Lark Distillery’s Craig Johnstone talks cask selection.
Quality control is at the centre of everything we do at Lark Distillery, and delivering a memorable experience to our drinkers plays a huge part in this. As whisky drinkers we wait for The Whisky Club’s next exclusive bottle to arrive on our doorstep; we crack the seal; pour a dram and wait for the sensory experience to kick in. It is this sensory experience that informs our next glass of whisky or the glass we offer to our best mates. Therefore, I thought that my first post for The Whisky Club should peel back the curtain on Lark’s quality control systems and how we develop and deliver the best sensory experience for whisky drinkers.
The first step of our sensory evaluation begins on day one of production. We collect the sweet wort from the mash tun, and our distillers will test the brewing beer every single day to track ABV, acidity and flavour indicators. These will then inform the decisions we will make when making the cuts as well as our yeast regimes and temperatures for upcoming batches.
The second major step is cutting the spirit. Like all other single malt distilleries, we separate the heart of the run from the heads and the tails. Unlike most distilleries, we make our cuts using the nose and palate of our distilling teams. Seeking balance, we analyse the new make for depth, complexity and flavour indicators. The spirit is then put into casks and left for at least 5 years to get to know the oak we have chosen to mature it in.
Once the blender deems the whisky good enough for release, we enter it through a four-step authentication process, often presenting two or three variations of the desired recipe. This is where we believe the most important decisions are made in the life of each whisky we release.
1. The Strength
This is where we look at the strength of each iteration of the whisky, often analyzing 0.5% alcohol by volume increments looking for the sweet spot where the whisky is vibrant without being sharp. Some whiskies are perfect at their natural cask strength, but many require the addition of water to deliver the best drinking experience. This is the most important factor when deciding the strength of our Distillers’ Selection Single Casks and our Limited Release products. Our Classic Cask will only ever contain whisky that works at 43% and our Cask Strength must come together perfectly at 58%. The mind of our tasting panel at this stage: Objective.
2. The Technical Specifications
Here we gather our entire distilling team to look for flaws. Their job is to pick apart the whisky put together by the blenders and point out anything that could be deemed as a fault. Sometimes these faults add character to a recipe and should be left in, nevertheless, we need to identify them to ensure they won’t take away from the enjoyment of a dram. It is also worth noting that some of our team are more sensitive to some faults than others, but together they cover the entire flavour spectrum used in the whisky industry. The mind of our tasting panel at this stage: Critical
3. The Drinkability Test
This involves our team of experts in other parts of our business. Our sales team, marketing team, accountants and hospitality team are gathered to deliver their verdict on the liquid. This could be as simple as pointing out a preference for one sample over another, or it could be a detailed summary with tasting notes and feedback. Each sample is marked out of ten and sent back to the distillery with a recommendation for bottling. The mind of our tasting panel at this stage: Subjective.
4. How Does this Whisky Make You Feel? – The Ultimate Question.
After the initial three steps of quality analysis, the blenders will get together and make a final decision with me, the Quality Assurance Manager. This is dependent on us clearing our minds, grabbing a glass of each whisky and simply describing our emotions and feelings that have been triggered by the experience of tasting the liquid in the glass. This is a harder task than it seems, yet it is the most important type of tasting we do because, at the end of the day, we want our whiskies to enhance occasions, lubricate conversations and encourage people to connect. The mind of our tasting panel at this stage: Zen.
Only after these four steps of quality control will we deem the liquid good enough to be released to the market.
So, the next time you enjoy a glass of Lark, clear your mind and feel free to drop us a line answering one simple question: How does this whisky make you feel?
Craig Johnstone is Distillery Manager at Lark Distillery, Cambridge, Tasmania. His whisky career has taken him from the Scottish islands to Canada, Spain, Mexico and everywhere in between. He now calls Tasmania home and considers it the most exciting place to be making whisky.