Lisa Brinkers – Study of Islay
Little girls dream of becoming ballet dancers and singing on the stage, but what do big girls dream of? Running away from the nine to five, to hop across to an island and become a Distiller or Master Blender would be a dream come true. The super powers of people like Jim McEwan, Master Distiller for Bowmore and then Bruichladdich or Rachel Barrie, Master Blender for Bowmore have had me held in awe most of my adult life.
You can imagine therefore that when awarded the Worshipful Company of Distillers award there really was no alternate spirit to head off to study than whisky and no alternative destination than Islay. The island itself has a magical pull to it, photographers showcase the wide array of colours from peat bog, bay, harbour and beach. Simple quirks like Bowmore’s round church – built without corners for the devil to hide in (so he headed back to the mainland in a whisky barrel of course) invite conversation and capture the imagination. The wee airstrip that’s only accessible if the weather allows and indeed the challenges of ferry crossings in the rough seas add to the feeling that one is very lucky to get across to visit.
The food in Islay deserves another honourable mention with fantastic seafood, locally caught, a difficult part of the trip was choosing which whisky to have alongside. Yet of course the whisky and its people are what makes it most unforgettable in the end. Terroir is a question often asked with regards whisky and Islay has been held up by many as an example of how place affects product. A challenging concept to get to grips with as terroir in the wine sense makes sense – the soil, grape, weather all are hugely influential in the final product and style but with whisky I’m not sure everyone is convinced. A quick look over the whisky making process itself highlights the limitations of the concept of terroir. First, we take the barley – the key is to turn its starch into soluble sugars and then alcohol. Soak for a couple days, spread it out over the floor and turn regularly. Traditionally then a peat influence can be detected with the peat fuel fired kiln drying the barely out, stopping germination and producing the ‘malt’ to be ground. Those with a mind for place will argue at this early stage even the barley itself is influential with Bruichladdich now offering barley differentiation – unpeated, peated, super peated. Organic, green, bere are differentiated with mention of the altitude affecting ripening. I also loved the story of Ardbeg’s pagoda chimney not working and the effect on the malted barley from higher PPM.
Next up this ‘grist’ is added to warm water – another nod to character here with minerality of water having a potential affect, and stirred for hours in the mash tun. Wort is the sugary liquid extracted from the mash tun, waters passed three times at higher temperatures to extract as much sugar as possible but only the first two runs are used. Fermentation occurs generally in the wooden washbacks with yeast added to the cooled wort to turn the sugars to alcohol. There is a small chance of arguing the type of yeast may influence the final flavor and indeed the wooden vessel usage as opposed to stainless steel – Ardbeg for instance switched back to wood not liking stainless steels effects.
The end wash is a beer or ale that’s then distilled. Distillation occurs, twice traditionally, in copper vessels (best for extracting the nasties) with bulbous bottoms and long necks, fatter rears make for fuller spirits and longer necks give lighter characters. The still is heated, generally with steam, and the first vapour that condenses off is the low wines. Low wines then pass through the smaller spirit still, the foreshots and feints are redistilled with the next low wines, but the heart at 65/70% ABV is where we will make whisky. Maturing this ‘heart’ in wood for a minimum of three years is the legal requirement for Scotch whisky and there are lots of key factors to consider in this stage regarding character. Wood ‘breathes’ and to that effect Dunnage style warehouses by the sea and likely to impart far more character on the spirit than modern warehouses in the middle of an industrial estate. Indeed, the wood choice itself imparts its own flavour and aromas to the spirit.
What struck me most about Islay was the tradition and the rich history of each distillery, the ties to each other and the generations of families involved with individual distilleries. The ideal of sharing warehouse spaces with each other, keeping a few casks dotted around in case, god forbid, something should happen at home. Tour guides spoke of their great grandfathers cutting peat or turning malt floors, of the amazing potential for progression from Warehouseman to Distiller, the investment of time and energy that individuals give to their industry really struck me. Hospitality is a guest-centric business where the needs and expectations call out to be met daily and on Islay that same dedication and passion is found in the approach to the whisky. If we look at terroir in the sense of tradition focusing on people, processes and equipment then I really believe that it’s easier to argue a case for Islay. Kilchoman is a great example of a new distillery drawing on the older traditions to maintain for example a malt floor.
How we finish whisky, store, blend, marry and the importance of Distiller and Master Blender are key factors for me. Bowmore had some amazing whisky coming out of interesting wine casks, Bunnahabhain also felt more driven to producing malts of distinction rather than unpeated, ready to blend versions. Lagavulin’s warehouse tasting had me in my element but Bruichladdich was my favourite stop on this visit. Bruichladdich’s passion is hard to describe, but completely infectious. A distillery that whilst opened in 1881 was closed for far too long. Terroir is their cheerleaders chant, everything comes down to place – water source, peat, barley all traced, noted on bottles and there are results demonstrating nuances after only two years. Whilst the science geek in me remains a little unconvinced I’m certainly coming back for more to see how the finished dram tastes.