The naked spirit

The naked spirit

Ever wondered what your favourite whisky would taste like when stripped of its colour? Neil Ridley experiences a moment of clarity

Production | 26 Oct 2012 | Issue 107 | By Neil Ridley

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Mixologists and spirits enthusiasts the world over are currently experimenting with the phrase 'back to basics' when it comes to whisky, and the results of their experimentation are literally quite staggeringly clear, in more ways than one.

The practice of redistilling already distilled and matured spirits is as controversial as it is revolutionary, but thanks to the availability of relatively uncomplicated, compact cold distillation stills, which can be used in the bar or kitchen, the process of subjecting a 'finished whisky' to an additional processing has produced some rather interesting results, that might irk and surprise the distilleries in equal measures, especially given the recent debate surrounding the importance of colour in whisky.

I first came across the redistilling-a-whisky-idea late last year, when Glenfiddich embarked on their inspirational One Day You Will Summit, bringing together several experts from the fields of mixology, digital design, molecular science and food technology for a two-day symposium of ideas at the distillery. New York bartender, drinks consultant and former biologist Eben Klemm co-hosted a molecular whisky masterclass with Glenfiddich’s master distiller Brian Kinsman to explore the effects of wood maturation on a whisky, examining the constituent parts and primary flavours within several expressions in the Glenfiddich range.

Klemm redistilled a sample of Glenfiddich 12 Years Old in a Rotovap still, where a rotating flask of liquid is gently heated in a water bath to 32ºc the evaporating vapour then condensed, removing the colour and supposedly the oak influence of the whisky. What is left is a crystal clear spirit resembling new make, but retaining many of the hallmarks of the original whisky, but lacking some of its vibrancy and mouthfeel. The process highlighted the importance of time and that maturation is clearly more than skin deep.

Fast forward a year and spirits retailers and arch-experimenters Master Of Malt have been busy in their labs, with a project of a similar magnitude. Several well-known single malts (Talisker, Ardbeg, Lagavulin, Glenfarclas and Glenmorangie) have been run through the same Rotovap process to see what the end results might look and taste like, and they’re surprising… to say the least.

“The idea came purely out of fun when we first obtained the Rotovap,” explains Ben Ellefson, “and we started to think about the different effects it could have, especially on the flavours we know. I don’t profess to be a chemist, but the smaller molecules are carried over and the dense stuff, effectively the woody compounds, gets left behind. With the more sherried, woody whiskies, ie Glenfarclas, Lagavulin and Talisker, the lighter ethereal notes come through, but the heavier stuff, the big phenols, cresols and heavy tannins are removed.”

I imagine the colour and aroma of what’s left in the still must be fairly ‘intense’ then? “Well, I wouldn’t recommend anyone should try it,” laughs Ben, “as the residue is full of very bitter woody notes, which mostly provide the colour to the whisky.”

While the redistilled whisky project is purely for fun and has no commercial angle, what it has done is highlight how the connection between colour, aroma and flavour are inextricably linked. On the palate, the similarities between the original and redistilled whiskies were much more pronounced, the latter losing much of their heavier flavours, had I have been nosing these samples blind, the task of picking them apart would have been particularly difficult.

Brings a whole new meaning to the word ‘transparency’...


Crystal tips


The results of using the Rotovap still have led Ben and his team down some interesting routes, also redistilling cocktail bitters to see what the effects are, creating Crystal Bitters: all the intense flavour of traditional cocktail bitters, but totally clear in their appearance. “The resulting recipe has lost some of its earthy bitterness along with the colour,” points out Ben, “but they’re still intensively flavoured and ideal for cocktails where the clarity is important, for example a white Negroni or Martini-based drink.


Now you see it...now you don't


We put the redistilled whisky next to the original to A/B their similarities and while there are numerous differences, the Master Of Malt Redistilled project serves to highlight the core flavours within each whisky surprisingly well.


Ardbeg


10 Years Old (46%)
vs

Redistilled Ardbeg


10 Years Old (46%)

Nose: Remarkably similar notes of lemon zest, black pepper, vanilla and peat. The original sample has a more intense sweetness to it, with a touch more fruit and vanilla- and retains a slight edge in the vibrancy stakes.
Palate: The differences start to emerge with the original having a slight silkiness to its mouthfeel and a more direct sooty/fruit note, but again, it’s surprising to see the similarities – close your eyes and although the redistilled sample is slightly spikier they’re unmistakably cut from the same cloth.
Finish: The redistilled Ardbeg has a slight hit of spirit, which melts into a creaminess, where as the original has a touch more of the lingering soot and fruit.


Glenfarclas


‘Movember Bottling’ (53%)
vs

Redistilled Glenfarclas


‘Movember Bottling’ (53%)

Nose: Wow more surprising than the Ardbeg. Although both liquids couldn’t look more different, (the original retaining its vivid burnished copper and sherry-influenced hues) the first aroma from the redistilled version is a big hit of dry, spicy Oloroso sherry wood followed by bonfire toffee and stewed spiced apple. Hard to separate them, the original having perhaps a little more ‘oomph’.
Palate: Here’s where they start to differ. The flavours are more diminished and closed with the redistilled version, lacking the original’s bold sherry structure and complexity. Whilst it’s clear to see the origins of the whisky’s maturation, the redistilled has stripped out a lot of the characterful flavours.


Lagavulin


16 Years Old (43%)
vs

Redistilled Lagavulin


16 Years Old (43%)

Nose: Again, very surprising similarities straight off the bat. The hallmarks of stewed fruit, carbolic soap and sweet peat are unmistakable in the redistilled sample, with perhaps an additional dustiness. The original has a more intense aroma, with a fruitier, drier top note, but they’re pretty close.
Palate: No contest in the flavour department. The redistilled version has definitely lost the bold, rich approach of the original, retaining a slightly watery, unfocused palate. It’s still Lagavulin, but not as good.
Finish: The redistilled sample loses its lingering notes of fruit and peat much quicker than the original.
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