Have you ever wondered how Scotch whisky is actually made? Malt whisky is one of the iconic brands associated with Scotland and provides a great contribution to the economy. If you have ever wondered how it is made, the process is fairly simple although the factors that provide the variation in the taste of the final product are a little more complex.
The history and future of Scotch whisky is a fascinating one, however this guide is only designed to provide a basic understanding of the making of this globally recognised product. There is a wealth of information out there if you want to find out more or visit one of the many distilleries up and down the country that provide tours behind the scenes.
Where the magic happens! There are currently over 100 whisky distilleries in Scotland and the country is divided into 6 whisky regions with each region having general distinctive characteristics in flavour although there are exceptions. The main regions are Campbeltown, Islay, Lowlands, Highlands. Speyside and the Islands.
Believe it or not, there are only ever 3 ingredients that make up single malt Scotch whisky, malted barley, water and yeast. The variations in flavour are down to the production process and the skill of the Master Distiller
The first step of the process is called malting. Barley is soaked in water and then the seeds are allowed to germinate, during germination enzymes turn the starch within the barley into soluble sugars. Germination is stopped by drying the barley in a kiln oven and peat might be burned at this stage to give the distinctive smoky flavour found in some whiskies.
Only a handful of distilleries in Scotland still have malting floors, where the barley grains are spread out and turned by hand as they dry out and germinate, most distilleries now use drying drums.
The malted barley is milled to a coarse flour called grist and then mixed with hot water in a mash tun causing the starch in the grain to turn to sugar, this sugary liquid is called wort. The wort is drawn from the mash tun through a sieve at the bottom and the solid that remains is often fed to happy local cows!
The wort is sent to wash-backs for fermentation where yeast is added which converts the sugar in the wort into alcohol. The resulting fermented liquid is known as wash which contains a low level of alcohol. The length of fermentation time has an effect on the overall flavour of the spirit
The wash is then sent to copper pot stills for distillation which is the process used to separate alcohol from water and other substances contained in the wash. The liquid wash is heated to a point at which the alcohol becomes vapour, the vapour rises up the still and is passed into the cooling plant where it is condensed into a liquid state once again.
The first distillation occurs in the wash still and transforms the wash into low wines at an average of 10 - 20% alcohol. The second distillation occurs in a smaller spirit still and the liquid alcohol flows through a spirit safe in three parts, where the distillers use their skills to select only the pure, middle cut of the spirit up to 70% of alcohol which is known as the distillation heart. This colourless spirit is then put into casks to mature.
Maturation has a big influence on the taste of the final product, while maturing the whisky gains flavour and colour from the cask/casks it has been stored in. American oak casks that have previously held Bourbon or European oak casks that have held Spanish Sherry are the most commonly used. Other casks can be used to provide a distinctive finish including those that have held Rum, Port, Cognac or Wine.
The casks are stored in a warehouse and after 3 years and 1 day (the 1 day covers leap years) of maturing, the spirit is legally allowed to be called Scotch whisky although 12 to 21 years is considered the optimum period.
During each year of maturation about 0.5 to 2% of the spirit is lost through natural evaporation, this is called the Angel's Share.
TYPES OF WHISKY
Once matured the whisky can be bottled as a single malt, blended malt or blended Scotch Whisky.
Single malts can be made up of a blend of different casks although they must all come from the same distillery. The blending of different casks can be required to achieve a consistent taste in the final bottled product. The age statement on the bottle refers to the youngest whisky used.
Blended malts are a combination of 2 or more single malts from different distilleries.
Blended whisky is a mix of malt and grain whisky from different distilleries
Most bottled whisky has been diluted with water to reduce the ABV although some whiskies are bottled straight from the cask and are known as Cask Strength.
When it comes to drinking Scotch Whisky there are two pieces of advice that I have been given by whisky experts with much greater knowledge than me that I always pass on -
1. If you don't like the taste of Scotch, you just haven't tried enough to find the right one...
2. The correct way to drink Scotch is whatever way you enjoy it!
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