Saturday, February 12, 2011

Glenkinchie and Belhaven (Part 1)

I've heard rumors going around that are sickeningly malicious. Despite constant assurances, there is a core group of rebels that still don't believe I actually do anything at this school. The photographic evidence from last time has done nothing to satiate their terrible hearsay. So, despite my generally calm and sober demeanor, I have decided to prove, once again, that I do more than just sit around and drink.

One of the key (and exciting) aspects of this course are the field trips we take. While many associate field trips with going to a theme park or a stuffy museum, here in the Brewing and Distilling Science program at Heriot-Watt, we go to...well...breweries and distilleries. Our recent foray into the field saw us at Glenkinchie distillery and Belhaven brewery, both on the same day. Shall I chronicle it for you? Yes, I believe I shall. Hold on to your britches.


A terrible time for Brewing and Distilling Science students. Some of us are knocking the sleep off our eyes while others are clearly knocking the liquor out of our livers. We crowd onto the coach (it's what they call a bus over here) and find our seats. One of the heads of the department comes on to greet us:

That's Professor James Bryce. In case you couldn't tell by the outfit, he' can I put this....awesome. Technically not a brewer himself (he's biology and takes care of the barley/malting aspect of the course) but I forgive him. After a brief chat about the tour he departs for some sort of meeting (probably going to stop crime or something of that ilk). That leaves us on the bus for the half hour ride to Glenkinchie, near Pencaitland. We all settle in for the ride:


After about a half hour we arrive at Glenkinchie, itching for some one on one time with the distillery (and a dram, of course). We are greeted by this:


Fine...need more proof? Here:

That is...Kinchie Burn! It runs right next to the distillery.  You want MORE?! Greedy...

There, further proof. Now quit complaining and just stay silent while I try to reweave the tale. Ungrateful, I swear. Diageo, being the business savvy company that they are, IMMEDIATELY put us in the gift shop. Many of us buy neat trinkets like coffee cups, mousepads, and posters to hang in our cubicles. Alright, that's a falsehood. We browse whisky:

SOOOO MUCH WHISKY. It was a little slice of heaven for me. Of course, most of it was far out of my price range but it was still nice to browse expressions that weren't really available in the States. Mmmm, Flora and Fauna series. One of the nicest things about Scotland is the predominance of half-bottles, like this one of the Glenkinchie 12:

Note the price. £10 for a 350mL of spirit. Just right to split at a cigar tasting between friends or for a religious tasting. But since we got a dram at the end, I held off. The first part of the tour was a leisurely browse through the museum of the distillery:

Where we were!
Illicit still with manufactured manhole on it. Top notch work for a still you hide.
Worm tub condenser and receiving barrel.
Inside of worm tub. Note there's not a lot of copper. This will result in a heavier spirit.
Dr. Livingston, I presume? No? Well then I'm more sloshed than I thought.
Old bottles of blends. I tried to break the glass, not gonna lie.
Cooper's tools / workbench for barrels. He was sadly put out of his job after the labor issues with Donkey Kong.
One of the coolest things here were the old adverts for the Glenkinchie single malt. It was originally a ten year old malt that changed to a twelve year a few years ago so someone pasted "twelve" or "12" over all of the tens which rendered some of them kinda pointless. But here were a few that still made sense:

But really now, enough of all of that hullabaloo. I didn't come all this way just to look at old ads. I wants me some sweet distillin' action, baby. Let's let that wash flow.


After the museum, they took us out a back door and to the working distillery. At this point I was so exciting I was vibrating at a frequency that concerned my fellow classmates. I almost hit resonance frequency with the pavement and slipped through but sheer luck kept me from falling. But the entire time I was glowing faintly due to emitting energy. I was then told I would have to stop trembling to prevent fires in the malt room and still room. I reluctantly did so with great difficulty. We begin outside:

Ah yes, random iron plating #342. The pinnacle of all iron platings in the United Kingdom. Forged from the finest iron that money could buy, it is the king of all miscellaneous ferrous grating. But, lo, dear readers, this is not but a humble monarch of the iron-kin. It's actually incredibly important, far beyond it's metallurgical standpoint. This is the malt intake for Glenkinchie. Each day, two huge trucks pull up to this wee spot and dump the grainy lifeblood of whisky into this hallowed trench. This is where the magic begins. But where does it go, you may ask?

