Essays and Alcoholisms: Working With The Grain – A Girvan Trip

Enjoying Whisky

Single Grain. It’s a term that has been popping up on the outskirts of my whisky hunting experiences over the past few years. From the first few encounters at whisky shows, to rare special releases, to highly recommended bottlings being pressed into my hands at local pubs – a lot has happened to make me look again at what has oft been considered as the weaker end of the blending mix. A lot that has really shaken up my preconceptions. What I have never had though is that story, the bit of ”Useless Knowledge” that, as Bertrand Russell pointed out, is not useless but in fact an integral part in increasing our enjoyment, in adding context to an experience and making it feel all the more.

All of which is a very circumloquacious way of saying I was recently invited by Anonymous Artists to head up to the Girvan Distillery for a tour, some tastings, and some background on the whole enterprise. Which is also a good a point as any to bring up the full disclosure that they covered cost of transport, accommodation, food, whisky, etc for the trip. As always I will try my best to be unbiased, but feel full disclosure is important as, well, unlike gamergate I actually do believe in ethics in journalism and don’t just use it as a term to harass people with. I also made sure before the trip I could write whatever I wanted, and was given no hassle at all, for which I thank them

So, where to start? I think one thing that captured the two aspects of the trip, and defined them well was a comment from Kevin Abrook (William Grant & Sons’ Global Whisky Specialist) who lead the tastings and much of the experience, a comment I shall paraphrase here. The difference in Single Malt to Single Grain comes down to a perception of craft and romance on the side of the Single Malts, and engineering and science on the side of Single Grain. The idea that the single grain is taking the adaptability and customisation of the column stills and using them to fine tune the spirit to their needs.

However, as I mentioned in the opening, I am a sucker for the useless knowledge, the context and, yes – the romance – which despite that statement turned out not to be absent from the history of the grain. So, if you will indulge me my foibles, it is there I shall start,

A Scientific Romance.

We have a tale, with larger than life characters, Charles Gordon as the first, starting back in 1963. He was getting into a bit of hot water due to promoting and delivering Glenfiddich single malt for export, rather than keeping it as somewhat of an old boys club hidden away in Scotland. This was a less than popular action at the time and does remind me exactly how recent the availability, and thus the public image of primacy of the single malt really is.

Thankfully this was long past the days of the *ahem* disagreements over distilleries getting officially licensed, days where distillery owners were known to, for example, walk around with a pair of loaded pistols for self defence from angry unlicensed distilleries. However, due to this new little disagreement the grain distilleries were threatening to cut off the access to grain spirit needed for the far more successful and profitable blends. So he decided to build his own. In nine months. And managed it. Which is pretty darn impressive. It took Charles Gordon wheeling around everywhere on his bike, bothering the heck out of people, and generally being a nuisance – but it worked.

Now, here traditionally there would be some shots at how that wouldn’t work today, about health and safety gone mad. Etc, etc. However I’m a tad of a lefty, proud supporter of unions and worker rights, and will point out that I’m fairly sure that the much maligned health and safety is one of the reasons why Britain, nigh uniquely, managed to build its Olympic stadium without a workplace fatality.

So, it is the next part that really amused me.

You see Christmas is kind of a big deal for the family, and the first spirit flowed on Christmas day. Charles Gordon walked amongst those workers he has been harassing and pushing the past nine months, buoyed by the joyous emotions that flowed from them. Emotions brought on by the work done, or so he thought. But he noticed that they were all looking up, and the emotions, the happiness was linked to this up looking. Because, you see, they had welded his damn bike that he had harassed them on to the top of a still.

It warms the bitter cockles of my heart that does and is exactly the kind of tale that could come to mind while having a dram, and raising it to their efforts. It’s that kind of background and tale I had never got before from the grain side of production, which has always disappeared between the impression of a mass industrial monolithic imagery. Speaking of that the distillery itself was a bit of an eye opener.

