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Special Report: Bottling lines

Bottling whisky may seem an entirely practical process, being automated and computerised. But just as with each stage of the production process, there are various options in terms of methods and technology. Moreover, running a bottling line is a significant feat in terms of co-ordination, to ensure that everything required is in the right place at the right time, so that orders can be filled.

The Edrington Group's Mike Rose says: “We like to bottle to order, so we gather all the orders together, put them all into a bottling programme, then place our orders for supplies in parallel. That way we can plan a co-ordinated programme to run our bottling lines as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. We need to look at line availability, people availability to run the line, and material availability. We monitor all orders to ensure that they are in line or reasonably close to our forecast."

Once the whisky is ready for bottling it is conducted to the bottling vat, from where it can be piped to the bottling line. But quality control is rigorously applied throughout the process.

Rose continues: “Each cask is individually checked by the sample room. Casks that do not meet the required standard are not used. There are a substantial number of quality checks at every stage, and once we have final approval from the sampling room the product in the bottling vat is then passed through an inert food grade filter as a safety measure to ensure that our product meets the most demanding standards."

When more than one whisky is being bottled at a time there is an obvious, and significant, concern.

Rose says: “It would be highly damaging if we mixed any whiskies during the bottling process, so we have invested in a leading edge computer system that oversees every stage. We have a very complex series of stainless steel vats, pipes and valves, over which the computer watches. This prevents anyone from accidentally mixing any whiskies. The vatting and pipework system is highly flexible so that whisky from the same vat can be fed into various bottling lines which are producing different variants, such as 1 litre, 70cl, and  5cl miniatures.”

To ensure that bottles are ready to be filled, there’s a choice of methods that can be used to deal with any dust, or possible fragments of cardboard from the boxes in which the bottles arrive. Moreover, on a cold day bottles coming into a warm environment could experience some condensation.

The options include product rinsing or air blowing. Product rinsing means rinsing bottles with the same product which is being bottled. Alternatively, air blowing can be used. 

Pete Nelson of Glenmorangie, says: “Depending on the product being bottled, we either use air blowing, with cleaned air at high pressure going into an inverted bottle, or rinsing with a high pressure jet of the whisky that’s being bottled. Both systems work equally well."

Filling the bottles with exactly the right amount, and at the precise alcoholic strength stipulated on the label, is of course a paramount concern.

Mike Rose says: “Bottles are filled to a specified fill point set up each day on each line, and we check actual volume by weight every hour. A nozzle passes into the bottle at the pre-set height, and the bottles will fill until they touch the nozzle. As bottles begin to come out of the machine a miniature nozzle sucks excess liquid out by creating a vacuum in the bottle, ensuring it’s filled to exactly the right height."

Another option depends on the machine rather than the bottle to provide the right amount. Ewen Macintosh of Gordon & MacPhail, says: “The machine has a set of chambers each filled with 70 cl of liquid which is discharged into the bottle. So, the machine calculates the volume, not the bottle."

Meanwhile, hand bottling is the answer for some types of packaging.

David Harris of Broxborn Bottlers, says: “To fill a 70cl crystal decanter with the right volume, a 70cl bottle is filled on a machine and the contents tipped into the decanter by hand, and the decanter is sealed with the stopper as quickly as possible. The label has to be absolutely right, and decanters tend to have a panel for the application of the label. It’s amazing how accurate people are, they have that attention to detail and co-ordination, it’s a skill that’s being lost as everyone is moving to automation."

There are two options when applying labels, which can either be self-adhesive or ‘dry,’ in which case an adhesive is added.

Mike Rose says: “We design bottles to protect the labels, as they’re fragile during application. A water based adhesive gets to work very rapidly but takes time to form a permanent bond. The adhesive permeates the paper to form a chemical and mechanical bond with glass, then evaporates through the paper."

Each type of label has its own particular parameters.

Douglas Smith of Burn Stewart Distillers, says: “Self-adhesive labels have lower set up costs but are more expensive to run than dry labels to which adhesive is added. Self-adhesive labels tend to be more expensive than dry labels, but new technology means they are now closer in cost."

Meanwhile, cask strength bottlings may have to wait a while before the labels are applied.

Ewen Mackintosh says: “For some cask strength bottlings the labels are only printed once the whisky is bottled, as it’s the strength in the bottle that needs to be stipulated, not the strength in the vat, as this can vary during the bottling process. A large vat for example with a relatively small amount of whisky could lead to sufficient evaporation, if left for a prolonged period."

Another factor is that bottles are individually coded, providing all the details that would be required, just in case.

Ian Bissett of William Grant & Sons, says: “We have an obligation to code every single bottle, in the unlikely event of a product recall. The date, batch and rotation number are recorded on the bottle and we can trace the history of every product."

Changes to packaging can also lead to other significant developments. In fact, new packaging may also require a new bottling line.

Pete Nelson says: “It was just as significant in terms of the bottling line when we changed the packaging for Glenmorangie. We felt the existing technology could not deliver the absolute perfection required, and installed a new bottling line for Glenmorangie. The design, construction and installation of this line took a total of nine months, which is considered a quick turn around for such an advanced bottling line."

Nelson continues: “We used to use a tin capsule on top of the cork which was spun onto the bottle, now we use a shrink capsule. Heat shrinks the capsule in every direction, so you can’t remove it without destroying it. This is a much more secure closure, which is important in markets where counterfeit is an issue. Another huge change is moving from a tube to a carton, which is also constructed on the bottling line. It begins flat and the machine opens this up, places the bottle within the carton, then constructs the carton around it without the use of any glue.”

Italy and Germany are a typical source of the latest bottling lines, with ever more sophisticated technology offering improved efficiency and speed.

David Harris says: “At the high speed end it’s getting faster. In 1990 a bot-tling line handling 200 bottles per minute was considered the ultimate, now bottling lines can handle up to 600 bot-tles per minute. These lines cost many millions of pounds, though new technology also requires much lower energy levels."

Needless to say, more sophisticated technology also affects the labour force, while changing regulations have influenced working conditions.

Harris explains: “Advances in bottling lines have had a significant impact on the number of employees required to staff the line. The maximum permitted noise level has also recently been lowered from 95 decibels to 85 decibels, which is a huge difference if you walked into a room and heard it. We use a modern ‘in ear system,’ an ear protector moulded to the individual ears of each employee. As a good employer you look after your staff, and every year employees un-dergo ear tests."

7 February 2017 - Ian Wisniewski