It’s mashing day at Bristol’s Circumstance Distillery. Head distiller Mark Scott and assistants Andrew “Oz” Osborne and Matt Keegan are busy lifting 25kg bags of organic English Laureate barley and emptying them into the mash tun. They take turns stirring the contents with a silver metal mashing rake, to ensure the grain’s even distribution within the liquid.
Once the barley’s fermentable sugars are successfully transferred into the mash, French saison yeast will be pitched into the wort and this will be allowed to ferment for up to two weeks in free-standing IBC vessels without any form of temperature control. The resulting beer will be distilled in Circumstance’s sleek-looking 1,800-litre hybrid pot still with four-plate copper column, and then left to rest in whatever wooden barrel the liquid’s profile commands.
No high-performing distiller’s yeast in sight. No rule books. For Circumstance founders Liam Hirt and Danny Walker, experimentation is paramount in generating high-quality, modern whiskies, and flavour development should emerge from all stages of the production process.
“We want to make whisky our way, rather than having to read the ‘how to make whisky’ books and buy ‘the right kit’ and do it the way we were supposed to like the traditional distillers, with distiller’s grains, distiller’s yeast, and the right heat points,” says Walker. “We want to make it without the constraints of [the regulations of] the Scottish Whisky Association, in the same way we make all of our other liquids. For us, it is always ‘liquid first’.
“We ask ourselves, ‘How can we make something that focuses purely on flavour and quality?’, and take that into our whisky production.”
The Circumstance project kicked off in 2018, following the success of Hirt and Walker’s gin venture, the Psychopomp microdistillery, which launched four years earlier. Whisky making was part of the plan from the outset, with the team particularly attracted by ongoing developments and innovations originating from non-traditional whisky-making regions. “We could see that there were some interesting things happening in New World whisky,” explains Hirt, “and it was something that we really wanted to get involved with, because we thought that we could definitely add something to the category.”
Hirt and Walker rejected whisky-making conventions and tapped a local brewer, Dawkins, just round the corner from the distillery, to learn more about the art of fermentation and to help generate ideas for future recipes. “We used their kit, their mash tun and fermenter,” says Walker. “It was a learning curve for us. The head brewer at the time, Dave [Williams], was incredible. He was really into experimenting with grains and yeasts. We loved his passion for creating flavour within the ferment and really liked his attitude. There were right and wrong answers, of course, but there wasn’t like a ‘this must be the way’. We would ask, ‘Can we do this and that?’ and rather than just say ‘no’ he would say, ‘Well, we can try’.”
A passionate devotion to brewing yeasts is one of the key legacies of the team’s brewing school days. “It’s a bit more common now, but at the time there wasn’t much going on in terms of using different yeasts in whisky,” says Hirt. “But for brewers, yeast has been for centuries very important in developing flavour.”
Alongside French saison yeast, responsible for fermenting Circumstance’s leading grain bill – a blend of malted (85 per cent) and unmalted (15 per cent) barley – wheat yeast is used on a wheat-based recipe inspired by classic German hefeweizen and involving a mere 20–30 per cent malted barley. Meanwhile, mead yeast ferments a rye-heavy wort, wherein rye is used in a ratio of 51-to-49 with malted barley.
Last September, the distillery launched its inaugural whisky release based on its barley recipe. The liquid spent 34 months in first-fill bourbon casks and was then bottled at a moderate strength of 44.5% ABV. It is a fresh, perfumed, elegant liquid, with an unexpectedly saline and savoury palate rich in fruit character, a spicy mid-palate, and a creamy, chocolatey finish. “It’s the unmalted barley that brings those soft, creamy, chocolatey notes,” argues Walker. “Initially the recipe only involved malt, but we started adding more unmalted barley because we loved what it gave to the new make, and in turn to the whisky, in spite of the fact that we will never be able to call it ‘single malt’. You can probably add a couple more quid on the price if you stick those words to the label, but that’s not the point.”
