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Castles, Casks And Consistency

by Oliver Klimek on June 16, 2012

A Special Anniversary

As many of you will know, the Malt Maniacs are having their 15th anniversary this year. To celebrate this milestone in style, the idea to have a big meeting in Scotland was born. Unfortunately we could not manage to assemble all members, but 22 maniacs were able to attend the event that lasted a good part of this week.  Needless to say that this was the biggest gathering of Malt Maniacs ever.

And what a special gathering it was. Wrapped by meetings in Edinburgh for dinners and tastings, the maniacs were guests of Diageo for two and a half days. Yes, Diageo.

Have the Malt Maniacs finally succombed to the sweet temptations of the whisky industry? Don’t worry, our independence has not been corrupted by accepting an invitation issued in recognition of the MM’s reputation in the whisky world. And an offer to visit some places that are usually not open to the public isn’t somehing you turn down just because it comes from a company which does not have the best reputation in whisky anorak circles, and even if there also is an element of ‘informing multiplicators’ involved.

The group met for the opening dinner at the SMWS Vaults in Edinburgh along with a tasting of some fine malts, hosted by Charlie MacLean and opened with a toast to founder Johannes van den Heuvel who recently decided to step down. It was here that many maniacs met each other for the first time, but still it felt like a family reunion. Here you could feel that the maniacs are more than just a virtual collective of whisky crazy people from all over the world.

Headache or not, a rather early rise was needed not to miss the coach that was to bring us from place to place. Out host was Dr. Nick Morgan – holding the position of Head of Whisky Outreach at Diageo – who was joined by several high profile colleagues on the various parts of our little tour. First stop was Cambus Cooperage, an ultra-modern centralized facility located next to the huge Blackgrange warehouse complex near Stirling. Roughly 50 blocks of 6 warehouses each spread across an area of a square mile provide the monumental backdrop for the large cooperage hall that more resembles a car factory than a workshop.

It is here where you get an impression of the scale of Diageo’s whisky business. The millions of cases of whisky they sell must be handled somewhere. Reading big numbers is one thing, seeing them in action, so to speak, is impressive nonetheless.

Cambus Cooperage is a cask factory in a way with casks and materials being transported by roller and overhead conveyors and the casks at the charring section being handled by robots. But still there is need for manual labour, so many steps like the disassembling and assembling of casks is still done by trained coopers with machinery mainly kicking in when casks have to be treated as a whole like in shaving the inside or charring. There is one production line for the assembly of fresh bourbon casks that come disassembled on pallets and another one for the rejuvenation of worn out casks.

The streamlined workflow and high level of automation does not only allow the treatment of a staggering 5000 casks per week, it is also part of Diageo’s philosophy of improving consistency by automating as many processes as possible while trying to maintain or even raise the quality of the final product.

The comparision of Cambus to my visit to Speyside Cooperage in 2011 is quite interesting, and also some interesting facts could be gleaned here. But in order not to bloat this report too much I will cover the topic of casks in a separate article because this tour proved to be quite insightful in this respect.

On we drove to Dalwhinnie with a little pit stop at Blair Athol in Pitlochry for lunch. Located in the middle of nowhere this is currently the highest operating distillery in Scotland. The distillery tour focused on the special character of the Dalwhinnie production process that is a rather unusual combination of trying to get the wort as clear and clean as possible while making the final spirit as complex and heavy as possible by long fermentation and minimizing copper contact during distillation and condensation in a worm tub. A dram from a cask in the warehouse and a tasting of the Classic Malts paired with chocolates finalized the visit before heading on towards Speyside.

Finally our residence at Drummuir Castle was reached, a former J+B guest house now taken over by Diageo where the day ended with dinner and maniacal studies in the well-equipped whisky library.

The schedule for the next day included two especially ineresting visits. First we headed to Elgin to Moray House, the inner sanctum of Diageo in Scotland. After a general presentation of Diageo’s whisky branch and the recently announced investment plans we got to see the laboratories where the company monitors the output of their 28 malt distilleries.

