Whisky's Backroom Boys

Whisky's Backroom Boys

The testing results at Tatlock & Thomson

Production | 20 Mar 2015 | Issue 126 | By Gavin Smith

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Pragmatists and romantics may argue as to whether making whisky is an art or a science, and - to be unscientific - the answer is probably a dash of the former and a dollop of the latter.

It is possible to make excellent whisky without even a rudimentary understanding of the science that underlies the various practical processes, of course, but the more that the chemical reactions taking place during whisky production and maturation are understood the more likely it is that high quality whisky can be produced consistently.

So it is that behind the glamorous world of high-end whisky marketing and the sensory delights of a distillery full of hot, hissing copper stills, 'backroom' boys and girls carry out essential analysis and experimentation in laboratories all over the world.

One of the best-known, most engaging and highly experienced of these 'backroom' figures in Scotland is Dr Harry Riffkin, proprietor of the historic company of Tatlock & Thomson, analytical chemists, established in Glasgow in 1891 by Robert Rattray Tatlock, the outstanding analytical chemist of his day.

Riffkin purchased Tatlock & Thomson in partnership with Dr Jim Swan in 1993, though Swan now acts as an independent consultant to the whisky industry, and is the go-to man for most start-up distillery ventures.

Harry Riffkin studied at Edinburgh's Heriot Watt University, before undertaking a PhD at Edinburgh University, subsequently being recruited by Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research Ltd (now the Scotch Whisky Research Institute), as head of Distillation Studies in 1985.

Tatlock & Thomson's drink-related analytical work encompasses whisky, wine, beer and liqueurs, focusing on 'good practice', embracing raw materials, and also includes the study of wood for barrel production and sensory evaluation training.

According to Harry Riffkin, "Around 65 per cent of our work relates to finished product analysis, ensuring that distilled spirits of all types comply with importing country regulations. We get sent samples from all over the world - Mexico and Denmark, for example - for analysis, so that we can provide independent certification.

"We also do production analysis - where distillers send us raw material samples on a weekly basis. We will analyse the malt, the wash, and the pot ale and spent lees. We are looking for any areas where efficiency or quality may be compromised. Where appropriate, we also analyse phenol levels for distilleries which produce peaty whiskies. Water analysis is another important function. We offer an independent eye on what's happening." Inevitably, the growth of distilling activity in the Scotch whisky industry during the past few years has seen Tatlock & Thomson's workload increase, and Riffkin also points out that "During the last 20 years or so, more distillers have cut back on their own laboratory facilities and have found it more cost-effective to outsource these functions - which is where we come in."

Central to Riffkin's philosophy of whisky making is the belief that increased spirit production should not come at the expense of quality, and that the application of scientific principles to distilling can enable both quantity and quality to be achieved.

"In the old days distilleries were not clean," he observes, "so yields were relatively low before around 1970. Also, much of the yeast used was poor quality ex-brewers' yeast. Essentially, there was a lack of understanding of bio-chemical and micro-biological processes in the whisky industry.

"Scientists brought in modern sterile techniques, fermenters were properly cleaned for each batch, the optimum temperatures for mashing were examined, yeast was improved and was put into clean washbacks. Things like that improved yields enormously, and modern malting varieties of barley brought huge increases of yields, too."

Until 2013 Tatlock & Thomson was based in the Old Corn Exchange in the Fife port of Inverkeithing, but that building was declared unfit for purpose in terms of fire regulations and wiring capacity, at which point Harry Riffkin decided to move the business to The Teuchats, the farm he owns near Leven, some 20 miles from Inverkeithing.

One factor that influenced the choice of location was Diageo's consolidation of many activities in and around Leven, which is close to The Teuchats. "They are a highly valued customer, so being close to them made sense," Says Riffkin.

"I had been planning to create an experimental distillery there, anyway," he adds. "The steel structure was already up, so we just added a second floor, which is the heart of the 7,000 square feet laboratory. It's a state-of-the-art lab in terms of the equipment levels, and only Diageo and Chivas have a few more pieces of equipment than us. We now employ 11 people."

While relatively routine analysis makes up the bulk of Tatlock & Thomson's work, Riffkin is always looking to push the scientific envelope, as it were. "We're about to purchase a triple quadrupole mass spectrometer, which allows us to discover very low levels of potential contaminant," he says. "So far, only Chivas have one in place in this country. One unsolved Scotch whisky mystery is what happens to all of the organo-sulphur compounds, what exactly makes feints undrinkable. The new equipment should help us delve deeper into that mystery."

The £800,000 expenditure incurred in transferring the Tatlock & Thomson business from Inverkeithing means that the experimental distillery project has been put on hold. "We've re-roofed an old building which we could use for it," notes Riffkin, "and we've put all the tanks in place, but we aren't currently in a position to go ahead.

"I would love to do it, and really hope we will at some point. It would be a distillery for hire, not for amateur distillers, but for people in the trade wanting more capacity or to try something different. We would also use it for teaching purposes."

Harry Riffkin may be a 'backroom boy' in one sense, but he is far from tied to his laboratory benches. "Going into distilleries on a regular basis is essential," he insists, "keeping you in touch with the coal face, as it were. You need to speak to the guys in the distilleries, talk to the managers and maintain personal contact.

"That's actually the bit of the job I enjoy most, and if I had to choose one part of our work and do nothing else, it would be that. I've been in the industry for nearly 30 years, and it's a wonderful business to be part of."
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