Wednesday, 16 May 2012

My Journey To The Glenrothes, Day Five

Today is the fifth day of my journey to The Glenrothes Distillery in the Speyside district of northern Scotland. In case you haven't seen it yet, here is a video produced by The Glenrothes featuring my winning entry.

Yesterday I described what I learned about the process by which the sugar in malted barley is extracted and converted into spirit.  In case you thought, however, that I'd seen the creation of whisky, I hadn't.

There's an old saying that wood maketh whisky, and today I discovered how true that is. We learned first hand how the spirit is combined with the wood of the casks in which it is stored to complete the final step in the metamorphosis of malt into whisky. Additionally, today we were able to get our hands dirty, quite literally, to participate in the introduction of spirit to wood in anticipation of a future vintage of The Glenrothes.

We assisted in the filling of empty casks with fresh spirit and learned the skill involved in rolling a filled cask weighing half a ton through the warehouse, with the careful assistance of supervisors Paul and Geoff and warehouse men Dave and Richard. Truth be told, Geoff did most of the rolling and turning, and I just moved my hands on the cask as it rolled! It was better that way, trust me.

We then saw the cooperage, a small operation where casks are repaired and refurbished. The Glenrothes Distillery is one of the few that has a cooperage on site, and it was incredible to watch these skilled craftsmen, pictured on the right, as they worked on the casks that would be put back into production. The air was heavy with the smell of spilled whisky remnants from the casks when they were disassembled for repair, and the odour of wood and wood shavings.

We learned to tell the difference between butts, hogsheads, and puncheons, and how to recognize a bourbon cask made of American oak as compared to a cask made of Spanish oak. I was fascinated to discover that since a bourbon cask is charred inside when it's made, the carmelization of the wood cells introduces caramel and coconut notes to the flavour of the whisky. This was an early hint as to the overriding influence that the wood of the cask has on the ultimate taste of the whisky.

Brian, the head cooper, then helped us through an exercise in which we took a set of wooden staves and a hoop, and tried to assemble a cask ourselves. I discovered not only that it is a feat of remarkable balance but also that I was a bit too tall to do very well at it. I had to stoop to balance the first stave against my knee, while holding the bundle of staves between my legs and the hoop pressed against my stomach. I then tried to set each stave inside the hoop, one at a time, working my way around. Brian finally came to my rescue and helped me finish, and if you're seeing a pattern here, you're correct. If I ever applied for a job at The Glenrothes, they'd laugh me off the property! Nonetheless, I proudly posed afterwards with the cask that Brian I assembled.
Entire books have likely been written on the final flavour of single malt whisky, and it would be foolish for me to try to explain, as a beginner, what experts can describe so much better. I would encourage you, though, to do your own research on this fascinating subject because it's very much worth your while. The expression is that blended whisky is for drinkers and single malt is for thinkers, and while this might strike you as snobbery it actually isn't. The care and attention to detail that goes into the creation of a single malt by the men who work in a distillery such as The Glenrothes can be paid back by us by paying attention to those details as we enjoy it. As Ronnie Cox, Branch Heritage Director, explained to us today, there's no right or wrong when it comes to our responses to the taste of single malt, there's simply what we experience ourselves personally when we taste it.

We rounded off the evening with an incredible dinner that deserves a blog post of its own. Since it's once again very late at night and I'd better retire before I keel over, I think what I'll do is write a separate post about our extracurricular experiences during this trip. That way, I can tell a few extra stories separate from the learning experience related to the whisky itself. So until then, it's good night from me, and good night from him.

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