Consistency – arguably the most used word during our trip – is the driving force behind Diageo’s whisky business. Blended whisky rules here, and they want to make sure that no surprises can be found in their bottles. From controlling the yeast in the mash with state-of-the-art biochemical procedures over chemical anlaysis of every batch of spirit filled into casks or tankers this goes on to a very eleborate nosing assessment by a thoroughly trained panel. The aim of all this is to immediately see any fluctuations in spirit character to be able to react promptly.

Next on the menu was Roseisle, the big new distillery near Elgin that has been operating for over three years now where we had the rare honour of a distillery tour. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photographs here (the photo policy at all the other places was very open, by the way). Much has been written about Roseisle, from facts over speculations to fiction, especially with regard to its effect on the other Diageo distilleries. I admit that I too had been fearing an increased likeliness of smaller distilleries put out of production should the global demand for whisky be on the decline again in the future. But from the discussions we had, there seems to be no intention to actually do so. Let’s hope that this will still prevail in a gloomier economic climate.

Roseisle itself is not a monster. It is essentially a perfectly normal distillery, maybe a bit on the big side. It is not the largest distillery, and even the special feature of switching between copper and stainless steel condensers to allow the production of two different spirit types is not an entirely new thing. Steel condensers were already used in Dailuaine for several years as a more effective way to minimize copper contact as opposed to worm tubs. Diageo is understandably very proud of the positve environmental footprint of the distillery, and of course everything one the site is streamlined for consistency and efficiency, with wide open spaces allowing easy access for maintenance. And how about the most important thing, the spirit? It is excellent.

Quite in contrast to Roseisle was the next stop on the tour, Mortlach in Dufftown. Usually not open to the public, tours are available at the Spirit of Speyside Festival, and our tour led by manager Sean Philips was essentially the same as I already experienced in 2011.

The highlight of the evening dinner was right in line: A 50 year old Mortlach 1942/1993 by Gordon & MacPhail donated by maniac Ulf Buxrud to celebrate his 70th birthday.

Our tour came to an end the next day with a visit to Knockando were we had a very interesting blending and tasting session led by Jim Beveridge who explained the fundamentals of whisky blending. Apart from the different blend components that were part of the session we were treated to a 1960s bottling of Johnnie Walker Red and four Directors Blends that are internally issued as limited bottlings for the upper ranks of Diageo on a yearly basis. The special thing about these blends is that instead of simply being special editions, they are designed to showcase different components or aspects of whisky blending like basic flavour styles or wood influence, an approach I find very intriguing. So Diageo let Johnnie Walker say goodbye to the Malt Maniacs. A nice twist indeed.

We then headed back to Edinburgh for a pre-dinnner tasting at the Whisky Shop in Victoria Street. There were some very interesting drams to be had, but the true star and more than worthy final dram was a 1909 vintage Canadian Club brought along by Swiss maniac Patrick.

So an outstanding four days had come to an end, outstanding in part because of the places we could see (a big thank you to Nick Morgan for making this possible!), but even more so because of the fantastic group experience of being together with over twenty maniacal family members.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Josh Feldman June 17, 2012 at 7:53 am

What an amazing sound trip. Excellent company, superb whisky culture and distillery access experiences, and amazing and ancient dram. Of particular interest was your brief description of Roseisle – and particularly your note about the quality of the spirit. This will potentially quite important in the future (if, perhaps only to Diageo’s blends). Wow. I’m really just speechless with a mix of awe and jealousy.

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Oliver Klimek June 17, 2012 at 10:15 am

Of course I am very keen on trying Roseisle as a proper whisky too, and there will certainly be a bottling when it is ready. Obviously, they didn’t want us to taste the still immature 3yo, fair enough. I appreciate it that they did not rush out with a release as soon as it was legal. And good newmake does not necessarily mean it will be a terrifc whisky, but it sure helps ;)

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Whisky Lassie June 17, 2012 at 2:00 pm

Oliver, how fortunate for all of you to be able to connect at this level and how lucky you all are to be able to do it in such style! I am envious!

Quick question, how does one become a malt maniac?

Thanks!

Johanne

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Oliver Klimek June 17, 2012 at 5:41 pm

The Malt Manaics are not a club you join by filling an application form. We keep our eyes open and invite people who we think are a good addition to the group. Anyone can submit an E-pistle as a foreign correspondent, but of course his is no guarantee for an invitation.

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