As you may be aware, I have been ‘working’ alongside Dingle for a span of two years during their participation in Whisky Live Paris. By ‘working’, I mean engaging in tasks such as pouring whiskey, introducing various whiskies and the distillery to French-speaking visitors. However, my passion for whiskey goes beyond the surface, and I always strive to expand my knowledge. This led me to complete the first two levels of the WSET in Spirits. Yet, my thirst for knowledge persisted. Consequently, I arranged to spend an entire week at Dingle Distillery, immersing myself in nearly all aspects of distillery operations and warehouse duties. This behind-the-scenes adventure allowed me to witness and partake in activities that are not typically encountered during a standard distillery tour. Allow me to be your guide as I share this extraordinary experience with you.
On my initial day, I embarked on a tour accompanied by the esteemed Graham Coull, the manager of the distillery, who served as my obviously very knowledgeable guide. The tour encompassed both the distillery and the warehouse, located approximately a mile apart. Within the warehouse structure, a remarkable sight awaited me—6,000 casks presently cradling ageing whiskey and whiskey-to-be. In addition to these casks, the building housed offices, logistical operations, cask filling and the bottling section. The distillery itself, the familiar edifice synonymous with Dingle Distillery we often see on Dingle’s social media, housed the production segment. At the distillery, a dedicated team of roughly 20 individuals contributed their efforts – four personnel overseeing production in two shifts per day, while the remainder worked at the warehouse, with a few individuals tending to duties at both locations, based on the requirements at hand.
Throughout that eventful week, the distillery was abuzz with activity as the team prepared to bottle Bealtaine, the third release in the Wheel of the Year series, slated for launch on May 1st. Despite being the smallest batch within the series, there was still the monumental task of filling 5,500 bottles with the single pot still expression, which had been finished in Australian Shiraz wine casks.
Eager to lend a hand and engage in diverse responsibilities, I initially assisted in preparing the Bealtaine boxes, ensuring they were ready and neatly arranged in six-bottle cases, ready to accommodate the filled bottles. After dedicating a few hours to this task, I swiftly joined forces with Paddy, the warehouse manager responsible for cask filling, storage, and tracking. Paddy works closely alongside Graham, ensuring that the appropriate casks are always meticulously prepared for vatting and subsequent bottling.
Paddy graciously led me through the cask storage section of the warehouse, providing insights into his meticulous care for the casks. He explained how he attended to small leaks that occasionally emerged and shared his methods for preparing casks destined for future releases or to replenish the large vat for the permanent Dingle Single Malt expression when its level dwindled.
Months in advance, sometimes extending up to a year or more, Graham would inform Paddy about upcoming releases and their respective timelines. Armed with this information, Paddy orchestrated a dance of casks, ensuring their accessibility as they arrived and departed. He facilitated the transfer of liquid to finishing casks when necessary, initiated in-cask reduction to maintain optimal mouthfeel and seamless integration of water if the release was not intended at cask strength. Ultimately, Paddy undertook the critical task of final vatting, bringing together the components to create the desired expressions.
Following that immersive experience, I returned to the bottling line to lend a hand, specifically assisting with organising open Bealtaine boxes into cases. Allow me to shed some light on the bottling line at Dingle, where every aspect is meticulously carried out by hand.
The bottling line consists of three essential stages: bottle cleaning, bottle filling, and bottle sealing, labelling, and packaging.
Empty bottles, delivered on pallets with each pallet accommodating 840 bottles, arrive uncorked. First, we employ pressurised air nozzles to air clean the bottles, similar to how glasses are swiftly rinsed at a pub by pressing them upside down onto a water-spraying nozzle. Once the bottles are clean, they are placed on a conveyor belt, which transports them to a rotating plate adjacent to the filling table, where they await their turn to be filled.
Adjacent to that plate is the whiskey filling station. You have the ability to fill up to six bottles simultaneously, two by two. The bottles are positioned on small podiums that are raised pneumatically upon pressing the two buttons located around them. Once you press the buttons long enough for the bottle necks to reach the filling nozzles, the system detects the bottles and commences filling them with a predetermined quantity of liquid. Due to the pressure involved, some foam may be generated. Therefore, if the foam or liquid approaches the top of the bottle neck, the filling station halts temporarily, waiting for the foam to dissipate before resuming the filling process until the correct amount of liquid is achieved. Subsequently, the podiums automatically lower, allowing you to retrieve the bottles.
