You may or may not be aware that later this year we are moving from our distillery home for the last twenty years to a new home at Nairne in the Adelaide Hills. This move will have a tremendous and far reaching impact on Tin Shed Distilling and our products, and hopefully on us as individuals. These impacts will be discussed at a later date, but today I want to discuss the tools we use.
Here at the Shed we think of ourselves as artisan, or craft distillers. We are small-scale, we operate equipment by hand, we make judgment calls based on smell and taste, as well as time and instrumentation. For example we generally look to start thinking about the spirit run cut from heart to feints around 1430 in the afternoon. We then check to see if the strength of the distillate is what it should be. We also look at the temperature of the still and lastly, we smell and taste the distillate to see if the time is right to make the cut. The inputs consist of a mix of subjective sensory ones, backed up by instrumentation and measurement and it works well for us. We would not consider making the cuts any other way.
But what about the less critical elements of whisky making? A wash run is just set and forget. Charge the still, turn it on and collect low wines until it is finished. There is no need to do anything except keep an eye on it to make sure there are no disasters such as a loss of cooling water. If that is all that is required, it is possible to get a machine to do that. I can devote my time to other tasks and be more efficient, making my whisky less expensive and more attractive to my customers.
Not many people would call Glen Fiddich a craft distiller, they operate on an industrial scale; pushing out sixteen, ten ton mashes a day and have been operating for a couple of hundred years. They have got the process nailed to where they can make the spirit cut at the same time everyday because it is the same process everyday. I am not going to tell Wee Jimmy who has worked in the still room for thirty years that he doesn’t know his craft! He knows it far better than I ever will, except that he may not know what a barrel looks like, or how to fix one that leaks, or how to blend a whisky so that it tastes bloody fantastic.
This discussion came about because I spent a few hours this morning talking automation with a consultant. I was considering doing unmanned wash runs overnight and I wanted to be able to do that with fail safes in place so that if there was a malfunction the still would shut down and we would have no disasters except a bit of lost productivity. That discussion led to another discussion about implementing failsafe procedures so that it would be impossible to open the wrong valve by mistake and fill the distillery with water, or flammable spirit, or pour whisky down the drain. In other words make the place idiot proof, a good idea around here, trust me on that one!
It was then I started to think “if we operate our distillery by clicking a mouse or a touch screen are we still craft producers?” There are artists who paint using a digital brush. Are they not still artists even though their brush is electronic instead of made of wood and bristles? Just because we stir the mash with an electric motor rather than a paddle, are we not still craft producers? It is much safer doing it with a machine than with a paddle by the way.
I have arrived at the conclusion that being an artisan or craft producer is more about the state of mind and philosophy of the producer than it is about the tools he, or she uses.
What do you think? Tell us in the comments below...