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Scotch Odyssey 2: A Daft Prologue

The gorgeous Daftmill distillery.

Having said I wouldn’t be updating ‘live’, here I am. In truth, I cannot wait another two weeks to give an in-depth account of my time at Daftmill distillery (and I have access to a computer, photo-editing software and a strong cup of tea, so why the hell not?).

If my Scotch Odyssey was the Tour de France, today would be the Prologue, that weird mini time trial right at the start to shuffle the riders into some semblance of hierarchy and provide a stable location for a bit of a party. I left St Andrews at 8.40; I returned at 12.30. I went as far as Daftmill Farm, just beyond Cupar, to meet Quaich Society patron and vanguard farm distiller Francis Cuthbert.

Since its establishment in 2004, Daftmill distillery has kept a low profile. So low in fact, that I had some difficulty in finding it. After darkening the doorstep of someone’s house, I pedalled back to the main road to find another turn off and sailed right on past the correct one. Eventually, I tracked down the discreet pagoda and donned civilian gear.

The mash tun.

Francis adjusted the mash tun while I took photos, then the tour commenced. He has been rather busy this month showing ‘maltheads’ around, usually as they journey to Speyside or Islay. Germans and Swedes are especially keen to have a look round, with whisky-making happening in between times. Below the mash house are ten wheelie bins, filled with grist made from Daftmill’s own concerto barley. Having long grown barley for other distillers, Allied in the old days and Macallan currently, the journey to distilling his own spirit began after much discussion and interrogation. For the Cuthbert family, it was not a decision rushed into. They ‘ummed’ and ‘ahhed’ about installing a mill but chose to forego the expense and have their grist brought in. 100 tonnes (the smallest batch Crisp Maltings in Alloa will service) is sent away and comes back ready to be distilled.

While I was there the first mash of the current season was in progress. Francis likes to recirculate the worts to ensure clarity – as I was reminded over the course of the visit, Daftmill wants to produce a fruity, clean spirit and that all starts in the mash tun. Distillers yeast is then added, and fermentation takes between 72 and 100 hours. If the wort is crystal clear, fermentation goes off like a rocket and the switcher blades are forced to work overtime to control the rising froth, not always successfully. Francis told me that much of the alcohol has already been created after 48 to 50 hours, but longer ferments promote lactic acid build up as dead yeast cells are consumed, again generating those fruity flavours. Ideally, the wash should taste faintly sour or bitter as it is pumped across to the still house: distillation will recover that sweetness.

The Daftmill stills.

Why these stills, Francis? ‘We just picked a shape we liked,’ he replies with a shrug. Francis prefers to determine house style through his manipulation of the stills, rather than trust the shape to influence matters. Daftmill’s short, and very pretty stills are run slowly to maximise copper contact, and after each wash and spirit charge the man-doors are opened to allow the copper to rejuvenate. At every point, he is zoning in on the desired spirit character.

Half of a wash back’s contents goes into the wash still, producing 800-900 litres of low wines at 22-23% ABV. Into the spirit still, then, for a stately distillation. The aim is to capture some lovely succulent oils, but a seven-minute foreshot run clears out the fat and grease from previous feints which is, obviously, not wanted. The spirit cut is tiny, and impressively high: from 78% down to 73% ABV. I can only think of The Macallan and Glen Garioch that have a narrower middle cut. Water is added and the spirit is reduced to 63.5% (‘with the paddle’ – a lumped of wood rest on top of the spirit receiver) before being pumped across to the warehouse which is the final side of the courtyard.

Inside the warehouse.

When I arrived I imagined I smelt fermenting going on. Francis suggested it could the Quaker Oats factory nearby but I think it could be all the fresh Bourbon casks maturing behind the rich green doors. Inside, I was met with that dunnage warehouse aroma that I know and love so dearly: two floors hold Daftmill’s hundred or so casks (there is another warehouse elsewhere on the farm). All of the production from the past ten years stood in front of me and after fielding a farming-related phone call, Francis grabbed a valinch and set to work.

The vast majority of casks are from Heaven Hill in Kentucky: all first-fill ex-Bourbon. In recent years, due to oak demand, some have had to be sourced from Makers Mark and Jim Beam. Francis pulled out a shining measure of liquid from a 2006 barrel before pirouetting and breaking open a Sherry butt from the same year.

The two cask samples.

I nosed the ex-Bourbon sample and was met by a gust of lightly-bruised spearmint, Werther’s Originals, the creamiest, juiciest vanilla I’ve ever come across and sparkly, fudgey malt. The malt character reminded me of some Larks I’ve tasted: a combination of light, smooth and sweet malt and powdery shards of crystallised green fruit. It also bore some similarity to a single cask Kilchoman Peter Wills brought to the Quaich Society recently: clean, fresh and attractive. ‘You’re in good company,’ Francis said. ‘Charlie Maclean reckoned he could smell mint, too’. The palate presented a different face to Daftmill; still clean and fruity, with the spirit resisting the oak, before rich cereal notes entered together with butter on burnt crumpets. A real mouthfilling whisky, this one. Time in the glass revealed fat corn from the oak, lemon posset and banana chips.

The Sherry cask had contained Oloroso and the colour, as you can see, is spectacular. The nose was as clean and pure as the ex-Bourbon example, but with glace cherry and candied red apple before sultana flapjack and jellied grapefruit appeared. I professed astonishment that the spirit had not been bullied by the first-fill Sherry. Again, the thickness that registered on the palate was impressive: toasty oak with jelly beans and an oily weight. There were some aromatic notes arising from the tannins, like tarragon and bike chain oil (or that could have been me).

