The idea for this article is to discuss a few things that I haven’t covered in my other let’s talk articles and tie some of the others together. It’s also the longest article I’ve written on whisky, so you might want to put the kettle on or even better, get yourself a whisky.
Whisky has changed. Even in the very short time I’ve been tasting whisky, we have seen a rise in discontinued age statements and NAS bottlings replacing them at a higher price, general rising prices, current distilleries expanding and new distilleries starting. Has whisky changed for the better? For the worse? That’s what I want to discuss. And not in a moaning, ‘back in my day,’ rose tinted glasses type of way.
If you haven’t seen Horst Leuning’s excellent videos on whisky.com’s YouTube, I very much encourage you to head over and watch his stuff on ‘Whisky Once & Today.’ This piece is very much inspired by his video, but I will be arguing the opposite to him.
Where Horst believes that automation and advancements in the industry have made whisky more consistent and accessible to people, I put it to you that these same changes are also a deviation from what makes Scotch… well, Scotch.
Firstly, it would be a good idea to understand what Scotch whisky is according to European law and the SWA. (Skip down for the rest)
- Whisky or Whiskey
Whisky or whiskey is a spirit drink produced exclusively by:
(i) distillation of a mash made from malted cereals with or without whole grains of other cereals, which has been:
— saccharified by the diastase of the malt contained therein, with or without other natural enzymes,
— fermented by the action of yeast;
(ii) one or more distillations at less than 94,8 % vol., so that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used,
(iii) maturation of the final distillate for at least three years in wooden casks not exceeding 700 litres capacity. The final distillate, to which only water and plain caramel (for colouring) may be added, retains its colour, aroma and taste derived from the production process referred to in points (i), (ii) and (iii).
(b) The minimum alcoholic strength by volume of whisky or whiskey shall be 40%.
13.2.2008 EN Official Journal of the European Union L 39/29
(c) No addition of alcohol as defined in Annex I(5), diluted or not, shall take place.
(d) Whisky or whiskey shall not be sweetened or flavoured, nor contain any additives other than plain caramel used for colouring.
I thought this little bit was interesting though:
REGULATION (EC) No 110/2008 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 15 January 2008 on the definition, description, presentation, labelling and the protection of geographical indications of spirit drinks and repealing Council Regulation (EEC) No 1576/89: “Technological innovation should also be taken into account in the categories where such innovation serves to improve quality, without affecting the traditional character of the spirit drinks concerned.”
Definition of “Scotch Whisky” and categories of Scotch Whisky
3.—(1) In these Regulations “Scotch Whisky” means a whisky produced in Scotland—
(a) that has been distilled at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been—
(i) processed at that distillery into a mash;
(ii) converted at that distillery into a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems; and
(iii) fermented at that distillery only by the addition of yeast;
(b) that has been distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8 per cent so that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production;
(c) that has been matured only in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres;
(d) that has been matured only in Scotland;
(e) that has been matured for a period of not less than three years;
(f) that has been matured only in an excise warehouse or a permitted place;
(g) that retains the colour, aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation;
(h) to which no substance has been added, or to which no substance has been added except—
(ii) plain caramel colouring; or
(iii) water and plain caramel colouring; and
(i) that has a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40%.
(2) In these Regulations—
“Single Malt Scotch Whisky” means a Scotch Whisky that has been distilled in one or more batches—
(a) at a single distillery;
(b) from water and malted barley without the addition of any other cereals; and
(c) in pot stills;
“Single Grain Scotch Whisky” means a Scotch Whisky that has been distilled at a single
(a) Single Malt Scotch Whisky; or
(b) a Blended Scotch Whisky;
“Blended Malt Scotch Whisky” means a blend of two or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies that have been distilled at more than one distillery;
“Blended Grain Scotch Whisky” means a blend of two or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies that have been distilled at more than one distillery; and “Blended Scotch Whisky” means a blend of one or more Single Malt Scotch Whiskies with one or more Single Grain Scotch Whiskies.
Read more here.
