NORTH of the border they’re celebrating Scottish Whisky Month, and it’s World Whisky Day on May 21. More than that, it’s also just about time the whisky I made ten years ago should be ready to drink.
Cue a trawl though the archives for the feature I wrote for national and regional newspapers back in 2012 after spending the day working as an honorary stillman in a Speyside distillery.
Here’s how it went…
WHEN first I notice him, he is standing at the end of a bar in Birmingham. He has the air of a visitor to the city, silently watching the commuter crowd at play during the post-work wind down.
He raises a glass of golden whisky in greeting, a lazy smile on his face. Then I’m whisked away by workmates and the conversation is of newspaper headlines and American TV imports.
The lone stranger is forgotten. But then I spot him in a wine shop in Stourbridge, and again at a store in Leamington Spa. It’s when he turns up in Ludlow, too, that coincidence goes out the window.
His name, I’m told is Keith. His tipple of choice is, indeed, single malt – and not just any malt. “Benromach,” whispers the Birmingham barman reverently. “From the smallest distillery in Scotland.”
Journalistic instinct finds me at Birmingham Airport, boarding a propellor-powered plane to Inverness. From there, it’s a half-hour hire car ride to the Highland town of Forres on the Moray coast.
Just off the highway, over a level crossing, a white-walled distillery sits beside the old road. The door opens and Keith Cruickshank steps out. “Welcome to Benromach,” he says. “What kept you?”
He looks familiar, although not quite the same as the Midland mystery man. Distillery manager Keith, you see, has just been made – quite literally – into a cult figure.
A Cruickshank caricature by acclaimed Fife artist Jill Calder is the focal point of Benromach’s marketing campaign, hence his eye-catching appearances as a life-sized cardboard cut-out in Birmingham, the Black Country and beyond.
Sharing the limelight is stillman Mike Ross, a gentle giant with an iron handshake. Benromach is hand-made by just the two men, who make in a year the amount the big distillers’ can churn out in just a week.
“There’s only me and Mike,” says Keith. “If Mike is away, I run the stills myself and vice-versa. There are no robots and automated production lines here. It’s all hands-on.
“It’s whisky made the way it used to be. You watch the temperature by eye, take measurements by hand – you get a feel for what’s going on. You get used to the different noises, and you can tell straight off if something isn’t right.”
These are lessons I soon learn as I work with the duo for the day, joining the ranks of a privileged few to earn the rank of Honorary Stillman, a title granted by invitation only, complete with an impressive certificate.
Work starts at 9am. After climbing vertiginous metal stairs to check that the grain mill is working properly, we turn our attention to the mash tuns and slowly drain the mashed liquid into the worts receiver, where the water is left to cool.
The grain in the mash tun will later be removed and sold to a local farmer for cattle feed. “They can’t get enough of the stuff,” says Mike. “In this part of the world they reckon it works wonders!”
Three washbacks line the side of the room, each crafted from larch wood rescued from the old distillery. It’s one of many links with the past you’ll find here, although the stills and most of the equipment were brought in new.
Keith hands me a sack full of distiller’s yeast, which I pour into the wort, hanging onto the sack itself for dear life, fearful that it might tumble into the depths below and get my whisky-making career off to an ignominious start.
I add some brewer’s yeast, a dry, finer grain not unlike demerara sugar. Below, the liquid starts to bubble away, the start of the centuries-old fermentation process that turns the sugar into alcohol.
“You know those TV mystery movies where the murder victim drowns in one of these,” says Mike gleefully. “It’s not true. You wouldn’t be able to drown because you’d suffocate first.
“The carbon dioxide produced by the process would suck the breath out of you!”
I take a discretionary step back from the brim, while I consider if he is joking. He’s not.
Fermentation helps determine the flavour and style of the whisky. A long fermentation lends it a rich, fruity, complex character, whereas a shorter spell gives it a spicy, more nutty flavour.
Next, the liquid is pumped into the burnished stills, each specially – and uniquely – shaped to deliver the requisite copper contact which helps make Benromach such a distinctive dram.
The more copper you add, the lighter and more delicate the whisky; the less copper, the heavier the spirit.
At about 78°C the alcohol starts to boil, the vapour is collected, cooled and converted back into spirit known as low wines. These are pumped into the second still for another go.
The spirit is carefully monitored in an antique brass spirit safe, with the middle portion of the distillation used to make whisky. The end result is a clear liquid called new make spirit.
“Don’t drink this,” warns Keith as he hands me a glass. “Just nose it.” With an alcohol content of up to 70%, it’s initially eye-watering but with an unexpected toffee aroma.
Everyone’s sense of smell is different, however. Others have picked up smoked bacon and even bubblegum.
The alcohol content of this will be reduced to an acceptable level, then poured into casks – and it’s here that the final part of the magic happens.
“We get our casks from Jerez in Spain, where they will have held sherry, and from Kentucky in the USA, where they will have been filled with bourbon,” says Keith. “As the whisky matures, it takes on hints of these flavours.
“For some special edition whiskies, we use wine barrels which change the resulting taste. Our organic whisky, on the other hand, is kept in virgin casks which have never held anything else before.
“And all this from an age-old process which has just three key ingredients at its heart – barley, yeast and water.”
Before we finish for the day, I use a high-pressure hose to clean out one of the washbacks, stickily check the specific gravity of the mixture in another, and empty the mash tun so it’s ready for the next day.
Originally built in 1898, Benromach was mothballed in 1983 as the whisky industry stagnated under the twin pressures of the oil crisis and a baby-boomer generation that didn’t touch the stuff.
The distillery was saved by Elgin bottler, wholesaler and retailer Gordon & MacPhail, who saw the rare chance to own what would be an unbroken chain from manufacture to sale, and snapped up the site in 1993.
It was subsequently opened by the Prince of Wales in its centenary year. A cask signed by Charles has pride of place in the warehouse where whisky matures in carefully controlled conditions.
The whisky that I have helped make during my Honorary Stillman stay is stored in the same way, and will be ready to drink in 10 years time. I’ve already made a note of the date in my diary…
Which brings us neatly back to present day 2022. Slàinte Mhath!
I was a guest of Benromach Distillery in Forres, Moray, which, as well as making wonderful whisky, also offers a range of tours. For details take a look at www.benromach.com.
Benromach is on the official Scotland Malt Whisky Trail which leads across Speyside. See www.maltwhiskytrail.com. This feature was written in 2012 and appeared in more than 20 print titles.