Whisky, in all its iterations, is not just an end product, not just a drink...though it is a good one at that. It is a science, an art, alchemy and magic, geography and history, and it is people (um, not like soylent green...).
There are many exemplary sites out there on the making and tasting of whisky, and I don't intend on reinventing that wheel. I just want to bring some story to what I think is a fascinating process.
You can see more whisky photographs as well as not-just-whisky photographs at www.500px.com/ianbesch. And if you're in the market for more ramblings see www.ianbesch.blogspot.com. Please take
a look...or not.

April 5, 2024

1984

 At the northern end of the Isle of Jura is a place called Barnhill, which is somewhat renowned as the location where George Orwell finished his last novel "1984" while he was dying from tuberculosis. Having visited Jura several times, my father and I decided to travel as far north as we could by car in 2022, just to see where the road would take us. Where the road turned into a cart track a sign had been posted indicating mileages to the next locations. Beside the entry for the four miles to Barnhill someone had scribbled an addendum which those familiar with Orwell would chuckle at.



 

And here's a photo of my dad in the Jura Hotel across the road from the Jura Distillery, where we enjoyed a dram and a lager, in no particular order.







 

Slàinte


February 13, 2013

water of life

In September I was privileged to be hosted on a personal tour of Glenglassaugh by Ronnie Routledge. A fascinating look behind the scenes of this recently reopened distillery on the Moray coast, ending with a delicious sampling of drams from their clearac to a 30+ year old. Glenglassaugh "Revival" is a dram to seek out, from a distillery to watch.

One of the more interesting stories Ronnie told about the early history of the distillery was that of its water. Apparently there was a time when Glenglassaugh was intended to reproduce the flavour profile of the whisky produced at The Glenrothes in Speyside. Although the differences in water chemistry were known ahead of time, the ramifications were not fully realized until the new make coming off the still was found to be quite different as well. After many attempts at doctoring the production water, success was only found by actually transporting it from The Glenrothes itself, some 30 miles distant.

Should there be any question about the level of importance of water in the making of whisky, this anecdote surely goes a long way toward an answer.

inside the old Glenglassaugh malting barn

the Glenglassaugh mashtun

the Glenglassaugh washbacks

the Glenglassaugh stills

barrels at Glenglassaugh

the Glenglassaugh Distillery

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February 11, 2013

where on earth

Way back when I first started this blog, I promised you a link to a good map for finding your fave Scottish distilleries. I'd like to thank the folks at Malt Madness for this one I use all the time. It's interactive, and will allow you to find more information on whatever distillery you click on. I've also included the link in my sidebar. A little dated as of 2023, but fun to use.

Here's a downloadable one from the Scotch Whisky Association from 2023. Mind you, with the bustling nature of whisky distillery construction currently (ie 2023), it too may soon be lacking.

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November 11, 2012

March 6, 2012

small is beautiful

I arrived late at Daftmill, the journey between my digs (the Comrie Croft Hostel just west of Crieff) and the distillery taking a little longer than I had banked on. A couple wrong turns didn't help. My accommodating host Frances Cuthbert was just about to head back out to the fields when I rolled in. Being a working farm, Frances not only makes the whisky but also grows the barley (and potatoes, and cows...) along with his brother. With unpredictable harvest weather, and a window of dry skies, he had to make it a short tour, but I am grateful to him for showing a Canadian stranger around his young distillery at a time least afforded.

Perhaps more delightful was meeting Mrs. Cuthbert and their young daughter. After Frances drove away on his tractor, I sat in the car writing a few notes. Hazel came out to make sure I had not missed Frances, and graciously spent some time chatting.

Daftmill is a beautiful little distillery for many reasons, not the least of which is the people who live and work there.


stills, spirit safe, and washback in the Daftmill Distillery

aplle orchard and kiln cupola at Daftmill Distillery

green warehouse door and child's scooter at the Daftmill Distillery


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March 21, 2011

not scotch

In light of the vendetta which the SWA seems to have against the naming of Canadian malt whisky, "Glen Breton Rare" in particular, I thought you might like to see a few photos of our Glenora Distillery on Cape Breton Island in the east coast province of Nova Scotia.  Having won the legal battle allowing Glen Breton to keep its name, Glenora subsequently released a 15 year old they call "Battle of the Glen"...shades of delicious Bruichladdich cheek!

