New make spirit is the name given to the liquid as it comes directly from the still. This liquid cannot legally be called whisky, as for this to happen it must undergo a minimum of three years of maturation in oak casks. The new make spirit is produced by heating an alcoholic 'wash' of 5-8% ABV in the bulb shaped section of a copper pot still. Copper has been traditionally used in distilleries around the world as it has excellent conductive properties.
When heated, part of the 'wash' evaporates with the alcohols separating at a lower boiling temperature (around 75 degrees Centigrade) to the water. These alcohol vapours rise vertically up the neck and get sent down the lyne arm, which goes off horizontally off the neck. As the vapours travel along the lyne arm, they begin to condense and reform into a liquid. This liquid is the new make spirit and is around 65% ABV. Normally, this is collected and then transferred to oak casks to begin its maturation.
Occasionally these new make spirits are released for sale, most notably from the new Kilchoman distillery on the island of Islay and the Bruichladdich X4, that is probably the most widely promoted. For a more indepth look at the distilling process, then please take a look at How is whisky made? on our website.
Many people say that you can learn a lot about the character of a distillery's whisky by tasting their new make spirit. Recently, we had the chance to try new make spirit from two contrasting distilleries - Ardbeg and Glenmorangie. Ardbeg from the western isle of Islay is world reknowned for having some of the smokiest whiskies around, while Glenmorangie from the northern Highlands is famous for its light yet charasmatic whisky. Many factors can influence the flavour of the whisky. The main one is the type of oak cask that it is matured in over time, but with new make spirit this factor is taken away. So what you have is the purest raw form of the spirit with the type of barley, the amount of peat influence and the shape and size of the stills all affecting the flavour. Ardbeg is heavily peated in the malting part of the process and is distilled in short, fat stills whereas Glenmorangie is hardly peated at all and is distilled in the tallest stills in Scotland (see image above). The results show the diversity within the world of whisky. Neither are available for sale.
Ardbeg new make spirit
This sample is 65.5% ABV and had been distilled just over one week prior to the tasting. It is virtually colourless with just a tiny tinge of yellow. The nose is powerful and fragrant (be careful when nosing new make spirit as the alcohol level is very high and will annialate your nostrils if not approached sensibly!). There is a pungent earthiness (think of damp moss) with a prominent sweetness (imagine sweet barley grains) and distinct herbal note (very grassy) underneath. On the palate, the sweetness was the most prominent feature with the smoky earthiness hitting you afterwards. It was slightly salty and had a weird flavour that I can only describe as potato. With water, something strange happened - it became lighter and grassier but more peaty and spicy (imagine this with a burnt edge to it). The finish was long, sweet and very peaty but actually felt very fresh.
Glenmorangie new make spirit
This sample is a different kettle of fish to the Ardbeg. It is 63.5% and was only distilled five days before our tasting. The nose is aggressive yet very fragrant with some lovely fresh notes coming through, most noticeably fresh green fruit (think of pears and apples), citrus (imagine lime juice) and something herbal (think of fresh cut grass). On the palate, this is very sweet with lots of cereal notes and peardrops present (peardrops may sound strange, but it is a classic new make spirit characteristic that dies away during the maturation process). It is hot and spicy also (imagine ginger or chilli). With water, a more tropical fruitiness comes through (think of pineapples and peaches) and the spiciness increases and becomes more peppery. The finish is long, sweet, smooth and light.