In this article I will attempt to explain as concisely and simply as possible how malt whisky is made in Scotland. Fundamentally, whisky in other countries follows roughly the same idea with the odd tweak here and there.
Step 1 – Grow some barley
The basic raw ingredient of whisky is barley. For most producers this is a basic meaningless ingredient to be bought as cheaply as possible from any source available. For other more interesting producers, like Bruichladdich and Waterford, variety and provenience is of most importance to cultivate a particular flavour in the whisky. Either way you are going to need a lot of the stuff.
Step 2 – Malting the Barley
To make alcohol we need to ferment the sugars inside the barley. To do that we need to open up the grain to get at the sugars inside. The malting process artificially starts the germination process to open up the grain to let the sugars inside be released.
The first step in malting is to steep the barley in water until the grain has opened up sufficiently then halted by drying. The drying process is the interesting part for flavouring the resulting whisky.
Traditionally, the drying process was done on the floor and the barley was turned by hand over around five days. This process involves heat under the floor drying the barley with the thickness of the barley on the floor dictating the speed the process took.
In Scotland, peat was used as a source of fuel for fires and the smell from the fires would end up in the barley resulting in a slightly smoky taste to whisky. This traditional level of peat smoke is found in Springbank or Benromach whiskies today.
The modern way of drying barley now involves large drums where peat is added into the heat source has a flavouring only. The amount of peat and source of peat is used to give a distinctive flavour to the barley.
Step 3 – Fermenting the Barley
Whisky is essentially a distilled beer product so the next stage to make some beer.
To do this we need to grind the barley down to a kind of flour and mix with water and yeast. This operation is done in a mash tun.
The sugary solution which is produced from the mash tun is moved on to the next stage which involves further fermentation in wooden or metal washbacks. The used barley is not wasted however as it is sold to farmers for animal feed.
The washbacks are large containers which store the solution now known as wort for a number of days. The smells in the washback area is very strong with a kind of bready beer type smell.
Once the wort has been fermented it is now called the wash and is ready to enter the stills to be distilled.
Step 4 – Distilling the wash
In Scotch malt whisky production copper pot stills are used. They are normally used in pairs but a third one can be used in a select few cases. Interesting examples are Auchentoshan which triple distills all their production very much like Irish whisky production. Partial triple distillation is done in Mortlach and Benrinnes which I will not go in to here as it is an article on its own!
For your traditional double distillation the wash is added into the first still known as the wash still. This is heated using steam or more traditionally an external flame under the still. This is rarely done now but notably examples include Glenfarclas and Springbank.
The vapours produced from the wash still are fed into the second spirit still to be distilled a second time. The size and shape of both stills and the connecting pipes dictate the flavour profile of the resulting new make which is filled into casks.
Getting the new make though is sadly not as simple as cooking the liquid twice and pouring off the result into a barrel. The person who operates the stills is called the stillman. It is their job to correctly find the middle cut or heart of the run to extract to eventually become whisky.
The first produce from the spirit still is called the foreshots which can be potentially poisonous so best avoiding. The next stage is the heart which we want to keep and it is in the skill of the stillman (or the computer) to get this correct. The last part of called the low wines or feints which is plumbed back into the still for the next distillation run.
Step 5 – Filling
Once all the hard work has been done the new make spirit has been to put into oak barrels for maturing for at least three years. The flavour in the resulting whisky will come from the history of the barrel (previous contents, number of times reused, country of origin), size of barrel and location of storage.
Step 6 – Wait
The next stage is the hard part. Brits are good at waiting in queues but for an average of a decade is tough even for us. While the barrels wait in the bonded warehouses all over Scotland there is a number of tasks which need to be done.
- Try stay in business!
- Check for leaks
- Taste and check progress
- Potentially recask into different wood
Step 7 – Bottle
After all the capital expenditure you can eventually get your pay day when the whisky is “ready. There is no set timeframe from this other than more than 3 years and 1 day.
A bottle of whisky is rarely just the product from a single barrel of whisky as well. Most bottles are produced using a recipe of different barrels blended together in a particular way to get a finished product. The label on the bottle will potentially carry an age statement. In Scotch whisky regulations which relates to the youngest whisky in the bottle so as an example a bottle of 10 year old whisky could contain 1st fill ex-bourbon barrels which are 10 years old but also some 20 year old 3rd fill ex-bourbon barrels. The regulation is there to stop a tea spoon of 50 year old whisky being added to very young bottles to give the wrong impression of what you are buying.