Scotland’s Iconic Drink: How is Whisky Made?
Whisky is synonymous with Scotland. It’s an iconic Scottish drink and any trip to our bonnie lands wouldn’t be complete without trying it. But, what is whisky? And what makes Scottish whisky (Scotch) so darn popular around the world?
Taking it back to basics, it is made from fermented grain mash. This is then distilled to around 68% ABV and aged in oak barrels. In Scotland, there are 5 distinct whisky types. Each has a slightly different method of production and characteristics.
You might have seen both whisky and whiskey written on bottles and wondered which one is ‘correct’ or if they are even the same thing. Basically, if your drink has been distilled in Ireland or the United States, then it is called ‘whiskey’. However, whisky (without the ‘e’) is the term used for all production in Scotland, Canada or Japan. Being the biggest whisky producer in the world – a position held for over 100 years – as Scots, we would argue that the only correct spelling is Whisky, but maybe we’re just a little biased.
The 5 types of Scotch WhiskyIn Scotland, there around 140 distilleries making Scotch although only around 100 are currently in operation, with many being re-opened each year. With such a wide variety available, Scotland has been divided up into 6 distinct whisky-producing regions. Each has its own flavour profile depending on the chemical make-up of the water and the processes used. These six regions are; Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islands, Campbeltown and Islay (pronounced eye-lah). To further help you identify what is in your bottle, Scotch Whisky is broken down into five distinct categories. These are protected by law (Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009), meaning that strict rules have to be adhered to in order to meet the relevant classification.
Single MaltSingle malt whisky is made in a single distillery using 100% malt barley. These are considered the finest whiskies in the world. The oldest and rarest of the bunch will set you back thousands of pounds. They almost always have an age on the bottle which represents the amount of time it was stored in casks before bottling. Whisky doesn’t age after bottling so vintage is not important. The age on the bottle must be the age of the youngest whisky used.
Single Grain WhiskyAs with single malt, single grain whisky is produced at a single distillery. However, instead of using only malted barley for the grain mash, it is usually made up of 10-20% malted barley with the rest being a mixture of corn and rye. These are not considered as good as the single malts though, in reality, they can be just as complex and enjoyable.
Blended Malt WhiskyAs the name suggests, blended malt whisky is a blend of several single malts. Usually, distilleries will buy full casks, choosing to age them in their own warehouses. Then the master blender will make the final product. The aim is to create a very consistent drink. One which people can come back to again and again knowing exactly what it will taste like.
Blended Grain WhiskyThis is the same as blended malt whisky, where multiple whiskies make up the final product. The difference is that the whiskies used in the blend are single grain whiskies as opposed to single malts.
Blended WhiskyBlended whisky allows the use of both single malt and single grain whiskies in the blend. This is the method used by the biggest selling Scotch whisky in the world, Johnny Walker. The age on the bottle of all blends must be the age of the youngest whisky in the blend. So for your black label Johnny Walker, the youngest whisky in the blend is 12 years old.
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How Scotch Whisky is Made
To kick off the whisky-making process, malting must take place. Here, the barley is steeped in water, then spread out on malting floors to germinate. If left in the field, barley would take weeks or months to germinate. However, in the distilleries, this process can be reduced to a matter of days through immersing the barley in water three times, with air breaks in between.
The barley is turned regularly to prevent the build-up of heat. Traditionally, this was done by tossing the barley into the air with wooden shovels in a malt barn adjacent to the kiln.
During this process, enzymes are activated which convert the starch into sugar when mashing takes place. After 6 to 7 days of germination the barley, now called green malt, goes to the kiln for drying. This halts the germination. The heat is kept below 70°C so that the enzymes are not destroyed. Peat may be added to the fire to impart flavour from the smoke.
The dried malt is ground into a coarse flour or grist, which is mixed with hot water in the mash tun. The water is added in 3 stages and gets hotter at each stage, starting around 67°C and rising to almost boiling point.
The quality of the pure Scottish water is important to the end product. It’s why distilleries are often located next to a pure water source, like a spring of mountain stream.
The mash is stirred, helping to convert the starches to sugar. After mashing, the sweet sugary liquid is known as wort. The spent grains – the draff – are processed into cattle feed so there is no wastage.
The wort is cooled to 20°C and pumped into wash backs. Here, the yeast is added and fermentation begins. The living yeast feeds on the sugars, producing alcohol and small quantities of other compounds known as congeners, which contribute to the flavour of the whisky. The liquid is now called wash. Carbon dioxide is also produced and the wash froths violently. Revolving switchers cut the frothy head to prevent it overflowing. After about 2 days, the fermentation dies down and the wash contains 6-8% alcohol by volume (ABV). Up until this point, the method is fairly similar to brewing beer.
4. Pot Stills
In some mysterious way, the shape of the pot still affects the character of the individual malt whisky, and each distillery keeps its stills exactly the same over the years.
To make a Single Malt Scotch Whisky, the pot still must be made of copper and Scottish distillers must use a process called batch distillation.
During distillation, the still is heated to just below the boiling point of water. The alcohol and other compounds vaporise, passing over the neck of the still into either a condenser or a worm – a large copper coil immersed in cold running water where the vapour is condensed into a liquid.
The wash is distilled twice. As it is distilled the volatile spirits that evaporate first, known as the “foreshots” and the oily compounds that vaporise last, known as the “feints”, are removed. Only the “heart” of the spirit is collected. This spirit, around 68% ABV, is then diluted to ageing strength of 63% and placed in oak barrels for maturation.
While maturing, the whisky becomes smoother, gains flavour, and draws its golden colour from the cask. Although many will add caramel in order to keep a consistent colour in their whiskies, something which is widely denied, but it definitely happens. A proportion of the higher alcohols turn into esters and other complex compounds which subtly enhance each whisky’s distinctive characteristics.
By law, all Scotch whisky must be matured for at least 3 years. But most single malts lie in the wood for 8, 10, 12, 15 years or longer – some as long as 70 years! Customs & Excise allow for a maximum of 2% of the whisky to evaporate from the cask each year, this is known as the Angels’ Share. Unlike wine, whisky does not continue to mature once it is in the bottle, meaning it can be enjoyed as soon as you’ve bought it!
Whisky is matured in Oak, Bourbon, Sherry, Port and Red Wine casks. In fact, if you can think of a type of cask, it is probably being used somewhere. In Speyside, Sherry Cask maturation is very common, this makes the whisky a touch sweeter and darker.
One thing to look out for is that lots of bottles will say “finish” on them. This means they haven’t spent all the time in that particular type of barrel. For example, a 12-year-old whisky that is a “port finish” may have spent 11 years in oak or bourbon cask and then 1 year in the port cask. Others will have spent the full time in the specified cask, though these tend to be very premium whiskies as sherry casks, in particular, are very expensive.
Blends can contain 15 to 50 different whiskies. The aim of the blender is to create something new and distinct, greater than the sum of its parts. They are also looking to create a consistent product, one that is easily identifiable by consumers around the world – and the same no matter which bottle it is poured from.
No producer will reveal the actual blend of spirits in their whisky, for obvious reasons. However, the more premium blends, like Johnny Walker Blue Label, will proudly display the age of those used. Like single malt whisky, the age on the bottle is that of the youngest whisky in the blend.
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