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Thursday 13 May 2010

Two Mashes. Four Roses. Five Yeast Strains. Ten Whiskies...

Simplicity is the key to a lot of life. Nothing highlights that more in this age of choice than websites such as Gocompare and

Its one week after the British National Elections, where the citizens of the UK had the chance to choose the next leader of the Government. For the past four days here in Central London, just yards from the Houses of Parliament, I've been distracted by the buzz of media helicopters overhead as the Great British Public painted themselves into a corner by failing to conclusively select a winning party. As a result, we now have a coalition government; in whisky terms its a bit like a blend if you like, of a centre-left party and a right wing party. Some grain, some malt…

Last week, when the old Lefties were still in charge, I had the pleasure of taking part in a Four Roses tasting hosted by the always eloquent Dave Broom. Four Roses have a core-range of three main bourbons:

Yellow Label (their "mixer")

Small Batch ("sipping and cocktails")

and the excellent Single Barrel ("premium sipping") which made our shortlist for the Best In Glass Award 2009.

So imagine my surprise when I sit down to 10 (yes, ten!) glasses in front on me.

WTF? Have they suddenly gone mad?! Have they gone all Bruichladdich on us?!

Au contraire; in actual fact, we'd just been confronted with the very definition of "choice"...

At nearly every distillery I've ever visited, yeast has played a small but vital role. In short, it’s the yeast that creates the alcohol and without it, we wouldn't have whisk(e)y at all. But not one distillery, and I have asked, extols the virtue of this little fungi. When quizzed, master distillers from across Scotland have always said that yeast has no bearing on the flavour of their spirit.

However Jim Rutledge, Master Distiller at Four Roses vehemently disagrees. Jim is convinced that the strain of yeast used to turn the sugars from the grain into alcohol directly influences the flavour of the spirit. And so, laid out in front of us like a voting form waiting to be ticked, was a series of circles with codes in the middle. Each representing a whiskey apparently with its own personality and flavour profile.

To add a little more background (and further confuse the matter!), at Four Roses they use two mashes of grains before distillation and maturation. The first is 75% Corn, 20% Rye and 5% Barley. The second is 60% Corn, 35% Rye and 5% Barley. Once these are mashed, yeast is added to the wort and that's when the magic happens; alcohol! But in the case of Four Roses, the two warts have 5 (yes, five!) different strains of yeast individually applied, giving 5 different and distinct new make spirits (per mash. So x2 mashes with 5 different yeasts = 10 different new make spirits) which will later mature in to whiskey.

Are you still with me?? Good!

Situated on my mat are the following codes:

1 OESF – Dram 1

2 OESK – Dram 4

3 OESV – Dram 5

4 OESO – Dram 6

5 OESQ – Dram 7

6 OBSF – Dram 2

7 OBSK – Dram 3

8 OBSV – Dram 8

9 OBSO – Dram 9

10 OBSQ – Dram 10

The code can be deciphered thus:

OE = Mash 1 (75% Corn / 20% Rye / 5% Barley)

OB = Mash 2 (60% Corn / 35% Rye / 5% Barley)

S= Spirit

F= Yeast Type 1

K= Yeast Type 2

V= Yeast Type 3

O= Yeast Type 4

Q= Yeast Type 5

Honestly, are you still with me? At the end of reading this, you get an AS-level from the English education system…!

To re-cap: I’m confronted by 10 whiskies from one distillery where they make 2 mashes and use 5 different types of yeast on each mash, resulting in 10 different styles of new make / whiskey. If this was Scotland, they’d have called one set Port Charlotte and the other Bruichladdich…. (man, their getting an unintended bashing today!)

To aid my tasting of the 10 drams, I drew myself a graph. There was, just from nosing, clearly a difference with these whiskies and I wanted to plot them in a manner which would allow me to quickly reference them by site. Now, I wanted to replicate this graph using some fancy paint program, but I own a Windows based PC which precludes me from being creative in any possible way. So instead you get a photo of my hand drawn effort from the day itself:

The astonishing thing is, each one was different. The majority of the drams (6 of 10) are located in the top right corner (ripe red fruits / very spicy). Drams 2, 3, 4 and 7 were totally different with 4 being spicy but not having any of the ripe red fruits, 2 & 7 being low on spice and more towards the citrus end of fruits and 3 being full of ripe, red fruits but without any of the spice. It was really quite astonishing.

Come on now… surely you’ve give up now and called the looney police on me? Well, it’s true I tells ya!

It is using this palate, this portfolio of casks that Jim uses to create their 3 core releases, with the Yellow Label having a higher content of Mash 1, the Small Batch having a higher content of Batch 2 and the Single Barrel coming exclusively from Batch 2 whiskey.

What conclusion from all this then? Well, there are soooo many variables when it comes to making whisk(e)y and surely yeast has to add to that variable nature? Hands up, I’m no expert (I bloody could have been if I’d have chosen to do that brewing degree at Heriot Watt when I was 19, but there you go…) but I do know what was sat in front of me that day, and it was 10 markedly different drams, from two mashes, with 5 different yeast strains applied.

Am I a believer? Yes.

Have I been hoodwinked? I trust not.

Anyone got Richard Dawkins phone number…?