Working the Spirit

Working the Spirit

The importance of the mashman

Production | 20 Mar 2015 | Issue 126 | By Dave Waddell

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I have to confess. When recently I asked Gordon Mackay, one of Glenmorangie's five mashmen, what he thought of the fact that he and his colleagues were collectively known as the Men of Tain, I was hoping to discover that perhaps, privately, he thought the distillery's marketing department had long been in the business of consuming special mushrooms. Far from it, "I'm just Gordy Mackay from Tain. If someone wants to think of me as one of the famous men of Tain, then bring it on, I say."

As well as showing me up for what I am, as suspicious and arrogant, and in equal measure, what continues to strike me about Mackay's reply is the fact that it gives us a glimpse of what the late Primo Levi might have called the meaning of freedom; that is, the opportunity to do a work worth doing. If you haven't read it, Levi's wonderful The Wrench expunges through a series of short stories the life philosophy of one Libertine Faussone, itinerant rigger and true believer in the existential value of 'being good at your job and therefore taking pleasure in doing it.'

Primo Levi would have liked Gordon Mackay. An ex-school janitor and retained fireman, the husband of a headteacher, a father, and nine years at Glenmorangie, three as a mashman, Mackay co-operates the beer making end of a production line capable of producing 6 million litres of new make spirit. Raised and accessed by means of a set of steel stairs, it is the brightly lit open-plan home to mash and fermentation processes, an operation that every week pumps the wort from 32 ten tonne mashes into twelve 50,000 litre washbacks. It's a massively efficient round-the-clock beer-making machine, and for the duration of his eight hour shift it's all Mackay's, "This is my mash house."

It's no idle boast. To the fan of the microdistillery, the size and the computerised functionality of the Glenmorangie set up may well be something of an anathema, but for Mackay, the experience of the process, whatever the degree of its industrialisation, is what it's always been; that is, the depth and quality of interaction between a maker and his or her materials. Thus, while he may control the pumps and valves from a glassed off corner of the room, he's also constantly out and on the floor, hearing and smelling and tasting his way through the malt becoming a mash becoming a wort becoming a wash, his primary senses both measure and an advance warning system. It's Mackay's mash house not because he has the tyrannical pretentions of a digitally cloistered megalomaniac, but rather because it's his workplace, a work he understands inside out - so well as to know the machine is never just a machine. "Just because it's computerised people think it runs itself. It doesn't."

All of which is not to eulogise Mackay - or even mashmen per se. I can't say that everyone's tickled pink with his or her lot, or that all are as welcoming of the age of the digital as Mackay, for whom it's simply 'the way forward.' Indeed, quite a few, I'm sure, share Highland Park's stillman Dod McConnachie's view that the job's not what it was, their natural preference being for the non-automated hands-on approach seen at the likes of Bruichladdich or Springbank, where you'd be hard pushed to find anything resembling a computer. However, whether champions of the analogue, or their giant opposites, the digitalised, probe-rigged operations perfected by Lagavulin or Caol Ila, there's little doubt - if years of individual service are anything to go by - that many of Scotland's distilleries continue to offer something more than just a job.

Obviously, exactly what, as Lagavulin's Production Manager Georgie Crawford says, could be something as wonderfully simple as job security, "These are jobs for life. These are really good jobs. They're well regarded. They're well paid." Not to be sniffed at, especially in times as uncertain as these. Even so, whatever the apparently generous nature of job packages underwritten by the likes of Diageo or the Edrington Group, men like Lester Sutherland, Keith Moar and the aforementioned McConnachie haven't spent over half - and counting - of their working lives at Highland Park just so as to be able to eventually retire in relative comfort. "When we advertised recently for an operator at Coal Ila," says Crawford, "the number of applications - I've never seen anything like it - and its people looking from other good jobs."

No, there's more to it than the money. It's also a work that promises, as Levi might say, things of interest, a work that properly engages, one that is both challenging and manageable. 'To live happily,' says his fictional rigger, 'you have to have something to do, but it shouldn't be too easy.' Consistency may be the name of the game, but be that the mono produce of a giant like Lagavulin or the separated grain lines of somewhere like Kilchoman, it's also one marked by more than the occasional curveball; whatever, as Crawford says, the ability of a distillery to seemingly account for every outcome, nothing's entirely guaranteed when it comes to dealing with variables such as grain, yeast, water, copper, temperature and time. Kilchoman's mash and stillman Robin Bignall's curiosity, for example, his 'sense of disappointment', is pricked when a final spirit yield doesn't match the wash's measured potential. There's the science and then there's the science misbehaving. Bignall knows this, and it keeps him on his toes. He's interested, attached, wants to know - as does every operator worth his or her salt. Every day is the same and every day is not the same.

Still, there's more to it than even this. Levi's rigger doesn't just like building bridges because they make for a work both predictable and challenging. He loves them for what they mean, the fact that he's involved in a doing that serves not just his but all of our needs, that bounds in one leap (of the imagination) from the individual's experience of making and into a significance beyond local horizons. Mackay's pride at being one of the 'famous men of Tain' has little to do with individual status. On the contrary, it's the fact of being a part of something bigger than himself, a community of makers whose final creation is so fine as to draw pilgrims from as far afield as Australia, Japan or Brazil. For Glengyle's John Wareham, it's the joy of being involved - in the making of 'good spirit.' Lest we forget, whisky is more than just a drink. It's important.

As well as those already mentioned, thanks also to the following for taking the time to educate me about what it takes to make good whisky: Bobby Dalziel (mash / stills - Glengyle and Springbank), Robbie Drever (warehouse - Highland Park), Kevin Dunnet (mashman - the Dalmore), Graham Garriock (warehouse - Highland Park), Davie Gripton (stillman - the Dalmore), George Macinteor (ambassador - Springbank and Glengyle), Graham Manson (distillery manager - Highland Park), Stuart Robertson (distillery manager - The Dalmore) and Tony Rozga - (warehouse and distillery manager - Kilchoman).
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