I know, I'm copying what the great BrewDog are doing, but come on James, imitation is the greatest form of flattery. It's certainly true that since taking the plunge and actually digging into my deep pocket with my very short arms1 and ordering some BrewDog beers I've been impressed with what they do. I love Tokyo for special occasions2 and for the slightly more regular occasions3 I like the Paradox. Now an 18.2% beer is not something I'm going to try and replicate any time soon. But the idea of ageing a stout in a whisky cask is achievable, even for this less experienced brewer. But where to get the cask from?
We've been buying whisky off a small distiller in Dumfries and Galloway for some time now. They are Bladnoch Distillery situated near Wigtown. Apart from making their own whisky they also do some very interesting, single cask bottlings off whiskys from other distillers. If you are interested in these then I suggest you join the Bladnoch forum where some interesting and very reasonably priced whiskys can be bought mail order by forum members. One of the whiskys we have here is Caol Ila, which is not only very tasty but is selling rather well. I recently asked what the chances were of getting hold of an empty cask and was very pleased that they happily agreed to let me have one, providing I went up to Bladnoch to collect it. A visit to a distillery? Oh go on then it's not far from Carlisle I thought.
Having got a stout in the fermenter on Tuesday, yesterday seemed a good time to go up and collect the cask. However, Google maps4 reported a longer journey than I expected. Never mind, we so much needed a day out, this was the perfect excuse. Besides, they do distillery tours and stuff so it'd be nice to get a look around. We needed to pick up some cheese from Thornby Moor anyway, so we set off, picked up cheese, including some nice smelly oak smoked Cumberland, I love the smell of that cheese.
We got there and managed to find our contact Sue, who then found the Caol Ila cask safely stacked behind a great forest of "useless" casks. A few chess moves later and we had the cask balanced on the front of a fork lift truck for loading into our car. I think Ann was a little apprehensive about damage to the car. Once in it seemed we had room for a second cask. A Bladnoch cask to use as a high table in the bar perhaps? What a good idea.
Although they were busy with normal punters, Sue's husband gladly showed us around the distillery starting in the bonded warehouse. I realised that there was a certain amount of privilege here. Members of the public are not normally permitted into the bonded warehouse. Even more thrilling was being invited to taste the samples from casks being considered for bottling. There is a warm feeling you get from cask strength whisky. An even warmer feeling ensues when you know the stuff has not had any duty paid on it. Then look around. This is only one of many warehouses. I'm not even going to start to work out the amount of alcohol that might be here.
The entrance to the oldest of the warehouses says "Angels keep out.....shhhh..whisky sleeping" this is reference to the "Angels Share". Whisky, in oak casks5 slowly evaporates and defuses through the slightly porous wood. In the original warehouse, which is nearly 200 years old, the smell of whisky soaked oak is really extremely pleasant, "that is the angels share" my guide tells me. In here they have a metal cage so the public can come in and view without any risk of them making off with the odd cask or two. Also in here are the casks that have been forward bought, duty free, a nice idea. For less than £1000 you can buy one of these. They might get you 200 bottles of whisky. £5 a bottle, what a bargain. The trouble is you have to pay duty and VAT when the whisky is removed from the warehouse, even if it happened to be inside you at the time. Duty on a cask is probably around £3000 a go. Perhaps not quite such a useful idea.
On to the distillery itself. The malting house is now defunct but makes an interesting venue for the forthcoming Book Town Festival that was being prepared for when we were there. These days most small distillers buy in malted barley, no different from the majority of brewers these days. Raymond the owner said, when I bumped into him just before we went, he would have gladly let me have some peat smoked malt to play around with had he known I was visiting. Next time maybe.
The thing that I like most about whisky is that it is simply beer that's been boiled up a bit after fermentation. In fact the only difference between beer and whisky is that they boil it after fermentation rather than before and don't bother with hops. I'm sure a distiller would say different, but in simplistic terms, that's about it. A look at the mash tun pretty much confirms that. Mash temperatures and O.G. don't seem to be a great lot different. I was intrigued that they use batch sparging. Most brewers I know use continuous sparging. I wish I had their great big lauter rake though, rather than relying on my oversized wooden spoon and good old armstrong power. Mind you, a mash at this size of distillery uses 5 tonnes of grist and 3 washes of 11,000 litres.
Anyway, after that on to the "washbacks" goes the wort where the yeast is pitched. No cooling on these great big 45,000 litre fermentation vessels, apparently this gets to be a big problem in the summer. But, fermentation is complete in about 2 days at which point the "wash" can be used for distilling immediately if they want.