Distillery Days

We’re all whisky geeks here, right? There is a a good chance you have seen a diagram of a column still in one of our many whisky books. There is also a good chance we have seen a malt distillery, and kind of imagine a column still to be around the same size. Turns out I was wrong in that image, this thing is massive. A mass of steal pipes, tanks, walkways and of course the three apps (as the column stills are called) themselves (App 1 being the old original still, app 4 the first of the new multi-pressure distillation/vacuum distillation stills from 1992. App5 being the newest and effectively a more up to date version of app 4. App 3 I believe was fire damaged and app 2 retired).

Looking at the thing I am put in the mind of half way between what you would find on a Necromunda gaming table and in a mid 90’s console cyberpunk platform game level. Ok those last two references may have lent more towards the geek than the whisky but my point stands.

Cyberpunk future

It’s all computer controlled from a gentle and warm coloured office in the midst of the variable weather we encountered over the weekend. However despite the very comprehensive control I still do not envy the task that they had the first weekend app 4 went online. The entire thing was set up in 1992 with the help of Finnish experts, and the first spirit run came out over the weekend, when the Finnish experts were not available and, this being the early 90s, mobile phones were not particularly common. The spirit came out too light. The system is set up so higher temperatures make for heavier spirit – more of the heavier elements can rise, lower temperatures give a lighter spirit as only the lighter elements are caught. The whole vacuum distillation allows for the spirit to be produced at lower temperatures, which lets them aim for a lighter spirit with less of the tainting compounds and sulphur.

Or so is the plan, on that day, with no one to help, it was coming out too light and they basically had to kick an unknowns system around and experiment to try and get the spirit they wanted. I’m a tech geek and what this said to me is they had to experiment on a live system which they weren’t trained in. Or as we call it in the business – brown trousers time. They did it, and got it to the 84 degrees they now use. So did it work, do we have a light, smooth fruity whisky? Well we are getting ahead of ourselves – I’ll be talking about the whisky later, and there will be a bunch of tasting notes during the week to let you know how it all worked out. Well to my mind anyway.

The imagery of the distillery site itself was very different to what I imagined. The heart of it is those Blade Runneresque stills, and the place is busy with wheat packed trucks rolling back and forth, depositing quite remarkable amounts of that wheat out to keep the hungry column stills running. That is however only one part of the near square mile (and expanding) of a site that holds two point one million casks, and mere moments walk from that industrial mass is the equally loud, but far lower tech home to one of the few cooperages adjacent to a distillery. A place where used wine, port, sherry and bourbon barrels are given a new life as they are taken apart and assembled by hand.

Girvan Cooperage

Not far from that are the many silent resting places of barrels of whisky ageing in the dark. Barrels head out from here to many distilleries and return home filled with many different spirits ready to wait out the years before they are bottled, including, interestingly enough the first ever casks of Ailsa Bay – held just out of reach, taunting us. So here were have tradition and technology hand in hand, though it turns out there may be turmoil in the future. Bourbon casks, or in fact many casks, are getting harder and harder to source. Girvan currently mainly relies on first fill American White Oak, but the problem extends to all whiskys. Experiments are in hand to try and find new woods that can be used for ageing, but any which way it may be an interesting future for our beloved spirit.

Before we left the site, one more fact caused a smile to return to my face after those worrying words. Why this site was picked, from two available choices. There was a deal made back in the early days that for thirty years the distillery could be provided with a thousand gallons of water a year for one pence. As a tight Yorkshireman I must say I approve.

The Spirit In The Shell

So, since single grain has been described as “engineering and science”, Girvan’s Master Distiller John Ross gave us a thorough run through of the process. I have reproduced the diagram drawn in photo format below. Congratulations, you are all now experts.

John Ross and the science of Girvan

Ok, you want more don’t you? Drat.

