gavin smith

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Sma' Still at Glenlivet

by Gavin D Smith, 08/06

Today The Glenlivet is one of the world's best-selling and most respected malt whiskies, but, like so many other Scottish distilling operations, its origins are to be found in the trade of illicit distillation. Renowned as the first distillery to gain a licence in the wake of the 1823 Excise Act, Glenlivet is situated in the remote Speyside heartland of north-east Scotland, where illegal whisky making once thrived.

According to The Glenlivet's retired Master Distiller Jim Cryle, "The legal distilleries had to produce large quantities to be effective. Quality was poor, whereas the stuff made in places like Glenlivet in small stills was almost certainly better. It had a very good reputation, and it's said that there were as many as 200 small stills operating in the area at one time."

In recognition of this fascinating heritage, earlier this year Cryle set about reproducing whisky using methods and equipment similar to those employed by the illicit distillers of the early 19th century. (right: Jim Cryle standing beside the sma' still)

He discovered a pair of reproduction 'sma' stills' - so named because they were small enough to be portable, easily assembled, transported and hidden - lurking in a warehouse at Strathisla distillery. The pair had been constructed for display purposes during the 1986 bi-centenary of the Keith distillery.

The renowned Rothes coppersmithing firm of Forsyth's modified one of the stills slightly, fitting a base, and fabricating a 'worm.' Jim Cryle was then ready for business.

Ideally, to truly recreate illicit distilling, sacks of barley would have been soaked in a burn until germination began, before drying over a peat fire, to create rough and ready malt. After this, the phases of mashing and fermentation would have been carried out using makeshift plant prior to distilling. To speed up the process, however, the sma' still was charged with 25 litres of low wines from the Glenlivet stillhouse, with Cryle calculating that this should produce between five and six litres of spirit. The still was fired by a mixture of wood and coal.

"The legal minimum size of still is 40 gallons," noted Cryle, "and this still is way below that. It took us a while to get Customs & Excise to agree to let us do this, and I really can't believe I'm getting the chance to do this, to do something Glenlivet's founder George Smith was doing 200 years ago.

"It's a real one off, and we just wanted to give people the opportunity to experience what the smugglers would have done at that time. They would have been making whisky illegally and then transporting it over the hills to sell in the centres of population. We set out to create a still of that style and size.

"The old guys would have had to distil it twice, but they'd have taken a much bigger cut out of the second distillation than we have. They'd have been much less selective than we are. It would have been pretty rough, and don't forget it wouldn't be matured. I'm running it for 15 minutes on foreshots and then running spirit for 45 minutes to an hour. You need the fire burning nice and slow to bring it off slow and smooth."

   By the end of the day, Jim Cryle had collected approximately one gallon of new make spirit, but as the event had been attended by around a dozen journalists and 30 thirsty German Glenlivet Whisky School participants, it would be reasonable to assume that a considerable amount more had actually been produced! (Left: Jim Cryle attends to the sma' still, assisted by Chivas' Ian Logan).

According to Cryle, "A condition of the special permission we have been granted is that we can only use the still once or twice a year, and it is not allowed to leave the distillery site. That will give us no more than15 bottles a year, so the whisky will be very rare and very
special. But we really haven't thought through where we are going to go with it. It's an experiment as much as anything else. But one day, when it's legally whisky, I'd love to put a cask on a pony and head south along one of the old smuggler's tracks."

Present to witness the sma' still in action was Chivas' International Public Relations Manager Jim Long. "We think it will be a great crowd-puller at the Speyside Whisky Festival and things like that," he said. "It's a fantastic way of bringing the reality of illicit distilling and the skills required for it to life for people, and it's back to basics for Jim Cryle!"

Sma' Still Tasting Notes

It was fascinating to sample changes in the character of the new make spirit as the run progressed. Overall, it was very sweet, rich, fruity and slightly oily, with little of the cereal character usually associated with new make. As the run went on, more cereal notes developed, along with an orange tang to the spirit's finish. Considering that it was coming off the still at around 68 per cent, the spirit was eminently drinkable, though a dash of Glenlivet mineral water did help to calm it down a little! A comparison with new make spirit straight from the distillery revealed the sma' still make to be considerably less urbane, and more intensely fruity.

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