When Kat and I decided we’d head up to Scotland, I knew immediately that we’d be drinking a lot of scotch whisky. I love scotch. Visiting some of my favorite distilleries has been a dream of mine for many years.
I love scotch as much as Ron Burgundy.
We were researching how to spend our time in Scotland and out of the blue Kat says to me “Hey, we can go to this distillery! It’s only an hour away from Glasgow and we can get there on the train. It’s….ow..che…owken….tosh…” At this point I blurted in a girlish scream “YOU MEAN AUCHENTOSHAN?!” She looks up, startled by my reaction. “Uh yeah, I guess. Is that a good one?” Kat didn’t know it but she had just named one of my absolute favorite scotches. I was so excited I couldn’t stand it.
So, here’s the thing. Whisky distilleries require a lot of space to operate. You’ve gotta store all your grains and yeasts, you’ve gotta have space for the actual stills and the wash tubs and the mash tubs and everything. Then once the scotch is ready, you can’t just sell it. For a spirit to legally be called “Scotch whisky” (FYI — it’s just called “whisky” in scotland) it has to age at least 3 years and 1 day. Obviously, more premium scotches age for many more years. So you’ve gotta have warehouses to store all these barrels as well. The whole point of me telling you this is that there is no such thing as an urban distillery. They tend to be way out there in the middle of nowhere. You’re expected to drive to them. That we could take the train from Glasgow to get to Auchentoshan was a real boon for us.
But here’s the thing — you CAN take the train (or the bus) but they don’t make it easy. I don’t want to get into it, but getting to the distillery was a bit nerve wracking. We got off the train and kinda sorta knew which way to go….but not really.
“Dave, are you lost? Do you know where you’re going?”
“Uh, I think…the map says….just…hold on.”
“DAVE. THIS IS THE ON-RAMP TO A HIGHWAY. I AM NOT WALKING ON THIS!”
“THIS IS WHAT THE MAP SAYS TO DO. THIS IS HOW WE’RE GOING. DEAL WITH IT.”
So WHAT if we had to walk on the side of a six-lane highway for a half mile or so. So WHAT if we had to scamper across that six-lane highway to get to the other side. We MADE it, right? Jeez, Kat. Stop being such baby.
After escaping death, we finally made it. My Shangri-la:
It’s…the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
Double-pointing. THAT’S HOW EXCITED I AM TO BE HERE.
We paid our 7 quid each for the tour and so it began. Our tour was small — just us and four other Scottish people who are independent whisky bottlers who were sorta there to network. Our tour leader, Flora, was super awesome. We chatted with her for a bit — she had studied in South Korea and it BLEW HER MIND that we had been there. She was about our age and we had a great time with her — it didn’t hurt that she hooked us up with some free drams at the end.
So, I could talk about whisky distilling process for hours and, honestly, I know that would probably bore a lot of you, so I’ll try to keep this part brief.
This is the mash tun. This is where it all starts — every single bottle. The malted barley is dumped in here and mixed with hot water to break down the sugars.
Smells a bit like malty oatmeal?
The goop from the mash tun is then put into the washbacks where yeast is added and it’s allowed to ferment. This baaaasically, more or less, turns it into a 7-8% alcohol beer. Did you know that whisky is basically just distilled beer? MIND. BLOWN. Basic how alcohol is made lesson: The yeast eats the sugars from the malted barley, the by-product of this is CO2 and alcohol. When the yeast is full, it goes to sleep and turns into nasty goop.
Washbacks. Fermentin’ like a BAWS.
The “beer” inside the washback looks pretty gnarly, nasty yeast floating on the top and burping and bubble occasionally as CO2 is explled — but it IS drinkable.
So, when our tour leader sarcastically asked if any of us wanted to taste it, of COURSE I said “Yeah! Really?!” She looked at me like I had 3 heads but said, “Uh, ok…” and she got a big ladle and scooped me out a bit.
It tasted like….warm gross flat beer. Not my favorite.
