New Makes: The new innovation frontier for whisky distillers

New Makes: The new innovation frontier for whisky distillers

From favouring characterful liquids to experimenting with more pre-maturation variables, new distillers are putting more eggs in their new-make baskets. Is it time for new make to finally shine?

Production | 30 Jan 2023 | Issue 188 | By Millie Milliken

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We’re all a bit like Formula One drivers, trying to find out what everyone else has under their hoods,” says Marc Watson, distillery and operations manager at Edinburgh’s charmingly playful Holyrood Distillery. He’s talking about him and his fellow ‘new-make nerds’ with whom he spends time chatting about what goes into a distillery’s unaged spirit before it eventually becomes whisky.

It’s no secret, though, that new-make spirit is often an overlooked topic when it comes to discussing whisky outside the distillery. This despite the common adage that ‘it’s the DNA of whisky’. It’s a strange phenomenon: for all the work that goes into making the liquid coming off the still, bringing up the subject of new make can often leave one a social pariah. And trying to talk about it to consumers? Unless they’re seasoned whisky lovers, you might as well forget it. Yet when you do meet a fellow enthusiast, that new-make chat really flows. And with distilleries experimenting with different raw materials and trialling new yeast strains, and the flipflopping debate around ‘terroir’ in whisky ever present, it seems that these conversations are becoming more and more common.

While only a handful of distilleries make their new-make spirit available to consumers (historically, it has never been commercially viable), there is evident interest: Holyrood saw a surprising demand for its first Brewer’s Series bottlings which Watson and managing director Nick Ravenhall released last year, selling 5,000 across the world from Japan and Taiwan to Australia and Germany. In May 2022 they even created a Japanese Sake Yeast New Make, using East Lothian barley and Chevalier and Amber malts. “For us,” explains Watson, “the new make is proof that people want to explore different types of new make and what changing ingredients can do to flavour.”

Inside the Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh

Brands such as Monkey Shoulder are releasing new-make blends (its new Fresh Monkey is a mix of two grain new makes and a Speyside malt new make), and new-make cocktails – although few and far between – are being introduced on bar menus.

For distillers, a decision is made early on whether their new make should be full of character or more of a blank canvas – a decision made in line with the distillery’s goals for maturation. Both can make excellent whiskies.

At The Cotswolds Distillery in Shipston-on-Stour, head of R&D and sensory analysis Alice Pearson explains the decisions behind the English whisky brand’s new-make style, often adopted by younger distilleries keen to get their liquid into bottles. “For us, having a distinct and characterful new-make spirit means, in my opinion, that we can produce young, excellent whisky… By getting esters in earlier we don’t have to wait 10 years for them to form in cask.”

Cask emphasis in whisky creation is a topic that can certainly split crowds, but exploration into new-make spirit is making it more nuanced. Ian Stirling, co-founder of Port of Leith Distillery, is excited that conversations around this subject are happening. “For a long time, new make has been seen as something that just holds the characteristic of cask, but our position is that cask should add notes rather than dominate.” He hopes to configure the conversations to be more about a new make’s characteristics and how they can influence whisky in the future.

Ian Stirling, co-founder of Port of Leith Distillery

There’s also a question of consistency. While the majority of distillers create a single style of new-make spirit, others are keen to produce a number of styles to work with. Stirling says the Port of Leith team are “setting aside the concept of consistency with our whisky” with plans to evolve new makes each year, swapping in yeast strains for different ferments and releasing their whisky in vintages. He adds, “New make and our ability to influence it and create exciting new flavours is central to what we want to do – we like to say that our whisky will be made in the distillery, not the warehouse.”

Watson is keen to express that, despite Holyrood’s creative approach to new-make spirit, creating consistent new make is a skill that should never be dismissed. “It’s a whole other skillset to whisky making… such a niche and incredible skill relies on knowing and having a great relationship with [your] new make.”

When it comes to variables in new-make spirit, there are the ones you want to control and the ones you can’t. Over at the Oxford Artisan Distillery, master distiller Chico Rosa is experimenting with both malted and unmalted rye, playing with narrower cuts, and even producing a new-make spirit out of blackgrass, a weed that is has been particularly prevalent this year and is usually cleaned off rye. “It created this beautiful oily – like baby oil – and really thick new-make spirit which I can see maturing beautifully,” he says.

