Confessions of an Auchentoshan collector
Belgian Connosr member Mark Dermul is a self-proclaimed ‘Toshan Man’ – he fell in love with Auchentoshan about a year ago and since then started collecting whisky in general and this Lowland whisky in particular. Living his dream, he recently travelled to Glasgow and arranged for a behind-the-scenes tour with Head Distiller Jeremy Stephens.
Just two days before our visit, the Auchentoshan distillery got hit by flash floods, so they were not in production when we got there. All the machinery needed to be dried, revised and re-installed. Production would not resume for at least a week. But in the grand scheme of things – say, about 12 years – that doesn’t really interrupt things. And it didn’t stop Jeremy from taking us (my friend and Connosr member Niek Verniers and our Dearly Beloveds were with me) on a behind-the-scenes tour of the distillery. It will be a day, long remembered.
Due to the flash floods, the mash tun had been completely emptied and cleaned. In one of the four washbacks (which each can hold 38.000 litres) fermentation was coming to an end. It was filled with a lukewarm wash. Jeremy encouraged us to taste it. ‘You first,’ I joked, as I had read somewhere that drinking from the wash will keep you securely locked up in a bathroom for the remainder of the week. ‘Oh, no, not at all,’ Jeremy assured us. He tasted it first, we followed suit. This beer-like liquid reminded me of a slightly acid white beer.
In the rather small still room we encountered the three stills side by side – wash still, intermediate still and spirit still. And that’s where Auchentoshan differs quite a bit from its colleagues in Scotland. Auchentoshan is (bar a few exceptions, such as Springbank for their Hazelburn) the only Scottish distillery to triple distill. Jeremy allowed us a sip of their new make spirit (with a staggering ABV of 81%) and was happy to learn that we found it to be Auchentoshan-style immediately.
Triple distillation is a lot more than simply moving the low wines from the wash still to the intermediate still and then on to the spirit still.
Jeremy explains: ‘At Auchentoshan, we maintain the tradition of triple distillation, which delivers a lighter, more delicate spirit. We charge the wash into the wash still, which has a capacity of 17.500 liters, at 8% and add steam to make the wash boil. The vapors rise to the top of the still and go through the lyne arm. Behind the wall is a condenser, a small copper tube surrounded by other tubes that contain cold water. The hot vapors hit the tubes and are turned back into liquid and are then – passing through the spirit safe – collected in the low wines receiver at an ABV of about 20%.
Contrary to most distilleries, the low wines are not pumped into the spirit still, but are charged into the intermediate still for a second distillation.
Contrary to most distilleries, our low wines are not pumped into the spirit still, but are charged into the intermediate still for a second distillation. Our intermediate still has a capacity of 8.200 liters. We thus increase the strength up to about 55%. We’ll then charge that into the spirit still.
Because of the fact that we charge our spirit still at a higher strength, our new make spirit will have an ABV of 81% as opposed to the more common strength between 66% and 72% ABV. The spirit still has a capacity of 11.500 liters. After distillation in the spirit still, the spirit is collected in the spirit receiver and ready to be put to sleep in casks.
Triple distillation makes for more interaction with the copper and gives us a cleaner, less sour and less sulphury, more delicate and healthier spirit. We are able to put a cleaner, less stale spirit into the cask for maturation. The character of the cask is, I think, detectable earlier and gives a faster maturation. Auchentoshan is a very accessible whisky, truly a whisky for everyone!’
Bottle Your Own
In the dunnage warehouse, about 1,500 casks of whisky are currently maturing, stacked three high. Most are bourbon barrels, a smaller proportion are sherry hogsheads and finally there about 60 Bordeaux wine casks. The warehouse is dark and musty and – just like in a museum – you suddenly turn very quiet without being told, a little in awe of all that beauty.
Visitors to the distillery get the chance to bottle their own from a specially selected cask. At the time of our visit, it was a bourbon barrel from 1996, containing a wonderful 13 Year Old. All bottles in the ‘Bottle Your Own’ programme are logged. As luck would have it, I got bottle no. 100 and Jeremy was happy to personalize and sign the label for me.
The sun was already setting by the time we returned to the (already closed) visitor centre to end our tour with a dram. But we would get more than we bargained for...
In the stylish bar we were served the 21 Year Old - a magnificent whisky, indeed. But Jeremy had a surprise for us in store. He took us to the Blender’s Room and allowed us to sample some fine whiskies that are not available to the public (as they have not yet been bottled and thus are still works in progress). We didn’t need to use a Jedi Mind Trick to con him out of a sample of the 1978 Bourbon Barrel Matured. Alas, he was able to grab the Auchentoshan 1957 50 Year Old out of my hands before I could do any damage... ‘That’s £20!’ Jeremy joked when he spotted me taking a whiff (not a sip!) from the £2,600 bottle.
We took our leave around 8.30 pm (!) in a way that outsiders would consider to be the goodbye between old friends or relatives. And that’s exactly how it felt. As a parting gift, Jeremy handed us a sample bottle of new make spirit. I am now, more than ever, a Toshan Man! Maybe it was our imagination (or the excess of whisky we tasted), but during our return to Glasgow, the moon gave our sample bottles of moonshine a mysterious glow...