Typically, the corks and seals would be placed automatically further down the bottling line. However, in this case, the bottles are manually corked, and the sealing cap is also applied by hand on a table positioned between the filling station and the labelling chain. The bottles are then placed, once again manually, on a rotating plate that feeds into the conveyor belt of the labelling and sealing station.
Finally, the third and most automated phase of the bottling process involves labelling and sealing. Detectors identify the bottles, and while they have the capability to place and press down the cork (although it was skipped during my visit and done manually beforehand), the subsequent step is for the seal to be … well, sealed (apologies, couldn’t think of a better term). Then, the bottles reach a detector that identifies their position and rotates them to detect their front and back sides. The front and back labels are then precisely applied to the bottles with predefined positions, rotation, tilts, heights, and other specifications. Finally, the conveyor belt transports the bottles to the boxing station where, once again by hand, they are placed in the lower part of the pre-prepared boxes or cases. The top part of the boxes (or the lid, in the case of tube releases rather than Wheel of the Year boxes) is then positioned. Once the case is filled with its six bottles, it is taped and placed on a pallet.
The labeling machine exhibits high sensitivity, requiring frequent readjustment of label positioning parameters, particularly at the beginning of a batch. Regrettably, on that initial day, it encountered numerous breakdowns, hindering our ability to fill and package bottles as intended. Ian had to dedicate a significant amount of time to inspecting label positioning and reconfiguring the machine.
For my second day, I returned to the warehouse once again. Similar to the first day, a significant portion of my time was dedicated to preparing boxes and cases, as well as working on the bottling line. It was important to remain observant throughout the day, constantly assessing the workflow and identifying areas where additional assistance was needed.
Fortunately, the performance of the labelling machine had significantly improved compared to the previous day, resulting in a considerable number of bottles being filled. On the bottling line, it was essential to identify any potential bottlenecks (pun intended) in the process. For instance, we had to ensure that there was someone present at the bottle cleaning station to avoid a shortage of bottles within reach of the individual responsible for filling them. Conversely, we also had to ensure that there were no empty bottles waiting to be filled while the filling station remained unattended. Additionally, tasks such as corking, sealing, and placing filled bottles in cases required attention. Therefore, it was crucial to assess the situation and determine where our assistance would be most valuable. It was worth noting that we had just that week to fill 5,500 bottles of Bealtaine, as the official release was scheduled for the 1st of May.
As the day primarily revolved around boxing and the bottling line, there isn’t much else to add regarding the day’s activities.
Day 3 commenced bright and early as I joined the first shift at the distillery itself. Just before 6 a.m., I arrived, eager to accompany Patrick and Mark and delve deeper into the art of whiskey production.
Patrick initiated the day by cleaning the wash still in preparation for a fresh round of first distillation. Meanwhile, I shadowed Mark as he began filling the mash tun with hot water. Starting with the remnants of rinsing water from the previous mash, which is carefully preserved for the next batch to avoid any sugar wastage, the bottom of the mash tun was gradually filled with warm water. As the hot water continued to flow, Mark proceeded to add 1,000 kg of finely milled malted barley. It’s worth noting that at Dingle, the mash tun is crafted from Oregon pine wood and does not possess rotating arms for stirring the grain and hot water, as seen in semi or full lauter tuns. For a single malt mash, they employ 1,000 kg of malt each time, while a single pot still mash requires 600 kg of malted barley and 500 kg of unmalted barley. Subsequently, additional hot water is sprayed over the grain from a rotating arm located beneath the mash tun cover, followed by the repositioning of the lid. Every step is executed manually, with the Mashman carefully monitoring the temperatures involved.