Now bearing all of those rules and regulations in mind, Compass Box used ‘inner staves’ with their first edition of Spice Tree (full story here) but were told that this practice was not allowed for Scotch whisky because it was not deemed ‘Traditional.’ Aaaaaaaand, that’s absolutely fine. There was no evidence that inner staves had been used for Scotch whisky before, and although Compass Box argued the point, they withdrew the whisky from the market in that form.
But where is the line?
Scotch is a wonderful, amazing drink. Every dram speaks of a place, every bit of character comes through into, what is for me, the most complex drink in the world. But I have to ask, was grain whisky traditional when the column still was invented? Was the full Lauter mash tun ‘traditional’ when it was installed at the first Scotch whisky distillery? Is the latest barley type, that has only just been tested, traditional? I could go on.
There are new innovations all the time with whisky and it changes and evolves. Where is the point where it crosses the line and stops being Scotch whisky? The SWA say it stops at inner staves and tequila barrels, but not with other things.
Let’s start with barley type and how that has changed over the years. Interesting tidbit, this is Ralfy’s predominant reason for changes in whisky over time. Originally, local barley would have been used at many distilleries and the quality of that barley would be up to the seasons. These barley types would be similar to Bere, something that has been used recently again. As time went on, people started using special types and one of the earliest to emerge was Archer, and some time after, Golden Promise. After that it became a constant competition to make a more efficient barley, with more disease resistance, higher yield and less protein. Triumph, Camargue, and then Chariot followed, but Optic took over in 1999, exploding in popularity (Have a look at THIS great chart). Now, it’s Concerto and who knows what is next (Laureate and then Asteroid perhaps?). Why did Optic dominate for so long? Reliability I think. It was safe, it was efficient and it gave good yields. Unfortunately, it also had Ethyl Carbamate (a carcinogen) precursors and Concerto has since replaced it with many distillers as it doesn’t have these and also gives slightly higher yields. This chasing of higher and higher yields means looking for more and more starch and enzymes while having less and less nitrogen (a pretty good indicator of the level of protein in the grain).
What have these changes done to our whisky?
Well, the Scotch whisky industry has always told the story that the barley doesn’t matter much and that it’s the water that is important. However, this chasing of better yields and less protein, I believe, will give us some differences. A specification for distilling barley at distilleries is that the nitrogen content is between 1.2-1.8%, but might have been higher in years gone by. This gives you an idea of the level of protein in the barley, and the higher the level of protein, the higher the enzyme level of the barley will be. This higher enzyme level with less starch in past barley types, combined with longer steeping times and a less controllable floor maltings, would give you a much more diverse range of oils, esters, aldehydes and ketones in the wort and fermentation. Now what we have is very uniform, as much starch as possible for as much sugar and therefore alcohol as possible.
Old: More diverse flavours and oils but less consistency. Possible carcinogen in the whisky.
New: More uniform and controlled.
Another part of the process that has changed has been the mash tuns. This isn’t something that is often focussed on, but almost every distillery has changed theirs. Originally most distilleries would have cast iron, open top mash tuns but now most use highly efficient lauter tuns or even mash filters. The only distilleries I can think of with cast iron mash tuns are Bruichladdich, Deanston (pic right) and Springbank (although I’m certain there are others), while Glendronach uses an open top, part iron, part copper extravaganza. The difference is that the cast iron ones have farmy-looking rakes on the inside to mix the malt and water, and don’t (as far as I know) have underbacks or plates to extract the wort. While lauter tuns are closed to keep the heat consistent, are insulated, have efficient blades for mixing and pushing the draff out and have perforated plates on the bottom to allow for efficient wort extraction. Many mid-sized distilleries have opted for something in the middle, a semi-lauter mash tun, while the bigger ones need (and can afford) the bigger and more efficient full lauter tuns. Some are even now going towards mash filters (look them up on youtube), which softly squeeze the draff of its sugary juices. The times for mashing have also greatly decreased over the last 30 years.
