Neil Gunn’s Whisky Book – Pt. 2

Whisky and Scotland

The Bit About Whisky

“To the make of a piper’ says Neil Munro ‘go seven years of his own learning and seven generations before.”  Whisky the same. There is a deep learning in it

Neil Gunn was diffident about his knowledge of whisky when he was equivocating about accepting the commission for this book – but I’m sure that within himself he knew he knew his stuff, as his knowledge ran deeper than mere appreciation. In the fabric of his being he could feel  how it was part of the life of a Highland community, and deep with his sense of identity he could recognise it as part of its cultural heritage.  He also had a technical appreciation of what it took to make a fine single malt; something that could only come from an involvement with the process itself. He was the Excise man at Glen Mhor from 1923-1937, where he would have been a keen observer. He also had a close working relationship with the owner John Birnie and many a conversation about the state of the industry and what made good whisky.

His experience also meant that when he was writing about how whisky was made he could see precisely what was happening in his minds eye. Visualising activity was always one of his strengths as a novelist and he had the ability to make you see what he was seeing. As an example here he is describing the malting floor. He does not go into precise detail, instead he suggests enough and then makes a comparison with the past that brings it all to life:

“…the malt men have continued at regular intervals scatter the grain in showers with rhythmical sweeps of their wooden shovels – an attractive sight to watch, and one that has always been to me, for some obscure reason, a little foreign, as though it belonged more rightly to the great barns of the granaries of a Europe still with the rhythm of labour of the mediaeval age. But despite all the Gaelic labour tunes behind them, these maltmen do not sing at their work – possibly for the same reason as prompts the reader to smile at the thought of it in this commercial age.” p134

His first-hand knowledge means that when we come to the section of his book which deals directly deals with the making of whisky and its characteristics, his tone changes and it is much more directly and engaging. It is almost as if his imagination is loosened-up by writing about a what he knows rather than trying to make a more abstract argument.  He builds from physical details such as: “As the old maltman put it ‘When you can write your name on the wall with it (the ear), it’s ready.’”.  A practical tip that helps you understand what has been happening to the grains of barely during malting and the change in its structure.  He is also good on imagery: “the last kiln I was in had an electric globe that glimmered high up in the dense gloom like a ghostly star while he, maltman, with bent shoulders, shuffled up and down, up and down, like a figure in some inferno.” I defy you not to be drawn in with that, and imagine what it must have been like to work in a matings in the days of manual labour. It was hard and the air was dense. It was an industrial process from the days when industrial processes were physically demanding and yet that process also had a mystery.

Gunn revels in the details of how whisky is made but modestly claims only to give a rough and ready description. Nevertheless he probably wrote the first book, aimed at the general reader, which clearly explained all the aspects of the process (Aeneas Macdonald, description, by contrast, could at best be called perfunctory, and is sometimes wrong) His aim, though,  was not to provide a dry technical description but rather  show how each stage of the elaborate process needed great care and that the whole enterprise naturally fitted the life and customs of the Highlands.

When it was written, 85 years ago, the book described a pattern of work that had changed little from the days the first distilleries were built, at the end of the eighteenth century. Much of this process is still recognisable today and many of the technical descriptions are still valid, which shows how the industry can genuinely lay claim to the concept of tradition. But there have been changes, of course there have. It is worth using an old book, like this, to look at what they are and the reasons for them; whether they come from a drive for increased economy, efficiency, consistency or the application of technological improvements. 

So here is a list of some of his observations:

Barley. He starts with the barley and this is right and proper. In his time mostly it was imported, (I actually think this had been the case since the latter part of the nineteenth century. To know for certain I will now have to find out more about British agriculture in the past two hundred years – It is amazing the rabbit holes whisky can lead you into!). The grain from abroad was dry, light golden in colour, and reliable but Gunn is convinced that native barley is the best as it has a soft maturing excellence’ (a  phrase that can be savoured and reused for other things).

Malting. There are some precise details: steeped barley is spread on malting floor 2-3 feet deep The barley is turned over to stop the rootlets entangling. Gradually thinned out till at the end of 8-10 days 3 or 4 inches deep. As well as the descriptions I previously mentioned.

Drying. Malt is dried in kiln over peat or coke at a low initial temperature that is gradually increased. [He makes no mention of air drying]. He marvels at the way peat lingers in the taste of the final whisky. For him it is one of the flavours a perfect whisky should possess. Speyside whiskies were generally peaty  and this is something we tend to forget when we think of their character today.

Judgement. In the whole malting process good judgement is needed  because the goodness of the malt determines the quality and quantity of the eventual distillate.

