This thing, vatting…?

IN

Last summer, we had award-winning interviewer and journalist Cole Moreton at the distillery. He hauled Adam over the coals… The following is taken from a transcript of their meeting. 

Cole Moreton [CM]: This thing, vatting, that you talk about, how does that practically work for you? What is it that you’re actually doing?

Adam Hannett [AH]: So, vatting is mixing the casks. It’s creating that final product because there’s going to be variation. We look for variation in what we do, so we create a broad spectrum of flavour, we have to make the most of these kind of diverse flavours. Individually, they might not have the balance to be a great whisky, sometimes they…

CM: Can I just clarify though, Adam? For a given bottle, how many casks are you talking about drawing from?

AH: As an example, if we talk about The Classic Laddie, we’re blending about 80 casks. It’s a signature style.

CM: 80.

AH: In each batch. Probably 12 to 15 batches per year, you know, to create that stock.  And as time goes on, year to year, we’re keeping the age profile around about the same;  the oldest whisky will be up to 12 years, the youngest whisky about 7 years. We’ll use a variety of different cask types, probably again, around 8 or 9 different cask types. And this will give us a kind of signature style of Bruichladdich. So it should be quite fresh, quite floral, fruity. We want that caramel from lots of bourbon casks, lots of sweetness. We want a particular style with the Classic, but I don’t want it to be the same all the time.

By nature, as we’re keeping that age profile the same and moving through the stocks, we will have filled different casks. We will have distilled different barley types, so there’ll be a change in the flavour. We have to look at the stocks we have. We look at what it is we want to achieve.  Classic is made to reflect the stocks of whisky, the style we have maturing in the warehouses.

We take in casks that come from a wide range. The older whisky will give you a bit more texture in the whisky, but a bit more of a base note. The younger whisky will give you a bit more vibrancy; a little bit of fruit from the spirit and less from the cask. So you’re blending these distinct flavours.

I was actually looking at some casks this morning, they were distilled from organically‐grown barley in 2011, matured in some very very good red wine casks for about eight years. There was a really strong, fruity flavour and a really rich red colour to the whisky.  It’s great for blending, but to release that whisky as it is, it’s too singular in its style. It would appeal to some people, not to others. But it’s a great whisky to add to that blend to give that fruity component that we want to have in the Classic.

Then we add a lot of bourbon‐matured whisky in there, which gives you that sweet caramel honey, vanilla. That again really works well with our spirit, so we want a large component of that.

You take in all these different things and blend them, mixing those eighty casks together across those vintages, with those different cask types… You’re creating something that you don’t really know exactly what it’s going to be until you get it together. And then you can add a bit more of this or that whisky to change that flavour if you want. But we’re creating something that represents all the good things about Bruichladdich, and one particular cask type or one particular vintage won’t give us that. We’ll do that with an Islay Barley, for example, or a single farm. We will get that singularity in that whisky, which is very interesting to think about, to focus on. But for a whisky that represents everything we do, we have to be blending and creating these flavours by taking different components.

So vatting is, depending on the product we want to make, quite complicated.

CM: So how are you practically doing that? I mean, you just can’t imagine you wandering around with a little glass having a little bit of this and a little bit of that?

AH: To a point, yeah!  I mean, we’ll start by looking at casks we have in a log of all the casks in all of our warehouses. And then choosing casks to draw samples from, bring the samples back to the sample room. We’ll then start blending different proportions and create a mini vatting. Until we end up happy with that, until it’s, you know, what it is we want. And we’ll go through loads and loads of different recipes and proportions.

And it takes a lot of time because you can’t spend all day doing that – your sense of smell, your palette, just gets completely fatigued with it. And then you don’t know what you’re drinking by half past 11!  So we do it bit by bit. We’ve got a base style, I have my previous recipes, so I look at a few options as we go through. If we’re happy that that recipe is right on that small scale, it’s good.

Then we’ll gather together the casks which the necessary samples came from, that’s what the warehouse team are doing just now. And they’ll vat it. I’ll get another sample, look at that, check it, tweak it, add a bit of this, a bit of that. And if I’m happy with it, we’ll recask it. Which means it’ll sit in neutral casks for minimum three months or so – the longer the better – just to allow all those flavours to combine, to marry. And then it’ll be ready to go forward to bottling.

Adam Hannett has been responsible for whisky releases at Bruichladdich since 2015

The great thing is that we have all the casks here, so when I walk out the front door, I can see the cask – it’s all very well to look at a sample of a bottle and smell the whisky – but if you can see the cask, if you know where it comes from, that builds the picture for you, you know?

And again, you can have “bourbon cask” written on your sample label, but is it from Jack Daniels, is it a Jim Beam, Heaven Hill, or Clermont Springs? What is it? What kind of char is that cask in? All these different things help you build a picture of what it is you want to achieve and what casks you want to use and which ones you don’t want to use.

So that process is going out, looking at the casks, drawing the samples, coming back. It takes time, but it’s a real interesting part of it, you know? Putting together that blend.

CM: And it really is personal, isn’t it? Do you know on basis, on percentage, is it like 2% this, 3% that?

AH: You would work out your percentages and your blend based on how many casks you have of a certain thing, you know. You couldn’t say “I want to use all of these 2011 casks from this Chateau” if you only have a certain amount. So you have to consider all these things as well. But that’s all part of blending. You source casks that maybe are more interesting at the time; you didn’t set out with a particular plan to lay down stocks that will be a Classic. I mean, to a point we’ll do that, but we’ll also try other things as well, so we’ll leave ourselves a bit of room for flexibility.

CM: That’s interesting. So there’s science in there, there’s maths in there, there’s strategy in there, forward planning. Marketing to some degree. But in the end, it comes down to palette and instinct and gut really, doesn’t it?

AH: I think that that’s the big thing for me over the years, developing that instinct about what that spirit is like. Knowing what a 2007 in a bourbon cask should taste like, and when you taste it, how far away from that is it? Is it what we want or is the cask not doing enough? Do we need to change it?  I think that’s the big thing, the intuition of knowing what that whisky has been like as a spirit, watching it develop. Is it developing in the right way? Is it becoming what we want it to be? Yeah, it’s just a feeling.

It’s hard to explain it, but it’s only by spending time looking at the stock, tasting the stock, knowing, again, where the barley’s come from, how it’s been distilled, how long a fermentation time it’s had. Knowing all that stuff helps you build that picture and understand that spirit, inside out. And yeah, it takes a lot of time to build up that level of knowledge of the whisky.

CM: Well thank you, that’s a revelation.

 


Further Reading

Classic Laddie >>

Transparency Hub >>

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