What is this doing to the whisky then? Well, again what we are seeing is more efficiency and consistency with a greater knowledge of enzymes and the temperatures and times needed. With this, a drop in mashing times, temperature inconsistency, as well as a change in material from iron to steel. As far as know, these things aren’t going to have a huge impact on the flavour of our whisky but the times and temperature will have changed the efficiency of sugar extraction, so that perhaps previous mashings created a less modified wort with less sugar and more dextrins (larger chunks of starch that have not been converted enough for the yeast to use). This could mean a less fermentable wort, which of course isn’t so good for business but could bring a more complex flavour into the whisky through more solids and unfermentables being present during the distillation and possibly burning to the bottom of a direct fired still (which of course were more common in years gone by).
Old: Less extract, more dextrins. Temperature wastage.
New: More efficient, more extract. More energy conservation.
Yeast types have also become very uniform, and again is an area that the Scotch whisky industry markets as something of very little importance, whereas Bourbon producers have really gone to town. Back in the mists of time ‘natural’ fermentations would have occurred, where no yeast at all was added and the natural yeast from the environment would have infected the wort. As humans started to understand how to produce alcoholic beverages, they realised that they could harness yeast and then even, produce and propagate it. The yeast strain of a brewery or distillery became something closely guarded, and kept on site. The next stage was companies starting up that specialised in selling yeasts and producing them to requirements. You could have highly fermentative yeast, or heat resistant, or bacteria resistant, or the terrifying sounding killer yeast. The distiller’s yeasts became progressively more focussed on greater yields and faster fermentation over time, and currently there are only a few types used by the vast majority of distilleries; M, MX, Anchor, Mauri or Brewer’s yeast. Again, what this is going to give you is a more uniform, consistent and controlled fermentation with less infections from wild yeast or bacteria. However, these infections and bacteria’s can also give rise to unexpected flavours, oils and compounds that could bring complexity as well as loss of alcohol yields.
Old: Less yield of alcohol but greater range of flavour compounds and oils.
New: Higher yield, greater consistency with a more uniform flavour.
While we are talking about fermentation, the times of fermentations for distilleries have often shortened. The classic example being Scapa, who had the longest fermentation time of any distillery in Scotland at 120 hours, but now have shortened their fermentation to 70 hours MAX. Other distilleries that have decreased their fermentation times are Caol Ila and Ardbeg (there are loads of others, but there is very little fermentation information available online. Anyone want to make a big table of fermentation times from every distillery for me?). Shortening fermentation times means a quicker turn around for a distillery and more whisky made in less time, so of course it makes good business sense to cut fermentation times. The shortest fermentation times are 48 hours, while the longest run to just over 100 hours, with many distilleries running somewhere in the middle at 72. These changes are going to give you slightly different flavours, 48 perhaps being more malty and oily. While 100 hours is normally more fruity and estery because of possible infection by lactic acid bacteria as the yeast dies off.
Another change is the material they are built from. Originally all distilleries would have used wooden fermenters. Maybe oak or larch to start with, then increasingly Douglas Fir/Oregon Pine. These wooden vats are far more porous than steel and allow a bacterial colony to live in the wood and infect fermentations more easily. Not only that, but a study (although I can’t find it now) found that different bacterial colonies lived at different distilleries, giving each distillery a unique twist on its fermentation. This is going to perhaps allow for more ester formation, especially from lactic acid bacteria, and these fermenters are a bitch to clean and sterilise. Because they are hugely expensive to replace too, most distilleries swapped over to steel fermenting tanks.
But what is that doing to the whisky? Well, longer fermentation times are going to allow more bacterial growth. More bacterial growth in a more porous and bacteria laden material is going to allow for easier bacterial growth in the fermenting wort, perhaps at an earlier point in the fermentation. This could cause less alcohol to be produced, or actually none at all if the fresh wort is infected straight away. This also means that any lactic acid bacteria that infect the wash are left to stew for longer and produce more and more esters. This would result in a far less efficient, less alcoholic wash that would have a big fruitiness to it, perhaps a kind of tropical fruit? That could fit with what we see from old Bowmore and Laphroaig’s. More modern whiskies, being made with shorter fermentations times and in steel vats, might have a more straightforward and clean character that is less fruity and more malt, green apple and citrus.
Old: Less efficient, loss of alcohol. More fruity and complex.
