I first became interested in single malt Scotch in 2008. Prior to that, I would sample all kinds of spirits just to see what they were like. Gin, vodka, tequila, even absinthe, I tried them all. Since that time, however, Scotch has become my preferred drink. In a little neighborhood bar (in Hong Kong, actually), the very first single malt Scotch that I had was a Glenfiddich 12, and four years later, I was at the place, the only place, where it is produced and distributed all over the world.
We hadn’t really eaten anything since the train ride so the first thing we did after signing up for the tour was stop by the restaurant inside the distillery’s old malt barn. If I remember the tour guide correctly, the restaurant is housed inside the original building of the Glenfiddich Distillery (circa 1887), and since most Scotch whisky distillers no longer malt their own barley (Glenfiddich included), the malt barn now houses a restaurant and bar, as well as the distillery’s main reception area.
We didn’t have much time before the tour so we just had a couple of soups. One of them was a Cullen skink, pictured last in the row above. It was delicious.
Soon, it was time for the tour and we made our way back to the main reception area. The first stop was the film room, where we watched a short video about the distillery, it’s history, and the distillation process. Next, we walked outside to another building where the actual production takes place. In the first room, we saw the giant mash tuns where milled malted-barley (i.e. flour, technically called grist) is combined with heated water to form mash (I guess because the flour is “mashed” with water), which itself is then further physically agitated to stimulate the conversion of starch into sugar. Once the water absorbs the sugar, the resulting syrup, called wort, is drained into a collection container called the underback. More water is added to the mash tun until all the sugar is extracted from the grist; the leftover bits are filtered out and used as animal feed.
From the underback, the wort is transferred to a cooler until it reaches a temperature at which yeast will survive, when it is then transferred to giant fermentation vats called washbacks, where the yeast can be safely added to begin the fermentation process. For us, we went up some stairs (yes, the vats were that tall) and down a corridor before reaching the washbacks. Along with a multitude of smells and sounds, the air was thick with heat from the fermentation.
Once yeast is added to the wort, it takes about three days for the fermentation process to complete. During that time, bacteria in the wood of the Douglas fir vats contributes its part to the flavor of the final product. At the end of fermentation, a liquid with about 9% alcohol, called wash and similar to beer, is ready for distillation in copper stills. To see where that happened, we exited the mash house and moved on to the still house.
As whisky is distilled twice, here you can see at least two differently shaped* stills. The wash produced in the mash house first goes through a wash still, resulting in a liquid with about 21% alcohol, called a low wine. Next, the low wine itself is distilled in the second type of still, a spirit still. Now, we have a liquid, the new make spirit, that is quite a bit stronger than what we started with, at roughly 70% alcohol.
*Because different compounds have different boiling points, the shape of the still affects what flavors make it into the final product. Some vaporize and make it to the condenser, some don’t. More info can be found here.
In the photo above, there is a third shape of still. As Glenfiddich uses two differently shaped spirit stills and then blends the results together, I can only surmise that that’s what the third type of still is for.
Once the new make spirit has been produced, it is mixed with water to slightly lower the alcohol content and then filled into oak casks for maturation. In my opinion, this is the part that makes whisky special: spending years, decades maturing and taking on different characteristics from the wood, undisturbed, silently waiting while the outside world continues with its trials and tribulations. Do you remember where you were and what you were doing 12 years ago? What was going on in the world 15 years ago? How much have I changed in the past 18 years? I think about all these questions when I sit and enjoy a single malt Scotch.
Due to the flammable nature of alcohol and the sheer amount of it inside the warehouse where the casks are stored, photography is not allowed. I took one just before we went in.
Inside, the first thing you notice is of course the smell, a cold, damp, woody smell. The casks are stored horizontally on racks, one on top of another. One thing that I didn’t expect was that the surface of the casks is smooth, even between staves. I had imagined it would be like a planked floor, with clear separation between the planks, but that was not the case.
After showing us how the casks are put together, the guide walked with us to the other side of the warehouse, where we were given an opportunity to smell whiskies from bourbon versus sherry casks. Although I no longer remember the smell, I do remember a distinctive difference between the two. Also at this end of the warehouse were some casks, stored vertically, that were being used for “marrying” different batches of whisky. A common misconception regarding single malt Scotches is that they are not mixed with any other whiskies, that a bottle of 12-year-old whisky contains only 12-year-old whisky. When we consider that the whisky-making process is a multi-variable one that takes many years, it makes sense that no two batches will come out exactly the same. The malt master must mix and match whiskies in order to achieve a product that is consistent with the label. So, although different bottles of Glenfiddich 12 taste more or less the same, they might contain different proportions of whiskies from different batches (though none of the batches will be younger than 12 years old). The one exception would be bottles labeled “single cask” or “single barrel”, for obvious reasons.
Having seen the entire process of a how a bottle of Glenfiddich is produced, we ended the tour at the Dramming Centre, where we enjoyed complimentary tastings of the 12, 15, and 18 year-old expressions. I got to take home a tasting mat as a souvenir. There were many bottles on display, as well.
With the tour over, the only thing left to do was to visit the gift shop to pick up a couple of souvenirs. I bought a hip flask for myself and a miniature 18-year old for a friend. I was going to say “Here, this bottle came hand-delivered to you from Scotland”, but then I realized, all Scotch is shipped from Scotland anyway!
I had made my Scotch whisky pilgrimage and was happy as a dram (pun intended). When we left, it was raining, cold, and gray, but we were nice and warm inside our car, driving back to Aberdeen. It was appropriate and just how I thought it would be in Scotland, a place I had never even dreamed I would be just a few months before. I had traced back the path that bottles of Scotch had taken to reach me in the New World.
Back at the hotel, our room was now available and we were able to take our long-awaited showers. We had had a long day, beginning with our early arrival in Edinburgh, combined with almost 4 hours on the road. We ended the night with a Chinese takeout feast and a Hong Kong drama marathon. The highlight, though, was a pint of draught Coke from the hotel bar. Wow. It was fizzy, it had real sugar, and it was one of the best Cokes I’d had in a while. Of course, I had to have some Laphroaig (purchased earlier in London) as well. What a way to end the day.
Next: Scotland Rest Day