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Issue 42 - A day in the life of...a stillman

Scotland Magazine Issue 42
December 2008


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A day in the life of...a stillman

It's been a tradition in Scotland for hundreds of years, but how has the role of whisky maker changed? David Fleetwood reports

The clear liquid cascading through the spirit safe under the watchful eye of the stillman is the heart, the core spirit which, after at least three years maturation, will become single malt whisky.

The flavours embodied in a dram are a product of spring water, malt, sometimes peat smoke and a sweet woodiness gained from the time the spirit spends maturing in the barrel. These are powerful flavours which individually might be overwhelming were it not for the experience and skill of the stillman who blends and balances them to create the perfect whisky.

This experience is gained through a lifetime of working in the distillery and an intimate knowledge of the properties of the water and other ingredients with which he works, and also through an inherited tradition of distilling that has been passed down through generations. The stillman’s care of the spirit safe marks a revolution in the role of the stillman, whose forebears ran illicit stills and were constantly dodging the excise men.

The art of whisky distillation is thought to have been brought to Islay, Scotland’s most famous whisky island, by Irish monks sometime in the early 14th century. The conditions on the island were ideally suited to distilling with good supplies of peat alongside lochs and burns. The crofters also subsisted on the crops of bere they grew. This was a forerunner to barley, and what was not eaten was distilled into spirit.

For two centuries after the introduction of distilling to Islay, the process of making whisky was carried out mainly in Shebeens, which were both small scale distilleries and also small bars where the spirit was made and consumed. The job of the stillman at this point may well have been shared between different members of the village with the production of the spirit being a communal affair. This open and communal production of whisky was radically altered in 1644 with the introduction of the Excise Act when, for the first time, a tax was levied on whisky. As a result, the production of whisky was forced underground. This movement was sometimes literal with illicit stills being set up in remote caves, often by the seashore.

The stillmen had a dangerous role and had to constantly dodge the excisemen. The illicit stills were located in the remotest parts of the island to help avoid detection.

The pot stills were usually rudimentary and were heavily blackened by the soot from the driftwood fires used to heat them. Most of the distilling was done at night when the cloak of darkness hid the telltale smoke. The raw spirit underwent little maturation and was nearly as wild as the men who made it.

According to records, the stillmen running the illicit stills were “wild and barbarous men,” and their reputation was such that no excisemen (or guager) came to Islay until 1797. This situation led to the minister of Kilchoman observing in 1777 that “we have not an excise officer on the whole island. The quantity therefore, of whisky made here is very great and the evil that follows drinking to excess of this liquor, is very visible on the island.” The government made a further attempt to clamp down on the stills with the imposition of a heavy malt tax, but this met with only limited success until guagers were permanently stationed on the island.

Eventually the excisemen began to gain the upper hand and the number of illicit stills declined. The business of whisky distillation became a formal affair carried out in the distilleries we know today.

The role of the stillman in the production of the spirit is one of fine balance and comes relatively late in the process. Traditionally, the stillman is one of the most senior member of the production staff at the distillery and will have progressed through other jobs such as maltman and mashman before becoming a stillman.

The maltman is responsible for producing malt from barley. This involves soaking the barley in fresh water from a local source for 12 days or more. After soaking, the barley is laid out on a large malting floor. Here the maltman turns the malt regularly with a large flat wooden malt shovel.

This process allows the barley to begin sprouting, releasing some sugars. When the maltman judges that the malt has sprouted sufficiently, sprouting is stopped by drying the barley in a malt kiln, sometimes over a fire of local peat which gives further flavour. The timbers of the Ardbeg malting floor are blackened by generations of peat smoke and faintly charred by the flames from occasions when a distracted maltman has let the malt dry too long. In many modern distilleries this process is no longer conducted in the distillery but in a central maltings.

The production process is then passed to the mashman; the malted barley, having been ground to grist in a malt mill, is mixed with a large amount of hot water in a mash tun. The mashman allows the water to dissolve the sugar and produce wort, which is a sweet non-alcoholic liquid. This process is repeated to ensure that all of the sugars have been absorbed. The mashman then cools the wort to around 70°C and returns the liquid to large timber vats called washbacks.

Getting too close to the vat is a dangerous business, as fermentation releases carbon dioxide and lots of foam, producing a feeling of light-headedness even before the spirit has been sampled.

After two days of fermentation, the mashman has produced a beer which is passed to the stillman for distillation.

The wash is heated in a large copper wash still. The stills at Ardbeg are the pride and joy of the stillman, their long slender necks arc up towards the roof and reflect the whitewash of the walls in their gleaming sides. The still is heated and, because alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, alcoholic steam rises up through the long neck of the still. At the top of the neck is the worm, a large coil cooled by cold water which condenses the alcohol.

The shape of each still is unique to the distillery. When they are replaced they have to be made to an identical shape, as it affects the final taste of the whisky. The distillate is now known as low wine and passes into a second similarly shaped copper still, the spirit still, where it is distilled a second time. The resulting spirit runs through a large spirit safe, as, from this point onwards, it is legally a spirit and subject to taxation.

It is as the spirit is passing through the spirit safe that the real skill of the stillman comes into play. He has to judge when the best part of each distillation, or heart, is coming through the spirit safe. Initially, the spirit that comes from distillation is known as the foreshot.

This is then passed back to the still for further distillation as it contains only a low concentration of alcohol.

The stillman also has to decide when the heart has ended and it is mainly the feints which are coming through. The feints contain a number of impurities that would impair the whisky and so have to be removed to prevent contamination.

The heart is passed through to the large bonded warehouse where the whisky is casked. From here begins a period of maturation which turns the stillman’s raw spirit into whisky.

The type of barrel and the location of the warehouse will have a significant effect on the final taste of the matured whisky.

Once the master distiller, a skilled individual who tests the viscosity, nose and taste of the whisky, has approved the matured spirit it will finally be bottled.

The stillman has always had a pivotal role in the production of whisky. It is perhaps the wild days after the introduction of taxation that the role of the stillman was most different from that of his modern day counterpart. The Islay stillmen of the mid-18th century were ferocious men feared even by the excisemen.

They produced their raw spirit in secluded caves over driftwood fires with the smoke concealed by a dark night sky. The soot blackened pots stills are a long way from the gleaming copper and immaculate whitewash at today’s distilleries.

However, while the science may have advanced and the setting changed, the fierce pride and passion of the stillman has remained intact for centuries, and a large part of the delight in a good dram is the result of the stillman’s hard work and intimate knowledge of his spirit.