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The Whisky May Be Aged but the Tech Isn’t

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WhiskeyEmporium

To make their signature blended scotch whisky, distillers at DEWAR'S use a blend of traditional and modern technology.

There are a few key ingredients to making great blended scotch whisky, but the most important one isn’t something you can harvest from a field or even touch with your hands. It’s time. It takes time for barley to germinate and become malted. It takes time for the liquid to age in wooden casks crafted by master coopers. Perhaps most importantly, it takes time to innovate, iterate, and evolve distillation technology.

That said, sometimes tech from the 1800s does a better job than that of the 2000s. And sometimes it doesn’t. Understanding which works best requires wisdom that only comes after years of practice—and DEWAR'S has it down. Their commitment to both tradition and innovation is bound to influence blended scotch whisky production in ways that only time will tell. Maybe someday it will be made entirely by robots (which I guess is fine as long as humans are still the ones who get to enjoy it).

Blended Scotch Whisky 1.0

Few brands have more time under their belt than DEWAR'S. Founded by John Dewar in Scotland in 1846, the company began producing spirits out of its Aberfeldy Distillery in 1898 under the guidance of John’s sons, John Alexander and Tommy Dewar. A publication at the time noted that the site, not far from where John Sr. was born, was exceptional because of its access to a water supply that “is always full, even in the driest summer” and “has proved to be of the best quality for distilling purposes.”

But the reason DEWAR'S succeeded for more than a century, ultimately becoming the world’s most awarded blended scotch whisky, is about more than just water (although the word “whisky” does derive from the Gaelic term uisce beatha, meaning “water of life”). It’s about innovation. From its founding at the turn of the century, Aberfeldy pushed the envelope of what was possible. The Dewar family enlisted renowned distillery architect Charles Doig to design Aberfeldy. He is best known for the Doig Ventilator, a pagoda-shaped roof that helped draw air from the kiln that heated barley in the malting process. They also looked pretty: Only a few are operational today, but their aesthetic value remains undiminished.

Numerous innovations at Aberfeldy shaped the early history of distillation. A water turbine and steam engine powered the distilling equipment. A private electric generator was on hand to ensure that production could continue in the event of a loss of power. There were even hydraulic lifts in the warehouse that made moving casks around much more convenient in the days before forklifts.

As the distinct flavor of DEWAR'S whiskies has endured over the decades, so too has the company’s commitment to progress. Granted, DEWAR'S is highly respectful of its heritage. As Master Blender Stephanie MacLeod—only the seventh person to hold that title in DEWAR'S history—has said, “If A.J. Cameron [the first Master Blender] ever came back and picked up a dram of DEWAR'S White Label, he would recognize it as his own.” But that hasn’t stopped the company from taking creative steps in its pursuit of future successes. Which makes sense: Another of Tommy DEWAR'S visionary quotes (the guy had a way with words) is, “Yesterday’s success belongs to yesterday.”

Modern Methods, Classic Taste

Macleod is proud to continue the DEWAR'S tradition of combining the old and the new. DEWAR'S pioneered the process of double-aging its blended whiskies. Typically, after multiple whiskies are combined the resulting spirit is bottled. But for decades, DEWAR'S has placed the blend back into casks to allow its flavor to mature even further. That labor-intensive process was made vastly more efficient in 2015, when DEWAR'S opened a new blend center in central Scotland. The state-of-the-art facility utilizes sophisticated machinery in a fully automated process to drill holes into casks, vacuum out the liquid, and then refill the empty cask with new blended scotch whisky. The machines can also add water, adjust the blend, and even control the liquor's strength.

The casks themselves have also benefited from innovation. In the distilling process, the wooden cask plays as important a role as the water and malted barley in establishing a blended scotch whisky’s character, and DEWAR'S has a lot of them. DEWAR'S stores more than 1.3 million casks throughout its numerous warehouses, and until recently they were all logged on paper. Yes, paper. Today, every cask can be scanned on a mobile device that instantly displays its age and provenance. Those same devices can also pull up a 3-D model of the storage facility so each cask can be located with pinpoint accuracy within seconds.

In addition to efforts that enhance flavor and improve processes, DEWAR'S has leveraged technology to make its distilleries more sustainable. The company burns the spent grains that are the byproduct of the distilling process, called draff, to create electricity. Thanks to the company’s scale, one facility produces 8.3 megawatts of electricity every hour. Some of the electricity is used on-site and the rest—enough to power 8,000 homes—is exported.

A recent advertising slogan for DEWAR'S flagship White Label scotch reads “It never varies.” And while that may be true of the taste, but it certainly isn’t true of the way it’s crafted.

Justin Tejada is a writer and editor based in New York City. Follow him on Twitter at @just_tejada and Instagram at @justin_tejada

Art by Louis Grosperrin.

By Justin Tejada