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Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Roseisle-tinted Glasses

Every day is a school day

This is very much a motto of ours here at, so we like to visit as many different distilleries as possible to learn about the making of whisky.

Now, I know what you’re thinking:

“If you’ve seen one distillery, you've seen ‘em all”.

Well, you’d be bang wrong.

Yes, most distilleries have the same basic 4 stage set up: milling, washing, brewing and distillation using just the three ingredients: barley, water and yeast. But every distillery we visit teaches us something new about the process, how the distillery achieves its unique New Make characteristics and which variables they choose to manipulate.

Most distilleries have perfected their choice of flavour profile from years and years of practice. (As I write, there is a miniature of Highland Park 18 Year Old sat on my desk. The date on this: 1798. That’s a long time to work out what type of spirit you want to produce) But what happens if you want to build a brand new distillery?

A few months ago we visited Arran, one of the newest in Scotland. Founded in 1995, it has a tiny production run of just 750,000 litres per annum. When designing the still and building the distillery, the folk at Arran chose (and yes, it is a choice) “light, sweet, fruity and grassy” as the profile for their spirit.

This, roughly, seems to be the answer whenever we ask a distiller “if you were to set up a new distillery, what style of New Make would you produce?”. I guess Light and Grassy leads to a spirit which is easier to mature, more reactive to cask enhancement, but also provides good fodder for blends, as most distilleries will be trading casks either for their own blends or for other blends. The Scotch whisky business worldwide is made up of around 93% blended whisky sales, leaving 7% for our beloved Single Malts.

That’s not very much, really.

The last figures I saw had Speyside alone down as producing 162,000,000 litres of alcohol per year, with a total output in Scotland of ~267,000,000 litres of alcohol.

That’s quite a lot.

And if it was all matured and released as Single Malt, we’d be left with companies going bust and mountains of stock no one wanted to drink. The vast majority of this production is going into blends in countries I’ve never heard of, for blends I’ll never see. For example, Diageo’s White Witch blend is the top selling whisky in Narnia, where as Chiva’s Voldemort blend tops the charts in Hogwarts. I read recently that Voldemort, or Lord Voldemort as he became, was the Son of Tom Riddle and Merope Gaunt, Dark Wizard, the last living descendant of Salazar Slytherin, descendant of Cadmus Peverell Slytherin, who owned a grocers in Midlothian and wanted to create a consistent whisky for their customers...

With demand predicted to grow globally for all types of whisky, we have seen expansions of existing premises, such as the opening of a new still house at Glenlivet, designed to meet this forecasted hike in whisky consumption.

And so we find ourselves at Aberdeen airport en route, as a group of around 10 journalists and bloggers, to Diageo's new malt distillery Roseisle.

Located in Speyside, much has been made of this new facility and it is certainly less cosy than Lagavulin, Royal Lochnagar or Glen Kinchie. But Mos Eisley it isn't.

Churning out 10,000,000 ltrs of whisky a year (12.6 mil if they tried really, really hard), the still room has 7 pairs of stills which have been designed with unusual straight sides. Each spirit stills feed into its own spirit receiver for one vital reason: a few of the stills have two different types of condensers attached.

"So what?", I hear you cry.

Well, sit down for today's lesson in distillation: the style and type of condenser has an enormous effect on the weight of the spirit produced.

Traditionally, there have been two main types of condensers used: Shell & Tube and Worm Tub. Shell & Tube condensers means the spirit spends longer in contact with copper and therefore the new make appears light, clean and grassy. With a worm tub, the spirit spends less time in contact with the copper and as such the spirit appears heavier and sulphury. Mortlach and Craggenmore are examples of distilleries with worm tubs.

Attaching both types of condensers to some of the spirit stills means Roseisle has the ability to produce two different styles of New Make. Diageo have been honest in saying that the building of Roseisle increases their volume of Speyside-style malt, vital for blends. And Speyside malt traditionally comes in two styles; light and grassy and heavy and grassy so the ability to produce the two styles of new make, heavy and light, allows Diageo to be more reactive to predicted shifts in the market and consumer flavour profile tendencies.

We were told that what Roseisle is not designed to do is replace any of the current 27 malt distilleries which Diageo owns; each distillery produces an individual style malt which cannot be replicated elsewhere. With the predicted demand worldwide for Scotch, this means all the major companies will need to increase production somewhere, somehow and building a distillery which can add two different styles of Speyside whisky to their blending ability, under one roof, seems like a smart move.

But what of Roseisle as a Single Malt? Well, we'll have to wait a good 10 years plus to find out how that is going to pan out, but the folk at Diageo tell us that, in keeping with their structure of releasing a Single Malt from each of their Malt Distilleries, Roseisle will be no different. What the ultimate house style turns out to be is unknown as yet. Let's have a quick try of their New Make, then:

Roseisle - New Make - unknown ABV

Nose: Once watered down, the nose is clean with some mint, lemon sherbert and a big hit of copper.

Palate: Juicy fruit chewing gum, parma violets and some mint, with delicate limes on the back palate.

Finish: It’s new make, so it’s gone in an instant.

Overall: It's solid new make. We'll have to wait a good deal of time to tell you what it'll be like as a single malt!

Roseisle has a lot of progressive environmental design features, with sustainability the key behind the building and we were talked through all of these complicated energy conservation technologies by Sean Pritchard, the most articulate Swindon Town fan we've ever met and, whisper it, a thoroughly nice bloke. They do exist...

Roseisle is progressive distilling with a commercial hat on, not with an artisinal (straw)hat on. In a way, it is the first post-modern distillery. If you see an old farm distillery, making erratic spirit in the 1800’s as the first wave of distillation. The highly controlled, consistent approach from distilleries in the present day should be classed as modern. Take this control and consistency and adapt it to be able to manipulate the spirit within your own set boundaries and surely you have a step beyond: post-modern.

Building this work-horse of a distillery has cost Diageo somewhere in the region of forty million quid (or 666 cases of Highland Park 50 Year Old) and it won't return this in Single Malt sales.

But, if their accountants are believed to be correct, it will do in sales of Johnnie Walker Red label, Black label, Gold label...

If, God forbid, the accounts have it wrong, I'd recommend to reinvest in shares in Beefeater Restaurants...