Crafting

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Nc'nean Production

Words by Simon Difford

It sometimes seems that some malt whisky distilleries only start trying to make their whisky special from the point they put it into a cask. However, Nc'nean start with the selection of the three ingredients: malted barley, yeast and water, and continue to pursue flavour all the way through each step of production. They aim to create an already special distillate with which to fill their casks.

Malted barley

Unusually, Nc'nean use only organic Scottish malted barley which they source from Muntons maltings. The distillery lies at the end of a lane which is too narrow for malt trucks, so malt arrives in one-tonne bags, the type used by builders' merchants. Being forced to receive malt in these tonne bags affected the whole design of the distillery so Nc'nean mill one tonne at a time, then mash one tonne and ferment the output of each one tonne of mash, and so on, all the way through the distillery.

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Milling

Nc'nean boasts a new four-roller mill made by Alan Ruddock Engineering in Bury Saint Edmunds and it takes one hour to mill each one-tonne batch. A standard optimal grind of 20% husk, 70% grits and brisk 10% flour is used.

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Water

Production water comes from two nearby springs. It was intended to use the spring that had always supplied the farmhouse next to the distillery, but it proved insufficient to meet the additional water demands, particularly during dry months when it was "a bit like do they get to shower, or do we get to mash." Another pipe was laid to a second spring up the hill from the distillery. Fortunately, this has a more plentiful supply and a mineral composition almost identical to the original spring.

Mashing

Nc'nean mash using three waters: the first water at 63.5°C, the second water at 75°C, and the third is at 90°C. This third water is held to be used as the first water for the next day's batch.

While the use of three waters is standard practice in Scotch whisky production, it during the Mashing stage that things at Nc'nean are start to be done a little differently with different spirit recipes requiring different variables at each point of the process.

Nc'nean core recipe was designed by the legendary whisky making consultant Dr Jim Swan to make great young whisky, so Nc'nean call this their "Young Recipe". A second recipe is designed to create a great older whisky, hence Nc'nean have imaginatively christened this their "Old recipe". In addition to these two core recipes they run yeast trials based on the Young Recipe.

As Annabel Thomas, the distillery's co-founder explains, "The Young Recipe is all about purity and flavour in the spirit. If you produce a pure spirit, you don't need to mature it for as long to remove the impurities. And if you create lots of flavour in the spirit, then you start in a great place and don't need the wood to do as much work. They're the principles we work to. So, in the mashing process, for the Young Recipe, we stir the first water and then let it sit for an hour to allow flavour development, and we also recirculate the warts until they're super, super clear.

"For the Old Recipe, we do still go for a reasonably clear wart although we're a bit less manically focused on it, but we don't bother letting it sit for an hour because that would be a waste of time when we intend it to spend 10 years maturing in cask. Nobody is going to be able to taste that hour after the ten years."

Fermentation

Each of the four insulated stainless steel washbacks holds 5,000 litres. A five-day week operation dictates a combination of two short fermentations and three long ones. "So, what starts fermenting on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, gets 114 hours of fermentation over the weekend, and what starts fermenting on a Monday or Tuesday gets the shorter 65-hour fermentation."

Most Scotch whisky distilleries use the same yeast strains (DCL M-strain or Anchor/Bfp ) but this is another part of the process where Nc'nean do things differently. As Annabel attests, "You will not meet a craft brewer worth their salt who doesn't passionately care about yeast, and fundamentally, we are making beer before we are distilling it, that is where the flavour comes from, it also comes from the barley, but it is just bonkers to me that no one cares about yeast, and everyone in Scotland is using the same yeast."

In defence of the other distillers, if you are aging a whisky for a decade or even decades then most of is flavour will be drawn from the cask, in which case the most important thing about the selected yeast is its ability to breakdown maltose sugars – hence the wide use of standard distiller's yeast.

So, in common with those other distilleries, for their Old Recipe, the one intended to be left in cask for extended aging, Nc'neam also use standard distiller's Anchor/Bfp yeast. But importantly for their Young Recipe they use a fifty-fifty mix of Anchor/Bfp and Fermentis wine yeast. Additional Then, for additional Yeast Trail Recipes they choose different yeasts each year.

"We pick yeasts that have been designed for different products, so we've had a Chardonnay yeast, a Champagne yeast, a rum yeast and red wine yeast. As you would expect they produce different flavours in the new-make. So red wine yeast produces dark berry-like flavours while the rum yeast was really pineappley. We experiment in buckets wrapped in silver blankets, to keep them warm, and we check the taste of the wash after that fermentation process and also how much alcohol it produces. Sometimes a yeast doesn't like the temperature or the strength or some other variable. Then for the ones that work and we like, we scale them up and run them for two weeks in the distillery."

Distilling

Nc'nean boast two lantern-shaped copper pot stills: a 5,000-litre wash still that large enough to distil the wash produced from each one-tonne ferment, and a 3,500-litre spirit still which is relatively big. This is big in comparison due to the relatively high cut points.

The condensers are shell and tube but are unusual by being what's known as "multi pass shell and tube condensers." Unusually these are designed to allow for heat recovery so adding to Nc'nean's environmental credentials and importantly there are fed with recirculated water from a cooling pond. This is extremely unusual in Scottish whisky distilling with the water usually taken from and then returned to a river, or in more modern distilleries a cooling tower is used. But, to quote Annabel, "we just dug a giant pond and recirculate water through that constantly."

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Wash still

The Young and Old Recipes are distilled differently with a high cut point of 69% alc./vol. for the Young Recipe, and a lower cut point of 66% for the Old Recipe. For both recipes, the wash and spirit stills are distilled very slowly with the wash still run as slowly as possible to ensure maximum extraction of flavour.

Having two recipes, one produced specifically with a view to long periods of aging and second produced specifically for shorter maturation is unusual, if not unique, and eminently sensible. However, it also presents quite unique opportunities and challenges. For example, Nc'nean only make their our Old Recipe in the summer due to this being when the cooling pond is at its warmest and overall distilling temperatures at their hottest so giving less chance of capturing as much of the flavoursome higher alcohols that come off first. But because of the lower cut point for this six-week summer period producing the Old Recipe, all the higher alcohols that they do capture sit in the low wine tank. Then when they switch back on to the Young Recipe they come flooding out into the first two weeks of distillations. Quality analysis on the spirit produced during this post-summer fortnight confirm this, so each year this period produces a very special parcel of casks which lay earmarked in the warehouse, destined for something very interesting in future.

Ageing

Nc'nean are not aiming to be yet another distillery producing a range cask finished bottlings but want to focus on their passion for the spirit and the effects imparted by different yeasts and slow fermentation and distillation.

The legendary Dr. Jim Swan's influence is evident the Nc'nean's use of his preferred shaved, toasted and re-charred (STR) red wine casks. These are famed for imparting fruity spicy and sweet notes into the whisky and are brilliantly suited to Nc'nean's Young Recipe, also devised by Jim.

Nc'nean also use 5-7% sherry seasoned casks with the other 93+% evenly split between Jim's STR casks and ex-bourbon barrels.

Annabel says the STR casks are "brilliant at imparting really great flavours early on but I love the bourbon barrels because I feel they show off the very tasty fruity floral notes in our pure spirit.

Maturation was and will be at the distillery but presently, until new warehouses are completed, they have run out of space so for what is described as a "temporary hiatus" some casks are being stored off-site.

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