Most folks who know me understand that the majority of available brain space I’ve been loaned is mainly taken up by purple prose and melodic lines of mismatching music. Although crammed full of numbers and formulas during my formative school years, most things science and math related were shoved out when margins reached capacity and I needed more room for things like lyrics to Monty Python ditties.
And yet, I still find myself drawn to the science of whisky making. Most of what I learn provides a thirty second “aha” moment, which I attempt to recall when I’m next holding a dram. Sadly, the info usually fades quickly into the amorphous background of hazy-edged knowledge I rarely dredge back up to the surface.
Therefore, writing about it provides me with a three-fold benefit.
1.) Sometimes putting the science into laymen’s terms allows me to understand the concept more fully and then present it to another interested party.
2.) There is info ready at my fingertips for a quick refresher, should I need it (and I always need it).
3.) There is documented proof I did not spend all day watching YouTube videos.
And even though my family regularly stands amazed at my lack of science recall, I am not as daft as they would have most folks believe.
I am not a backward thinking, dubious troglodyte who still insists that illness is caused by evil spirits.
It’s caused by evil spirits who have a score to settle with you.
Okay, and by bacteria.
Tiny as they are, it’s easy to see why these nearly invisible beings are confused with the unseen undead. And they are prolific, existing virtually everywhere and in numbers rivaling the stars.
But not all bacteria need to be scrubbed away with a bucket of bleach and a strong wire brush. Some we invite onboard our bodies for sound reasons. Many are beneficial to our digestions, others are key ingredients in making dairy delectable, and scores act as cleanup crew to the world’s newly departed.
As spirit drinkers (not the evil, but the liquid kind), most of us know the ingredient list.
Occasionally, the odd boot is thrown in, but that is purely for natural coloring.
What many folks are beginning to realize is not only that bacteria are clamoring for recognition via a spot in the contents catalog, but they play a more important role influencing flavor profiles than they were once credited for having. Maybe not Oscar-worthy, but significant nonetheless.
So how do these hints of life find their way into the mix?
Various factors affect their presence and population. They—the lactic acid bacteria, or LAB, which contains different types of bacteria—hitch a ride with the barley when it first gets shipped to the distillery, and the LAB resident numbers are often determined by harvest conditions. Additionally, there are an impressive headcount on the distillery’s equipment—the mash tuns, the pipe moving wort to the washbacks, the washbacks themselves (more hiding in the crevices of wooden washbacks than those made of stainless steel) and a little bit added from the dropped cheese sandwich by the mashman into the wort while on lunch break. Mashing is a slightly dicey process. Some strains are more heat resistant than others, will survive and then carry on reproducing to make up for lost brethren.
Lastly, the length of fermentation is also a key component in the final tallying numbers. A lengthier fermentation equals higher figures.
So what do we make of all this?
The bacteria are capable of contributing flavor compounds to the newmake spirit, including increased notes of sweet, sour, fatty, fruity, sulphury and meaty essences.
Research is still ongoing as to exactly how these little fellahs are putting their unique fingerprints on the product, but for now we’ll have to sit tight and let the labcoats unravel the magic.
In the end, lifting the veil on the wizardry of whisky can be a bit like pulling off a Band-Aid: stingy and an activity we may likely avoid. But it sure beats lighting a smudge stick to rid your room of any spirit other than the one you hold in your glass.