First there’s a near-infrared analyser, to look at grain quality. Next, a friabilimeter, to monitor how well grain has been modified during malting. In the following room we encounter a density meter, to measure both apparent and actual alcohol strength. Then there’s the gas chromatography-olfactometry (GC-O) machine – helpfully explained to scientific simpletons such as me as a “big electronic nose”.
A tour of the various laboratories at The Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI) is a revealing and fascinating insight into the world of research that goes into every aspect of Scotch whisky production, from raw materials and processing through to maturation, flavour analysis and product protection.
Unfiltered is here because as of January this year, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has become a member of SWRI, taking its place alongside the producers – representing around 90 per cent of the whisky industry in Scotland – who now form the industry-funded research and technology organisation.
The Scotch Whisky Research Institute developed from what was previously the Pentlands Scotch Whisky Research body, founded in 1974 by a group of distillers who wanted to collaborate to tackle common problems and challenges within their industry. Among its early pioneering chemists was Dr Jim Swan. In 1997, SWRI relocated to purpose-built facilities – with a Charles Doig-inspired pagoda roof – at the Robertson Trust Building in the Heriot-Watt Research Park on the outskirts of Edinburgh.
Unfiltered’s tour guide today is Andrew Forrester, SWRI’s technology transfer manager, who shows us around the various laboratories at the Robertson Trust Building and has a good stab at explain to me what a flow cytometer does. There’s a calm rationality and focus to every activity we encounter, as materials are tested and analysed, and data is gathered and processed.
“You don’t come here for romance,” says Andrew. But in its own white-jacketed way, there a romance about what’s happening here – because whisky, more than other drinks, both deserves and sustains this level of scientific scrutiny.
“I think the romance of Scotch whisky is that when you get into the level of detailed examination of flavour as we do, you find that its flavour complexity is astounding,” says SWRI’s director of research James Brosnan. “For me, the more we find out about Scotch, the more interesting the story becomes.
“Even in areas that we think are quite well understood, for example with our recent research on the origins of flavours associated with peated whiskies, we’ve been able to show that actually the contribution of the different compounds isn’t as straightforward as we thought. Some of the recognisably peated aromas might have their origins in the peat, but they’re not the phenolic compounds that we talk about. That’s new knowledge and it all adds to the story. One of the reasons I’ve worked in whisky science for 26 years is because there’s always something fresh and interesting to find out.”
THE SOCIETY’S CONTINUOUS QUEST
Flavour and sensory science is only one area where the SMWS will be working with SWRI scientists. As the Society has developed over the past 35 years, it has taken more control over sourcing and buying its own casks, purchasing new make spirIt, managing the maturation of its stocks and evolving its programme of additional maturation.
“We’re on a continuous quest to pursue a diversity of flavours and bottle the highest quality possible for our members – and have a bit of fun along the way,” says Kai Ivalo, the Society’s spirits director.
“By working together with SWRI, we’ll be able to build on the skills we’ve developed at the Society over the past 35 years. That means going beyond being maturation experts to exploring the world of new make spirit, working on cask selection, experimenting with flavour diversity, and further developing our knowledge of sensory evaluation.
“Joining SWRI is an investment in quality, in the ability to take greater control and in having more involvement in every stage of the process leading to us bottling our whisky. Ultimately, it’s about being able to better nurture our stock and offer more choice for members.”
One of most important aspects of SWRI’s research is around sustainability – across the entire supply chain that goes into creating whisky, from cereals to yeast strains to wood sources. Sustainability also applies to flavour, specifically in ensuring that the industry can maintain its diversity in the future.
“If you look at the processes across the industry, they’re all fairly similar, using the same cereals, using the same yeast, using very similar distillation systems and parameters,” says Frances Jack, senior scientist in flavour and sensory science. “But we still haven’t been able to measure every flavour compound, even with technology such as the GC-O. We need to understand where these flavours are coming from, so that we can maintain them. That’s especially relevant to the SMWS and your focus on individuality and flavour diversity.”
John Conner, senior scientist in maturation and analytical chemistry, says that despite the unknowns, the more knowledge the Society has access to, the more likely it is to end up with the required variety and quality of whisky for its members.
“Our maturation research project is designed to help our members choose the right casks for their products,” he says. “That includes analysis of the effects of heat treatment on different species of oak. Understanding more about what’s happening during maturation allows you to better plan what the final product of the maturation process is going to be.”
MORE CHOICE AND QUALITY
Access to day-to-day technical support and a range of analytical services from SWRI are obvious benefits that should help the Society to offer members even more choice and quality. But it also brings it into a ‘research club’, working for the long-term prosperity of the industry as a whole.
“All of our research and analysis is helping to protect and indeed enhance the future of our industry as it grows,” says James Brosnan. “Being a member of SWRI means playing a part in the ongoing success of Scotch whisky, and we’re delighted to welcome the SMWS as a new member of the organisation.”