As is the case with all Scottish malt whisky, double distillation is used. The 6-7% beer, which is actually called wash and is held in a wash charger. It then goes on to be distilled first up to around 23%, at which point it's called low wines and then onto a further distillation.
During final distillation the spirit that is first given off, at this point called the fore-shots, is at around 80%ABV but full of toxins and impurities. They divert this back into a holding tank to reuse and then start collection of the main spirit after around 30 minutes of distillation. During the main distillation the spirit collected might be 65% or so in strength and this is stored ready to go into casks. Finally the spirit becomes too weak and this is also returned to the holding tank for the next distillation. I'd tell you what this rubbish liquor is called, if only I'd made a note of it in my book.
Into the cask, where of course much of the magic happens. Whisky is clear upon distillation. It might have the smoky peaty flavours and aromas but is as clear as water. Eau du Vie, water of life or in Gælic "Uisge Beatha" which became "iskie bae" by 1583 untill eventually being called whisky. The cask is the only thing that gives a true single malt any colour. Much of Bladnoch whisky is in fact quite pale, but no less delicious for it.
Unfortunately the still was not running, but if it had been I'd have not been able to climb inside the vessels. It's going to run next week apparently. But in any case, it's nice to see a little bit of tradition going.
As mentioned above, we got a very good chat with the delightfully enthusiastic owner of Bladnoch. He bought the distillery in the 1990's, disused and with a covenant that prevented it from distilling. Since the time Raymond bought the property, apparently just for the cottages that used to be the homes of the compulsory excise men up until the 80's when Thatcher's government deregulated things. By 2000 Raymond had convinced Diagio that Bladnoch represented no threat to their massive industrial manufacture of spirit6 and he was once again permitted to distil whisky. This week Bladnoch launch their first 8 year old whisky to be distilled by Raymond and his team. It just goes to show.
I think the intro to the talk Raymond is giving soon says it all:
"The owner of Bladnoch distillery, Raymond Armstrong, tells how he came to live every whisky obsessive’s dream, to buy an old distillery and bring it back into production. An inspiring story of what can be done with a little luck, a lot of determination and the gift of the gab."
I can feel some parallels here with beer. Many in fact. The enthusiasm of the small time brewer or distiller, the people who enjoy the product and seek it out, the cottage industry feel of the operation but most of all the thoroughly friendly people involved in it all. Of course producing a product that is more expensive is never going to have a mass appeal. Equally a product where your choices are too big. Is the fino matured whisky better than the brandy matured or the other way round?
I would recommend a visit to this distillery, if ever you are out that way. Nice people, nice whisky and if you can't get there, I have some here for you to try.
On the way home the combined smell of oak smoked cheese and peaty Caol Ila was immense. The angels share was clearly still going. I'm glad the cask is now in the cellar, after having to remove the door off it's hinges. It's now cool and so the evaporation of whisky should be inhibited while I wait for the beer to go in it.
I got back home to find my stout had done 80% of it's fermentation in 24 hours. It's a good job the FV is only 60% full otherwise it would have been a magic porridge pot situation. I think it got a little hot as the yeast had stopped and has now restarted. A sneaky taste revealed a stout of promising flavour, but I am worried that the yeast has been unduly stressed. I also found out that Ann had, rather paradoxically, ordered Smokehead from LFW. These are the whisky casks that BrewDog use for one of their whisky aged stouts. This might all end up very interesting as I also bought a bottle of Caol Ila that had come out of the cask I had just liberated from Bladnoch. Should make for some informative tasting sessions later in the year.
If the whisky aged stout works out, I'll blog it. If not then I'll keep quiet.
1Actually, my pockets are nearly always empty. Ann hordes the cash and I have to beg for access to it. It's a good job as I would just spend it on beer or big boys toys otherwise.
2Like I got to the end of a day without loosing it with somebody. It doesn't happen often.
3Like birthdays and Christmas, which happen with more regularity and predictability.
4If ever there was a reason to build a bridge.
5 Q: What is the definition of whisky? A: malt spirit that has spent at least 3 years in an oak cask, apparently. Nothing else can be whisky. Why Bells and Grouse can call themselves a whisky, when a large amount of the liquid in the bottle is not in fact whisky, I don't know.
6Diagio and many other spirit producers, to get the cost of our drink down, make most spirits on a universal still, which I believe might be called a Coffey still. Even the base for most blended whiskies is largely made in the same way as vodka, gin and rum. These bulk spirits being flavoured with various additives and colourings to get the products you buy in supermarkets and chain pubs.