After approximately an hour, the sugar-rich hot water is drained, cooled, and pumped into one of the five wooden washbacks. By the time the washback is filled, the wort (sugar-infused liquid) has reached a temperature just below 20 °C. During the filling of the washback, four kilograms of dried distiller’s yeast is added, and the yeast is manually agitated and mixed using a rake-like tool. The washback receives approximately 5,000 litres of hot water enriched with sugar from the barley, and the fermentation process commences, lasting for a duration of 72 hours. Gravity measurements are taken once the washback is filled and shortly before it is emptied as this gives a preview of the quantity of sugar absorbed by the water.
Once the water has been drained from the mash tun, the remaining grain is emptied. The majority of the draff is raked out from the outside through a bottom window opening. However, for the grain that is out of reach from the exterior, it must be shovelled out from the inside. So, wearing a pair of wellies, you grab a shovel and jump into the mash tun to remove the grain through the window. Since it’s still hot inside, the process doesn’t take long, but it’s enough to work up a good sweat! Afterward, the mash tun is rinsed and power-hosed to prepare for the afternoon’s mash, which will be handled by the second team during the second shift. The draff will be stored, to be fed to local cows.
During this time, Patrick also power-hosed the wash and intermediate stills, filled them, and initiated distillation in those first two stills. The wash still operates almost continuously, while the intermediate still runs less frequently to ensure there is enough low wines to fill it. The same principle applies when transferring from the intermediate still to the spirit still, but we’ll discuss the technical details later. The distillation process is deliberately slow to maximise copper contact. What struck me as particularly unusual was witnessing Patrick controls the distillation speed simply by opening the spirit safe, taking a sniff, checking the flow rate, and gauging the temperature of the liquid by dipping his fingers into the alcohol stream. Through touch alone, he can determine if the still is heated too much, just right, or not enough, based on the varying temperature of the liquid flowing from the still and through the condenser. If necessary, he adjusts the amount of steam sent to the steam coils present in the stills.
By 2:30 p.m., the morning shift came to an end, marking the conclusion of my own shift as well. It was time to take a leisurely walk around town and give a call to the children from Dingle Port!
I arrived back at the distillery just before 6 a.m. for another morning shift. However, the other distillery worker scheduled to join us that morning called in sick. Since I had only completed one shift at the distillery the day before, Patrick wasn’t confident in my ability to handle a mash on my own. Therefore, we had to skip the first mash of the day. It was probably the safest decision, considering I wasn’t yet familiar with the valve and pump order, precise timings, and exact temperatures required for the mashing process. Malted barley is quite expensive, so they didn’t want to risk any wastage. Nevertheless, there were plenty of other tasks to be done around the distillery. While the wash and intermediate stills were once again in operation, I observed Patrick preparing the botanicals for a new batch of Dingle Gin.
Patrick provided me with detailed explanations about the distillation process, and I had the opportunity to taste the heart from the intermediate run, which was likely around 65% ABV. By this point, it had undergone double distillation and resembled what I had seen in Scotland, for example.
One amusing anecdote Patrick shared with me was about their previous experience with peated malt and peated single pot still whiskey, following Graham’s arrival at Dingle. The team despised the strong smell of the hot peated spent grain after the mash, especially when they had to jump into the mash tun to shovel out the grain while it was still scorching hot. As a result, we might not see much peated Dingle whiskey anytime soon unless Graham takes charge of the mashing process all by himself! They conducted trials using both malt and pot still whiskey, with both double and triple distillation. However, they found that triple distillation was counterproductive since almost no phenols remained in the new make spirit after the third distillation. They were quite disappointed with all the effort they put in for that outcome!
After completing my shift at the distillery, I returned to the warehouse to assist with the bottling of Bealtaine for a couple of hours.
