Scotch whisky is popular worldwide due to its complexity, variety and quality. Making whisky is what the Scots do best or as some would say what they do 2nd best after drinking it. This is our countries drink given to us by nature (or God if you are a believer) and one which is cared for and nurtured and this is how it is produced….
Whisky is a distilled alcoholic drink produced at the multiple distilleries dotted across Scotland. In written history whisky production in Scotland goes as far back as 1494 however probably is older than that. There are now over 100 working distilleries in Scotland producing the finest quality whisky for scotch whisky lovers all over world.
The ingredients are simple, grain, yeast and add water. Water is plentiful in Scotland. This mix creates a weak beer which is then put into copper stills and distilled. This produces a clear spirit which is then added to (mainly) use oak casks. Over a long period of time the spirit mixes with the oak to give it flavour and colour.
Number 1: Malting
To start the grains are put in water to soak usually in a large tank. Germination then takes place and the grains are spear across the floor and turned until shoots and roots appear. This process allows enzymes to break down the cell walls and help the stored starches to evolve into soluble sugars.
Once the grains have malted they are heated to stop the process of germination. Afterwards it is moved to the malt kiln where the heat rises through a perforated floor area.
The heating mechanism can burn peat for peated malt such as Laphroaig, Bowmore, Lagavulin, and Arbeg etc however mostly smokeless fuel is used in this process. A ‘Pagoda’ roof allows the waste heat (and smoke) to make its way into the Scottish countryside.
Number 2: Mashing
The Malted barley is ground down into grist which is like rough flour. This Grist is put in a ‘mash tun’ and hot water is added. This soup is then ‘mashed’ in order for the sugar to dissolve into the hot water, hot water would be added multiple times to complete the process.
The liquid produced is called ‘Wort’ which is sweet this is cooled and stored. The waste product ‘Draf’ is used to feed livestock.
Mash tuns are traditionally made of cast iron and are operated by cogs driving a rake through the thick soup like mixture. Many mash tuns are original from when the distillery is built many well over 100 years old.
Number 3: Fermentation
The ‘Wort’ as described above is loaded into ‘Wash-backs’, for fermentation to begin once the yeast is added. This process beaks down the sugars into alcohols (inc Ethanol). The product this creates is known as ‘Wash’ and is normally approximately 5% alcohol like most average beers. Once complete the ‘Wash’ is put into holding tanks.
Number 4 Distillation
OK now we are getting to the interesting part of whisky production. The Worts are the distilled which allows the ethanol to become more concentrated. Once the Wort is hot enough the alcohols evaporate into the lyne arm into a worm tub where they are condensed. When cooled they liquidise into a low wine of approximately 20% volume. (*Worm tubs are the traditional form and are now not used at all distilleries.)
The Low Wine is passed into the spirit still and is distilled a 2nd time. The liquid produced is referred to as the ‘foreshots’ and is kept aside and the middle cut with the high ethanol will be converted into whisky. A third cut is also taken which is called the feints. The foreshots and the feints are removed and used in the next run in the wash mill. The majority of Scottish whiskies are distilled twice however there are couple who distil three times like Irish Whisky. The spirit taken from the middle cut generally has an alcohol volume of between 60 and 75%.
Number 5 Maturation
The spirit is put into a variety of oak casks (most often sherry butts & bourbon barrels, wine casks and port pipes) some water is added to dilute the alcohol content. The casks are the stored for a minimum of three years allowing for some good fresh Scottish air to flow through the warehouse. Casks maybe stored across several warehouses to avoid losing a whole batch. This is the process that gives whisky its unique flavour. The contact of wood and spirit over many years determines the flavour and colour of the end product.
Number 6 Bottling
The system of bottling now is all automated and water will be added in some cases to reduce alcohol volume. The maturation process is complete at this point and the taste will be unaffected by the time in the bottle.
Most whisky is bottled at bottling plants however some still do the process onsite. At this point the retailers take over.