Scotch / Pond Water / Floaties / Ammonia / Misc.

I have just come across two really amusing portraits of the Scotch Whiskey industry from 1926 and 1928. The first paper, which I will spend some time covering, was presented to the London engineers club by their author, S.H. Hastie, O.B.E., B.Sc. Since no one else likes to read the original material I will just extract the finer points and perform a little interpretation.  I really hope some people try reading the papers.  They are fairly accessible scientifically, have a really interesting historical context, and a really amusing comment section at the end.  I wish we still had presentations and clubs like these.  These guys were serious generalists and this really is nothing more than a gentleman’s understanding of chemistry.  Maybe this is how Tales Of The Cocktails should go?

I am not choosing to cover the entire paper but rather focus on some historical bits and Hastie’s explanation of water used in Scotch produciton.

Hastie 1926 for the London engineers club

Hastie 1928 presentation regarding a paper in the journal of brewing

“The following paper was read and discussed and a number of lantern slides were shown.” Lantern slides and probably a smoky room full of drunk, fat, well dress men. I bet there was at least one monocle in the bunch, the original steam punkers.  When the meeting broke they all left for the brothel.

“‘Character’ in whisky produced by the pot still process in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland is the term by which is designated the palate flavour experienced in tasting such whisky. It cannot be attributed entirely to the chemical substances found in whisky as reported in the conventional whisky analysis, nevertheless the distinctive differences between one pot still whisky and another is obvious to the consumer and is particularly definite to the expert.” I think he is implying that their chemical analysis is over simplified. For example they could only counter esters as acetic, they could not further subdivide the different esters.

“‘Character’ then may be defined as the palate flavour which each pot still whisky produces sufficiently definitely to permit of each whisky being differentiated from every other whisky. It is, further the criterion of quality used regularly in the selection of whiskies for introduction to blends with the object of meeting the palate demands of the consumer.” Hastie is very wordy and inarticulate and now you see why Hemingway was so important when he came out. Hastie does start to talk of supply and demand and mentions that some scotches have a character that is so high in demand that they command a significantly higher price despite have plants with material value and capital costs as another. You’d think the further you went back that people would be more interested in just getting drunk and they would even be less aware of their options. Maybe we’d have to go back another 100 years?

“The character of the whisky itself may remain, and does remain indefinitely the same, but the taste of the consumer varies from time to time, so much so, that the chosen drink regarded by one generation as highly palatable may become almost the poison of the succeeding generation.” This is the earliest mention of a swing in public taste I’ve ever seen. Previously I thought tastes were only noted as changing post WWI.

“Campbeltown, the birthplace of the manufacture of pot still whisky, now finds its product shunned by the consumer, and this change in public demand is such that this once busy centre of production is now rapidly becoming a lifeless locality so far as whisky production is concerned.” I don’t know the Scotch scene inside and out, but I’m under the impression that Campbetowns are only slowly returning to the market.

“Elsewhere, although public demand for whiskies with certain characteristics may not have reacted so drastically on the industry, in certain areas, there are still very material differences in market value between whiskies, entirely the result of the absence of presence of desirable characteristics.” So many of the new distilleries have a character that I don’t think is worth much money. There is the idea that no distillery really knows what they are doing and they can’t really call their shot in terms of character. So the market decides if they stay in business or go under.  Every new distillery is just a random shot in the dark as far as the success of their character is concerned.

“Pot still, or “all malt” whiskies, may be divided into four great classes: North East of Scotland (including Speyside), Campbeltown, Lowlands and Islay. These classes are altogether distinct in characteristics, whilst there is a class resemblance between whiskies produced in each of these districts of Scotland. North country whiskies are notable for a comparatively light, clean flavour, Islay’s are markedly heave in character, Campbeltown’s are known by a penetrating undesirable flavour, whilst Lowland malts are, compared with these other, comparatively featureless.” This is the earliest, fairly articulate Scotch differentiation I’ve ever seen.

“Indicative of the appeal to the public palate of Scotch whiskies from various districts of Scotland the Boston Daily Advertiser of recent date contains the following:–

‘A consignment of 400 gallons of ‘Ilay’ whisky from the Scottish Island of Islay was captured by the State Constabulary. The assistant analyst of the Health Department said, in the course of Court proceedings, that he had never heard of ‘Ilay,’ but that analysis showed this to be the best Scotch whisky out of 2000 brands which he had sampled.’

It would be interesting to know exactly how the chemist in question drew his conclusions from chemical analysis, as he appears to have done, without the aid of evidence of his palate.” I suspect the guy was teasing and he drank his share of the stuff. Back then there were people of “strange vantage points” [Amerine’s term for Peter Valaer of IRS fame] who analyzed or got to sample vast amounts of spirits from around the world.

“Two natural local factors must therefore be concerned, namely, the peat and the water supply, as no other essential factor locally existing is made use of in the industry.”

“The bored well of the brewer, supplying water comparatively rich in inorganic substances and free from organic matter, is the exact opposite of the distiller’s supply drawn from mountain or moorland loch, generally shallow and yielding surface water containing practically no inorganic matter but heavily laden with the vegetable organic matter derived from the peat and moss lands forming the catchment areas and the natural basins of such loch.” So they basically use pond water instead of well water! I’ve heard bits about Scotch water but I’ve never seen it contextualized like this.