While the columns themselves are an industrial stainless steel, the old distiller favourite – copper, is woven through inside as “Sacrifice” rods that quickly wear away and are replaced, but provide the needed cleansing. The real heart of the process is the still plates, of which there are 20 in the analyser, 40 in the rectifier – allowing the production of a much cleaner and fruitier grain spirit, or so they say.

Due to the efficiency of the process it turns out the spirit at a far higher than normal 94% abv
and goes into oak at 70% rather than 60% for single malt. During the trip we were given a chance to try some of the standard 42.6% make spirit, but also the 94% version. I was encouraged to dip my finger in the stronger spirit and plant it on my tongue. When this did not numb my tongue to expectations I took a few sips of this raw spirit. Which may explain most of my behaviour that night….

Flavour wise? All I’m saying is that there is a reason they bottle at 42.6..whew.

A nice few notes humanise the spirit even here, the site turns out 5 MW of energy, with 4.5 of that going to keeping the distillery running, but 0.5 MW is exported to the grid. Except in some hard winters instead it was used to power the local area and help it through to Spring.

On top of that, despite all the controls, all the engineering – the final test is still a nosing panel, every day, deciding of this batch of spirit will go forwards. There is still some romance lingering as a ghost in the shell.

Away On The Whisky Range.

So, with a humanised, romanticised, expounded upon and laid to rest journey of a spirit, we finally get to what all of us have been waiting for. The spirit itself. Well I say the spirit itself, the actual tasting notes will be coming during the coming week – here is just a few musings on the choices made for the range of single grain whiskies available. Very notable is that the light clean spirit has been combined with American oak as a sole choice. Now, there are apparently sherry barrel aged Girvan expressions, however most are tightly tucked away for the family’s sole use. Though Dave Alcock of Whisky Dramalista pointed out that some, rare, independent bottlings have slipped the net.

This intrigues me – with such light character and such evident oak influence on the whisky, it would be fascinating to see the influence of other woods and finishes on the distinctly different spirit. I can however see why they would not go that way for their initial range. Single Grain still has a lot of work to do in the public eye to gain acceptance, and it is best to push the strong points before trying to add the flourishes..

Which is as a good point as any to consider that range. Again each bottling has its own little bit of humanising history. The make spirit – the uncommon sight of a soon to be whisky in the nude, the non age statement no 4 apps – in slight contrast to its name actually a mix of the new 4 and 5 apps spirit, and a show of the technological force brought to the fray. The 25 Year, a call to history and to the working of old No 1 Apps. Remember what I said about No 1Apps? What, you didn’t realise there was a test? The higher temperate for running means a heavier spirit, soothed by the length of time in the oak. The 30 year, again at its age from No1 Apps, but this from the last years that they used maize instead of wheat. It reminds me of a Glenlivet I tried either end of when the changed from direct to indirect heating – a chance to see the change of character brought on. Finally the cask strength. Which is cask strength. Ok – I kind of ran out of steam on that last one, but I nearly had theme going there.

Girvan Range

What I did forget to ask, and what has intrigued me for a while is – can you do a peated single grain? Peat comes in from drying the malt, and only about 10% of the ingredients is malt, albeit especially potent malt to fuel the fermentation. Would that be enough to add peat notes if tried? Would anyone except a nutcase like me even want to try? With such a fight to establish Single Grain as a worthy rival to Single Malt I doubt we will find out any time soon, as now is not a time when mad experiments such as that are likely to pay off, but if we do see Single Grain rise up and be accepted I would be intrigued to see what experiments come out. For as much as I have enjoyed the spirits I have tried this weekend they are, understandably, keeping to where they are strongest and not shifting wildly in what they express.

Then again, as mentioned before – wood is getting harder to find. Who knows what inventions necessity shall mother?

So, I come away from the weekend with the feeling of Single Grain humanised to my eyes, given context and filled with that not-actually-useless, useless knowledge that adds so much to an experience.

Hopefully I have managed to share some of that with you.

Until next time, enjoy your drink!