Strathearn Distillery’s Whisky School: Day 4

by Keith Savage · 3 comments

A full barrel of Strathearn newmake

This series explores my week distilling at Strathearn distillery in Perthshire. If you haven’t read the prologueDay 1Day 2, Day 3, or my review of Strathearn, now’s a good time to do that.

Jeff’s 30th birthday dawned with a splitting headache. It was no surprise — the Strathearn boys had done their damnedest to manifest this bleary morning. I lurched from bed and shuffled down Comrie’s high street to secure a couple of black pudding sausage rolls to take the edge off, and they did by god, they did.

It being Jeff’s birthday, Tony arranged for Stuart to pick us up and ferry us to the distillery for it was likely to be a long day with celebratory drinks as the nightcap. At eight in the morning I could hardly stomach the thought, but as I slipped out of Stuart’s car and stepped into the stillhouse where Wee Erin and Bella the Stripper waited, I remembered there’s no rest for the wicked.

Our week was drawing toward its conclusion, and the flow and pace of working at Strathearn began to feel like second nature. Today was a day of distilling so we got straight to charging Wee Erin with 450 liters of 26.8% ABV low wines. Bella had the day off but David had her on steam doing a water run to test the boiler. Liam took us to it, which hums in a small room inside a stables, to “blow it down.” To my untutored eyes Liam looked like a mad scientist turning a half-dozen valves as he checked a tubular sight glass. A great whooshing noise happened at the point of “blow down” and all, seemingly, was well. This little process is meant to clear any residue and particles from the boiler, but it struck me as the kind of thing you don’t want a greenhorn doing.

After Wee Erin got a belly full of low wines we cranked on the steam and began recirculating the juice to ensure even heating. This was the start of our second spirit run — where we make heads and tails cuts by taste to secure the perfect heart cut to put in barrels.

A lot of the distilling work at Strathearn follows a kind of folkloric knowledge. For example, they’re seeking 20 liters of heart every 20 minutes during the spirit run. This rule of thumb communicates that you’ve got the right amount of steam on the still because the speed at which you run a still impacts the flavor profile of the whisky. When you hammer a still with high heat the alcohol vapor travels through the copper system quickly and has less purifying copper contact along the way.

We turned our attention to the big ex-Bourbon barrel while we waited for Wee Erin to produce spirit. Yesterday we’d added 37 liters of newmake and today we added the remaining 98 liters of liquid to fill it up. The spirit going into the barrel needs to be a specific ABV to maximize aging without stripping out all the wood tannins and making the spirit harsh, so of those 98 liters 10 were pure water. I filled out the cask form while Liam stenciled on Strathearn’s identifying information. I need to return in a few years and check on barrel 1723.

Spirit arrived on Wee Erin after 90 minutes on steam. Just like in previous days, we turned off the steam and then brought it back on slowly. A little over half an hour later we began the heart cut when the cherry-metallic flavor of the heads disappeared. All in all we’d collected 15.5 liters of heads in just over 30 minutes. I had a personal victory here because unlike yesterday when I didn’t really notice the flavor switch, today I certainly picked up on it!

We left Wee Erin to spill her heart and took care of some of the menial tasks of running a distillery, like pumping feints from yesterday into the feints/low wines receiver and moving palettes of bottles to the warehouse.

At lunch the Strathearn boys surprised Jeff with birthday-themed plates and napkins and a hilariously garish button they forced him to wear. The beer-themed cake candles and birthday card were an excellent touch for a professional brewer.

Barring a couple drams and beers, we kept lunch short and returned to the stillhouse because it was time to make the tails cut and prepare for gin distillation on the morrow. There’s a lot of prep work that happens in the stillhouse as you’re always working to get ahead of projects later in the week. That’s just good sense, but it’s also crucial because things break down and require unplanned time. We’ll get to an example in just a little bit.

We stopped the heart cut on Wee Erin at 59.8% ABV after collecting 97 liters of heart over 1.5 hours. Right on the money. We turned up the steam now that we were in the tails and left Wee Erin to her devices once more.

All of the bottling and packaging happens in one of Strathearn’s satellite farm buildings, and that’s also where we found the botanicals they use for their various gins. The schedule for tomorrow included doing a base gin distillation on Wee Erin, so under Liam’s watchful eye Jeff and I assembled the goods, which included juniper (of course), coriander, licorice root, angelica root, and a few others, carefully weighing and measuring each. A few of the bigger botanicals need to be broken down to release their essences during the distillation, so we pulsed those in a food processor. As you can see, we finished with a pretty large bowl of botanicals. Those would go in the gin basket (which you can see Jeff attaching to the lyne arm above). Alcohol vapor from the still will travel down the lyne arm and through the botanicals before falling through the condenser and becoming liquid. This is gin rectification because we’ll charge Wee Erin with a mixture of water and grain neutral spirit that has already been distilled.

As the afternoon wore on Liam, who happens to be quite the rum aficionado, brought us tastes from his personal stash. Among them, a 3-year-old Brazilian Cachaça aged in wood and a Colombian Dictator which had a delicious Skor bar flavor. David, not to be outshown, brought out a 36-year-old North British single grain whisky and a Jameson single cask dram. Tony even gave us a taste of a 14-day work in progress that was astoundingly good for its youth. I know what you’re thinking, but these were birthday drinks.

The fun stopped when we looked into the pump we’d used to recirculate Wee Erin earlier in the day. It had petered out at the time and now we had a chance to see what caused it. David, who used to work on North Sea oil rigs, completely disassembled the pump and couldn’t find a single thing wrong with it. After a good hour of troubleshooting we found the culprit: It wasn’t the pump at all but the air hose regulator. These things happen, and it’s why you need to stay ahead in the stillhouse.

As the afternoon wore on Wee Erin came to the tail end of the tails. Using a briefcase of ultra-fine and very expensive hydrometers, we measured the strength of the tails at intervals throughout the afternoon. At 2:20 the strength read 23.3%, and by 3:45 it was down to 1% and the end of the line. Then began the ritual denouement of a distillation: Shutting off the steam, releasing the vacuum valve, opening the hatch, and setting up the hoses to pump out the remaining “pot ale.” Following all that we thoroughly cleaned Wee Erin with hoses and set her up for gin distillation.

At one point during the cleaning process David called us outside. A herd of sheep had managed to find their way into the car park. Needless to say everyone was confused.

The work day was over but the night had just begun. Tony and the Strathearn boys organized a dinner at a wonderful Indian restaurant in nearby Methven to celebrate Jeff’s 30th birthday. The food was great, the company even better, and the look on Jeff’s face upon receiving a coconut filled with coconut ice cream was priceless.

The post-dinner festivities shed a few of Strathearn’s valiant lads, but Stuart, David, and Kenny took us into Perth to show us a good time at some of the town’s best whisky establishments. I have a very long list of drams I tried that night, and the taxi ride home to Comrie in the black of an early March night is little more than smear, but it was a fine night indeed. Hope you had a great 30th, Jeff!

Disclosure: Strathearn provided me with a complimentary week of whisky school. All thoughts and opinions expressed here, as always, are my own. Special thanks to Jeff and David for the photo assist.

Daniel GoodwinNo Gravatar September 28, 2017 at 9:44 AM

Looks like a fantastic time. Just got back from our first trip to Scotland ever, partly inspired by your posts from the past years. It was everything we had dreamed of, and the people of Scotland are amazing! Keep the posts coming, as I’m now just going to be pining for another trip.

Keith SavageNo Gravatar September 28, 2017 at 3:16 PM

Thanks for reading, Daniel.

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