Whisky chat: the panel gets geeky about yeast, wood, and spirit

Greg Sanderson, Laura Hay, Kyle Hamilton and Ludo Ducroq. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Sydney Bar Week saw the first instalment of the Future Spirits Talks take place at Sydney’s Eau de Vie, with this year’s focus being on Scotch whisky. We pulled together three panels talking about the marketing of Scotch, the battle between blends and single malts, and we also looked into the future of Scotch whisky by looking at the art and the science of the stuff.

On that panel, we had Greg Sanderson of Speakeasy Group; whisky ambassador Laura Hay; Kyle Hamilton from Boilermaker House, Melbourne; and international guest, Ludo Ducroq, the global director of education and advocacy at The Glenmorangie Company.

Here, we’ve got some edited highlights of that conversation, but don’t forget to keep an eye out for the return of Future Spirits Talks at Bar Week in 2020.

“In order to produce alcohol you need sugar; in whisky we get that sugar from barley. So the idea is to get barley to germinate, so it starts producing sugar. The mashing process is about producing more sugar, extracting that sugar, and then fermentation is simply about adding yeast and letting the yeast convert that sugar into alcohol.” — Ludo Ducrocq

“There’s literally between five thousand and six thousand strains of barely in the world, and there’s about nine or 10 in which we can use for malting to make single malt scotch whisky. The thing about barley, the ones that we do use, they have a cycle — the strains that we used 10 years ago are different to the strains of barley we’re using now. And that’s all to do with the nitrogen levels, it’s all about getting the most starch out of the barley in the malting process, to create as much sugar and to get as much alcohol as possible.” — Laura Hay

“When we first started out in the Scotch whisky industry, it used to be whacking the yeast in and then it just magically fermented into alcohol, and went through the stills and created a wonderful spirit. No-one really pushed the boundaries in shaking it up with the yeast that we used — we just took for granted that this wash appeared with these flavours and so on.

And I now know that, in Scotland especially and across the world, they are creating forms of yeast to play with the flavours — there’s one strain of yeast we’ve been using primarily for single malt whisky for decades — and Glenmorangie have brought out this wonderful Allta using a wild yeast, and that creates different flavour profiles.”— Laura Hay

“If you’re talking American whiskey, the American whiskey market has been talking about yeast for a long time. If you ever talk to a bourbon maker, they talk about their great-great-grandpappy’s yeast and how it’s still used today.” — Greg Sanderson

Laura Hay, Kyle Hamilton and Ludo Ducroq. Photo: Christopher Pearce

Different distilleries are now looking for and able to mould [whiskies] better by creating different yeasts to create different reactions in the fermentation process, to come up with different flavour compounds and different chemical reactions. — Laura Hay

“Primarily the fermentation process is about producing alcohol. But it is true that a lot of the flavours that you find in the whisky, even after 30 years of maturation, have come from that fermentation phase. So yeast is not just about producing alcohol, but producing flavour.” — Ludo Ducrocq

“What the distillery did was to extract yeast from barley ears that grow around the distillery, a wild variety of yeast. But when you do that, it’s not straightforward, because not all varieties of yeasts are strains that are able to convert sugar into alcohol at the levels we’re looking for when we’re making whisky. So we extracted that yeast, we propagated it — we grew it — and to see if it could convert sugar into alcohol. And it worked. So we worked with a proper yeast company to make sufficient quantities to then make a whisky using it. It’s a different species of yeast, it’s the first time a distillery in Scotland has used a wild yeast. The yields were very low but the flavours were very interesting, normally the Glenmorangie spirit is quite floral and fruity and sweet, but on this occasion it was very biscuity and almost toast-like.” — Ludo Ducrocq

“Talking about the different strains of barley that is used for the production of whisky, if you think about what the future holds, obviously with climate change and the way that the world is headed, a lot of barley will start to be used purely it can grow in the areas that the barley farmers are. Scientists are working on identifying within the barley plant at the moment and looking at plants that are more resistant to hot climates and harsher elements. So I think the strains of barley used in the whisky of the future might not come down to what’s best for the whisky, but what grows.” — Greg Sanderson 

Kyle Hamilton and Ludo Ducroq. Photo: Christopher Pearce

“I want to build on that — sometimes we talk about yield as though it’s a negative thing, but actually from a sustainability perspective we have a responsibility to make sure that we don’t waste the resources that we use.” — Ludo Ducroq

“If you want an idea of what science is being used in the distilling process, just take a look at Ailsa Bay. They are quite proud about relying on science in distilling — precision distilling they call it — they control every little bit of it. They measure the PPM when it comes out, the SPPM when it comes — just to create that perfectly balanced whisky.” — Kyle Hamilton

“There’s a lot more innovation to come, and I think at the forefront of that is brewers who are becoming distillers. They’re really putting a focus on the raw ingredients that go into whisky.” — Kyle Hamilton

“One of the things we worked a long time ago, we worked in partnership with the Scotch Whisky Institute, to try and understand which were the best casks we could use. We looked at eight thousand American oak casks, to try to understand whether it makes a difference where the trees grow, does it make a difference what tree it is… eventually we understood that the best trees that we could use for our distillery’s character were trees from Missouri, that grew on the north side of the hill because grows more slowly than on the south side. Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? We don’t use a lot these casks, we call them designer casks. — Ludo Ducrocq