Mashing. Grist is seeped in water between 145º and 155º Fahrenheit (62.8º to 68.3º C)  for 2 hours. Drawn off and cooled to 70º (21.1C). 2nd steeping to extract the maximum amount of saccharine matter. [no mention of increased temperature or third wash]

Fermentation. A few buckets of yeast are added for fermentation. When deprived of oxygen in the air it takes it out of the sugar and turns it into alcohol and carbonic acid. “Yeast … is a delicate plant of a low order whose minute cells grow by a process of budding, yet in prime condition amidst prime wort it causes the liveliest commotion that I know of in nature”. Switchers are now mechanised but he had seen men stripped to the waist laying into the yeast froth with long birch twigs, for dear life.

The specific gravity of the original wort is 1050º but decreases to 998º Every degree of the 50 that is attenuated for 10,000 gallons of wash is equal to 20 gallons of proof spirit so if it sticks at 1003) instead of 998) the loss os about two hogsheads of spirit. (This happens now and again for reasons no one can explain)

Some experts say fermentation can be too rapid and if the temperature of the wash exceed 92 or 93º (33.5ºC) it creates coarse alcohols and acids

Distillation. In a normal Highland distillery the wash still is between 2000 to 4000 gallons (9092 – 18184 litres). [He doesn’t mention a size for spirit stills]

Stills are heated directly from a furnace underneath.  As the temperature increases the stillman detects what’s going on by tapping the neck with a slung wooden ball. The stillman needs to pay close attention to the furnace and its draughts

The wash is usually discharged in 7-8 hours. 70% of original quantity is spent wash that is run down the sewer.  Running the still slowly ensures that higher alcohols, acids, ethers, aldehydes are safely kept in the waste.

The oils left in the distillate give pot still whisky its own peculiar, desirable and unmistakable flavour [I’m sure he would have been dead against chill filtration as he was caramel colour, which he described as ‘a brutal addition’].

Stillmen.The responsibility of the stillman is grave throughout the process. Negligence at any stage can ruin the flavour, which will only be discovered 10 years or so later.

Considering his comparatively small wage, his faithfulness to his tasks surely a tribute to the Highland worker. “Indeed it may be said here that distillery workers as a class of menace amongst the most trustworthy and obliging and pleasantly mannered in these isles.”

Cycle. The whole process of brewing and distilling takes a week and takes place under the supervision of the Excise man. Normally the relationship between the Excise and and distiller is cordial and of mutual respect. [He would, of course, say that being and Excise man himself]

Natural rhythm. Distilling is mainly between October and May – suspended in summer because of cooling, water supply, good market for draff as cattle feed. Fits in with the agricultural rhythms of the Highland life. “I am tempted to expatiate on this absolute naturalness of the industry to its Highland environment”

Maturation. The casks are filled at about 111º proof (63.4%), which is considered ideal for maturation.

The whisky is matured in one of three types of cask: plain, which will not colour the whisky; treated, i.e. dosed with a vinous substance to colour and artificially aid maturation (a claim Gunn is very sniffy about)  and sherry. A sherry cask is the most expensive and the most sought after. [note there are no bourbon casks mentioned as the book was written a couple of years after the end of Prohibition]

In his view the spirit goes dead off in the first year or two in the cask. “In the early years of maturing it becomes gawky and angular, an early green adolescence capable of being very self-conscious and horrid between the first marvel of birth and the final round fulness of maturity.” He thus thinks the 3 year rule is sound but the 5yrs of Ireland and Australia is preferable. 7-8 years is sufficient for full maturation in a small cask. In a hogshead 10 yrs. The finest whisky he has tasted was from a butt matured for 15 years

After about 15 years in wood whisky, as a rule, starts to deteriorate. Though this of course depends on size. In a quarter cask the area in square inches exposed to the whisky is 106, in a butt 48.

A damp warehouse diminishes strength but preserves volume and is preferable to a dry warehouse that does the reverse.

Flavour. As a working hypothesis he thinks that the best flavours in a whisky come from the malt kiln and the casks, whilst brewing and distilling carry the greater risk of spoiling things.

Strength. He thinks 70º proof (40% abc) is too weak for pot still malt. The pre WWI strength of 80º proof (45.7% ) is desirable.

