This month, Deanston and Bunnahabhain, two of Scotland’s most highly regarded distilleries are releasing limited editions of their trademark scotches. These scotches are available in only small batches, so spirit connoisseurs take note.
From Deanston, there is the 18-Year-Old Cognac-matured Single Malt. This is a shockingly smooth scotch that is bound to raise an eyebrow on even the most well-travelled scotch drinker. This unique blend is the result of 11-year-old Deanston scotch that was aged an additional seven years in French cognac casks.
Bunnahabhain’s release is the Islay Single Malt. This small batch could perhaps be called the platonic ideal of scotch. The Bunnahabhain has a strong, smoky flavor, but also an appealing, almost champagne color. It is the type of scotch that makes you want to take a deep breath and savor the experience after each sip.
We spoke to Master Distiller and Master Blender (and full-blooded Scotsman), Ian MacMillan, about each of these special releases. When it comes to the scotch business, Mr. MacMillan has done it all. He is a font of knowledge on scotch history and a true student of the distilling process. The joy he takes in explaining how even the slightest tweak to the ingredients or conditions to creating scotch can alter the entire profile is infectious.
On that note, we’ll step aside and allow Ian MacMillan to bestow his infinite wisdom.
What first attracted you to the process of making Scotch whisky?
It was the smell from my father’s glass because he enjoyed a dram. I just remembered the strong aroma. But, professionally, I was studying at college and during the summer break I got a job at the local distillery near my parents’ home. I got the opportunity to work in various departments and at the end of the job the manager asked if I wanted a full-time position. So I took him up on it. Of course, my parents were not happy with it because they thought it meant the beginning of a slippery slope to alcoholism, but it was a perfect place for me to learn the industry from the bottom up. To this day, I know that there is not one job in a distillery that I have not done.
Can you explain the route that your career has taken?
The first distillery I worked in was called Glengoyne, then I moved from there to grain whisky distilling in Glasgow. From there, I was asked to go down and commission some stills in London. I was down in London distilling gin for about five years. After that, I returned to Scotland and went straight back into malt distilling. That was at Glenturret distillery, which is considered the oldest distillery in Scotland. I didn’t join Burn Stewart (which owns Deanston and Bunnahabhain) until the early 90s.
Can you explain the differences between the Deanston and Bunnahabhain distilleries?
Deanston was actually first used as a cotton mill. So there was a requirement to have a high abundance of water wheels to run the operation. It was converted to a distillery in the 1960’s. Deanston is the only distillery that is self-sufficient in energy. The water wheels were taken out and converted into hydro-turbines, which generate the energy. All the excess energy created by the distillery is then sold back to the national grid. The distillery retains its original traditions to this day—everything is done naturally.
Bunnahabhain was built as a distillery in 1881. Two brothers identified a site on Islay to build a distillery. They had to find a site with the right quality of water and an abundance of it too. It’s at a remote part of the island on the northeast. There was actually no road, so they had to build a road to access the distillery. It has the largest stills on the island of Islay.
Every single distillery in Scotland is unique. They will have similarities, but there is nothing identical between slurries. That’s due to several different facts: the water supply used, the mashing process, the size and shape of the stills and the ratio of the distillation. The majority of distilleries now have stills that use malted barely that uses warm air to stop the germination, whereas there are still some distilleries that use malted barley that has been used by direct methods of burning peat. That smokiness follows through the process.
How long had you been planning to switch the distilleries to unchill-filtration?
That came about because for many years I wondered why there was a requirement for chill filtration with all whiskies. In every alcohol there is the dominant ethyl alcohol, which is odorless and colorless. But there are other alcohols formed during the process that are oilier and contain flavor, which we call congeners. These alcohols mature over time and provide different textures and flavors. So I was always puzzled at the end when the alcohol was taken to the bottlers and was chilled to just below freezing. When that happens all the flavors—the congeners—congeal. Then the whisky is forced through a fine mesh filter, which leaves behind a good deal of the aroma, flavor and texture. What results in the end is a thinner version of the whisky. What chill filtration does is make whisky pretty, makes it temperature stable. Basically, when you put an ice cube in the whisky it doesn’t become hazy. But when a whisky turns cloudy with a cube of ice—that shows its authenticity.
Chill filtration has only been around since the 1970’s and we’ve been distilling scotch for hundreds of years. It really came about because of the fear the American consumers had of that murky, cloudy appearance. It was only at my insistence that we abandoned the chill filtration process.
Why did you decide on the cognac maturation process for the Deanston 18 year old? What did you feel that those flavors specifically added to the whisky?
I decided on the cognac aging a number of years ago. I was over at the cognac distillery for one of the cognac company’s that is apart of our group of companies. I took one of the casks back with me and filled it with 11-year-old Deanston just to experiment. It wasn’t until last year when I was approached for a limited edition scotch for the U.S. market, that I knew the cognac aged whisky would be perfect.
The cognac has added certain characteristics to the Deanston. It has brought creaminess, a citrusy fruitiness and a lot of ginger spiciness.
The Deanston 18 year old is extremely smooth. Where does that quality come from?
The French oak and the extra maturation really smoothed out the whisky. 18 years is generally a good age for a whisky, but the smoothness really comes from moving the 11-year-old Deanston into the cognac cask and allowing it to age for seven additional years.
The Bunnahabhain Ceobanach is a strikingly different tasting experience from the Deanston. What accounts for the stronger smokiness?
The type of whisky that Bunnahabhain made from the 1880’s to the 1960’s was a very smoky, oily scotch. In the 1960’s, they switched away from using malt barley that was dried by burning peat. I wanted to recreate the type of whisky that was made by Bunnahabhain before the switchover. I started to bring in malt barley that was produced on Islay from the burning of peat. When you mash with that barley (and ferment and distill) the lovely smoky aromas carry through the whisky. It is the shape of the still that will then determine what type of whisky is created. The Bunnahabhain has a lot of smoke, but it is lighter and sweeter.
It’s not a peaty smokiness—it’s more of a savory smokiness. I can see it being paired with smoked fish and dark chocolate as you recommend.
Yes, the Bunnahabhain is not so heavy because the stills that are used are so large. We create a sweet, smoky, spicy whisky that lacks any antiseptic kind of qualities that a smokier scotch can sometimes have.
I read that the whisky you would treat yourself to is the 42-year-old Ledaig. Can you tell us a little bit about the flavors and profile of a scotch whisky of that age?
I have been watching the Ledaig evolve over the last twenty-two years or so. It has spent the last 16 years in very old sherry casks. Ledaig is a smoky whisky and most people like to drink smoky whiskies when they are young. I was quite amazed that the Ledaig still has a smokiness after 40 years. It is an extremely complex whisky and extraordinarily smooth. Even after all the years I’ve been in the industry there are some flavors and results of the distilling and aging process that surprise me. That’s why it’s a good industry to be in—you’re constantly being surprised.