The inaugural release got the ball rolling. Circumstance’s upcoming whisky, due in May, is based on the distillery’s wheat new make, while the third, which will see the light in September, will be a rye. Drawn from the cask a few months ahead of the bottling date, Circumstance’s wheat whisky-to-be shows promising fruity goodness: lots of banana and clove notes, which will be familiar to all hefeweizen lovers out there, enriched by biscuity creaminess and refreshed by bergamot and lemon citrus fruit.
Alongside the whiskies, the distillery yields a range of characterful grain spirits – the Circumstantial range – whose final flavours result from a combination of distinctive new makes and multiple maturation processes.
“Most of the casks are gentle first-fill ex-bourbons which work quite nicely with the flavours in the new makes because the wood does not overpower the liquid too quickly,” explains Hirt. “Those are most of what we do. But we also like to know what happens to grain spirit and to whisky when they mature in other types of wood, so there’s a bit of everything else in the distillery: Andean oak, sherry (like oloroso), Madeira, Sauternes, rum, chestnut wood, etc.” And with more and more barrel types stimulating Hirt and Walker’s experimental philosophy, the distillery’s barrel corner is getting increasingly crowded.
“By volume, we’ve got more ex-bourbon followed by new Europeans,” Walker points out. “A lot of the early whisky releases will be heavily influenced by those, either singly or as blends of the two. Then, down the line, we are going to launch some single casks and also look at some special barrel releases. Not for finishes. Mostly, we are going to fully age our spirits into those casks.”
The barrel corner, currently located just opposite the still, is an eclectic collection of sizes and shapes. Some casks are colourfully decorated, turning the barrel area into the distillery’s cosiest photo-opportunity corner. On a more practical level, colours help the team identify the liquid inside, with blue, yellow, and red labelling casks holding barley, wheat, and rye distillates respectively. The barrels host Circumstance’s grain spirits and whiskies from as little as four months to more than four years. Some spirits are also infused with wooden spindles. “These are made of different woods we wouldn’t necessarily be able to get casks made of, like cherry, hickory, English oak, or birch,” says Hirt. “Of course, we don’t release these as whiskies – we just want to see what happens to the liquid when the rules are removed.” To use spindles, the new make and the chosen spindle are first transferred for a short period of time into plastic drums. This inert environment allows the team to carefully monitor the wood’s aromatic influence on the liquid. The spirit is then moved into a cask to promote oxygenation and allow the liquid to mature over time.
For the team, the Circumstantial range is a tool to keep experimenting with flavour and develop new ideas that could eventually trickle into barrels as innovative whisky projects. The latest release is a blend of seven different mashes – including some dark and some smoked (not peated) malt – and flavoured with English oak via the use of spindles. It contains some of the distillery’s earliest liquid (more than four years old) as well as a touch of new make for freshness. Coming up in the range is a creamy, chocolatey new make featuring oat and barley in an unusual five-to-one ratio.
“About one in 10 of our fermentations now are experimental. Not our three core recipes, but something else that we have chosen purely to understand this grain or that yeast,” says Hirt. Previous experiments involved Golden Promise, a classic, richly flavoured British spring barley variety; Britain’s leading ale malt, Maris Otter; Plumage Archer malt; and rice. Recently, the team trialled the use of lager yeast. This is generally used by breweries at controlled temperatures of around 10°C, but Circumstance let it ferment at ambient temperature “to see what flavour this brings out when stressed”, and the resulting liquid is now sitting patiently in a cask.
With two whiskies expected to be launched over the next six months, there is enough to keep New World whisky enthusiasts busy for a while. But new projects are already underway. “We have just been discussing the next release after the third. We decided on what that is and we are really excited about it,” Walker divulges. “We always have new ideas and as like anyone else we are working years and years ahead of ourselves. Downstairs, there is a whisky in the barrel that won’t see the light of the day for another three and half years.”