The return of direct-fired stills
WORDS: TOM BRUCE-GARDYNE
‘The still is heated by a naked fire, and it follows inevitably that the heat applied is not constant. It is this unequal heating in parts which is believed to cause changes in whiskies which distinguish one from the other, and it is generally considered that the process of slow heating of the still bottom and of the wash contained in the still is a vital factor in developing the character and quality of Scotch Whisky, and bringing out its special peculiarities.’ Sir Walter Gilbey, 1904
The views of the eminent booze baron were washed aside in the name of progress, while his ‘naked fire’ was snuffed out and replaced with steam coils. This happened in most malt whisky distilleries in the late 20th century as part of the drive for efficiency that also saw the removal of floor maltings and traditional strains of yeast and barley. Production was pumped up to meet post-war demand until the industry was drowning in excess whisky. The surplus was eventually drained, but there was no going back to the old ways…or so it seemed.
The transition to steam took over a century from the first early adopter – Glenmorangie in 1887 – and in truth it was never complete. There have always been a few outliers: Springbank’s wash stills remain direct-fired, while Glenfarclas flirted with steam coils only to abandon them in the early 1980s. They have just been joined by Beam Suntory’s Glen Garioch [pronounced Glen Geery], while among new distilleries Dornoch and Bimber in London are direct-fired, albeit by electricity at Dornoch.
ABOVE: Glen Garioch believes its direct-fired wash still can help create heavier, richer and fuller new-make spirit
“When the ‘Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations’ came in in 2002, that really was the death nell, because it forced you to make the source of your combustion flame-proof”
Alistair Longwell, Beam Suntory
The fuel for Sir Walter’s ‘naked fire’ was coal, and that has been banished everywhere apart from at the Yoichi distillery in Japan.
“When the ‘Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations’ came in in 2002, that really was the death nell, because it forced you to make the source of your combustion flame-proof,” says Alistair Longwell, Beam Suntory’s Scotch distillation and maturation manager.
The slow adoption of steam suggests plenty of distillers believed direct-fired stills added something to the spirit, even if they were hazy about the science. In the end it was the tighter rules on health and safety and the environment that tipped the balance for most, but not all.
And in that regard things may be changing, for as Alistair says: “It’s probably only now in the 21st century that we can go back and employ some of the traditional methods in a safer way.”
For Glen Garioch that means not just a gas-fired wash still, but reinstating its old floor maltings as part of a £6 million refit announced in March.
“So, you’ve gone all old-school?” I ask. “Yeah, what goes around, comes around,” replies Alistair, although he’s quick to point out that it’s not just for tradition.
“We were able to draw on the experience of our parent company Suntory, which has direct-fired stills at Yamazaki and Hakushu,” he says.
“There’s a belief that we can create a much heavier, richer and fuller new-make spirit by doing that, amongst many other things.
“At various points in the process you’re looking to load in the flavours. With distillation we’re looking to remove things we don’t want, and help create different congeners and compounds within the still. That’s through the differences in temperature and the interaction with the solids and amino-acid behaviour. Do I understand how it all works? I don’t!” he laughs.
ABOVE: Alistair Longwell
Bimber distillery’s direct fired still
Whatever the chemistry, he is not alone in his beliefs. “When you’re using direct fire, there’s much greater heat at the bottom of the still,” says Matt McKay, marketing manager at Bimber distillery in London.
“The burning of the pot creates a nutty, slightly burnt taste, and in doing so adds quite a lot of weight to the spirit.” This is malt whisky’s take on the so-called Maillard reaction. Without getting too technical, it’s a complex business involving proteins, sugars and heat that make slightly charred toast, roasted coffee beans and (at least to carnivores) a seared steak so irresistible.
Bimber’s founder and master distiller Dariusz Plazewski honed his craft at his father and grandfather’s knee, making moonshine in Poland.
“I don’t know where he was doing it, hidden in the forest somewhere, but he definitely wasn’t using steam coils,” says Matt.
The distillery, which released its first whisky in 2019, is seeking to expand and move from its cramped industrial estate in North Acton to somewhere more spacious in London. Its owners have also sought planning permission for the new Dunphail distillery near Forres, which will have direct-fired stills.
As for getting permission to run such stills in London, Matt admits it was tricky, “but not as tough as getting the funding”. Ideally, he would like the new site to be a little more accessible to visitors, but is realistic about the prospects. “Things can go wrong, so you’re never going to see a distillery in Leicester Square or on the South Bank,” he says.
Bimber’s Matt McKay celebrates the ‘Maillard reaction’ from direct fired stills
“We have had one or two other companies ask about the possibilities, implications and cost involved in direct firing”
DRAWBACKS, YET DEMAND
Using gas to heat your stills “really works through the copper a lot quicker,” Matt continues. At Bimber, they’ve had to install a new wash still after just five years, and the stills have to be washed by hand after each run. Glen Garioch uses rummagers to scour the bottom of its wash still, which is a hefty 20mm thick. According to Richard Forsyth, chairman of Forsyth’s coppersmiths in Rothes, an equivalent steam-heated still would be around 6mm.
Being easier to maintain, easier to operate and cheaper to buy in the first place, you can see the attraction of steam-powered stills to whisky bean counters.
ABOVE: Richard Forsyth sees a trend for direct fired stills
ABOVE: Copper stills under construction at Forsyth’s
Added to which they are more consistent and “more efficient”, says Matt. “You can run a charge through a still quicker with steam.” As a result, he does not predict a mad, industry-wide scramble for direct-fired stills.
Alistair Longwell hints that Glen Garioch may not be the last as far as Beam Suntory’s concerned, and says: “Who knows what we’ll do at our other distilleries if this is successful.”
It’s a point echoed by Richard Forsyth. “We have had one or two other companies ask about the possibilities, implications and cost involved in direct firing,” he says. “There may well be a trend to go back – who knows?” Maybe Sir Walter Gilbey was right all along.