When it comes to whisky, the conversation has long been dominated by maturation – on how long the liquid spends slumbering in which cask, on how big the cask is and what it held before, whether a Sherry butt, wine barrique, first-fill Bourbon barrel or the fashionable mizunara. Recently, there’s been an increased focus on the base product, with producers such as Waterford’s Mark Reynier championing single-site, single-barley, terroir-driven whiskies (and rums, with his Renegade project). But, somehow, there’s a tendency to skip on by the magic that happens in between: distillation.
While grain whisky is column distilled, malt whisky is almost exclusively distilled in copper pot stills – indeed, it’s a legal requisite for Scotch whisky. Crafting these copper beauties is an art – and one that depends on a handful of specialists. Kentucky has Vendome, Germany has Kothe and CARL, Italy has Frilli and Scotland has Forsyths. The equipment these coppersmiths produce lays the foundation the DNA of its new-make.
To the untrained eye, these onion-shaped pieces of kit look almost identical, but the size and shape is distinct to each distillery – defining its style. As distilleries expand and increase production, they don’t buy a bigger still – but commission exact replicas of their existing still(s), with every dent and dimple carefully recreated. Macallan, famously, replaced all its stills when building its new state-of-the-art distillery in 2018, asking Forsyths to create 36 stills that were identical to those it had previously used.
Although there have been attempts to use other metals, copper has long been favoured for distilling – originally for its pliability, making it easy to work and shape. But by the early 20th century, it was apparent that copper had other benefits – stripping the spirit of impurities. As the vapour rises through the still, it reacts with the copper, capturing sulphur, cyanides, carbonates and acids, meaning the liquid that is eventually collected is purer.
Coppersmiths play on this purifying effect to create a range of stills, for the longer the vapour spends in contact with the copper, the lighter the spirit you’ll produce. Take Glenmorangie’s tall, 17-feet-high stills which produce a very light spirit, and compare them to the small, squat stills and typically heavy spirit of the Macallan. Of course it’s not quite as simple as that. As well as the ratio of copper to liquid, the speed of distillation, the shape of the still, the size of the neck, the level of reflux, the angle of the lyne arm and venting of stills all have an impact.
Rothes-based Forsyths has been hammering copper into shape for Scotland’s leading distillers for over 150 years. Richard Forsyth OBE (who has now passed management of the business to his son, Richard Jr) was the third generation of his family to run the coppersmiths. The frank, self-effacing Scot remembers working in his father’s workshop aged 15, “I knew this is what I wanted to do… I found it fascinating.” And after 55 years, his eye still twinkles when he talks about the arch of a still’s swan neck, the art of wielding a planishing hammer and the characters that make the industry so interesting.
He joined the family business in 1967 – at what happened to be a pivotal moment for the industry. During the Second World War, the whisky business ground to a halt – and with it the need for stills. In the 1950s and ’60s, however, the industry grew rapidly – too rapidly, it turned out. What was a golden era turned into a whisky lake, with many distilleries soon mothballed. Forsyths – for whom 99% of its business was servicing the whisky industry – had to find something else to pay the bills, and it was up to Richard to find that something else. They branched out first into paper, then stainless steel and – by the late 1990s – oil and gas. Although coppersmithing remained the foundation and heart of the business, these other disciplines became the main money-makers until the early 2010s, when whisky’s current boomtime set in.
Today, Forsyths maintains over half of the pot stills in Scotland. For a wash still (distilleries that double-distil have wash and spirits stills, first distilling the wash into “low wines” and then distilling the “low wines” into new-make spirit), the head, neck and condenser wears out in eight to 10 years, while the pot itself may last 25. Add to that developing new stills for the thriving industry – as well as their expansion into rum, Bourbon and tequila – and the company’s not short of work.
Although there is clear resistance to change with an industry that is entrenched in tradition, things have shifted, slowly but surely, over the years. And there have been two significant changes over the last century that have transformed the Scotch whisky world: the firing of stills and the nature of condensers.