Alright, so now the beer is ready to be turned into whisky. And THIS is where the magic happens:
Every single drop of Auchentoshan sold goes through these three stills. Hard to get scale here, but they’re, like, 25 feet tall.
I’m not gonna get into everything that goes on in this part of the process. If you’re interested read more here: http://www.auchentoshan.com/triple-distillation-(our-way)/triple-distillation.aspx Basically, alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than water. The washback is heated, the alcohol vapors rise and then are condensed back into a liquid. That’s the super abbreviated version. Auchentoshan distills their whisky three times — no other distillery distills their whisky more than twice. So Auchentoshan heavily markets their “triple distilled” whisky. (Something else you learn is just how much of the scotch whisky industry is about marketing, a lot of which is sort of bullshit. Does the extra distillation make a difference? I mean, PROBABLY but does it make it better? Who can know?) What comes out of this process is, at the very beginning, some really nasty poisonous stuff (called “foreshot”) that’s siphoned off and, eventually, an 81% alcohol clear spirit. They had a bottle of this to taste as well. It tasted exactly as you’d expect — super strong, super burn going down, I did not want more after my tiny sip. It’s watered down to 63.5% abv before it’s put in the barrels for aging.
This is the spirit safe. This is what the master distiller uses to sample and control the distillation process to make sure that everything’s going just as it should.
Like I said, for whisky to be called “scotch” it legally must age for at least 3 years and 1 day. Auchentoshan uses several different types of barrels to age its whisky: used American bourbon barrels and two different types of Spanish sherry barrels. These barrels are remarkably expensive (a few hundred dollars each and they can only be used 3 times) so this is another reason for scotch’s relatively high price.
On a side note, a major trick of the whole scotch industry is the idea that older=better. But, really, are you gonna be able to taste a difference between a 10 year and a 9 year? No, it’s sort of stupid. In fact, Macallan, one of the most popular scotches in America, has transitioned from traditional age labels and into “color” based labels. Really, the reason that older whisky is more expensive, other than marketers use age to justify higher prices, is that the longer the whisky sits in the barrel, the more of it that evaporates, so there’s literally just LESS of it the older it gets.
We were allowed to walk through the warehouse where the barrels are stored but, unfortunately, no photos were permitted in there — allegedly because flashes could cause a spark and given the high amount of alcohol vapors in the air, that could lead to a huge explosion. Seemed suspect to me, but them’s the rules.
So after it ages in certain barrels for a certain amount of time, what comes out the other end is this:
Hello, lovers…And you can sort of see tour leader Flora behind the bottles
The tour ended and we were brought to the tasting room where we were given a complimentary dram of the 12 year. I also sampled the three wood and the 18 year. Flora suggested that the 21 year wasn’t really worth it — expensive and not that good she said. Again — older doesn’t mean better. The clear winner for me and Kat was the three wood, meaning it was aged in all three types of barrels that Auchentoshan uses. One review says of the three wood: After three distillations and three barrel maturations the scotch is soft, incredibly mellow, sweet with berry and dried fruits, oozing with caramel and brown sugar and vanilla, creamy butterscotch, and a light whiff of toasted hazelnuts, finishing with distinct toffee flavors.
Final step of the process: savor and enjoy.
I didn’t even touch the differences between all the different regions of Scotland (Auchentoshan is a lowland scotch, one of the very few single malts of the lowlands) and the difference between single-malts and blends. Seriously people, I could talk about this ALL DAY.
After we’d finished our whisky it was time to head back to the train station. Fortunately, we asked around and found a safer way to get back (through an unmarked path that FOR REASONS UNKNOWN AUCHENTOSHAN DOES NOT ADVERTISE ON THEIR WEBSITE). As we were waiting for our train, a gentle rain began to fall, but that did not deter the old ladies next to us who were engaging in a heated lawn bowling match
I love Scotland.
Apologies to Sophie B. Hawkins for the title of this post.