It is said that some of
the finest brands of whisky derive some of their most delicate flavours
from the heather.
At the Highland Park
Distillery, in Kirkwall, Orkney, there was a peculiarly shaped timber
building, referred to as the Heather House. This was where heather,
which had been gathered in the month of July when the plant was in full
bloom, was stored. Carefully cut off near the root, and tied into small
faggots of about a dozen branches each, the heather was used on the peat
fire to help dry the malt and impart a delicate flavour which, was
claimed, to give Highland Park Distillery its unique taste.
It is interesting to note
that in former times the wooden containers for fermentation, known in
whisky distilleries as washbacks, would be cleaned using heather
besoms. And when new stills were installed, bundles of heather would be
placed in the water and boiled in order to sweeten the still before the
first distillation took place.
In the nineteenth century
and possibly even earlier, illicit stills were used to make whisky - in
broad daylight. The crofters were able to do this because, by gathering
up and using old stumps of burnt heather, they could make a fire without
smoke, and so not raise suspicion!
Editor's Note: I
wrote to Highland Park to see what they had to say about this and here
is their reply...
This is interesting.
As for drying the peat in the Peat house
we do use a lot of Fog (top layer of the peat bog). This helps dry
the peat and keep the store dry. This is also where a lot of the
first smoke comes from as it passes over the moist barley on the
As the heather sustains such strong
winds it is very hardy and wiry. We dont do this anymore as we have
equipment especially for cleaning but in years gone by I imagine
this would be the best thing to use. As we have no trees it would be
difficult to use anything else.
As for sweetening the stills, resting
heather in boiling water would have very little effect on the final
spirit. I dont think sweetening the stills would have occurred. It
may have made them smell fresh for a couple of days but once charged
the smell of evaporating wash would soon take over.
Interesting that you mention washbacks.
These vessels are around 29,000l in size. During the second world
war the locally based Seaforth Highlanders used these as baths.
Marching 2 miles every day to the distillery for a scrub.
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