Thursday, January 17, 2013

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Replacing that Worn Out Still — Every Ding and Dent?

Since the nineteenth century, the Forsyth family has made stills. By some estimates, they have fabricated nearly half of Scotland’s whisky stills. Their firm, Forsyths, specializes in larger distillery systems, but builds each model to order and has made some as small as 50 liters. I recently spoke with Richard Forsyth Sr., chairman of the company, about Forsyths’ presence in the North American market. Although their footprint in the US is modest, it covers some noteworthy distilleries, including Balcones Distilling, Distillery 209, Kings County Distillery, Philadelphia Distilling, and Woodford Reserve. Building stills, however, is not the firm’s bread and butter. Repairing them is.

Old copper stills wear out. Or is that a Dalek?
Most American distilleries were founded in the last decade and are simply too new to have to contend with worn-out stills. In Scotland, however, aging equipment is an ongoing concern. “Our main business,” reports Forsyth, “is replacement of worn stills. Distilleries can run 24/7 and run down pot stills quite quickly. We check the copper’s thicknesses on an annual basis in Scotland and home in on wear areas. We write reports and then sit down with each client to agree on a replacement program.” The traditional two-still process in Scotland is particularly hard on the equipment. A preliminary run on the first still produces low wines, a relatively low-alcohol liquid. These low wines are then run through a second still, often called a spirit still, which concentrates ethanol further yielding white dog or new make which, when aged, cut, and blended (or not), becomes the Scotch whisky we know.

The wear patterns on those stills are exactly opposite. Harsh low wines, explains Forsyth, corrode the upper parts of a still within 10-12 years, while the pot may last 30-40. On the second distillation, it’s the other way around. Low wines and feints corrode the boiler, but the spirits rising through the upper parts are much more refined, so upper parts like such as the Lyne arm and swan’s neck may last 30-40 years, but the pot only 10-12 years.

Rather than replacing the entire still — an expensive proposition — Forsyths craftsman cut away worn areas and replace them with new materials. Those apocryphal stories about Scotch distillers replacing old stills with brand new ones that exactly replicate every dump and dent so that distillers can faithfully reproduce whisky that is exactly the same every single time? Turns out that’s just a good story for gullible drinkers.

 “Replacing old stills down to the last ding, bump, and patch?” chuckled the chairman. “That’s not quite true; those old stills may have a dent or two. Rather than replace the entire still, we only replace the parts that require it. If we cut out a patch or replace a part, we will replicate angles and shapes religiously, so that the contours of the boiler or Lyne arm, for example, are exact duplicates. After all, if we built it, we still have the original plans. But every ding and bump? No, we don’t do that.”

So pour that in your glass and drink it.

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