People and Ideas

Tim took them through

Tim Dolan by the Loch
Written by Howie Firth

On World Whisky Day, 16 May, we send greetings to a friend of many years, Dr Tim Dolan in Aberlour, Moray, whose impact on the distilling industry has been immense. He is one of the few people to have been awarded the Horace Brown Medal by the Institute of Brewing and Distilling (IBD), the highest award it can bestow, for “his exceptional contribution to brewing, malting and distilling science” over many years, and here are some of the reasons why.

Tim Dolan’s interest in brewing and distilling began at Edinburgh University, and it started with yeast. Born in Jedburgh, he went to Edinburgh to study chemistry, and for his Honours year project was set a challenge with a strain of yeast: to get it to adapt from metabolising glucose to doing so with another sugar, galactose, found in various seaweeds.

“This project opened my eyes to biology,” he says, and for his PhD he investigated polysaccharides in red seaweeds. Polysaccharides are made of long chains of sugar molecules. Starch and cellulose are two examples, and the malting process breaks down the starch chains into their glucose components. Tim focused on one of the carrageenans, formed from galactose molecules and much used in the food industry for thickening and stabilising.

One carrageenan source is Irish moss (Chondrus crispus), also known as carrageen moss, found on North Atlantic coastlines and used traditionally for food and also as finings for clarifying beer.

Edinburgh life and times

Tim found Edinburgh an ideal place for postgraduate research.

My supervisor was a brilliant polysaccharide chemist, Dr Dai Rees (now Sir), whose career pinnacle was being chief executive of the Medical Research Council. He led by brilliant example and has been a great influence in my life.”

He formed with the other two PhD students in the group a close friendship which has continued ever since. There were some memorable moments, such as in 1963 when the government of the day abolished home brewing licences. “That catalysed the three of us into action!” he says.

One day, we were hop boiling our first brew in a side-laboratory, when in came Professor Edmund Hirst, the Head of Department. We expected a reprimand, but he just said ‘I see you are taking advantage of the new legislation. Let me know when it’s ready.’ So we did, and he came and sampled it with us. This was my first brewing experience and it set me on the road!”

Brewers and maltsters

Following his PhD, he joined in 1966 the R&D department of Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, providing technical support to a pilot brewery in Holyrood Brewery, and working on enzyme conversion of cooked maize grits at Fountain Brewery. He also did troubleshooting.

I was sent to investigate a layer of oil on whisky in a vat at Mackinlay-Macpherson in Leith. The cause turned out to be a biro pen that someone had inadvertently dropped in! This was my introduction to the world of whisky.”

In 1968 he joined Associated British Maltsters as Deputy Chief Chemist, with brewing, malting and laboratory work. Two years later came a move north.

The move to Moray

In 1970 Highland Distilleries appointed Tim Assistant Maltings Manager at the company’s Tamdhu Maltings at Knockando in Moray, where he was also in charge of the small laboratory, and the work there was soon to expand.

In 1972 the Chairman of Highland Distilleries, John Macphail, asked me to build up the laboratory to cover all aspects of malting and malt whisky production. He was a visionary and saw that science and technology were coming into the industry, as it had come to brewing several decades before. I was appointed to supply the technical knowhow.

I was one of several scientists who moved at that time from malting and brewing into distilling, bringing new ideas. I worked on raw materials improvement, process optimisation and workforce education.”

A time of advance

This was the time, he says, when continuous advances in process monitoring and control were being made in the industry, with more reliable control of temperatures at all the stages from steeping and germinating to mashing and distilling, leading to more efficiency and consistency.

I lived and worked through some of these changes and from time to time wrote, mostly in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, about things I had found out while being embedded in it.

His first paper for the Journal was published there in 1976.

It arose after I had a chat sometime in 1975 with Professor Anna Macleod of Heriot-Watt in her smoky lair in Chambers Street in Edinburgh. After asking me how I was getting on and me telling her, she said I should write about the observations I had made. There was a good chance that what I wrote would get published, as she was the editor! Before I left, she opened a drawer in her filing cabinet, pulled out a bottle of Japanese whisky and two glasses. She asked me to taste it, telling me it was a good dram and watch this space.

That was my introduction to Japanese whisky, 45 years ago!”

The paper included observations on pH changes during fermentation and the harmful effects on yield of excess lactic acid bacteria.

Quantifying fermentation

Next came research into ways of specifying more precisely the fermentation potential of malt – to follow the effects of fermentation on the cell wall, so that modifications to fermentation methods could be tested.

On the malting floor

He went on with colleagues at Moray Firth Maltings and the Scotch Whisky Research Institute in Edinburgh to find a way to measure the fermentability of unboiled wort. They went on to work on the most important figure of all – the actual spirit yield from a sample of malt. They took measurements at distilleries which showed how much the actual spirit yield could vary from one to another.

They gathered the distillery figures for over twenty. Tim found that by analysing the data he could provide an equation for Predicted Spirit Yield. Various forms of that equation continue to be used throughout the industry today, often within a computer programme.

Golden Promise and Triumph

He put much work on research into barley, where new varieties were now coming in.

The advent of the barley variety Golden Promise encouraged sales maltsters to build large-scale mechanical maltings, mainly in Northern Scotland, in the period 1975-1990, and at the end of the century these plants had virtually replaced distillers’ floor maltings.

In 1980 the spring barley variety Triumph became available to Scottish farmers, and it soon became a major malt distilling variety. A drawback of this variety was that it was prone to dormancy and in around 1990 it and other ‘Triumph type’ varieties were overtaken by more modern spring varieties such as Derkado, Prisma, Chalice and Optic, which had no dormancy problems and were more amenable to processing because they have less dense protein matrices, less beta-glucan and are more friable.”