Patent Stills. Not whisky. Pure spirit. Better suited to industrial purposes. He really doesn’t want to talk about patent stills but has to because that are such a major component of the whisky business. [One of the interesting developments over recent years is a growing appreciation of whiskies from these industrial distilleries but to Gunn and Aeneas Macdonald they were beyond the pale, perhaps because they only spent a short time in indifferent casks]

Blending  It is impossible to overestimate the dominance of blends at the time this book was written. Some 98% of all output went into them. The scorn of Neil Gunn for something he sees as a bland, alcoholic carrier of soda , is enormous. His fear though was that the dominance of blends would lead to distilleries having to dial-up certain characteristics the blenders wanted and not have the opportunity to produce more subtle spirits to be fully enjoyed in their own right. “In 1921 there were 121 distilleries at work in Scotland . In 1933 there were 15 ( including 6 patent stills) In 1934 the number of pot still at work had increased again. But the future of Highland malt whisky other than as a flavour ingredient of patent spirit is very obscure”

Malts Mentioned

Today it is possible to buy a single malt from almost every distillery in Scotland (off the top of my head I can only think of Roseisle as being unavailable but, of course, I might be wrong). In the early half of the twentieth century this was not the case, single malts were not so easy to find. Our common understanding is that the development of single malts as a distinct market segment was pioneered by Glenfiddich in the 1960s but that does not mean that were not available before then (of course not Gunn could not have written his book if that was the case).  They might have been easier to find in Scotland but they were also available in England as Saintsbury had his cellar and Gunn, mentions an English friend with extensive knowledge of pot still whisky. How widely they were distributed and what outlets stocked them is however a subject for another research project.

Gunn was aware of the problem of writing a book celebrating something that wasn’t easy to find: “There are many distilleries in the north capable of producing this fine self-whisky. But I admit, as things are they may be a bit difficult to come by. At the moment I know of only two pot still distilleries that bottle on their own premises: Glenfiddich and Strathisla. Many of the other malts are bottled by merchants, but naturally the great blenders do not look with favour on such competition. Even distilleries owned by private individuals or companies hardly dare go into a bottling business on their own premises, lest orders from the blenders for new whisky might altogether cease.”

The single malts Gunn mentions in his books are ones that he knew were available. They were (in no particular order, as they say on Strictly): Clynelish, Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Talisker, Glendronach, Lagavulin,  Ardbeg, Coal Ila. (These are the whiskies mentioned by Saintsbury and described by John Birnie as ‘the usual list’ of popular whiskies with a reutation)  Glenmorangie, Dalmore, Glenburgie, Linkwood, Ord, Milburn, Highland Park, Strathisla, and Glenfiddich. Special mention is made of Pulteney, the whisky from his home county of Caithness and Glen Mhor, where he worked (Glen Mhor was a whisky he always thought one of the best). 

Of those Milburn and Glen Mhor are gone, Glenburgie and Linkwood are still relatively hidden as producers for blends but the others have maintained their status as single  malts. I do not know whether or not it is surprising that the list is so stable. It is worth noting though. that the malt which commands the highest prices at auctions and is widely thought of as the premium luxury brand, The Macallan, is not on the list.

His judgements about the nature of the whiskies themselves are sparse but usually acute. For example when talking about Talsker he says “at its best can be superb, but I have known it adopt the uncertain manners of the Skye weather.” This is deftly done and again I find it remarkable I can entirely share his opinion when we are tasting whiskies separated by 85 years. 

He does not rank distilleries. There is no idea of anything akin to a scoring system or a detailed analysis of flavours. The nearest he gets is saying Glenlivet and Glen Grant  had the highest reputation. It is not entirely clear whether this his personal opinion or a general consensus. Glenlivet was the whisky he put into his ‘International Cup’ to represent Scotland so he must have thought highly of it but I don’t think that meant he thought it was the tippy top brand. He admits that in his youth it used to share premier billing but there is a hint that he actually preferred Glen Grant, which he describes as a whisky with a reputation to maintain “It is full bodied and of fairly uniform quality. In certain circumstances it might be found a trifle penetrating to untried palates, but that is a matter to deliberate thoughtfully.” . Other whiskies he describes more sparingly some are merely called  ‘sound’ but this  approbation that carries far more weight for him, in his time, than it does for us in ours.

You can see how whisky writing has changed over the intervening years. Masses of tasting note and an exhaustive search for  flavours and cognates. I rather like these quick brush strokes from the old tradition.

In Summary

Above all else he appreciated the poetry of a spirit created from his own Highland environment. So let us finish with these words:

“These generous whiskies, with their individual flavours, do recall the world of hills and glens, of raging elements, of shelter, of divine ease. The perfect moment for their reception is after arduous bodily stress, or mental stress, if the body be sound.. The essential oils that wind in the glass then uncurl their long fingers lingering benediction and the nobler works of creation are made manifest.”

You can’t say fairer than that

P.S. The picture is of Balblair looking very much part of its Highland landscape. This integration is one of the great themes of the book