How Scotch Whisky is Made

If you’ve ever been curious about the process and stages involved in whisky production, or confused by the difference between grain and malt whisky then wonder no more with this fantastic primer. You can find related reading linked from the video transcript

How Whisky Is Made

Scots have been making whisky for over 500 years. It’s a skillful process and one that whisky makers have refined over the centuries. Malt whisky is made by what is called the pot still process, which involves malting, fermenting, distillation, and maturation.

Malting The Barley

The first step is to malt the barley, where it’s steeped in water, and then traditionally spread out on a malting floor and allowed to germinate. Today, modern high-tech malting serve the same purpose, preparing the starch in the barley for fermentation. The malting process lasts about a week until germination is stopped. By drying the cereal in a large oven called the kiln.

Milling & Fermentation

Once the barley is dry, the malt is ground in a mill and the crushed grain called grist is mixed with hot water in a mash tun. The starch in the malt is broken down and creates a liquid called wort. The wort is transferred into large vessels called wash bags where yeast is added. The yeast causes fermentation of the wort, creating alcohol. This is known as wash. The wash is distilled twice in distinctive copper pot stills. First in the wash still and then in the spirit still. These act like large kettles, heating the liquid. The alcohol vapors rise and pass over the top of the wash still before being guided through condensers and returning to liquid. The resulting spirit known as low wines is forwarded to the spirit still where distillation is repeated. Only the heart of the run, the purest spirit, is collected in the spirit safe, which is kept locked as tax is now due to the government.

Maturing To Whisky

The clear spirit is poured into oak casks for the long period of maturation. By law the spirit cannot be called Scotch whisky until it is matured in Scotland for at least three years. Many whiskies are matured for much longer. As the spirit matures in the cask, it develops in flavour and acquires its renowned golden colour.

Grain Whisky & the Coffey Still

Grain whisky on the other hand is made using a continuous technique called the patent still process. Grain whisky is made from a mash of malted barley to which other cereals may have been added, generally wheat or corn. The other cereals are cooked, preparing them for fermentation. The starch cells in the grain burst. The addition of malted barley aids the conversion of starch, ready for fermentation.

Distillation

Distillation is carried out in a patent or Coffey still and the spirit collected at a higher strength than malt whisky. The resulting whisky is also lighter and mellower than malt whisky. Malt and grain whiskies complement each other when combined. Blending was first introduced in Scotland in the 1860s. At that time, malt whisky was seldom left to mature in cask for any length of time. As a result, it was a fiery drink, considered too potent for most tastes.

Grain whisky had a gentler flavour and blending malt and grain whiskies together produced a smoother, flavorsome whisky. This innovation saw a boom in whisky consumption, first in England, then throughout the world. Blending requires a considerable amount of skill and is an art that takes years to acquire.

Blending the Whisky

Whiskies from many distilleries are used in a blend, each one carefully selected to complement and enhance the flavour of the other whiskies. The art of the blender is to create a whisky that is recognizable in character and never varies in standard. Quality and consistency are key, before bottling and sale as blended Scotch whisky, each one with its own character and distinctive taste.

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References & Reading

Feature Image by Scott E. Harris

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