Well, I can't show you. We couldn't take pictures in there for fear of starting a fire with all of the malt dust in the air. The bins WERE huge though. Eight in total (two rows of four), they held enough grain to possibly make the aforementioned Professor Bryce quite giddy. But I can show you where the malt goes from the bins:

Behind the glinty ceiling lights and obvious reflection of the humble cameraman lies the steeping grain. This foamy, ruddy goodness will eventually become the wash, the fermented juice that charges the stills. But where is this fermented? I'm sure you'd love to know. Fine, I'll indulge you:

It ferments in one of these bad boys: a wooden washback. A huge wooden tub that is filled with that sweet steepage from before along with a healthy dosing of hearty distillers yeast (capable of handling the high ABVs required for a suitable distilling wash). The cool part (or gross part, depending on your view) is the fact that, since these washbacks are wooden, the pores in the wood will hold microscopic bits of yeast and other bacterial goodies that will promote the production (by sugar/protein/lipid degradation) of flavor characters in the final product. Deeeeeeelicious. With that...we come to the best part. This is the view from the fermentation room:

Look at them. They are beautiful. Whenever Sir Mix-A-Lot talks about "thick soul sistas", I think of these bottom-heavy beauties. After entering the room, I couldn't help but hum Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls" (warning, Freddy's in leather pantaloons). A stifling hot room, to say the least, but these copper honeys radiated both heat and delicious liquid love. Literally. It smelled like cooking grain and alcohol in here. It was blissful. I hope, one day, my house smells like that. Maybe I can get it pumped in through central heating. After it leaves the still, it ends up here:

At this point I had a stunning revelation and it really affirmed why I'm in this program. As I stared into this glass and brass chamber, I watched the spirit cuts flow into the holding tank below and I gasped. I was witnessing history. Not in a huge scale, no. But certainly global. The spirit that was pouring from the spout would find a cozy home in a cask soon. It would be rolled into a warehouse and stored on a rack for some time. Maybe it'd be 12 years and the whisky that I saw flow out would end up being drunk as a single malt. Maybe it would be in a blend. But the immense awe that I felt stemmed from the fact that I was seeing whisky that someone would one day drink. I was watching history happen. And that left me speechless. I probably didn't describe it very well but it's hard to put into words. You are seeing the beginning of something monumental. All of that work and time will someday bring someone pleasure. And it's damn worth it, I say.


After this brief little moment of moving thought, we then went out back to the biofermenters and such that cleaned up the waste effluent before dumping it into the Burn. Then we went to the bonded warehouse to have a peek around:

One day one of those casks will be mine. ALLL MIIIINE.
Then the tour guide popped the cork on a duty-paid barrel and let us have a sniff. I suspect that they actually let customers fill from that barrel (instead of just sniff) as I don't think they have to pay duty to let people smell whisky. Otherwise this is a screwed up country:


We then retired to the bar to have a  delicious dram. Unfortunately, I can't say that I truly enjoyed my first taste of the Glenkinchie. I really wasn't too big of a fan of the 12 year but the Cask Strength I tried was pretty good. Here's a photo of the glass:

I won't put up tasting notes as I'd really like to give this another crack before passing judgment. If I had to guess a flavor, I'd say "feinty". But the cask strength balanced the feinty taste well so I'll give it that. Don't hold me to those notes though because they're not very fair.

Now I know the post says Glenkinchie AND Belhaven but let's be honest...your internet is considering jumping off the figurative cliff after trying to load all those pictures so I'm gonna break this up into two parts. Because I have far more pictures for Belhaven than for Glenkinchie. So stay tuned.

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