New: More efficient, greater yield. Cleaner character, less fruity.
Heat exchangers are another change you’ll find in every distillery but weren’t around until the 1980’s. From what I know Caol Ila was the first distillery to use them. We aren’t talking about condensing the vapours from the distillation, but converting heat from one source to another. Like the heat from the stillage from the previous distillation to the wash coming in for the next distillation. For me, this is not a negative change but a hugely positive one. It has had no effect (that I can think of) on the flavour of the whisky but has saved energy and money having to heat wash and mashing waters from scratch.
Old: Energy wastage.
New: Energy conservation.
Now let’s discuss a little more of a sensitive topic. Automation. This is again, something that has affected every level of Scotch whisky production and has a huge impact of the flavour of what we drink! Distilleries went from having a lot of staff and manpower needing to malt the barley and turn it by hand, shovel coal and peat into the furnaces, observing the mashing and fermenting, making the distilling cuts and putting the stuff into barrels. The confounded humans made all kinds of human errors. Expensive ones at that. So we got rid of them.
Now it’s done by machines. Particularly in modern grain distilleries, which are very industrial, almost everything is done without direct human intervention. Even modern malt distilleries like the Macallan, Glen Moray and the new still house at Glenlivet, everything can be controlled by one person on a laptop. The malt comes in and is transported via an elevator to a malt bin, the mashing machine mixes it with hot water, modern lauter tuns can make automatic adjustments to temperature and wort cooling, while the yeast is inoculated automatically into the wort line on the way to the fermenter. One button and the wash heads to the still, while being heated by the stillage from the previous distillation, where the distillation and condenser temperature are both monitored and automatically adjusted by computers. The cuts are probably the biggest change though. Whereas distilleries in the past would have had an experienced team member taking samples from the spirit safe and doing a ‘water test’ (adding water to see if the spirit clouds up from Fusel oils), now distilleries often have automatic computers that will constantly monitor the chemical compounds, oils and alcohols coming into the spirit safe, as well as the abv and temperature, and making the cut based on that. All the equipment is then cleaned out automatically by spray nozzles, making it much more efficient and more water friendly to clean everything. Now, as far as I know, Springbank is perhaps the only distillery to do every part of the process, traditionally, with human beings a crucial part of every step of the whisky making process. This means that they have to employ and pay a lot more people than any other distillery, along with any human error mistakes along the way but they say it’s worth it (that’s part of the reason you pay more for Springbank than some other whiskies).
Alright then, again, why should we care? Well, for me the automation of the whole process, overall, is going to make the whisky generally more consistent, more efficient to make and with less costly mistakes made. But at what cost? By removing the human element from whisky making and pushing yields over flavours, our whiskies has become perhaps a little blander and more homogenous, especially when it comes to spirit cuts that would give each distillation a slightly different flavour depending who was on shift and who forgot the stills were running while they were making coffee. These mistakes and little deviances will have caused a lot more variability, some of which would have been good and some terrible.
Old: More variance and mistakes. Higher highs and lower lows in quality.
New: More consistent and efficient. More homogenous and bland.
Next up is the barrels used for maturing the whisky. Again, these have changed drastically in the last 100 years, from being all sherry casks with little or no use of Bourbon barrels to a mix of hogsheads and butts in the 80’s to modern day where the Bourbon barrel rules in an ungainly kingdom of constant change and experimentation. Sherry casks, of course, used to be shipped over whole from Spain, emptied of their sherry, they would then be sent on to Scotland to be used for whisky. As America was much further away, and transport costs were higher, Bourbon barrels were seldom seen. 1981 saw the laws of Sherry change to it having to be bottled in Spain and no longer sold in bulk, but by this time many American Bourbon barrels were finding their way to the UK as the transport costs were becoming cheaper and Bourbon producers would have had a surplus of barrels, as they can only use them once. The Bourbon barrels were often being reconstructed into slightly larger Hogsheads (4 barrels make 3 Hosheads) while the Sherry casks were becoming steadily more expensive and rarer as Sherry became less popular and less casks were coming to the UK. After 1981 things become harder again as Sherry barrels have to be specifically purchased and shipped from Spain, and then, as Sherry sales decline ever further, even specifically made to order and soaked in Sherry just for the whisky industry. Along with this change has been the type of oak. Originally Sherry producers would have used Spanish oak for their casks, but as the trees became more expensive and protected, American oak became the favourite and now almost all the casks used in the whisky industry, whether Bourbon or Sherry, tend to be American oak.