The first photo shows the distillery as the white building on the left. Behind it up the hill are the half dozen log chalets maintained by the distillery's Inn operation, where my parents and I stayed when visiting the area. The rest of the photos are self explanatory. Like many good single malts, these pix are almost 10 years old.

landscape around the Glenora Distillery on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada

stills, spirit receiver, spirit safe in the Glenora Distillery on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada

open washbacks and the mashtun in the Glenora Distillery on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada

mashtun in the Glenora Distillery on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada

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February 16, 2011

raison d'être

The March #54 issue of Scotland Magazine has run an interview with Albert Watson, the Scottish photographer behind the Macallan Masters of Photography collection. The full page image accompanying the article is bylined with his quote that "Straight photographs of distilleries and the production processes can be deadly". I agree, with emphasis on the word "can". "Straight" photographs, photographic documents, can still harbour a pleasing aesthetic, and that speaks directly to the premise of this blog when I started it in April of 2010 - my attempt, similar to Watson's work at the Macallan, to present images of the whisky distilling world in a different, hopefully creative way. A photographer of Watson's calibre just happens to garner a much larger audience than someone like myself.

I feel honoured to be in such company, having conceptualized this project quite independently of the Macallan and Albert Watson. My phone lines are open for future consideration (which emoji indicates one's tongue firmly implanted in one's cheek?).

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February 8, 2011

February 1, 2011

more Tomatin

Subsequent to my rant about photographing in distilleries, here are a couple more pix of Tomatin. As I've said before (oh no, I'm repeating myself!) thankfully there was plenty of visual fodder outside, since cameras were not allowed in any of the production areas inside. I've posted another image in this series before. I'm a sucker for splashes of red...

red door at the Tomatin Distillery
red door at the Tomatin Distillery

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December 28, 2010

barrels

In the long history of whisky making, wood has perhaps travelled the furthest along the distiller's continuum of understanding as to its importance to and influence on the final product. Born of the need simply to contain and transport the whisky maker's art, it is now exhaulted as one of the major contributors to the flavours we have come to love. So much so that distilleries like Glenmorangie actually select their own oak from trees growing in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri where it will begin its life as barrels maturing American whiskey or bourbon.

And though the distiller appreciates the barrel for the qualities of its wood, I appreciate it for the qualities of its shape and form...the smooth flowing line of the circle, the rhythm of repetition, the stories it tells by its grizzled exterior and stencilled tatoos. They're fun to photograph.


barrels at Bruichladdich Distillery with the logo reflected in water pooled on the barrelhead

Barrels at the Bruichladdich Distillery

Bruichladdich barrels after the rain.


barrels at Arran Distillery, yellow and green barrelheads

Arran barrels.


barrels at Glenora Distillery, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, Canada

Glenora, Canada's single malt distiller on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.


barrel hoops in the Balvenie Distillery cooperage

Balvenie barrel hoops.

Slàinte
...and Happy Hogmanay


October 29, 2010

on malting

While savouring a dram of Redbreast Irish pot still whiskey, I finish reading Iain Banks's "Transitions". It gets me thinking about transitions - change, the movement between states. So of course that leads to thinking about malted barley (malting as one of many transitions involved in making whisky, and the fact that most Irish whiskey is made with unmalted barley...just nod and pretend you follow me). Who first figured that barley should go through the extra time, effort, and energy to germinate the grain before using it to distill our favourite tipple? It's a process that is systemically more costly than just using barley reaped and dried straight off the field. Maybe it was one of those serendipitous mistakes - barley stashed under a leaky roof, discovered too late but too valuable to discard...I'm just musing here, I'm sure somewhere out there is an historical explanation.

The first two are a couple photos of barley quietly germinating on the malting floor at Laphroaig. It's time, labour, and space intensive to malt this way - that's why few distilleries do it for themselves any more. I'm thinking the process was only undertaken after the establishment of distilleries as legal entities able to occupy a relatively large footprint, the first arguably founded sometime during the last quarter of the 18th century. Prior to the luxury of a malting floor, I suggest that most Scotch whisky must have been made with unmalted barley.

