Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Scotland trip recap part 3: a beer geek tours a distillery

You know how they say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing? Well, armed with my knowledge of fermentation from brewing plus a little distilling know-how picked up from a History Channel show on moonshining, I toured the Talisker Distillery and then spent the next hour calling bullshit on most of what they told me. I'm sure people who actually know about distilling (i.e. not me) will read this and laugh because I'm probably the one who's full of it, but the great thing about the internet is you can criticize others even when you don't know what you're talking about. So here it goes...

B.S. #1: No photography. Why no photography? Because, according to them, vapors are produced during the distilling process that could possibly ignite from a photography flash. For the same reason they also require people to turn off their cell phones and even have special cell phones they use at work that aren't fire hazards. I realize the distilling process produces volatile compounds (as indicated on this page) but if flashes are really a hazard can't they just ask us to turn off our flashes? And second, wouldn't something like, say, ADEQUATE VENTILATION be preferred to preventing random sparks? Anyway, regardless, I couldn't take pictures while on the tour so instead I used MS Paint to recreate pictures from the tour (as you'll see below).

B.S. #2: No kids under 8. The reasoning? Again, the volatile chemicals. Look, if you don't want little kids running around, just say so. But you're really telling me kids are going to get sick from breathing in fumes during the tour? I think not.

Moving on to the tour itself, I was disappointed to learn that Talisker--like most distilleries these days--doesn't malt barley at its distillery. I knew most distilleries don't floor malt any more, but I was hoping to see the malting process since it's the one element of brewing that I haven't observed first-hand. However, in an effort to downplay the significance of buying their malt instead of making it, they stressed the fact that they still mill the grain at the distillery, which brings me to...

B.S. #3: They check the crush of the grain constantly. They made a big deal of the fact that the grain has to be crushed just right, and how because of this they mill it themselves and constantly check it with a three-screened box. Now, I understand milling is important, but I fail to see why it's any more important for distilling than it is with brewing, and I've never heard of a brewery constantly checking the crush (or if they do, they never make a big deal about it during tours). Seems to me that once you get the spacing right on your mill, you're pretty much good to go. Sure you'll check it from time to time, but they made it seem like they're the greatest distillery because they mill their own grain. I guess I'm not that easily impressed.

B.S. #4: After showing us how they mill the grain, we moved on to the fermentation tanks. I asked at what temperature they ferment the mash, and the guide told me they pitch around 15°C and then let it naturally rise to around 35°C, at which point the yeast dies from the temperature. While it makes sense that the temperature would increase (and this source confirms that temperatures are not closely maintained in distilleries as they are in breweries) but I doubt that they would let it get so hot that the yeast dies before converting as much sugar to alcohol as possible. Given that the whole point of distillation is to up the alcohol content, wouldn't you want to get as much attenuation from the yeast as possible?

We next moved on to the stills, where we were told B.S. #5: the shape of the still is critical to the character of the whisky. I can't really explain why this is B.S., but this book seems to confirm my suspicion ("The exact shape of a still is usually not of very great importance and it depends largely on the mechanical facilities that may be available."). You can see the shape of the Talisker stills in the meticulously-detailed drawing to the right.

The rest of the tour was actually pretty interesting. They talked about how they only take the spirits from the middle part of the distillation process; the early and late spirits are too weak so they're returned to be re-distilled. Then they took us down to their cellar where we checked out all the barrels. Afterwards, I got to taste their 10-year whisky. It was quite hot and peppery, with a decent peaty kick. The guy working the bar told me that it's really not that peaty, but other notes I've seen describe Talisker as being somewhat heavy with the peat. It was good, but not as smooth as the Balvenie I enjoyed the night before our flight home.

I realize that these tours aren't meant to be technical distilling courses, but I think you can dumb things down without being flat-out wrong. That being said, I may very well be wrong on many of these points. I think I was just in a skeptical, critical mood from the moment they said no pictures. I mean, what's the fun of taking a tour if you can't take pictures? Ultimately, it was cool to see how a distillery works, but I think I'll stick with my beer.

Jump to Scotland trip recap part 4 here.


Blogger Señor Brew™ said...

Wow, somebody is crabby since they couldn't take photos. Was the tour guide hot? She looks hot in that drawing.

On a separate note, I knew I had read about naming your kegs someplace else, but couldn't remember where. (Don't tell anybody, but sometimes I'm sipping homebrew whilst perusing beer blogs on the intertubes). I'll give you proper credit in my blog once I post the final names.

8:35 AM, June 04, 2009  
Blogger Russ said...

Re the tour guide: lets just say I digitally enhanced the picture.

As for the Simpsons keg names, I just figured great minds think alike. ;-)

3:23 PM, June 04, 2009  
Blogger Brian said...

you know..I think I like the MS Paint pictures over the actual thing :)

8:22 AM, June 07, 2009  

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