The method of maturing whisky has also changed somewhat. Rather than just leaving the whisky in a cask, the process of ‘finishing’ a whisky in a different type of cask has become more and more popular. And in an ever-increasing array of exotic casks. Consumers looking for something different have been satiated with wine, rum, champagne and even gin casks. Experimentation has become a new norm in a world continually looking for something new. Cask management has become a fantastic buzzword in the industry. It’s meaning, that you can take control of your whisky stocks. Not just let them sit there. Interestingly, we have seen a development recently where the SWA told Diageo that they could not use Tequila casks to finish their whisky and still call it Scotch. This is very, very interesting as it seems the SWA is much more concerned with maturation going too far from tradition than any other change that we’ve seen. We’ll come back to that.
|Dunnage at Glenfarclas|
Warehousing has also seen changes, with traditional dunnage warehouses (squat, earthen floor with barrels only stacked 3 high) becoming rarer and rarer while the number of racked or, even more efficient, palletised warehouses has exploded. This has been combined with warehouse centralisation, where a company will store most of their whisky from all their distilleries in one central place, whereas it was much more common for distilleries to store the whisky at the distillery itself in the natural climate of that place.
This has also been coupled with a decrease in maturation times. Our knowledge of the mechanisms of maturing whisky has increased along with decreasing aged stocks as whisky has become more popular at a time when the industry, perhaps, was not equipped for it. They have now expanded many distilleries, along with more modern equipment to lay down more stocks for the future. This whisky, although young, has allowed many brands to stay on the market but at the cost of their age statement in many cases. One of the great examples of this is Glenlivet, which installed a huge new still house in 2010 and are increasing production again now, all the while discontinuing their 12yo in most markets and replacing it with an NAS.
Old: Full maturation in Sherry casks of European oak or Hogsheads/refill casks, age often stated. Stored in traditional warehouses at the distillery.
New: Finishings and cask innovation/experimentation. American oak prevalent. Stored in centralised, modern warehouses. Tequila casks/inner staves not permitted…
Remember that all these changes we’ve discussed so far are in addition to the ones I’ve talked about previously: Malting floors moving to centralised industrial maltings, worm tubs moving to shell & tube condensers and direct fired stills moving out for steam coils.
Remember too, that there are very clear examples of massive improvements of the quality of certain whiskies coming from all this innovation. One of my favourites, Ledaig, has improved vastly over the last two decades. Bowmore is another example. Yes, it was incredible in the 60’s but the 80’s are legendarily terrible and the quality has improved again since then.
But perhaps the biggest change isn’t a piece of equipment but an idea. Yeah, going all inception up in here. It’s a colossal shift in the way that whisky in made. In years gone by, although a business’s goal was to make money, at the distillery the goal was to make great whisky. Distilleries would have thought that making better whisky would make the distillery more desirable for blenders and therefore make more money too. Nowadays, the malt whisky distillery is an extension of the brand and the brand a tendril of the company. Lagavulin is eponymous with Diageo, Bruichladdich with Remy Cointreau and Macallan with Edrington. This has perhaps fuelled a change in the way the distilleries are run. The focus seems to have shifted from ‘make great whisky’ to ‘make great money.’
This has been within a picture where we have seen a rise in the popularity of single malts rather than blends. Distilleries didn’t used to have to stand by themselves, they were part of the collective character of Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal. Now, in a more competitive marketplace, the whisky from that one distillery must be sold on its own merits and this has been a part of an industry-wide shift in profit driven whisky-making.
Maybe I’m being overdramatic but it seems that that is the way the industry, as a whole, is going. We have seen a huge range of changes within the whisky industry and it isn’t down to me to say whether these changes are good or bad but we can discuss it and examine whether we are happy or not with the changes that are going on.
