Between The Snow And A Warm Place
It’s not a common occurrence for me; a sun-loving Australian being outdoors on a freezing Scottish morning. But today is different because I’m making malt whisky!
There is something wildly exciting about the sharp sting of snow on my face while the backs of my legs are pressed up against a piping hot underback with its swirling, molasses-like wash turning circles within.
I’m at the Eden Mill Distillery in St Andrews, Scotland; watching the day outside get whiter while we start making whisky with a chocolate wash. I’ve just climbed down a narrow ladder having helped Marc (one of our distillers) to empty seemingly endless 25 kilo bags of malted barley into the top of a mashing tun. It’s not back breaking work but it’s also not easy; balancing myself on the platform while the bag does its best to flop out of my frozen hands and spill through the grate under my feet.
Breaking up the mash
Marc is leaning into the tun with what looks like the paddle from a canoe. As he breaks up the clotting mash I listen to him explain that because of this step, we can rip every possible bit of sugar out of the wash.
From the tun, the wash travels into the kettle via my own personal fireside, the underback. This little contraption stops a vacuum forming in the bottom of the tun; providing a fantastic opportunity to taste this infant-level whisky. We are at the very early stages of crafting a new future malt whisky.
My Own Weetabix Soup Taste
Marc tops up my coffee with an inky black dram. It tastes like the richest possible Weetabix soup.
In the early days of distilling, workers would top this concoction up with a healthy slug of whatever whisky lay close to hand. Trust me – if I weren’t driving I’d be hard pressed not to do the same.
I’ve been on lots of different distillery tours; polished for tourists and rough and ready industrial types but this is the first time I’ve watched this process so closely or intently.
It’s hard to imagine that the viscous near-sticky liquid I see running through the pipes will at some point become clear as spring water and loaded at 63.5% ABV.
This stretch of my imagination is not helped when Marc informs me that the final stage for the mash is to undergo the sparge; a word I at first refuse to believe is real.
Sparging releases fresh water over the remaining mash in three progressively hotter bursts. What’s left behind contains less sugar than a Brita-filtered glass of water.
My final glance of Marc is of his legs from the waist down as he crawls into the bottom of the tun and starts bailing out moist armfuls of spent mash.
I beg him to let me help. Sadly, my part in the day is done. I’ve proudly earned my wash rights and it only cost me a couple of frost bitten fingers.
—Lara Williams, 02 March 2017