNA through and through. Yes, they make a lot of expressions. You aren’t expected to buy them all, or to like them all. What ties them all together is their Islay heritage and the creative process that results in the many expressions that are offered for sale. When they say it’s an Islay product, they are serious.

Gales and barley — not a happy combination

It’s been a tough month in the UK: Lots of rain. Parts of Wales got as much rain last Thursday as they might normally expect in the entire MONTH of September! I saw these stories on the BBC and naturally I wondered how Scotland was doing. Turns out, the BBC has a weather web page where you can enter a post code and it will tell you the weather there. So I copied the post code for Bruichladdich (if you’re curious, it’s: PA49 7UN), and I now have an RSS feed for the weather on that part of Islay. So I have the current conditions at Bruichladdich on my iGoogle home page.

What has the weather got to do with barley? According to Bruichladdich’s blog, late last week all the barley farmers on Islay were working feverishly to harvest the crops that are ripe before a big storm that was due to hit last weekend. I haven’t yet heard how the harvest went…presumably either Bruichladdich’s blog or the Islay blog will bring us up to date.

As an aside: Many of the hurricanes that track up the east coast of the US get to the UK very quickly after they leave eastern Canada (as subtropical depressions, a.k.a. disorganized heavy rainstorms with lots of wind). I hope that the worst of these storms is over for the year, but we’ve got a while to go before hurricane season is over in the Atlantic.