I also suggest you pick up one of Iain Banks's works, with or without the M. His "Raw Spirit" got me reading him, and though it is not quite representative of his more widely distributed subject matter the book is a tasty dram, a roadtrip through the landscape of Scotch whisky.


empty malting floor at the Laphroaig Distillery

a grain wheelbarrow at Laphroaig used to spread the steeped barley by hand across the malting floor


turning the germinating barley on the malting floor at Bowmore Distillery

you've seen a similar image here before - raking the growing barley at Bowmore so it doesn't mat together into a tangled mess


a motorized rake and germinating barley on the malting floor of Bowmore Distillery

a motorized barley rake at Laphroaig - undoubtedly a lot easier on the maltman's back!


a handful of germinating barley after two days on the malting floor at Laphroaig Distillerya handful of germinating barley after three days on the malting floor at Laphroaig Distillery

           after two days on the malting floor            after three days on the malting floor


germinating barley on the malting floor of the Springbank Distillery

the malting floor at Springbank, Campbeltown


germinating barley on the original malting floor of Kilchoman Distillery

the malting floor at Kilchoman, Islay


germinating barley on the malting floor at the Balvenie Distillery

the malting floor at the Balvenie, Speyside


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October 6, 2010

tribute

Just got back from Scotland where I picked up a copy of "Discovering Scotland's Distilleries" by Gavin D. Smith and Graeme Wallace - a neat little publication which has nicely updated the state of affairs. The book tells me that Tamdhu has been closed down (the Edrington Group website says it was "mothballed" in March of this year - OK, so I'm not the one to come to for the latest industry news!). Shame, since the dram I'm drinking is quite tasty (distillery release, no age statement).

We had a wonderful tour of their maltings in 2008, very informative and personal, with Heather Anderson, the distillery manager's wife. The maltings may still be operating, I don't know. When you get to meet the people who have a direct role in the crafting of our whisky, one feels a modicum of personal loss when a distillery like Tamdhu is considered redundant by its corporate owners. One wonders what happens to the people you've met...here are a few of them.


sign in a stone wall at Tamhdu Distillery

...another one bites the dust


Heather Anderson opens the lid of the barley screener at Tamdhu Distillery

...peering into the barley screener


damp barley in the steep at Tamdhu Distillery

...emptying the steeped barley


spraying damp barley into the Saladin box for germinating at the Tamdhu Distillery

...casting the steeped barley to the saladin box for germination


shovelling out the malted barley from the Saladin box at Tamdhu Distillery

...emptying the saladin box, the barley being ready for the kiln

See www.whisky.com/brands/tamdhu_brand.html for more information on Tamdhu.


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August 15, 2010

the rant

It really hasn't been that long since I first became interested in single malt whisky. The first trip my dad and I made to Scotland with distilleries as the main focus was in 2001. At that time many of the distilleries had no well developed facilities for public tours, but most were quite accommodating in giving us a personal glimpse which I prearranged before our journey. Most, if not all, were quite amenable to me taking photographs along any part of the process. This was heaven for me since, as I've said before, my interest in whisky is not restricted to the tasting of the end product.

Jump to the present. Most distilleries now do not allow photographs to be taken in any of the production areas. Apparently this is for health and safety reasons - a common excuse being the prevalance of explosive alcohol vapours. More likely the methane from this bull***t.

I welcome any industry comments on this. And I applaud all those distilleries which still allow whisky fans like me to have their photographic fun.

looking into the working depths of Tomatin Distillery from the visitor's area

This clandestinely obtained photograph would have gotten me into trouble with the tour guide at Tomatin had I been seen.



looking down into the stillhouse at Bruichladdich Distillery where the Budgie shares his knowledge with two Academy students

A couple of Whisky Academy students at Bruichladdich get a lesson from Budgie...look out folks, my camera is going to blow you up! During past visits, the folks at the Laddie have given me free access to photograph in the distillery. One of the reasons I love the place.

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July 18, 2010

"still" here

You may have noticed that it's been a while since my last post so I'll take a quick minute to let you know I'm still here. My summer is consumed by my work at a kids camp and I barely have time to check my email let alone put the amount of thought into a blog post that it deserves. That being the case, I'm going to leave you with a photograph from Aberfeldy.

If you've managed to peruse my webalbum photos, or looked at my personal photoblog then you'll know that I'm quite visually drawn to splashes of the colour red. Or any colour for that matter. Aberfeldy, like many distilleries, was quite restrictive in allowing cameras to be used inside the distillery, so luckily there was some interesting stuff to see from the outside.

red and green leaves growing on an Aberfeldy wall


See you soon.
Slàinte

June 26, 2010

Talisker

Talisker distillery is in the top ranks when it comes to the beauty of its surroundings. The road to our B&B snaked its way up to the hills above Loch Harport where we could look down upon the distillery on the shore.



looking down upon Loch Harport and the Talisker Distillery

the road above Loch Harport


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June 12, 2010

envying angels

Consider the angels.

