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Thursday, 3 June 2010

Still Life.... Part One

Back in a sunny Speyside again for a wonderful few days folks. Tomorrow we'll be posting our notes on the brand new, soon-to-be-officially-opened Glenlivet Still room, which stands gleaming, jam packed with pristine copper work. Until then, let's bring you up to speed on our action packed day, which follows on neatly from our recent foray up to Spey and in particular, the Speyside Cooperage.

This morning, we popped on by to Joseph Brown Vats, who have been well known local manufacturers of washbacks and mash tuns since 1921. Recently under the stewardship of Ronnie Low who owns the business, they've been working on a number of projects from reconditioning old oak vats previously used in the Cognac business, to making brand new washbacks of varying sizes for the likes of Cooley's and The Glenlivet, especially in preparation for the brand new expansion project the distillery has undertaken.

It was fascinating to see just how labour intensive building a washback is, Ronnie explaining that a number of different timbers can be used in their construction, the best being Oregon Pine or Douglas Fir, which are one in the same, wood fans.

We caught Ronnie and his team assembling a new 6ooo litre vat to be shipped over to Cooley's in Ireland. One thing we didn't realise was that the base of the washback isn't actually circular, but slightly ovular. The incredible pressures that form when they are filled with liquid cause a slight warping and had they been built on a perfect circular base, the thing wouldn't be strong enough to remain water tight...

Well worth a little nosey around, if you're in the area and fancy learning more about the impact of wood on whisky.

From here, it was the short but pleasant drive up to Rothes and our next rendez vous, Forsyths Coppersmiths. Most readers of this blog will be well in tune with the importance of still shape and the impact of copper on a new make spirit, but this is the first time we've really seen the process from scratch. Put simply, without this company, there wouldn't be a whisky business as we know and love it today. The company was established by Alexander Forsyth in 1890 and is now in the hands of a 4th generation family member. After a short presentation from Margery McLennan, Administration Director, we got to head off to the workshop where the magic takes place. The company have designed, manufactured and fitted stills all over the globe, from practically every Scottish distillery to many bespoke micro distilleries in the US, Iceland, South Africa and the Far East.

Although the workshop was quiet when we got to look around, you got the sense that it is an incredibly intense place to work, from the heat of the welding, to the hammering and shaping of the broad copper panels. Rather like the cooperage, coppersmithing is a craft, passed on from master to apprentice, with most of the manufacture done by hand. The tools used are impressive in themselves, as Joel demonstrates here. (he suffered a ruptured nipple, shortly after this photo was taken, due to excessive use of a heavy shafted hammer)

One myth we were keen to have proven or dispelled was whether the coppersmiths would replicate any major dents in the old stills, when replacing them with new ones. Some purists will argue that the bumps and imperfections gained over time have an effect on the character of the spirit. Margery quickly pointed out that this isn't true at all, with stills being replaced to the exact specs of when they were first designed.

Again, well worth a visit if you get chance - you may want to check with them first before rocking up, but many thanks to Margery for her time and expert knowledge.

An amazing first day and not a single dram drained.... have we gone soft on you?? Not likely. Read our part 2 tomorrow and all will be revealed.