Making your own whisky
David Smith is a whisky lover with a penchant for golf, walking and travelling. Retiring early after a career in the IT industry, David uses his time by trying to improve his golf, growing vegetables and chillis and taking to the hills for a few miles walking – each year completing one of the UK’s long distance trails. His ‘leisure’ time is taken up by holidaying around the world and the ubiquitous pastime of crosswords. Hosting whisky tastings and imbibing the ‘occasional’ dram dovetails with other activities. David even has had time to make his own whisky and purchase his own barrels.
A lifetime's ambition
All of us enjoy our drams, many enthuse over a visit to a distillery, some own their own barrels of whisky and a few even have the opportunity to have hands on experience in a distillery but the ultimate must surely be to make your own whisky. And so it came to pass…
One bright May morning in a recently licensed distillery (nee garage) on the West coast of Scotland the reality of a dream began. It was a chilly morning but the expectation of what was to unfold over the coming week not only heightened the anticipation but even induced perspiration on hands and brow. I was about to enjoy a 60th birthday present of making my own whisky.
Making the whisky
The ‘distillery’ was bare except for the tools of the trade. The sack of unpeated malted barley and burn water were carefully measured and mixed in the small spherical handmade pot still doubling as a mash tun. This was an imposing structure standing in the centre of the distillery supported on an old brick stand harbouring a gas burner. The mixture was gently heated and as the mash slowly warmed so the tantalising smells of barley being brewed filled the air – was I really making whisky or was this just a home brew beer kit in the making? No, it was the first stage towards the amber nectar. Once the mash had run its course a yellow plastic bucket transferred the worts to the green fermentation wheelie bin - no mechanization or vast wooden or stainless steel fermentation washbacks here. The added yeast soon started to do its stuff and fermentation, aided by a fish tank heater to maintain the optimum temperature, was underway.
Was I really making whisky or was this just a home brew beer kit in the making?
Over the next 24 hours, meals were hurried and conversations curtailed as regular visits were made to keep an eye on progress. Once fermentation was complete and the wash produced, the small pot still came into its own and the essence of the whisky making process, distillation, commenced. First a trickle, then a steady flow and the clear spirit collected in a stone jar. Hydrometer measurements tracked alcoholic progress – an art not experienced since physics practical some 45 years previously. With the luxury of spirit safes not available a judgment of eye and hands on measurements ensured the right demarcation of foreshots and feints. Expectation mounted as distillation neared the end only for the process to be repeated until the final feints appeared – the final cut had been made. Excited hands poured the spirit into the waiting small oak cask previously home to sherry. Now the long wait for the spirit and wood to work their magic.
Made in the North, matured in the South
It had taken a week of pure enjoyment, and coaching, to arrive at this point and whisky was in the making. Drinking whisky and visiting distilleries is great fun and enjoyable learning, but to make your own whisky is another dimension altogether. As the week drew to its close the barrel was carefully transported to its dunnage rack in a garage in the Thames Valley where it sat serenely and coveted for three years.
Conversations were had about the barrel and its contents, a wooden chopstick notched with graduations was used to check on how much the angels were taking and even a few drams were stolen to verify progress towards the ultimate nectar. After a seemingly endless time of seeing the barrel sitting there in the garage, the three years of waiting were over and the spirit in the cask became single cask, single malt whisky.
The moment of truth
This moment was duly savoured. The unreduced dram had a deep copper hue, a sherry and toffee nose and slightly spirity taste. With water the sherry aroma was retained but the reduced palate was of sherry cup and marzipan centered dark chocolates. At 56.1% alc when the barrel was filled the whisky had not lost much of its strength. The bottles of 60th Birthday whisky will be treasured for months, maybe years to come. What a wonderful experience making your own whisky – everyone should try it sometime – its one of life’s experiences.