That idea of distilling being distinct individual elements is not how a whiskymaker looks at the art. Rather it is part of a continuum, a net of possibilities where everything is interlinked. Change one element and the effect will change everything else. Only by understanding how flavours are created throughout the journey through the distillery will the whiskymaker fully comprehend the possibilities. That is why at The Lakes, unusually, our whiskymaker Dhavall Gandhi is actively involved at every stage. It is holistic whisky making.
It starts with choosing the barley variety and how it is malted. It was decided that The Lakes would be an unpeated whisky. We have cold, pure water from the Lake District National Park which, when heated, is added to the ground barley to a give clear wort. Here we can influence flavour. The slower you do this mashing, the fruitier the resulting spirit is going to be.
The wort has to be fermented, but now the question is which yeast to use? Yeast doesn’t only convert sugar into alcohol, but can play a fundamental role in the creation of flavour.
Under Dhavall’s guidance we currently use a unique combination of yeast strains that we use on different days and these are blended at the end of the week. Our fermentation process is pushed up to 96 hours, twice the industry average, to create the desired complexity and depth of flavour.
Distillation is slow and long with a very narrow cut point; the more contact the alcohol vapour has with the copper still, the resulting spirit will be fruitier and more robust to complement maturation in sherry casks.
The oak and cask seasoning have a considerable impact on the maturing spirit, adding their own personalities, integrating with our spirit, and working in combination to produce layers of depth and complexity.
We believe that our complex spirit blossoms best when aged in ex-sherry casks. As with his unique approach to spirit creation, our whiskymaker’s expertise in sherry casks has shaped whiskymaking at the Lakes, where, contrary to most contemporary distilleries’ use of ex-bourbon casks, 80-90% of our spirit is filled into different types of ex-sherry cask. The standard type of ex-sherry cask used by the whisky industry is a 500 litre ‘butt’ made from Spanish oak.
These are seasoned with Oloroso sherry giving a flavour base of dried fruit, ginger and a firm tannic grip. The large size also makes it ideal for longer-term maturation. We have widened the net. As well as this type of cask, we are also ageing in ex-sherry casks made from American and French oak - giving creaminess and spice respectively - seasoned with sweet styles of sherry like Pedro Ximenez, and Cream, as well as the drier Fino. 250 litre ‘hogsheads’ are also widely used, adding yet more flavour options.
Each type of cask will give a variation on a theme, colours, notes, words to be brought together to create something new. Something which reflects the place, and the person.
Creating a new whisky necessitates a framework being in place, but there has to be room within it to play, to follow gut feeling and instinct. There has to be a sense of adventure.
That means not just creating flavour in the new make spirit, but opening up more flavour possibilities.
Dhavall knows each cask intimately; how the flavours are evolving and then how they can be blended with others to complement, enhance, deepen, broaden or contrast. They nudge against each other, some excited, some sulky, some diffident, the heavy and the light.
This is the art of blending – the same alchemy of perfumers who make new scents by creating a pyramid of aromas with base, middle and top notes. It is dynamic, it is creative, and expressive. It is also personal.
At the Lakes, blending is a creative expression of ideas, emotions and feelings through the language of whisky. It comes from the heart.
It takes time, so the final hand-selected casks are allowed to marry together for up to a year before bottling, significantly longer than any other whisky. This creates depth, roundness and harmony, the final touch which makes it The Lakes whisky.
"If whisky is an art, then after spending some time with Dhavall in his blending lab, this man is the artist relishing his palatte."
Rob Allanson, Editor, Whisky Magazine