Every malt distillery has something that catches the eye, something that needs explaining. A framed notice in copperplate hand-writing on the wall of the manager's office; an inexplicable piece of brass rubbing in an outhouse. At Fettercairn Distillery, it's running water.
At first, it looks as if the spirit still has sprung a serious leak. This of course, would be a disaster of the first magnitude. Bells would be ringing, klaxons sounding, and people would be running round in circles. With buckets. Also, there would be a distinctive and very expensive smell in the air.
But none of these things is happening. Everything's cool. Yet this colourless liquid is streaming down the burnished neck of the still, from just below its elegant curve.
But yes, it IS running water. It's caught in a neat gutter that encircles the neck just above its lower flange, and returned to its source. Cooling water.
As far as I know, no other malt distillery uses this method of cooling while the spirit still is running (although the Dalmore Distillery, linked to Fettercairn under the banner of Whyte & Mackay, has the still necks enclosed in water jackets).
It is, of course, one of those traditional practices you often come across in the distilling business. Nobody can be sure who introduced it, and nobody can explain why - if it's THAT important - it isn't common to all distilleries. And while the principle seems sound enough, nobody can produce any scientific data to measure its effectiveness. But because it has always been done at Fettercairn, you can be sure it will continue for as long as the light gold, spicy malt is produced at this delightful place in rural Kincardineshire, south-south-east of Speyside.
Distillery manager Steve Tulawicz explained that this exterior cooling of the still neck was used when the middle cut of spirit was running from the still - the highest quality of new whisky which would go into cask. It was used to assist the 'reflux' action (the word means 'flowing back') in which the heavier. unwanted alcohols hitting the cooler neck were thrown back into the boiling action. When the middle cut gave way to the feints - which must join the foreshots to be redistilled with the next batch - the cooling water was switched off.
Fettercairn, established in 1824, is described as Scotland's second-oldest licensed distillery. All the signs of antiquity are there - the mellow courtyard, the long and low warehouses, with the casks of maturing whisky stacked three- high on wooden rails. There are 14 of these warehouses, reeking magnificently. The stable block has been cleverly and expensively adapted into a visitor centre: where there was once fragrant dung, the flooring is now more expensive.
Modern practices live side-by-side with the traces of the old. The former floor-maltings are no longer deep in sprouting barley, for the ready-kilned malt is now bought in and stored in the three 40-tonne bins. But here you can still see the strangely-shaped barrows, each with two wooden wheels, called 'steep barrows', which could hold a hundredweight of soaked grain. They were loaded from an overhead hatch, and the barley was then wheeled across the floor and laid out to germinate.
But though the dried, malted barley may come to Fettercairn now by monster lorry, it is treated with the respect it deserves. Samples are taken, nosed, and rubbed in the palm. It goes to be milled, and the proportions that go into the mash tun are 20 per cent husks, 10 fine powders, and 70 middles. These proportions have to be carefully monitored to get good drainage and maximum extract.
There are Lauter tuns here, with a false floor made of stainless steel plates that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle; it can be dismantled for cleaning. The worts have to be cooled to about 21°C before loading into the washbacks, otherwise the temperature would kill the yeast. And for this procedure, Fettercairn has a star performer - a cooler made in London by the Aluminium Plant & Vessel Co Ltd in 1938, probably the oldest one in the industry, spotless in its paint and brass.
There are eight Oregon pine washbacks in which the fermentation takes place. The Fettercairn Distillery has used a primary cultured yeast with brewer's yeast being added, but has been experimenting with cultured yeast only. Each washback takes 26,000 litres of worts, which leaves space for the build- up of the fermentation 'head' over 54 hours. The two pairs of stills are capable of producing 1.6 million alcohol-litres of the finest malt whisky each year.
Like many Scotch malt distilleries, Fertercairn also processes visitors. For part of the tour, the guides are able to take visitors into a bonded warehouse to see the filled casks silently performing their secret alchemy. ln the way of these things, it took eight months to have a small patch of one warehouse 'debonded', so that tourists can stand in silent wonder behind glass walls. A prominent position is given to a quartercask and butt of 1939 Dalmore. 'Th¢ last time we bottled some of that,' whispers Steve Tulawicz, 'it was sold in Japan for £2,000 a bottle'
Nearly 30,000 visitors tour
Fettercairn Distillery every year. But they
can only enter the 'de-bonded' capsule to
pay homage, eight at a time. The roof
of the viewing gallery is perforated, so
that the aroma of maturing whisky can
reach the eight noses. What an aroma! It's
the smell of history mingling with
anticipation If you breathe deeply, it
follows you outside ...
© (1991) Anthony Troon, SMWS