After a great Bank Holiday, we’re back with more great Scottish lore and knowledge for you – today we take a closer look at the Scotch whisky industry! Last year, we examined some of Scotland’s finest whiskies and gave you our top picks for each of the regional malts – this time we aim to look a little deeper and give a small glimpse into the process by which Scotch whisky is made.
Firstly of course, the ingredients and water used are of paramount importance. With only three parts to the recipe; barley, water and yeast, each of these must be perfect to obtain the correct flavour and bouquet that the distillery will be aiming for. Most distilleries are built on or very near to a source of clean water, such as a spring or borehole. Scotland has some of the world’s purest fresh water and the region the water originates from may affect the final taste of the whisky, for example water in the Highlands will travel through peat earth, giving it a higher mineral content (also known as hard water) which can result in a richer character to the finished whisky. Local water is used at every stage of the distillery process, so it is important for brewers to ensure that the same source of water and type of water processing (uncommon, but may be used to remove unwanted mineral build-up in the Islay region where water can be very hard for example).
Barley is also very important to whisky makers, though nowadays there is less emphasis on it being sourced locally in comparison to local pure water which is still very much an important asset for any distillery. Barley used for whisky making is generally very hardy, and variants with a high sugar content are preferred. Some distilleries, like Bruichladdich on Islay, have returned to their local and organic roots and are experimenting with ancient strains of barley, like those used by the first humans to develop agriculture, but many others import barley from large scale farmers instead of growing their own. The final ingredient for making Scotch whisky is brewer’s yeast. This gives the whisky its alcohol content via fermentation so is undoubtedly essential!
The process of turning these simple ingredients into the fabled Scottish Water of Life begins with malting the barley. In this stage, barley is steeped in water for 2-3 days then spread on a stone floor to germinate for a minimum of one week. It will be turned from time to time, to prevent a build up of heat from the developing grain using a traditional Shiel – a specially designed wooden shovel, or by a variety of more modern methods. Once the barley has germinated it is dried in a kiln using peat or coke as a fuel; peat is favoured by many as it gives the final product a smoky and earthy flavour. The final step of the malting is to dress the barley, where the stalks are removed. Malting used to all be done within the distillery, and still is in some cases, but most Scottish distilleries now outsource this part of the process to experienced maltsters who can ensure the barley is treated and developed perfectly.
After malting, the barley is ground up into a flour-like substance known as grist then mixed with hot water and poured into a mash tun where it is mixed to encourage the enzymes developed during the malting process to convert starch into sugars. The resulting sugary run-off is called wort and is captured for use in the next stage, while the leftover barley is called draff and is sold as feed for farm animals. The wort is allowed to cool then has yeast added to convert the sugars into ethanol and give the whisky its alcoholic content. This process takes around 2 days and the result is a malt beer with an alcohol content of around 10%.
The next part is the distillation proper, and is quite complicated! The malt beer is introduced to a copper still known as a wash where the temperature will be raised so the alcohol boils off, leaving the “pot ale” behind, which again is used as animal feed. The alcohol vapour is siphoned off and plunged into cold water to allow it to revert back to a liquid form, now called “low wines”. This process is repeated again, in a spirit still instead of wash still the second time. The resulting liquid is divided into three portions, the second of these is the only one used immediately; this is called the “new make” and has an alcohol content of around 60-75%. The first portion, “the foreshot”, and the last portion, “the feints” are undesirable and are returned to the wash still to begin the process again.
The “new make” spirit is now ready for casking. This is the method by which all Scotch whiskies are matured to go from the raw, colourless condition they are in at this stage, to the smooth, smoky golden drink beloved worldwide. The type of cask is very important and could be considered the fourth ingredient in making real Scottish malt whisky, as age of the wood and previous contents of the cask will affect the final flavour. All casks are oak, some will be new while the majority will have been previously used to mature American whiskey (as the producers of this must use new casks for each batch), or Spanish sherry. The spirit will be matured for a minimum of three years and up to an amazing 40 years! Each year a small amount of evaporation will occur, reducing the amount of whisky in the barrel, and lowering the alcohol content of what remains. This is known as the “angels share” and very tight casks are much sought after as they can help to reduce this issue. Finally, after the prescribed maturation time, the spirit is bottled, either straight from the cask at full-strength, or after dilution with de-mineralised water, and another in the line of millions of bottles of true Scotch whisky is born!
We hope you have enjoyed this look into the procedures behind the creation of Scotch whisky; as a process developed over hundreds of years, it is a product that Scotland distilleries are understandably proud and protective of. The methods used to make Scotch whisky are enshrined in Scots law, though of course there is room for innovation whether that be distilleries such as Bruichladdich who wish to return to their traditional roots, or others such as Balvenie who have experimented with the last few years of maturation being done in old rum barrels to impart an exotic flavour to their product. As always we’d love to hear from you in the comments – what was your best ever Scotch experience?!