Today we’re raising a glass and honouring the glory of the worm tub with a mystery Speyside single malt called, well, Wormtub!
When we talk about Speyside whisky, you might get a certain idea of flavour in your head: light, floral, and sweet whisky that’s rich with fruit and possibly boasting sherried influence. Our New Arrival of the Week shares a lot of those elements. But it has some key differences too.
It’s a ten-year-old Speyside single malt Scotch whisky finished in sherry casks before being bottled at natural cask strength without any added caramel for colouring. It’s also from a mystery distillery that uses worm tubs, hence why it’s called Wormtub 10 Year Old. Now we’re thinking of all the Speyside distilleries that use worm tub condensers. And this humble piece of equipment has a big effect on the whisky’s profile.
At this point, some of you may have some questions, like: what is a worm tub, how does it affect flavour, and ew are there worms involved, what the hell?!
We’ll answer the following here, with hopefully enough geeky detail that even if you’re already familiar with worm tubs you’ll still get a kick out of this. Every day is a school day, after all.
The worm tub – as gross as it sounds?
So first thing’s first. There are no wriggly little worms anywhere in this operation. The worm tub typically consists of a network of coiled tubes of copper, which look a bit snakey. In ye olde English, another word for snake was ‘worm’.
There is definitely a tub, however. In fact, the original design from German chemist called Christian Ehrenfried Weigel was a system that fed cold water into the bottom of a tub while hot water was removed from the top back in 1771. That tub is connected to a still via the lyne arm. The long, coiled copper pipes that sit in the vat, or tub, of cold water (usually outside) condense vapour that travel down them back into liquid form.
The technical term for a piece of equipment used after distillation to turn spirit vapour back into liquid is a condenser. One of the key reasons why these are used is to ensure that the alcohol and copper are in close interaction. You see, copper is fantastic at removing sulphur and heavy elements in your spirit. Hence why it’s used to make stills and distilling equipment. More copper contact = a lighter spirit. The more modern shell and tube condenser does the same job a worm tub, but more efficiently as its network of copper pipes are tighter.
An old-fashioned worm tub isn’t so efficient, meaning less copper contact, which usually results in a heavier new make spirit as less of the meaty, full-bodied elements are refined out of it through copper contact. This might sound like a problem, but it’s not necessarily. If distilleries didn’t create whisky of individual character, they wouldn’t be as compelling or vital. Whisky simply wouldn’t be that interesting if it all tasted the same, after all.
A worm tub is part of a wider process that influences the style of a spirit, and in distilleries like Craigellachie, Talisker, and Speyburn, the profile the worm tub helps to create is prized. Enthusiasts will recall when Dalwhinnie Distillery replaced its worms with shell-and-tube condensers and the new make character changed so much they were forced to reinstall the good ol’ tub.
Of course, you can use a worm tub to your own specifications, and for example, slow the flow rate of the water in to encourage more copper contact and so create a lighter spirit, like they do at Glen Elgin. It’s still not as light as a shell-and-tube condenser can manage, but you have flexibility with the process.
The question is if worm tubs are so cool, why are they so rare? Shell and tube is favoured because it’s more efficient, not just at creating copper contact, but the design is more modern and so is much more manageable. They don’t take up all that room, are much less fuss to maintain, and if something goes wrong then repairing or replacing is a simpler task.
A tribute to the tub
In the end, you can’t definitely say the worm tub is superior or inferior to a shell and tube. It’s a matter of preference. Some newer distilleries like Ardnahoe and Ballindalloch are using worm tubs. Much like with floor maltings, whisky nerds tend to be quite romantic about them because of their rarity, the meatier, heavier character they create (which can be an acquired taste), and their sheer presence.
I think WINs (whisky-inclined nerds, I fancied giving us a short-hand) remember their first worm tub. Mine was at Talisker. Watching all that water surge, the heat of it, the chaos of steam billowing from a very industrial network of pipes. It’s a striking sight. I’ve recently waxed lyrical about Craigellachie and devoted a portion of the feature to the glory of the tub. They’re the kind of feature that will prompt a WIN to get the cameras and notepads out.
That’s why I’m glad we’ve created a whisky that honours this humble, strange, and beguiling equipment. Happily, Wormtub 10 Year Old – Batch 1 tastes delicious. It would be quite awkward after all that if it didn’t, would it?
It’s so rich and dense and moreish, with plenty of bold sherry influence, this beautifully earthy forest floor note and layers of other big flavours like dark chocolate, flamed orange peel, punchy cassia, salty jerky, caramel, tangy dried cranberries, and smoky oak that meld together rather than compete for space. I’d happily sit in a big ol’ tub of it, to be honest.
You can purchase Wormtub 10 Year Old – Batch 1 right here, right now.