The basis of every Scotch malt whisky is plain old BARLEY.
Well, it used to be 'plain old barley', which was either grown by
the distilleries on their own fields or purchased from local farms.
These days, production is more modernised and rationalised.
The barley is often purchased in bulk - and sometimes shipped
in from France or Russia. One might argue that this makes the
whisky less ‘Scotch’, but that’s not how the SWA looks at it.
Any barley variety can be used to produce malt whisky - but if
any other type of grain is used, the result may not be called
malt whisky - at least not in Scotland. Other ‘whiskey’ grain
types include corn (a.k.a. maize), buckwheat, rye and wheat.
The Golden Promise barley variety
was very popular among malt whisky
distillers during the 1990s. However,
these days a growing number of
Scotch whisky distilleries use other
barley varieties and ‘cultivars’ like
Optic and Chariot barley as well.
After the 'green malt' has sprouted, it is dried in a kiln to stop the germination.
The chimneys of many kilns are shaped like pagodas, giving Scotch malt whisky
distilleries their ‘traditional’ shape.
But how do they turn barley into whisky?
First, they add water. During the malting process, barley is soaked in water
for 2 or 3 days, then spread out to germinate. During the germination stage
that follows (usually lasting around a week), enzymes turn the starch within the
barley into soluble sugars - which will be converted into alcohol later on...
Turning perfectly edible grains into
a slightly toxic substance might not
seem to make a lot of sense, but it
actually does. However, I’ll delve
deeper into historical issues in the
Advanced Beginner’s Guide later.
Often, that’s an illusion these days.
Nowadays, malting is mostly done
off-site at a maltings facility. For
example, the Port Ellen maltings on
Islay provide many distilleries on
the island with (part of) their malt.
A few distilleries still do their malting on location,
using traditional floor maltings or other methods.
But at this point, we only have partly germinated and dried barley. At which point is this turned into whisky?
Soon - but first the dry malted barley goes into the malt mill - a device which grinds the malt into grist before the
next phase of the process begins: the mashing. This is also where we’ll see the first alcohol emerging.
The liquid that's drained off as a result of this process
is the wort - and this worthy liquid will later grow up to
become malt whisky when it’s older and stronger...
MUCH stronger, in fact - so far there’s hardly any alcohol.
Only after the wort has been transferred into a washback the fermentation
really kicks off, gradually turning the wort into wash with an ABV of +/- 7-10%.
During the mashing stage, hot water is added to the 'grist' in a large vessel called a ‘mash tun’.
Here, the starch in the barley is converted further into the fermentable sugars which are needed
to produce alcohol later on. The picture below shows the mash tun at Blair Athol distillery; quite
small and made of Oregon Pine. Other distilleries use stainless steel washbacks, and just like
almost all things in the whisky world,opinions vary about what produces better whisky...
Apart from water, yeast is often added as well.
This kicks off a process of fermentation which turns
the sugars in the mash into alcohol. Different distillers
use different yeast strains, so the distinction between
brewers yeast and distillers yeast is a little confusing.
Whisky distillers used to rely on the ‘local’ yeast strains
that are everywhere around us. However, most Scotch
malt whisky distillers now use industrially produced yeast
to maximise the 'yield' and maintain a uniform ‘style’.
During the 1990s, the only surviving
Scotch malt whisky distilleries with a
‘heavily peated’ style could be found
on the isle of Islay - partly because it
was a local resource. Fortunately, the
peaty style was very popular among
many recent malt whisky devotees.
As a result, a growing number of other
malt whisky distilleries have started to
make peaty malt whiskies again too.
Drying the sprouting barley can be done in different ways, but in
the distant past mostly PEAT SMOKE was used. This gives the
whisky distilled from that malt its own distinctive, smoky flavour.
When whisky lovers talk about ‘peaty whisky’ they often mean
the extremely smoky ‘peat monsters’ from the isle of Islay, but most
of the mainland distilleries tend to use a little peat smoke as well.
Scotland isn’t known for its lush forests, so until a few decades ago
the main fuel source for malt whisky distillation was peat. Only recently
the core ‘heating’ function has been taken over by coal, oil & electricity.
Nevertheless, some peat smoke is still used to flavour most malts.
Well, it usually takes a
few decades for a still to
dissolve, but it’s still odd...
Anyway - the usage of peat in whisky isn’t exclusive to Scotland.
Several other countries (including Ireland, Japan and Sweden) also
have their own peated (and sometimes HEAVILY peated) whiskies.
Heating homes with peat
used to be quite common
in Northern Europe, so it
must have smelled lovely.
Peat was used for cooking & heating until somebody invented coal.
Exposing yourself to a pungent, peaty dram once in a while can be
great - if you roll that way. However, spending every single day of
your life in peaty fumes is something else altogether.
And in that respect, the tiniest amount of copper also makes its way
into every bottle. Each pot still slowly dissolves into spirit over time...
Just like the percentage of malt whisky
in blended whisky has decreased over
the years, so has the percentage of
‘techno’ in techno-babble on whisky.
Whisky makers like to babble about
the size of their stills, but not always
about stuff that might be ‘confusing’.
Roughly two weeks have passed since the malting process of the barley began.
So far, the process hasn't been that different from the production of beer but now
the wash needs to be distilled to increase the alcohol contents to an intoxicating level.
Some pot stills also have so-called
purifiers at the top, for example the
spirit still at Ardbeg distillery. Using
a purifier is said to produce a better
quality of spirit - but I should add that
this is mostly said by the distillers
who use a purifier on their stills ;-)
However, just one distillation isn’t enough to reach the desired ABV of more than 70%.
So, while all Scotch malt whisky is distilled in copper pot stills there are actually two
different types of stills involved; wash stills for the first distillation and spirit stills for
the second. (We can forget about a third
variety called ‘Lomond stills’ for now.)
Spirits exist because alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water.
The vapours from the boiling wash can be collected at the top of the
'swan's neck' of the still as they cool down and condense to alcohol.
The first distillation run in wash stills produces the low wines with
an alcohol percentage somewhere around 20 to 30%. These low
wines do not smell very nice yet, and they are still full of impurities.
So, further refinement is needed. The second distillation run occurs
in special spirit stills - which are usually smaller than the wash stills.
Most Scotch malt whisky
is distilled twice, but some
distilleries have also used
triple distillation to make
their whisky. Bruichladdich
even made a quadruple
distilled whisky once, but
that was an expensive way
to make almost pure alcohol.
There’s much more to tell about the noble art of distillation, but once
again we have reached the end of another chapter. If you have been
paying attention, you’ll remember that the new make spirit which was
just distilled can’t be called ‘whisky’ yet.
That’s all you need to know - for now...
First, it has to mature for at least three years or more in oak casks.
And then the whisky has to be bottled - usually with an ABV of 40-46%.
You could skip ahead to the chapter about shopping for whisky if you
can’t wait, but after chapter 5 & 6 you’ll know what to look out for...
The Whisky Label Inspector offers an overview of ‘essential credentials’.
It list over half a dozen elements to look for on a whisky label - and explains how to read them.