Although the plan was for me to return to the warehouse for my final working day, I decided to stop by the distillery around 8 a.m. Patrick had informed me the day before that he would be running the spirit still, so I wanted to witness the process. Upon my arrival, we exchanged a few words, and he handed me a glass of new make spirit from the spirit safe, instructing me to only nose it and refrain from drinking it. We were still in the heads portion of the spirit run, which contained undesirable compounds like methanol that could cause blindness if consumed. A few minutes later, he filled the glass once again, having shifted the ‘tap’ from the spirit still condenser to a different bowl in the spirit safe. This indicated that the heads had finished, and he had made the cut to collect the hearts of the spirit run. The alcohol content was above 80% ABV (if I recall correctly, he mentioned 84%), and it was 8:30 a.m. It seemed like the perfect breakfast drink! Although I couldn’t discern distinct aromas due to the high ABV, on the palate, oh my goodness, I wasn’t expecting something so rich, flavourful, oily and remarkably easy to drink! A few minutes later, I repeated the experience as Patrick had mentioned that the spirit undergoes a significant change in a matter of minutes at the start of the hearts. And he was absolutely right! The nose, although difficult to describe, had noticeably transformed, as had the palate. Regrettably, I didn’t take detailed tasting notes. Patrick informed me that the flavour profile wouldn’t change significantly for the next two hours, so he suggested I return around 11 a.m. to witness the end of the hearts and the beginning of the strong feints.
Afterward, Patrick kindly offered me a ride to the warehouse. I headed to Graham’s office to gain further insight into his role as the distillery manager.
Graham explained that a significant part of his job involved working with Excel sheets to create forecasts. These forecasts encompassed production, stock projections spanning several decades, estimates on spirit production, allocation for releases, reserves for the future, and the evolution of casks maturing at the distillery. Graham also shared plans for various releases over the years, including single malts and single pot still whiskies with different maturation and finishes. He discussed with me the upcoming Wheel of the Year releases and numerous potential future releases spanning the next decade and beyond. We delved into how the stock would evolve based on cask types and spirits, the scale of potential releases, anticipated timelines for introducing new permanent expressions, and even the possibility of permanent age statements. However, due to the confidential nature of this information, I cannot divulge further details. I can say that I was pleasantly surprised by what I learned. While I knew that whiskey production involves long-term planning, I didn’t realise the extent to which it extended. Nonetheless, it completely made sense. Graham also explained his meticulous system for tracking cask inventory, assigning each cask a unique reference number to easily identify its contents and origins, including the type and size of the cask, its original contents, and its previous usage. This system operated independently of the cask number found on individual casks, as each cask featured both a reference number and a cask number.
Afterward, I made my way back to the distillery, but unfortunately, I arrived a bit late and missed the conclusion of the hearts. Nevertheless, I had the opportunity to taste the initial stages of the strong feints, which still had an ABV of around 74%. Surprisingly, it felt much harsher on the palate compared to the start of the hearts, despite the higher alcohol content.
Next, it was time to return to the warehouse for the lunch break. In the afternoon, I shadowed Graham during a challenging aspect of his job – a tasting session in the warehouse. A whisky club from Luxembourg, who owned a couple of casks and frequently visited Ireland and the Dingle Peninsula, had come to sample the freshly bottled Bealtaine and assess their casks. They possessed a pair of bourbon casks filled in 2015. Paddy filled sample bottles from both casks, and we had the opportunity to try one of them. At 7 years old, it was an exceptional whisky, exhibiting a marvellous oily and enveloping mouthfeel, with a fantastic nose and palate. I wouldn’t have minded taking home a bottle from that cask! However, they have no plans to bottle the whisky anytime soon, as they intend to allow it to mature further in both casks. In any case, I express my heartfelt gratitude to them for allowing me to sample one of their casks.
With that, it was almost time to conclude my fifth and final day at the warehouse and the distillery. I took the opportunity to express my gratitude to everyone for their warm welcome and the invaluable explanations they provided throughout the week. I had an incredible experience, and every member of the distillery team was exceptionally kind. However, I must admit that working at the bottling plant year-round might not be my preference. A few days were probably sufficient for me!
One significant takeaway from these five days is the realisation that everything is truly done by hand. There is no industrialisation or heavy reliance on computers, at least in the production process from mashing to bottling. The most technologically advanced pieces of equipment were likely the labelling machine and the handheld alcohol meters used in the warehouse! At the distillery, the only computer present was dedicated to the CCTV system.
