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Meet the Distilling Tech Support Team

When Richard Lake describes the world of distilling as a “family”, he’s not bluffing.

Richard, who was until recently the distilling manager at the Portgordon maltings, is now our Scottish malting business development manager, and has been working with distilleries for 32 years, and for Crisp for nearly 50 years. His relationship with his customers is as close as it gets. “A lot of our customers are pretty much on our doorstep. I’ll be shopping in Elgin on a Saturday morning and bump into one of them,” he says with a chuckle, “and we might even talk a bit of shop – so to speak.”

Crisp’s commitment to customers isn’t just about geographical proximity and doesn’t always involve discussions over the spuds at Tesco. It goes well beyond simply selling malt. All the team members know the importance to customers of consistently getting the very best out of the malts they buy – and offer practical help with that endeavour. That might involve anything from a quick chat on the phone to hands-on help in the distillery itself.

Alongside Richard, there’s Dr Dave Griggs, Crisp’s Technical Director; Stuart Swann, Sales Manager; and Colin Johnston, Sales & Marketing Director. Between them they have decades of experience and a wealth of accumulated knowledge. “We’ve got the strongest technical team around,” insists Dave.

Distilling is growing

The pool of knowledge and expertise is backed by investment in infrastructure. We work with more than 270 Scottish farms, and have maltings at Alloa and Portgordon. Plans were recently unveiled to build a new facility at Portgordon, quadrupling production to deal with growing demand. Crucially, it incorporates a host of state-of-the-art technologies to help us meet our sustainability goals.

It’s the biggest investment in Portgordon since it opened in 1979, and it comes as a wave of distilleries open around the world. One way for distillers beyond the shores of Britain to replicate as best they can the characteristics of Scotch whisky is to use malt from Scotland. We can help them to do that.

There’s more going on in distilling than ever before, and we are perfectly placed to help distillers thrive. “We take a really hands-on approach to some of the smaller companies,” says Colin. “They’re often brand-new to distilling, and we’re really excited to find out how we can work with them, and where we can add value.

“A good example of that would be at Port of Leith Distillery, where we’ve developed a unique barley supply chain. The barley comes from a single farm to Alloa, where we malt it; then send it straight to the Distillery, less than 40 miles away. That adds a lot of value to Port of Leith’s story. It’s a story of true provenance.”

For Richard, getting hands-on with the customer can be hugely satisfying. “If a distillery is not getting good results, it’s very easy to blame the malt, but there’s typically something else going on,” he says. “I like sitting down and going through the whole process. The distillers can be the experts at distilling, but our knowledge of – and advice relating to – the malt can support them in their ability to get the very best results, all the time.

One of the key problems distilleries raise with the Crisp team is yield, the amount of pure alcohol derived from the malt. “If a distillery has a lower yield than expected, malt is the first thing to get looked at,” says Stuart.

“Actually it’s not very common that malt is the issue: we supply the same high-specification malt to all of our customers, big and small. Yields are affected by a huge number of factors. Of course, sometimes the Scottish harvest is not what we’d want it to be – but even then we can help customers get the best out of the malt.”

As Stuart says, “crops vary year to year, and our maltsters’ job is to do everything possible to ensure quality and consistency, even when the raw materials provide them with challenges. In addition, we offer plenty of technical advice to ensure any differences aren’t a big issue.”

A Certificate of Analysis comes with each delivery of malt, and, as Dave says, “we can help distillers fully understand how they should be interpreting the information, and how each part affects their process.

“Gelatinisation temperatures are important. We’ve helped plenty of distillers fine-tune their mashing regime based around a change in gelatinisation temperature between crop years, to make sure they’re hitting the sweet spot and getting the yield they expect,” says Dave.

Members of the team travel regularly to check in and provide assistance for distillers around the country. Stuart says an average week sees him out on the road Tuesday to Thursday. “It’s about making sure customers have what they need from us and are happy,” he says. “Education is a big part of what we do, too. There’s a lot of interest in our sustainability plans, which can guide and support distillers in their own work around sustainability.”

Change is happening across the distilling world. In Scotland, distillers are looking at the efficiency of their processes – in particular, how they create heat – and striving to do it in a more sustainable way.

Stuart says that the overhauling of the Portgordon maltings will make a significant contribution to a more sustainable supply chain for Crisp customers.

“We’re also working on sustainability with our farmers in Scotland,” says Stuart. “We’re helping them to identify their inputs and find out their carbon footprint. Once we know that, we can work with them on measures to reduce it.

“It’s absolutely crucial to us to support our growers in every way possible; without them, we have no raw materials.”

Our local focus is matched by our understanding and experience of the global nature of modern distilling. Our team members regularly travel overseas to see Crisp customers; present at conferences; and listen to other experts. We believe in sharing our knowledge and we bring plenty of new insights back too. Dave recently got back from the American Craft Spirit Association Conference in Denver; Colin recently attended the World Whisky Forum in Japan.

 

“We had some amazing conversations with people,” Colin says of the Japan trip. “I spoke to people from Japan and Korea, from China, Australia and New Zealand. And what’s interesting is that in each of these countries, in each of these distilleries, they’re trying to do something different. I think that’s the most exciting thing about distilling at the moment.”

 

There are plenty of interesting new ideas in Scottish distilling, too. Colin cites the burgeoning use of heritage and speciality malts, a movement led by Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh and based on a co-funded PhD programme at Heriot-Watt produced by Dr Rutele Marciulionyte.

“Holyrood has got a whole portfolio of these heritage and speciality whiskies coming through at the moment,” says Dave. “Rutele came up with some fantastic findings about the flavours that can be carried through from chocolate or Munich malt not only into new-made spirit but also into maturing whisky.”

All of this knowledge goes into helping distillers around the world. “We love to dive in to help,” says Colin. “We’ve just started working with a new-start facility in the Faroe Islands, where we’re working on a few technical issues. It’s interesting, it’s challenging.”

With all the new distilleries around the world, the next few years could prove to be very interesting. “We’ve got new barley varieties coming through all the time, and we’re excited to see how they will benefit our customers,” says Stuart.

“As a company we don’t just sell malt, we’re trying to support our customers on every step of their journey.”

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