For Rosa, some of the variables in distillation are more manageable than others. For example, the temperature controls of the distillery’s fermenters are not as high calibre as he’d like and can cause differences in flavour profiles based on the temperatures in the distillery. Also, cuts are done by taste alone and with a team of four distillers that control is also mitigated. Sometimes, however, control is the variable: “There is always a degree of not controlling and letting things go wild, which is the beauty of allowing the grain to express itself.”

Watson sees three areas of exploration through variation: influence of yeast, speciality malt, and heritage barley. “All three have a significant impact on new-make spirit – they are the three tenets.” Holyrood is working with a Heriot-Watt PhD student to investigate how different speciality malts can affect new-make spirit.

The new-make spirit releases in Holyrood Distillery's Brewer's Series

The Cotswold Distillery is undergoing a major development, with production increasing to 500,000 litres of alcohol per year and, in turn, equipment getting bigger – the new stills may be the same shape as the current ones, but they will be four times larger. As a result, the team has launched the Spirit Matching Project to understand what these changes mean for its new-make recipe. “The scale of the equipment means we may need to slow stuff down or speed things up in order to get the same ester-heavy, very light, very delicate characterful spirit,” Pearson says. For now, though, the plan is to keep things such as fermentation times, yeast and temperature the same unless the spirit tells the team to make changes. “At the moment we’re in the unknown so we need to get really familiar with our spirit. We’re doing a lot of sensory work, sending it off for GC-MS [gas chromatography mass spectrometry] research and trying to get a combination of scientific data and sensory information.”

This brings us on to how new-make spirit is categorised. While most distilleries use a combination of sensory and lab, methods still differ wildly – and some are more prescriptive than others. At Port of Leith, Stirling’s team created 24 samples, picked out seven favourites, then took two and did commercial runs, calling them Beta 1 and Beta 2 and following them through to New Make 1 and New Make 2. “In the second year we will be creating New Make 3 and 4,” Stirling explains. “We’ll also be using two contrasting new makes, one more traditional and one [with] more intense fruit flavours.”

The Oxford Artisan Distillery’s new make is categorised first through grain, then type of distillation and how many times it’s been distilled. They are then split by the major factors they work with like fruity, herbal, cereal and funkiness. Pearson explains how Cotswolds conducts its categorisation: “We go from a standard tasting wheel, so we take the inside of the wheel which is Tier 1 which has terms like ‘fruity’, ‘green’, ‘floral’, ‘cereal’, ‘oily’ and ‘feinty’.” These then split into Tier 2 where terms have been chosen based on common Cotswold new-make characteristics. “For example, in ‘fruity’, any fruit that is detected that we wouldn’t class as obviously ‘Cotswolds’, we would advise our panel to put that under ‘fruity other’.” ‘Green’ encompasses ‘cut grass’, ‘leafy’ and ‘hay’ while ‘oily’ has ‘meaty’, ‘soapy’ and ‘buttery’.

“We mark our scale 0–3 as we found that because we’re using a broad range of terms and evaluating up to 30 samples a day, we needed to keep the marks quite black and white,” Pearson continues, explaining that ‘1’ means noticeable, ‘2’ is marked, and ‘3’ strong – “by strong we mean if you put a 3 for ‘tropical’ it should be one of the most tropical new makes you’ve ever smelt.”

Back at Holyrood, Watson’s take is characteristically off the wall. “Sensory is huge for us as we run things in triplicates and have sensory panels so we can analyse them and make sure they’re significantly different.” Watson is training the young team to taste, track and build their own repertoire using a scale he found on Reddit, created by Whisky Raiders’ Jay West and using a 1–10 grading system that includes terms like: ‘1: Disgusting/So bad I poured it out’; ‘5: Good/Good, just fine’: ‘9: Incredible/An all-time favourite’; ‘10: Perfect/Perfect’. “I find it useful for people to start from, then we can move into true sensory analysis and significant sample testing,” he explains.

New-make spirit may still be a niche subject for many but it is clear there are people moving the conversation forward while also turning the volume up. Pearson would like to see more differentiation between which whisky notes are from maturation and which are from new make; for Watson, this exploration of pre-maturation, getting flavours in earlier in the process and being less reliant on wood, is how more people are approaching whisky.

It may take some time to make conversations around new make more commonplace, but Rosa is hopeful: “I can see the world moving into a very exciting direction – a direction where we can celebrate whiskies with less cask impact and allow the new make to shine more than before.”
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