Shiny stills are a common sight in any distillery – but we wanted to learn more about how they are made. In 2010, Richard Goslan paid a trip to Forsyths in Speyside to find out more for Unfiltered

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To the untrained eye, they look like a random selection of huge copper pots, beached in the yard of an industrial estate in the Speyside town of Rothes. But when you’ve spent your life manufacturing whisky stills, as Richard Forsyth has, each and every one is as instantly identifiable as your own offspring.

“That’s for Glenlivet,” the managing director of Forsyths tells me. “Those ones over there are for Glenburgie and Glenfiddich.”

In fact, the range of pots standing in the yard is the story of the still in its three stages of life. There are brand-new stills, ready for delivery to their various distilleries. Next to them are stills from Bruichladdich and shoulder plates from Glen Grant, which have been returned to Forsyths for repairs. And finally, there are the stills which have seen their final distillation, and have been returned to Forsyths for recycling. But it’s not the end of the line altogether – some of that copper may end up being used in another new still one day.

A reliance on tradition

Forsyths’ business dates back to the mid-19th century, and serves about half of Scotland’s distilleries, as well as an increasing number of overseas ventures. As well as stills, they offer a complete design and installation service for new distilleries, along with specialised products for the oil and gas industry,

The firm is now entering its fourth generation, with the appointment of Richard Forsyth’s 30-year old son – also Richard – as managing director designate. On the wall of Forsyth Snr’s office is a photograph, taken in the 1920s, of his grandfather and his fellow tradesmen – many of them holding the same basic tools of the trade which are being used to this day.

Inside the vast shed where Forsyths’ stills take shape, that reliance on tradition is evident. A variety of mechanised hammers beat out a rhythm that is supplemented by hand hammering. There’s constant movement as the overhead crane guides parts into position and different pieces come and go for welding or finishing.

Conversation is impossible over the din of the hammers, so we rely more on sign language to observe the work underway on a huge shoulder plate for a still at the Glenlivet. Closer to the door is a partially built crate with two miniature stills inside, just 200 and 300 litres in capacity, which are ready to be shipped to an amateur whisky enthusiast in Denmark.

Size matters

The importance of the shape and size of a still is not entirely understood within the industry, although there is general agreement about how it can affect the finished product.

“In principle, the higher the still, the higher the strength of the alcohol that you can deliver at the maximum point, albeit with upper limitations for a pot still,” says Dr Harry Riffkin, owner and managing director of whisky analysts Tatlock & Thomson.

“A short dumpy still, even on the spirit side, will have a maximum alcohol concentration that you can deliver. A tall one will have a slightly higher in-safe strength and will also allow you, on the spirit side, to distil on quite a bit further without bringing in the ‘feinty’ aromas. A tall spirit still would let you run on spirit for considerably longer than a short one would.”

The variations within the industry are huge. Glenmorangie’s stills, for example, are the tallest in Scotland, at almost 17ft. They date back to William Matheson’s decision to buy second-hand gin stills instead of the traditional onion-shaped whisky pots. The company says the height of the stills helps to banish harsh flavours before maturation. The Macallan’s spirit stills, on the other hand, have short necks, which lead to a heavier final product.

“The Glenmorangie stills are an extreme version of what you can do to deliver very high quality on the spirit side,” says Harry. “But basically, the bigger the still, the less relative copper area is available to the spirit vapour. That means if you go for huge stills – an example would be Jura distillery – then you have to be very careful in distillation because you probably have to operate at a slower rate of distillation or you don’t get enough copper contact in the wash distillation in particular.

“The smaller the still, the more copper surface area you have available to the vapour, and to a certain extent smaller stills can be run a bit harder to deliver top quality spirit than you can run a big still.”

The magic and mystique of copper

Although they can come in any variety of shapes and sizes, the one element common to every still is its material – copper. “It’s a major part of the process,” says Harry. “The copper has a very important role to play in removing undesirable organosulphur compounds during the wash distillation.”

Richard Forsyth recalls one distillery’s chief engineer who thought he could dispense with copper, in favour of stainless steel – with disastrous consequences.

“He put stainless steel bottoms onto the stills, and stainless steel condensers in,” he says, “But when it came to produce the whisky, it wouldn’t clear because the unwanted sulphates weren’t coming out. The following year we had to change all the stainless steel back into copper.”

Richard says there’s even an element of superstition among distillers about not tampering with such an integral part of their whisky-making process.

The fastest-wearing parts are the wash necks and spirit pots, which last between 10 and 12 years, while wash pots and spirit necks can be used for between 25 and 30 years. When it’s time to replace them, as well as making precise measurements for its blueprints, Forsyths will take a set-wire mould to make sure the replacement is as similar as possible.

“The distillers are extremely sensitive to any change,” he says.

Harry agrees that tampering with the shape of the still could change the character of the finished product.

“Every distillery has its own distinctive fingerprint. It’s in the interest of distillers to have continuity for their brand, so if they need to replace a part of the distillation system, they’ll try to replace it with the same part as they had before.”

By the same token, Richard makes no guarantee that a certain size or shape of still will produce a certain style of whisky.

“We make a point, especially to new markets in Asia for example, that we can’t guarantee a certain type of spirit out of a certain type of pot – that’s part of the whisky industry’s mystique”