Bob Wilson, or “Tug” as his Southern colleagues first called him when he was working in cargo at London Airport, calibrates vessels in the traditional way. Gauging vats and casks that are designed to hold alcoholic liquid was part of his 35 year job as an exciseman.
“In my area, in the north east of Scotland,” he says, “we had 127 excisemen in the 60s and 70s, now there are none,” after the Government Department was absorbed into what became Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in 2005.
He explains,”It’s a legal requirement that a distiller putting a vessel in his plant, which holds alcohol of any description, is able to state exactly what’s in it, should it be lost. So that they can account for any duty. If the bottom fell out of a spirit receiver, they would need to know what had been in it.”
The skills required, the mathematics that his calculations rely on to give the respective volumes, and the laws concerning alcohol taxation haven’t changed since Tug began his career, however it is now the responsibility of each distiller to ensure that appropriate records are being kept.
The depths of liquid and space (“ullage”) inside a washback that give the distiller their measurements of volumes (or “dips”) are worked out by taking 8 vertical measurements at equi-distant points around the interior of the circle and then taking diameters every 30cm up from the meniscus using an extremely accurate laser. “I need to know everything so I calculate it from the bottom to the top,” explains Tug. “I’ll produce a table giving the quantity every 2 millimetres, so a distiller can determine from the dips he takes exactly how much is in it.” What’s remarkable about our new washback, number 6, is that it is evenly divisible into 8 segments, giving it proportions which, according to Tug, are “rather rare.”
With a wooden washback for fermentaion, that has a sloping floor so it can drain, there are particular things to watch out for. “I’ll do the first vertical at the dipping point, because that’s where I’ll base all the measurements from. Being a washback, it has to be a dry dip, because a wet dip would be quite impractical because of the surface of the liquid; you’d get a frothy bit.”
Each washback is different, “though not necessarily by much, depending entirely on how it’s been positioned on the base, and upteen other factors.” There being only one company in the country who continue to craft wooden vats on this sort of scale, Ron Low and the team from Joseph Brown vats, Dufftown, Tug “tends to follow him round the country quite a lot.”
He has noticed, “The quality of the vats has improved so much over the years, with the improvement in the machinery that the vat builders have. I keep telling Ronny in Dufftown, if I find anything wrong I’ll tell him. If I find nothing wrong, I’ll tell him!”
This natural variety means that we see Bob fairly regularly at Bruichladdich. “It’s like coming home,” he says. “There’s just nowhere that evokes such pleasure, as when I hear that I’m coming over to Bruichladdich, because I love Islay, the folk here are better than anywhere. And there’s also Ardbeg down the road.”
We’ll forgive a man as meticulous and with such a long association with the trade as Tug for a little slip like that.