the distillery experience
Posted on October 23, 2014
Today we hand over to our friend Nicola Young of the WhiskyBoys blog who spent a couple of days working at the distillery some time ago. Here's what she thought.
When the WhiskyBoys met Gordon Bruce (Knockdhu Distillery Manager) at the launch of the Peter Arkle Limited Edition anCnoc Single Malt in Glasgow, we had no idea that it would lead to us enjoying a three day insight into how Highland Scotch Whisky is produced. Arriving at the distillery for the 1st of our 3 back shifts (2pm-10pm), day one felt like an impossible task, to learn, absorb, understand and perform what the “Men of Knock” have been perfecting since 1894.
When Ally (assistant Distillery Manager) introduced us to our Whisky making expert for the day (Ian) I have to admit I struggled to understand his broad north east Scottish dialect, however after an hour or so I had adapted and tuned in. Ian was a wealth of knowledge; over 20 years at Knockdhu, he knew the place, spirit and machines inside out. He never stopped moving, checking, double checking, taking readings and measuring for the full 8 hours, it was a hard job keeping up with Ian’s pace.
Did I mention 1 shift at Knockdhu is operated by just one man... he is the mash man, the wash man and the still man. The sheer amount of pipes, valves, gauges and switches was mind blowing and seeing Ian seamlessly move from one process to the next, explaining as he went was exhausting - all being second nature to him. Ian also let slip a few memorable phrases - phrases I believe he must have created to remind himself of processes when he was getting to grips with the distillery himself, one of the best was, “If yir waashin then yir mashin”. As day 1 came to an end it was starting to sink in the sheer complexity of the traditional whisky making process, the temperatures, the fill levels, the volumes, the weights and the timings. We headed back to the hotel in Keith wondering if we would retain all the new whisky knowledge till the next day.
On day 2 we were eager to start shift no 2 - thankfully the information we had soaked up yesterday had stuck, and this morning we were distillery operators, confident in the spirit we were making - pride was oozing out of us. We arrived and were pleased to see Gordon, Ally and Ian ready to provide us with more knowledge about their distillery and the process they use to make anCnoc single malt whisky. I felt much more in control and was now confidently checking and double checking readings, levels and temperatures (without being asked). I was now thinking like a distillery operator. There was however one aspect I had a bit of a problem with, “The Boiler”, it was a 1960’s shuttle rocket launcher - it was a flame thrower from hell, and it made a LOT of scary, I’m going to blow up right now, noises. I have to admit it scared the beejeezus out of me.
UPDATE: I have been reliably informed that it was replaced.
The day concluded with us working the full mash process (8 hours) - all 3 waters and also emptying the spirit receiver with the first of the spirit we had made. WE HAD MADE SPIRIT!! It is now ready to be filled into a cask for the new warehouse. Confident and ready to learn was the motto for Day 3, fully charged and ready to mash on our own, here we go. Other highlights of day 3 were stencilling casks, measuring readings from the spirit receiver and also checking temperature and alcohol levels from the spirit safe.
I felt very privileged to have had this opportunity and to have been able to work alongside traditional Scottish Whisky makers. I love Whisky but how many of us will have the opportunity to see and operate a barley mill, a 5 tonne mash tun, 6 douglas fir wash backs, a wash still and a spirit still.
Writing this now I cannot put into words the amount of information and knowledge I squeezed out of the guys at Knockdhu, I asked everything and got answers for the lot. A true diamond of a distillery, with men to match. The kindness and generosity displayed at this distillery was immense. One question I asked all the men was “what do you enjoy the most about working at Knockdhu” they all answered “the team is great, just a great bunch of guys to work with”.