You've no doubt heard of their "share", that portion of whisky alcohol which works its way through the wood of the barrels basking in the warehouse over time and which apparently disappears into the ether. Well, this vapour actually doesn't totally disappear. Some of  it is rounded up and feasted upon by a mould or microfungus called Baudoinia compniacensis. This is the black sooty stuff often seen on the outside walls of distillery warehouses. Some distilleries whitewash the walls to cover it up. Too bad I say...it is an integral part of the making of your favourite dram. At every turn we seem to be increasing the divide between ourselves and the natural world. How can we expect people to respect the natural environment if we are forever demonizing it?

So, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin? At least we know why they're dancing.


picture of angels in the Glen Ord warehouse

The angels at Glen Ord


black whisky mold on the wall beside a barred warehouse window at the Tamdhu Distillery

A Tamdhu wall...but it could be any whisky warehouse wall.


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May 24, 2010

more heat

I got thinking more about heat after my last post and realized just how prevalent it is in the whisky making process, and that I'd overlooked some of my photographs reflecting the subject which may be of interest to you. So I guess this is part two.

A couple of the photos have an annoying lens shadow at the bottom of the image, for which I apologize. I would normally not hesitate to excise such offences to my aesthetic sensibilities, however I felt that the subject matter would have suffered somewhat if I had cropped them out. So be it...I'll just have to do the suffering with a cringe or two every time I see them.


beating hot copper at Forsyth's, turning it into a whisky still

Forsyth's, in the town of Rothes in Speyside, have been crafting the lions share of Scotch whisky distillery equipment since the end of the nineteenth century. Dad and I were lucky enough to be graciously hosted by Mr. Richard Forsyth on a very interesting tour of the factory. I suspect this is the upper section of a still in the making. After having been heated by another coppersmith with a torch, this chap is beating the red hot metal into shape. The outer shell of a condenser is lying on the floor behind him.


raking the germinating barley on the malting floor at Bowmore Distillery

Bowmore is one of the few remaining distilleries to floor malt some of their own barley. While germinating, the barley produces heat which must be regulated by turning over with wide flat shovels and raking, which is being done here. This also prevents the emerging rootlets from tangling into an unmanageable clump. As you can see, this process is quite labour intensive and back breaking so it is also done by machine.



This is a rare sight - too bad I messed it up with a shadow (cringe #1!). The inside of Springbank's wash still with one of the few rummagers in existence. When a still was (is, in this case) directly fired with an open flame from below, as all stills used to be, there needed to be a method of preventing the contents from scorching. This was achieved by the rummager, a strip of copper chain mail which revolved inside the still in order to stir and scrape the bottom, not unlike what needs to be done when you make your porridge on the stove. This still is also heated by steam which travels through the pipes seen around the circumference.


inside a still at Glen Scotia Distillery showing the steam heating pots

The interior of a Glen Scotia still. The silver pots radiate heat from steam inside the pipes which can be seen just below the liquid surface. They, of course, would be covered when the still is in full tilt boogie mode (one of the lesser known whisky distilling terms!...and an obtuse shoutout to Canadian backup bands everywhere!!).


rotating barrel being recharred in the cooperage at the Balvenie


The charring of the inside surface of whisky barrels is done in a couple of ways. At the Speyside Cooperage where they refabricate zillions of barrels for the Scotch whisky industry, the barrels are stood upright with no ends above a furnace which blasts a huge flame through the barrel like a chimney. Very cool sight. This photograph, however, is from the cooperage at the Balvenie where they do all their own barrel work on site. You're looking at the end of a barrel on its side, through a window I might add, which is being spun round by the two rollers at the bottom of the image. A flame is then blasted into the open end facing away from us, which can be seen shooting out the bung hole. It, too, is a pretty cool sight to see.


barrels at the Bruichladdich Distillery showing interior char


This is one of my favourite barrel images, so I'm glad to be able to share it with you to end off this post. It is a triptych of Bruichladdich barrels, with one showing the result of the interior charring (or maybe it's from all of my hot air floating about!).


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