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Issue 95 - Traditional Practice

Whisky Magazine Issue 95
April 2011


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Traditional Practice

Commentator, consultant, writer and chairman of the World Whiskies Conference, Ian Buxton is approaching 25 years in the whisky industry

?Traditional practice.” Who could object to that? But let's try. The phrase may now be enshrined in the law dictating how Scotch whisky can be made, but a glance at the historical record suggests that the industry has taken a very partial and elastic view of what is and is not ‘traditional' Take soap, for example. You probably wouldn't want soap in your whisky. Much better, in fact, to add suet, butter or hog's lard. That, at least, was the considered recommendation of John McDonald of Elgin, writing in 1828. His book The Maltster, Distiller and Spirit Dealer's Companion was so far as I am aware the earliest published technical manual on how to distil whisky (earlier publications refer to usquebagh or aqua-vitae, not necessarily the same thing.) But why was he discussing the use of soap anyway, which he believed lent a “pernicious taste” to the spirit? Why? Because soap was regularly added to wort or placed in wash stills to prevent foaming.

Nettleton (1913, in The Manufacture of Whisky) spells this out quite explicitly: “To prevent frothing and the consequent fouling of the still-neck and worm, a soap emulsion is let into the wash-still with each fresh charge of wash, or, from a soap box, a graduated supply is admitted, say ½lb to 1lb of soap per 100 gallons of wash.” Does it still go on? It was relatively commonplace until the 1980s. The substitute is polydimethyl siloxane. But it's almost impossible to remove. So its use leads to silicone coated wash stills...

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