You only need to try some whiskies from the early 70’s and compare them to modern day whiskies from the same distilleries to figure out something special was happening back then. Equally, not as much of it was being made, inefficiently and with more mistakes. Now we have more whisky being made better and more consistently. Is that a good thing? Yes. Has Scotch lost some of what it was? For me personally, a little.
Even as a modern consumer, I feel a little disillusioned with the direction the industry has headed. I have consistently been moving towards independent bottlings as age statements have been cut and prices have risen of my favourite whiskies, while quality, in many cases, yes has become more consistent but has also become more homogenous and slightly boring. Very importantly, that is also down to my own personal tastes, as my palate has evolved and I have been looking for new and exciting things too though.
I think that there is an argument to be made that the whisky being made in days gone by was more interesting. I think you could argue that the whisky being made then was more handmade and was produced with more care. I think you could argue that it was better.
Can we go back? No. Forward is the only way. Onwards and upwards and outwards. BUT…
I don’t think you can argue against using inner staves, spouting off about traditional this and that, while constantly pushing for greater yields and new equipment that are far removed from the traditional practices of Scotch whisky making.
For me, a great example of this is the mash filter. The mash filter is not a traditional piece of equipment. You can modernise the mash tun as much as possible but it won’t reach the turn around times and efficiency of a mash filter. Are mash filters being installed in Scotch distilleries? Yes, Teaninich and Inchdairnie have them and I imagine we will see more (Jameson also use one). In my mind, you cannot ban inner staves AND use mash filters without being a hypocrite. Neither are specifically against the rules laid out by the EU or SWA but both have not been traditionally used for Scotch whisky. I even think there is even an argument to be made that the whiskies made at Teaninich and Inchdairnie cannot legally be labelled as Scotch (although that is NOT what I am arguing), much like what Compass Box were told by the SWA.
NOW, let’s talk about this new thing. Reportedly, Diageo were told by the SWA that they could not finish whisky in Tequila barrels and label it Scotch. They were also blocked from producing a new category of drink called a ‘Scotch whisky infusion.’ The article also cites a smaller producer, Eden Mill, being blocked from using too much chocolate malt to produce their whisky. The SWA’s main job is to protect the category of Scotch whisky remember. Its their job to tell people what they can and can’t do. Good on ‘em. Scotch whisky infusions should, in my mind, be blocked from becoming a thing. Yes, it may open up a completely new set of drinkers to the wonderful world of Scotch, but it is also a massive spit take in the face of traditional whisky making and the heritage of Scotch. Rightfully, it was blocked.
Blocking Tequila barrels and chocolate malt? Utterly ridiculous.
Finishing whiskies in a multitude of different barrel types, including recently gin(!), has been a well established practice in the whisky world for a long time and this type of innovation is, again in my opinion, not harmful in any way to Scotch’s reputation.
In addition, chocolate malt has been used by Glenmorangie for their Signet expression for a number of years and I see no reason whatsoever for limiting its use. Not even banning it completely, just limiting it is even more crazy. Just how much are we allowed to make? 1 distillation a year? 50? Is each distillery going to get an allocation of allowed amounts of chocolate malt made whisky? Its insane. IMO, the SWA needs to rethink its priorities. In a serious way.
Remember that the Irish asked for an inquisition by the British government into what the legal definition of whisky is and whether that included grain whisky made on continuous stills. They were, in the end, told that yes indeed it was (although likely this was politically and economically motivated) and after a while the Irish, humiliatingly, ended up using the continuous stills too. Imagine if it had gone the other way though. Likely the whisky world would look very different (although probably wouldn’t be making much money). Remember the Irish and that sometimes innovation needs to be challenged if tradition is to live side by side with it.
What I am arguing is this: Scotch needs to look very carefully at where it has come from, what has gotten it where it is and how far it moves into the modern era without losing its traditional values.
What do you think? Have you noticed changes to your favourite whiskies? Do you like the way the industry is moving forward? Do you think Scotch should be made more traditionally, or with the latest high-tech equipment? Let me know what you think!