When shell-and-tube condensers were invented in the 1880s, as an alternative to old-fashioned worm tubs, it took time for producers to be persuaded. Although shell-and-tube condensers are significantly more efficient and take up much less space, they are completely different – with the copper surface area at least 20 times larger, something which has a key impact on the spirit. To this day some producers (15 to be exact – including Craigellachie, Mortlach, Glen Elgin and Springbank, the latter only for their wash still) retain their worm tubs, valuing the heavier, richer, more complex (and in some instances, even meaty, savoury) spirit character.
Traditionally stills were direct-fired – heated by flames fed by peat, coal or gas. “It’s dirty, messy, difficult to handle – and to control,” Forsyth tells me. A push for safety and efficiency saw producers switch to using steam in the 1970s. But some argue that this shift wasn’t for the better. Fire created a less consistent heat, with hot spots that would burn the wash and promote Maillard reactions (the same reaction that takes place when you brown meat, or during the bottle-ageing of Champagne or other traditional-method sparkling wine) – adding nutty, roasted notes that build complexity, or so proponents would argue. Glenfarclas is known for having briefly dallied with steam before returning to direct-firing, along with the likes of Macallan, Glenfiddich and Springbank.
As the whiskies of this pre-modernisation era – Scotch’s so-called “golden age” – become increasingly coveted, distilleries (both new and old) are looking to recreate these practices. Along with traditional floor maltings, producers like Glen Garioch (owned by Suntory) and Dunphail are investing in direct-firing. (Although, with worm tubs no longer produced, new distilleries have little choice regarding shell-and-tube condensers.)
However they are fired, given their custom nature, copper pot stills don’t come cheap. Much of the work continues to be done by hand, hammering to strengthen and finish the copper. Stills can range from 5,000 to 50,000 litres in capacity, but an average 15,000-litre still and its condenser will require between 1,800 and 2,000 manhours, and set you back around £250,000. And that price has only increased recently, thanks to rising energy and material costs – with a copper shortage proving challenging for Forsyths, a business that is the UK’s second-biggest buyer of the metal.
With the distinct nature of stills and their impact on spirit, plenty of new producers will ask for copies of a particular distillery’s stills – wishing to emanate their style of spirit. Forsyth tells me how one Japanese customer requested a pair each of Macallan, Glenlivet and Glenrothes stills. While of course there are many problems with this imitation game, there’s also no guarantee – as Forsyth tells me – that the same equipment will have the same results, especially when not run with the same wash, in the same way, by the same people.
And, of course, a company like Forsyths isn’t going to give away Macallan’s proprietary designs, for example. As such, they’ll recreate something similar, but ensure it’s tweaked so no two distilleries have exactly the same design.
But how much impact do stills really have on the final spirit? Despite his half-century in the trade, Forsyth is quick to suggest, “I don’t think a lowly coppersmith can talk too much about that.” He’s clear that you need good equipment to make good spirit, but it’s one factor in amongst everything else – the barley, water and fermentation times, for example. And how a still is used is as important as its shape or size, with both the speed of distillation and the all-important cuts – dividing the heart from the foreshots and feints. Forsyth firmly believes that good wood is “the single biggest effect in a bottle eight, 10 or 12 years later”. There’s little use having a good base spirit if it’s ruined by a decade in bad oak – but good oak also can’t salvage bad spirit.
Forsyth has seen it all during his 55 years in the whisky business – and has been forced to be as malleable as the metal his family has worked for generations to survive the booms and busts. Despite the challenges, the coppersmith is as enchanted by his trade as when he first picked up a hammer in his father’s workshop. The industry will doubtless continue to ebb and flow, but with a spirit that takes decades to produce, the pace of change is reassuringly gentle. “It almost goes as slow as the running of the spirit,” Forsyth says whimsically. The still room remains the beating heart of distilleries – the basis of a producer’s fingerprint, all thanks to the careful hammering of the artful coppersmith.