“If the influence of the water used is a factor in the forming of character, then there must be fundamental differences either in the inorganic substances found in these waters or in the vegetable organic matter with which the water is so distinctly and so heavily charged.”

“There is a deep-rooted belief in the industry that all variations of character are due to the water, but explanation or proof does no seem to have been attempted, and if the facts are examined there is little real analytical evidence to support this belief.” Hastie goes on to provide a chart detailing the waters of Speyside, Islay, and Campbeltown.

inorganic chartInterestingly, Organic compounds are only subdivided into two categories because I think such things was beyond there analysis at the time. It might parallel the inability at the time to subdivide esters and other major congener categories. I’ve never seen any other research that identifies the special character of these scotches but I’m sure there are some modern studies somewhere.  Often modern studies just beat you over the head with lists from mass-spec/chromatography but do not assist the connoisseur in understanding how the compounds got there relative to other options. I haven’t read any modern books on Scotch so I don’t even know if these issues are dissected by great authors like Ian Buxton and his contemporaries.

“…and the reasonable deduction is that this vegetable matter is of paramount importance to the process since no group of these Highland distilleries employs a water which does not contain much vegetable matter while few of them employ water containing much inorganic matter. It must be concluded that this vegetable matter is the determining factor not only as to the suitability of a water for distillery purposes, but also as to the character of the whisky produced.”

“The technical difficulty is to determine what these individual substances are, how they differ, and what the specific effect of each is on the product. Science has surely seldom been faced with such a problem.” Scotch, at the forefront of early 20th century science!

“The effect of possible important differences in the bacteriological conditions obtaining in the different waters employed has been mentioned, but there is at present no evidence of any kind to support or oppose such a theory. It is difficult to believe that the races of predominant bacteria can vary to such an extent that organisms which have survived the mashing process still have such varied powers of altering the character of the product as to yield the different whiskies produced in practice.” I bet bacteria is killed but their bodies are still full of aroma precursors that could react is a variety of ways and contribute character. This is certainly the deep end of chemistry.  Small amounts of pungent, penetrating, acrid compounds like ammonia could definitely be the fodder of extraordinary olfactory illusions.

“The problem is still more complicated when the effects of these minute variables on the final product are considered, and can only be assayed, at present, by no more delicate a test than the palate of the expert taster of the whisky. Chemical analysis as at present employed is useless for the purpose. Hastie knew what he didn’t know and wasn’t afraid to say it! Mark of a good man.

Hello Mr. Hastie, why are distilleries located near such uniquely gross waters?

“The most reasonable explanation of the geographical distribution of pot still distilleries appears to be not the direct result of a definite choice for any technical or economical reason, but the result of a process of evolution. It may be safely presupposed that a natural desire for a fermented liqueur made from a cereal has existed for centuries and its origin is lost in the mists of antiquity. From early times the production of whisky has been a hazardous enterprise as a result of the pressure of authority upon the producer, so much so that remote and inaccessible sites were perforce chosen for its production. These circumstances resulted in the industry such as it was in early times being situated in the Highlands and Islands. Otherwise, it is reasonable to suppose that the site of operations would have been in the barley producing districts of the lower country, where all the raw materials, including fuel other tan peat, were available. If it be admitted that the Highlands became the natural seat of operations of the smuggler and of the illicit distiller from whom the methods of production have descended, then the obvious solution of the all important fuel question would be the naturally abundant peat, while the local water, whose character would undoubtedly be considered as of no consequence as a whisky character maker at that time, would certainly be employed, since the character desired consisted of a flavour of burnt peat and the bite resulting from an alcoholic strength well over proof.”

“By accident the local conditions round each distillery differed from these influencing neighbouring distilleres, public taste favoured certain individual products and these survived. In this way it seems possible to explain the geographical distribution of distilleries.” Here, Hastie restates my idea from above.

I’m at the end of your attention span and probably should leave it here because Hastie starts to talk of other topics besides water.  It is well know that water rolls through the peat bogs but what is new here, at least to me, is how he frames it against the well water option and that organic compounds would be nasties like ammonia and its relatives.

Anyone that reads Hastie’s original papers will be greatly rewarded. If you really enjoyed these papers I suggest you spent some time with the IRS researcher Peter Valaer who describes Cuban rum production pre-Castro among other great rum topics.


8 thoughts on “Scotch / Pond Water / Floaties / Ammonia / Misc.

  1. thanks Ian, but how common knowledge are his notions of water and organic material to connoisseurs today?

  2. S H Hastie was employed by Sir Peter Mackie of White Horse fame (also Maltmill etc) and equipped with a (I presume rudimentary, at least by today’s standards) basic laboratory in Campbeltown, which was then in severe decline. At a time when the industry was in some considerable financial difficulty and tended to adhere rigidly and blindly to tradition, Hastie was one of the first to apply scientific method to distilling (however much one can have fun with him today). According to Mackie he did important work on improving yields from barley. I wrote more about this in the 2013 Malt Whisky Yearbook.

  3. From Burn to Bottle was published in 1951 by the Scotch Whisky Association. I presume from the date it was towards the end of Hastie’s career. It’s a short pamphlet more than a book.

  4. I suspected it was a pamphlet based on that link. usage of non-well water that is high in organic compounds sounds like fertile ground for experimentation by new american whiskey producers. are any knew players known to be experimenting with any ideas like this?

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