Chronicles of a small oak barrel
SMWS ambassador David Smith was fortunate to fill his own barrel with whisky made by his own hands. Since then, the whisky has been savoured and the barrel somewhat neglected. That’s until he hatched a plan to bring it back to life, with the help of some Society whisky
MAIN PHOTO: PETER SANDGROUND
HOW IT BEGAN
All of us enjoy our drams and many enthuse over a visit to a distillery. Some may own their own barrel of whisky and a few even have the opportunity to have a hands-on experience in a distillery. But the ultimate must surely be to make your own whisky.
For me, that chance came when I was at the tiny Loch Ewe distillery on the west coast of Scotland, about to enjoy a 60th birthday present of making my own whisky. Loch Ewe was founded in November 2005 (and closed in 2017) in an old garage and was affectionally known as a ‘distillery in a cave’. Inside it was bare except for the tools of the trade – and the making of my amber nectar began.
EXPLOITING A LEGAL LOOPHOLE
I measured out my unpeated malted barley and burn water and mixed them in the small handmade pot still doubling as a mash tun. The still had a capacity of 120 litres, significantly less than the minimum batch size of commercial stills. But by using a loophole in the 1784 Wash Act, which limited a distillery still size to no more than 40 gallons, Loch Ewe distillery acquired a licence after three years of negotiation so that it could be operated legally. The loophole has now been closed if you were thinking of embarking upon small scale whisky production. Nevertheless, the still was an imposing structure, standing in the centre of the distillery supported on an old brick stand harbouring a gas burner.
WHEELIE BIN FERMENTATION AND DISTILLATION
I gently heated the mixture and as the mash slowly warmed the tantalising smell 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, I transferred the worts to the green fermentation wheelie bin – no mechanisation or vast wooden or stainless-steel fermentation washback 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.
Over the next 24 hours, I made regular visits 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, started.
FROM TRICKLE TO FLOW AND FINAL CUT
First there was a trickle, then a steady flow and the clear spirit was collected in a stone jar. Hydrometer measurements tracked alcoholic progress – an art not experienced since physics practical some 45 years previously.
And just like those schoolboy days, I made a meticulous record of the results. With the luxury of spirit safes not available, a judgement of eye and the hands-on measurements ensured the right demarcation of the foreshots.
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 new small oak barrel, previously filled for three weeks with sherry. The barrel was transported to its dunnage rack in a garage in the Thames Valley where it sat serenely and coveted for three years.
A MOMENT TO SAVOUR
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, the three years and one day (just to make sure) of waiting were over and the spirit in the barrel became single cask, single malt Scotch whisky.
This moment was duly savoured. The unreduced dram had a deep copper hue, a morello cherry and toffee nose and slightly cinder toffee taste. With water the sherry aroma was retained but the reduced palate was of sherry cup and marzipan-centred dark chocolates. At 56.1% abv when the barrel was filled, the whisky had not lost much of its strength. The bottles of 60th birthday whisky are quickly diminishing but will be enjoyed for a few years yet. What a wonderful experience, making your own whisky – everyone should try it sometime. There are other whisky schools which are more tightly tutored and held in groups but nothing is like having the run of your own distillery – it is one of life’s great experiences.
FALLING TO PIECES
With my whisky much enjoyed, I forgot all about the barrel in the garage and, as years rolled by, the metal hoops began to tarnish and the wooden staves dried and became loose until the barrel was no longer. The multitude of staves, bungs, ends and hoops were confined to a plastic supermarket bag. They lay there, neglected, until the first Coronavirus lockdown arrived in March 2020.
On a bright spring day chatting with my neighbour, who is a dab hand at making wine, the suggestion arose that if he had a barrel, he could fill it with wine for an alternative finish. But where to get a barrel? Of course, I had one – but it was in bits and pieces in a plastic supermarket bag. So began the project to remake the barrel.
BACK TO LIFE
There are 20 staves in the barrel, which gives many combinations of fitting them together in the original order – that part alone took a whole day. Once assembled with ends and bungs and filled with water, the barrel leaked. Not only did it leak at the ends and between the staves, it leaked through some of the staves – three of them were rotten. So began the task of making replacements.
A tree surgeon friend provided the seasoned oak from which three grain strips were sawn and planed to the correct dimensions (plenty of sweat and hours of work here). The next task was to bend the staves into shape. For this, I made a template using the old staves. Then I soaked the three new staves in hot water overnight, clamped them in place around the template and left them to dry. Releasing the clamps, the staves sprung back slightly so, with the template adjusted for a tighter arc, I repeated the process.
This time success. I reassembled the barrel and once again filled it with water to detect leaks – a few emerged mainly around the barrel ends – but they were soon fixed with barrel wax. The barrel was ready for use again.
WINE IN THE BARREL
I poured a demijohn of homemade chardonnay-type wine into the barrel, secured the bung and recorded the date of filling. We decided that three months would be a good time for maturation in the cool garage. During this period, the barrel grew some mould due to the leakage of a little wine interacting with the air – some future fixing required here.
Then after three months of expectation the moment of truth. Tentatively I drew a glass, nosed and tasted it. It had a light straw colour, slightly darker than the input wine. The aroma was sweet with a waft of wet wood chippings; the taste – oaky, smooth and a little hint of whisky. A very drinkable home-fermented and matured wine.
REFILLING WITH SOCIETY MALTS
To avoid the barrel drying out for a second time, I filled it with sherry both to keep the wood moist and impart some colour and a little flavour back into the wood. But what I really wanted was to refill it with whisky.
A chat with Euan Campbell, SMWS spirits manager, as to what to use ranged around new make spirit, grain and Society malts. Not wishing to wait three years for the maturation of new make spirit, this option was discarded. Finally, I decided to use non-peated Society malts, up to 12 years old, matured in first fill bourbon barrels. After three or four months in the barrel maturation should influence the blended spirit.
BLENDING FOR BEGINNERS
Trying to mix whiskies to make a more than acceptable blend is not easy. Given the eight available whiskies, tasting each and deciding what proportion of each to put in the mix and indeed, what order to mix them in to taste and nose as the mixing progressed, is fun but time-consuming. It makes you appreciate the art of a distillery blender.
After a few hours po(u)ring over the whiskies the blend was made and christened Electric Dreams. The blend is a mix of Cask Nos. 36.119: Meringue and marron glace (4 parts); 46.73: The artist formerly known as mints (3 parts); 48.47: Style of the 70s (2 parts); 48.113: A bunch of sweet peanuts and sweet peas (10 parts); 113.12: Refreshingly minty (2 parts) and Hazelburn (from my own barrel, 5 parts).
Deciding what proportion of each to put in the mix and indeed, what order to mix them in to taste and nose as the mixing progressed, is fun but time-consuming. It makes you appreciate the art of a distillery blender.
TO THE 'DUNNAGE'
The blend showed bright gold in the glass and left light tears when swirled in the confining space. On the nose it conjured up the smell of mowing the back lawn, sharp and powerful, and the taste was of barley sugar, but dry. With water the mouthfeel was spicey and limoncello. In all, five litres of the blend at 57.5% abv was destined for the barrel and some for a bottle for future comparison.
The barrel filled, it was carefully placed in the ‘dunnage’ garage and the three to four months’ wait began. It will be fascinating to observe the effects of maturation over time and then compare the blend before and after. No doubt samples will be taken to check on progress – who would not? But until then the barrel can do its magic and the angels can have their share.
David Smith joined The Scotch Malt Whisky Society over 25 years ago and became an ambassador in 2007, hosting whisky tastings to an eclectic mix of people and in a wide spectrum of venues.