Q&A with Distiller Scott Smith
BY NANT BLOG
Meet the newest member of the Nant distilling team
How did your craft distilling journey commence?
Growing up in Scotland, whisky is something I have always enjoyed and had great appreciation for, but truthfully did not know all that much about. After I moved to Australia I realised that whisky was something that reminded me of my homeland and family and would evoke warm memories of time spent with loved ones. Although it connects me to my heritage I had never taken the time to understand what goes into making whisky. That all changed when I treated myself to a special independently bottled release. The bottle label contained in-depth information about the whisky and it ignited a curiosity in me. What was a hogshead? What did phenolic parts per million mean? I wasn’t even all too sure exactly what an independently bottled whisky was. It was these questions, among others, that set me on a pursuit for whisky knowledge. I started reading everything I could about the whisky industry and whisky production. I began actively paying more attention to the whisky in my glass, analysing and comparing different whiskies. Through this search for knowledge I truly started to appreciate the craft of whisky making and realised just what a fascinating world it was. In October 2017 I took a trip down to Tasmania and visited several distilleries including Nant Estate. The setting and the whisky had me feeling like I was back in Scotland. The very next day I had a chance meeting with Jack Sellers, Nant’s head distiller, at a whisky course in Hobart. The rest, as they say, is history.
What part of the production process do you enjoy the most?
I would have to say that the later stages of the production process are my favourite. Getting to fill casks with spirit I’ve distilled and laying those casks to rest in our bond stores, knowing they have the potential to mature into one of a kind whisky, fills me with excitement. Meticulous work and craftsmanship have gone into producing both the cask and the spirit and they are about to spend years interacting, where thousands of individual reactions could shape distinctly different whiskies. It truly is two crafts coming together synergistically to create something greater than the sum of the parts. With so many factors playing part in the final product, there is an element of the unknown in whisky maturation. We have control of ensuring a consistent Nant-style spirit, and we have choice in the casks we use, but once the spirit is in the cask it’s truly in the hands of the whisky gods. Over the coming years I will go about my daily life while the spirit inside the first cask I’ve filled rests and develops. When the day finally comes to open that cask and sample the matured whisky inside I imagine it’s going to feel like meeting up with an old friend who I’ve not seen for a long time, and that is incredibly exciting.
Describe the average day and what it’s like to be part of the Nant team.
The average day at Nant is usually long and full. Compared to the size and output of Scottish distilleries, we are at the craft end of the whisky production spectrum. Where as in a bigger distillery there would be individuals who are focused entirely on one part of the process, such as doing the mash or running the stills, here at Nant every distiller is capable of completing every process. We start the day at 6am with getting the mash tun filled and making the first distillation cut. In the next few hours we will need to mash in; make another distillation cut; fill the washbacks with wort and pitch the yeast; empty, clean and recharge the wash still; fill casks with spirit; and by the end of all that it’s still only around 11:30am, with us working some days through until 10:00pm. Although each day follows a similar schedule and has the same tasks, we are constantly analysing and improving our processes so that we can produce the best possible whisky. Then there are those special days when we get to draw whisky straight from the cask to taste it and see if it is ready to be bottled – definitely a perk of the job.
As the newest member of the small distilling team at Nant I’ve had a steep learning curve over the last few months. Getting to where I am now and being able to run the distillery autonomously has been made possible by the tutelage and support of the current distilling team. There are many people behind each bottle of Nant and we are fortunate to have a great team around us who share our passion for whisky and contribute to the enjoyment of Nant single malt both at the cellar door and further afield.
What makes Nant distinctive from other Australian Whiskies?
There is certainly a developing Tasmanian style of whisky defined by its quality and depth of flavour. Within that, individual distilleries have their own defining characteristics and nuances. Geographically speaking, Nant Distillery sits at 350m altitude in the Tasmanian Highlands, making for a unique climate for Australian whisky maturation that sees our whisky endure extreme seasonal temperature fluctuations. As temperatures move up and down the spirit ‘breathes’ in the cask, being sucked into the wood and then expelled again, each time taking in more flavour, deepening in colour and mellowing the spirit. There are many other factors that contribute to what makes a whisky distinct, everything from location, climate, still-shape, distillation cuts, cask selection and of course the ingredients used affect the final product. For Nant, these factors result in a whisky characterised by being buttery, rich and complex and produce a drop that stands out in the crowd.
Do you find a lot of people are misinformed about no age statement (NAS) whisky?
It certainly seems to be the case and the adage of ‘the older the better’ is still something that I hear thrown around as a steadfast rule. That being said, there are a growing number of conversations among enthusiasts in the whisky-sphere as to whether, given the emergence of ‘new world whiskies’, it’s time to move away from this view. Before I knew much about whisky, I used to be someone who bought whisky based on age, believing that age was the most important indicator of quality. What I know now is that age alone doesn’t guarantee a good whisky.
The majority of whisky produced in Australia is released with NAS due in part to the quicker maturation that takes place here compared to other whisky regions, and Scotland in particular. This means that an Australian NAS bottling is comparable to much older whiskies coming out of Scotland. Further to that there are a myriad of factors that play into whisky flavour and quality that are not age-dependent. You may get a NAS whisky that has been matured in a first-fill cask which will impart big flavour in just a short space of time, compared to a second- or third-fill cask that has been aged for longer. That same whisky might have undergone a longer fermentation prior to distillation, producing more flavour, and had a finer portion of the spirit distillation collected as new make spirit, significantly increasing quality. With practices like this in place, younger whiskies stand up to older whiskies that have not been produced to such high standards, and this is where craft distilling shines.
Do you think distilling whisky is a Science or an Art?
I like to think of this as a symbiotic relationship that benefits whisky production as a whole. Whisky distilling is very much an art based in the world of science. Personally I am delving deeper into the science of distilling to gain a better understanding of the processes of whisky making, but ultimately the science only bolsters my creativity.
Where to from here?
I am currently studying towards the IBD Diploma in Distilling which is allowing me to keep expanding my whisky knowledge. Through these studies I hope to hone my craft. Nant is part of a growing company in an expanding whisky market which I am incredibly proud to be a part of and look forward to developing alongside. I will keep pushing myself to create whisky that is relevant and exciting, hoping that one day it may inspire others to explore and learn just how fascinating whisky can be.
To discover more about Nant Distillery visit www.nant.com.au.
Photo credit: Lidia Trogrlic