It’s early days for us yet. While we’ve been in full production since January 2017, our whiskies are still taking shape. Three years is the minimum time that spirit must spend in cask before it is Scotch Whisky, and we’re not shy to say we’re phenomenally excited by the casks we’ve sampled so far and the first whiskies we’re releasing, but the journey to produce what will end up as Torabhaig 10 Year Old Single Malt for example has only just begun. Furthermore many would tell you that it’s a lot longer before a Single Malt truly comes of age. So we feel we would be getting ahead of ourselves to make too many definite claims about the whisky we are making and the whiskies to come, instead we can tell you about our thoughts on making whisky.
Without haste is the simplest statement to introduce how we approach whisky-making. Time is indeed a theme that runs deep in the making of good Scotch. From mashing to fermenting to distilling, every single stage of making spirit is entirely time critical, and invariably not hurrying will give a better result. As a rule, you push things along at the expense of depth and complexity, faster is rarely better.
Then comes maturing, which requires patience on a whole new level, but more on that subject later. Simply speaking, you can’t rush making good whisky.
One thing we like to think we do know about is barley, simply because many of our core team come from a background of working with grain, starting with our distillery manager who has been producing malting barley for more than 30 years, with barley going back in his family for generations. He’ll never own up to this himself, but his farm has a solid reputation as a dependable source of the highest quality malting barley, some of the finest in Scotland.
This is probably why we’re so picky about the grain we use and why we don’t just stick to one variety for all our whiskies, and why we go to such efforts to capture the clarity of the cereal notes that the finest malted barley can produce in the new-make spirit.
We’re not giving anything away by saying we are making a peated Malt Whisky, simply walking past the distillery and sniffing the air will tell you that much. After that, things get more complicated though. There are many, many faces and moods to peat, all affected by the peat itself and how it is used in the kilning process to dry the malt, how you mash the peated barley and the water you use, how you ferment, the shape of the stills, where you cut… we could go on. And this is where there is a balance to be found, between strength and refinement, between elegance and robustness. Well-tempered peat is the best way we can express what we’re aiming for. Once you really start to study peated spirit, there’s a beguiling complexity that awaits, a seemingly endless depth to explore. That inimitable Scottish peat reek on fine spirit can seem so tangible and present, and yet so ephemeral and impossible to pin down and define.
We will continue this journey of exploration with our distillers and whiskymakers, and of course with you our audience. That’s one of the great things about making Malt Whisky, especially the peated sort, there’s always something to educate and surprise you.
Once the spirit is made it just needs to age in an oak barrel for a few years… except:
This is where things get very interesting indeed. Making good spirit is in fact only the first half of the story. Because such a large part of the character, smell and taste of a mature Malt Whisky comes from the wood it was aged in, what happens after distillation is every bit as crucial. The finest new-make spirit in the world will not make a good whisky if it’s aged in a poor cask, or even just in the wrong cask for that particular spirit.
So is whisky just all about the wood? No, of course not. Rather it’s an intricate dialogue between the spirit and the oak, in effect a series of complex and gradual chemical reactions that take place over the course of years. This is why getting the spirit into the right wood straight away is vital for keeping it on the right track towards becoming a well-rounded and balanced Single Malt with all the depth and complexity we look for, but also an opportunity to take the same spirit in different directions over the course of the next decade and really exploring the range of the distillery’s output. Variations on a theme, if you will. Because of this we have already laid our spirit down in several different types of cask including some specially made to our own specification, checking in regularly to see how it is evolving, which in turn informs what wood we use going forward.
If there is one simple truth about whisky-making, it’s that it’s a complex business. The deeper you look, the more depth you find. But then that’s probably why we love whisky in the first place.