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Issue 41 - Out with the old, in with the new? Not quite...

Whisky Magazine Issue 41
July 2004


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Out with the old, in with the new? Not quite...

Can whisky-making be taught properly at university, and is our understanding of science leading to better whisky? Gavin Smith looks at the issue

If you walk into any pub on Speyside where retired distillery workers congregate and ask them whether things were better in their day, you'll receive the resounding answer ‘yes!' Partly, of course, this is human nature. Nobody wants to admit that someone who has succeeded them has found a better way of doing what they did.

It is a fact, however, that for better or for worse, many distilleries have lost the ‘human touch' as a result of increased automation and resultant cutbacks in staffing levels. Time and again, retired distillers point out that when they were young, there would have been as many as 50 staff employed in a lot of distilleries, whereas now two or three men per shift operate the entire plant.

These days, they say, experience counts for nothing, and making whisky is no longer a craft, it is simply a clinical process controlled by a computer.

According to ‘Big Angus' McAffer, retired stillman at Lagavulin, “the whisky we made tasted different, it wasn't so ‘forced' the way it is today. Nice and smooth and easy to take, it was. When you were running spirit from a spirit still you damped the coal fire with a shovelful of dross so it was only trickling, and there was no trace of feints, it was running more slowly than it is now. They are doing more mashing now, and more distilling, so they've got to push on.”

It is certainly true that the necessity of increasing the scale of Scotch whisky production and making cost savings in a very competitive envi...

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