Dingle Distillery’s Whiskey Making
Whiskey production begins with barley or other cereals. The raw barley, both malted and unmalted, is sourced from Ireland and delivered in 28-ton loads, which provides approximately two weeks’ worth of material for mashing. Additionally, they occasionally conduct batches using peated malt sourced from England. Mashing takes place in a single Oregon Pine mash tun, utilising an infusion-style method where water and grist are combined without stirring. This process occurs around 11 to 12 times per week. Each batch for single malt uses one ton of malted barley, while pot still batches require 1.1 tons (600 kg malted barley and 500 kg unmalted barley). The mash temperature typically reaches 64°C and lasts approximately one hour. Subsequently, sparging water at 78°C is used to flush out all the sugars, resulting in the collection of 5000 litres of wort. A single mash cycle takes about six hours, after which the mash tun is cleaned, and approximately 1.1 tons of spent grains is removed from it. These draffs are then used as feed for local cows.
Fermentation takes place in five Oregon Pine wash backs, each with a capacity of 5,000 litres. During filling with wort, four kilograms of yeast is added, and the liquid is gently mixed by hand using a rake-like tool. Fermentation lasts for 72 hours, during which the yeast consumes the sugar in the wort, converting it into alcohol, flavours, and CO2. The resulting fermented liquid is called wash, with an alcohol content of about 8.5% ABV, resembling a non-hopped flat beer.
The wash is then transferred to the wash still for the first distillation. At Dingle, the distillation process operates at a relatively slow rate, producing spirit at only 5 litres per minute for all three stills. This speed is about half the rate of many other distilleries. The distillation rate remains constant for both spirit production and feints. While most distilleries increase the rate for feints to expedite the process, Dingle’s slow rate enhances copper contact. This low flow rate also prevents the “carry over” of unwanted impurities from liquid to vapour, ensuring a cleaner distillate. Dingle also avoids overfilling the stills to maximise copper contact and maintain control over the distillation process. To further enhance control, all three stills utilise a steam coil for heating. The wash still has a charge of 5,000 litres, which produces approximately 1,700 litres of low wines at around 20% ABV over a 7-hour cycle.
The intermediate still and the spirit stills at Dingle have a distinctive ‘ball boil’ shape, designed to increase copper contact. The intermediate still has a charge of 2,500 litres. During the second distillation, the heads are collected and timed for 30 minutes before being returned to the next intermediate distillation. The heart of the distillate, which reaches around 30% ABV, will be transferred later to the Spirit Still for the third distillation. Finally, the tails, ranging from 30% ABV to 0%, undergo redistillation during the next intermediate distillation along with the heads.
Every second or third day, once there is a sufficient amount of intermediate spirit to undergo a third distillation, the Spirit Still is put into operation. The charge for the Spirit Still is larger, at 3,500 litres. Similar to the previous distillation, the heads are collected and timed for 30 minutes, later being carried over to the subsequent Spirit distillation. The heart of the distillate, which begins around 81% ABV, is gradually reduced to 78% ABV over a period of approximately 2.5 hours. The feints, or tails, are divided at this stage: the strong feints, ranging from 78% to 30% ABV, are returned to the next Spirit distillation, while the weak feints, from 30% to 0% ABV, are directed back to the next intermediate distillation.
Following the distillation process, the whiskey enters the maturation phase. The maturation occurs on-site, although the warehouse is located about a mile away from the distillery. Before filling the casks, the new make spirit’s strength is reduced to 65% ABV by adding water from the distillery’s well. Various types of casks are utilised for maturation, including ex-bourbon, sherry (Oloroso and PX), Port, Madeira, Rum, wine casks, as well as a few other types, albeit in smaller quantities.
Words cannot adequately express the depth of my gratitude towards everyone at Dingle Distillery for the unforgettable experience and the incredible week I had there. Each and every person at the distillery was absolutely marvellous, extending a warm welcome, generously sharing their time and knowledge, and even taking extra care to speak clearly so that I could understand. I must admit, it was a bit more challenging when they spoke among themselves with a full-on Irish accent!
However, I want to offer a special and heartfelt thank you to Fay and Graham. Their boundless generosity knew … well, no bounds. They not only provided enlightening tours around the beautiful peninsula but also treated me to unforgettable evenings filled with delightful drinks and delicious food. Their friendship is a treasure that I will cherish dearly. Even with all Graham’s barbs 😉
All pictures and videos were taken by me, for once I didn’t borrow any!