Francis hopes to release single casks initially (precisely when, he declined to comment) before bringing a few casks together and bottling at 46%, a la Kilchoman. He confessed that the young Islay distillery’s policy of finishing a vatting in Sherry casks appeals to him but did not say that this would be Daftmill’s approach. Over the whole visit, however, Francis emphasised that while he is still trying to perfect his distillation regime, nothing is unequivocally off-limits. Peated Daftmill may be trialled in future, other casks may be brought in, but for now he is waiting to see how the world will respond to his take on the Lowland single malt style. I’d wager it will be a hit.

I pedalled off in the light rain forecast, my left knee resuming its complaint from the ride in. This is worryingly similar to the pain I suffered from in the run up to the last Odyssey four years ago. That went away with some dedicated rest. Hopefully whatever is wrong can continue healing tonight. The odd thing is that the pain goes away after a few miles so hopefully it is just a temperature problem and a question of getting warmed up. I’d rather not be popping Paracetamol for the next two weeks.

This will be my final blog post for a while, but a lot of the action will hopefully be related on Twitter (@WhiskyOdyssey).

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’101 World Whiskies To Try Before You Die’

What would 101 days of Christmas be like? This question is not purely rhetorical, of course, due to the militarised encroachment of Festive cheer (or perhaps uninterest, verging on febrile rage) into the month of September or even earlier. How fortunate we are, therefore, that Ian Buxton has a solution should tradition ever be rewritten to reflect consumerist reality; he has provided an itinerary a good deal more delicious – if less catchy – than the Patridge-In-A-Pear-Tree variety in the shape of his latest book, ’101 World Whiskies to Try Before You Die’.

I caught up with Ian at a recent talk here in St Andrews to promote the new tome, which follows on from ’101 Whiskies to Try Before You Die’ (‘Police Academy II’ as Ian dubbed the sequel). Although it is not a title I own, it was responsible for initiating a whisky-based friendship with a Swedish gentlemen who was sitting next to me on one of my many train journeys to and from university and reading all about Compass Box. I have since associated Mr Buxton’s work with my favourite kind of whisky fellowship, and having met the man himself I can confirm that he is every bit as sociable and engaging as his Twitter account (@101Whiskies).

For an hour and a half, Ian waxed lyrical about whiskies at home and abroad while little morsels of those he has listed in his books appeared before our lips. It was a struggle to cling onto our thimbles and juggle the various props Ian circulated throughout the room, in addition to paying close attention to the torrent of fact and opinion he produced.

Beginning at the beginning, Ian’s point of departure from the traditional heartland of whisky production focused on the explosion of farm-scale distilling in America. He eulogised about the potential for flavour innovation these start-up distillers symbolise. In subsequent correspondence, Ian revealed the fun he had had exploring Swiss and Finnish whisky. When I asked which book he had preferred writing – this one, or its predecessor – Ian replied that both had been a lot of fun, but with the latest focus on whisky counter cultures, he hoped to ‘open a few people’s eyes to the great quality and great value that’s out there if you step off the ‘big brand luxury’ path for a moment (though that delivers some surprises too).’

The final reveal of the whiskies we had been sampling took a few by surprise, including myself. I had selected the final whisky as my favourite, as had my neighbour Doug Clement who could announce on the night that Kingsbarns Distillery had at last secured the financial backing necessary to begin its own farm distilling story. Dram #5, however, hailed from an operation that is more than 210 years old: Highland Park.

Ian holding court - and an empty bottle of Highland Park.

Of greatest curiosity – and supplying what was tantamount to a committee of world whiskies in one bottle – was Orbis. A blend of whiskies from Canada, the US, Ireland, Japan and Scotland, the nose was lemon-accented before heavy brown grist appeared and took the whisky in a different direction. Aromas of oregano, tomato puree and red wine materialised, before a hint of peat smoke made its presence felt. On the palate, there was blackcurrant juice and chocolate, with a return of the gristiness and the peat. I had thought this was Scotch – an unusual and young Bunnahabhain perhaps. How wrong I was.

Some days after the tasting, I solicited the Buxton perspective on tourism in Scotch whisky distilleries – the raison d’etre for the Scotch Odyssey Blog, after all. Ian has worked as a consultant on projects such as Dewar’s World of Whisky and the visitor centres at Highland Park and Glenfiddich; curiously enough, all of these feature in a list of my top 10 whisky visitor attractions in Scotland, with Highland Park picking up the top gong, and Glenfiddich not far behind with their supreme (and free) standard tour. Ian’s advice: “to thine own self be true”. Don’t try to position your whisky or your distillery into a gap in the market which they are not destined to fill, but with any marketing activity remain faithful to a core and authentic principal. ‘When building and operating a centre you need to engage and seduce the visitor, not beat them to death with branding,’ he says, ’People know where they are and why they came, so you don’t need to ‘sell’ to them. Get the right people working there and let them engage with the visitors, then those visitors go away as ambassadors and bring more visitors.’

His own picks for distilleries to visit include The Macallan with their revolutionary presentation on the subject of all things wood, and also Bruichladdich for the commendable reasons that it is ‘so down to earth and a faithful representation of the brand, company, place and people’.

Another ’101′ format book in the offing, maybe? I should warn him that the Scotch Odyssey Blog will defend its niche – even if ’42 Whisky Distilleries to Visit Before You Die’ hasn’t quite the same ring to it.

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