Barley Seminar 1987
Barley Seminar 1987

He served on the Institute’s Barley Committee for twenty years, for four of them as its chairman. He worked hard to streamline the system for evaluating new varieties of barley and devised the testing process known as ‘The Stairway to Heaven’. The next step was to draw up a list of desired malting barley features for the breeders, so that they would know precisely what to work towards. This led to closer links in the process of developing new varieties, and steady increases in spirit yields.

Yeast on the move

In his years in the industry there has been a yeast revolution, he says.

When I arrived at distilling, distillers were using mixtures of distilling and brewing yeasts. The distilling yeasts were manufactured in yeast factories, mainly in Menstrie by the Distillers Company Limited (DCL), and the brewing yeasts were ale breweries’ surpluses.

The distilling yeast was assumed to have the required fermentative power, while the brewers’ gave flavour. The quality of the brewers’ yeasts varied enormously, with viabilities anywhere in the range 0-100% and usually sky-high lactic acid counts. These yeasts were at that time almost all ale yeasts.

Then came the rise of lager, which used different strains of yeast that were unable to tolerate the distilleries’ fermentation temperature regimes. Suppliers mixed ale and lager strains and the brewers’ yeast started to perform poorly. For brewers, surplus yeast was not a core product and did not benefit from any quality control.

Many distillers, spearheaded by Dennis Watson and myself, introduced yeast purchase specifications and moved away from brewing yeasts to distilling strains. New distilling strain manufacturers were emerging and distillers were keen to increase the range of suppliers, breaking the near-monopoly that existed.

Then came a breakthrough. Mauri Yeast, based in Hull, contacted him to let him know that they had developed a new distilling yeast. He agreed to carry out some laboratory trials.

They were successful and I persuaded my boss, Walter Grant, that we should conduct some pilot scale trials at Glenglassaugh Distillery. These we did successfully over three production weeks and this led to us eventually giving the two suppliers about 50% each of our yeast requirements. Every time I see a Mauri Yeast truck on the road, I think of the part I had to play.”

A new phase

His research has been recognised in various ways. He was awarded the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Chemistry at the age of 35, the earliest age at which this can be conferred. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Biology and of the IBD. Within Highland Distillers, now the Edrington Group, he became Technical Manager, in charge of eight distilleries, including Highland Park in Orkney, before retirement in 2000.

But retirement was merely the start of a new phase of activity. Active in the IBD for much of his working career, he was now appointed secretary of its Scottish Section, organising meetings and technical visits across Scotland.

Aviemore Conference
Aviemore Conference

He had been the driving force in the development of conferences to share professional knowledge, with a series over the years at Aviemore, and he now worked to help develop something bigger – the IBD’s Worldwide Distilled Spirits Conference that attracts distillers from all over the world to Scotland every three years.

There was the development of the Whisky School for the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, with such demand for places that there are bookings for two years ahead, and there was the continued development of IBD events at Orkney International Science Festival, for which he had provided generous help and support since its very early days, bringing a wealth of speakers and topics to its audiences.

The year 2000 brought a challenge that would benefit a whole generation across the industry.

Training a new generation

Visit a large distillery today and you may well see the whole process controlled by few people – sometimes just one. Sensors provide information from the various stages, from barley input to spirit output, and a single operator monitors and controls.

The approach ensures great consistency in product quality, and it requires a special type of operator – someone combining a depth of practical knowledge and experience with an understanding of the underlying science and the principles of process control.

By 2000 the need for specialist training was becoming clear. Heriot-Watt University had developed a Diploma in Distilling – a year’s postgraduate course to give a science graduate a foundation in distilling. But what could be done for people already working in the industry, seeking the scientific knowledge behind the processes with which they were so familiar?

The case was made to the IBD. What was needed was a General Certificate in Distilling, to provide the scientific foundations. A group was formed, with Tim one of its leading members, along with Dr Roger Jones, chairman of the IBD’s Scottish section. Together they set out a vision and drafted a structure. The IBD was so impressed that it asked them to put the course in place and teach it.

So began a collaboration that brought many hundreds of people across the industry the qualifications to enable them to handle the new generation of distilleries. After ten years they stepped back to let the IBD take over the management of the courses, and Tim continued to teach for some years with Brian Eaton. Today the total of successful candidates is approaching 2000, with a number each year going on to take the full Diploma in Distilling.

The Horace Brown Medal

Tim’s lifetime of service to the industry was recognised in 2012 by the IBD’s award of the Horace Brown Medal. The IBD is the world’s leading professional body for the industry, with over 4,000 members. The Horace Brown Medal, its highest accolade, is only awarded every three years. It commemorates Dr Horace Tabberer Brown, a remarkable man who left his mark on virtually all areas of science applied to brewing, including chemistry, biology and geology.

The Horace Brown lecture
The Horace Brown lecture

The IBD’s President, Alan Barclay, chairing the presentation, spoke of Tim as “the single dominant figure in the IBD Scottish Section over the last 40 years” and rounded off with a quote from Horace Brown: “Scientific research… like the flowing tide to which no man can say thus far and no further!

With such a spirit has Tim, as scientist, teacher, administrator, leader and friend, defined no limit to his service to the IBD.”

About the author

Howie Firth

Dr Howie Firth is a writer and physicist from Orkney, with a deep interest in history and philosophy. He is director of Orkney International Science Festival.