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Science was never a strength of mine and as result I am much more of an ‘end-product’ person while the process of how it reached that end was of little interest. The disadvantage of this thought process is that I don’t really know how my car works or how to fix it if it brakes-down and if my internet connection stops I can't stretch past switching the broadband box off and on again, after a three minute interval. However, I found the process of how Whisky is made very interesting because of how the different stages impact the end taste. I also like the two schools of thought rumoured to exist in the Whisky in the industry, that of scientific attention to detail versus gut instinct and superstition.
You’ll struggle to find distilleries that will allow you to see the whole process of Whisky being made. However, the Springbank distillery in Campbeltown, allows you to see every part. In addition not only do they malt their own barley which is a fairly unique trait they bottle their Whisky too. This is the process for making single malt Whisky.
Barley is grown on about half of Scotland’s arable land and was first domesticated 10,000 years ago. Research is being conducted at the James Hutton Institute to identify ways to produce better barley for future harvests. The institute is cross-breeding different strains of barley of which there are tens of thousands of different strains. In fact Scotland's whisky industry uses so much barley that it imports it from England too. I previously wrote a blog on the possible Barley shortage looming in the future which you can read here.
Barley is one of the three vital ingredients required to create whisky. The malting process, involves the barley being steeped in water and spread across a malting floor to be allowed to germinate – this then provides the starch which turns into a soluble sugar that can be used to create alcohol. The process, which takes around a week, ends with the drying of the barley in a kiln, a large oven. Here is where smoky whiskies get their smokiness as when peat is used to burn it provides that unique smoky flavour.
After the malting process and when the barley has been dried it is ground up in a mill. The crushed grain now identified as grist is mixed with hot water in a mash tun, a lovely description I read expressed this as a like a ‘giant porridge bowl’.
A bowl of porridge
The mixing allows the sugars to dissolve and we are left with a sweet liquid, identified as wort, which can be turned into alcohol. The leftover solids should then hopefully be recycled; typically this can be in the form of animal feed.
The wort is placed in a washback, a large tub, where it is fermented with the addition of yeast. This process turns the sugar contained in the wort into alcohol; this liquid is called the ‘wash’.
The wash will then be distilled through Coppert Stills – typically in Scotland there are two stills the wash will go through – the Wash still and then the Spirit Still. However, in many Lowland malts the Whisky will be distilled three times and this makes for a more lighter bodied spirit, like the Lady of the Glen Littlemill. In the still the liquid is heated and the alcohol vapour rise up through to condensers which refine the liquid to then return it to follow the process again. Only a small portion of the liquid will be used - the high quality spirit that is gradually collected in the spirit safe.
Distillation is a very important element. Distillers will adopt varying degrees of science and superstition in the distillation of their whisky from getting specific temperatures to leaving dents in Pot stills in case fixing it impacts the quality of the Whisky. The Scotch Whisky Experience on the Edinburgh High Street explains this very well and you get a tour from what it would look like in a Still, well worth the entry price!
Another key element of the process, where the new make spirit is placed in the cask to be aged. To be called Scotch Whisky it will need be aged in an oak cask for a minimum of three years. The cask will give the Whisky its colour among other distinctive characteristics. The choice of cask is very important, if you would like to learn more about casks please visit this website as it is a hugely diverse and in depth topic. You can also read the debate for Ex-Sherry V Bourbon casks here. You can get an idea of how the different Oaks from Europe, America and Japan impact Whisky here. It is at this point where the infamous angels' share leaves the cask never to be seen again, in a gesture of divine deal-making/the natural evaporation of alcohol from the cask. Around 2% of the Whisky is lost each year while it is in the cask although this can be more in hotter climates.
That’s how whisky is made if you have any questions feel free to contact me.