Whisky or whisky-like products are produced in most grain-growing areas. They differ
in base product, alcoholic content, and quality.
Scotch whiskies are generally distilled twice, though some are distilled a third
time. International laws require anything bearing the label "Scotch" to be distilled
in Scotland and matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks. Whiskies do not
mature in the bottle, only in the cask, so the "age" of a scotch is the time between
distillation and bottling. This reflects how much the cask has interacted with the
whisky, changing its chemical makeup and taste. Whiskies which have been in bottle
for many years may have a rarity value, but are not "older" and will not necessarily
be "better" than a more recently made whisky matured in wood for a similar time.
If Scotch whisky is from more than one cask, and if it includes an age statement
on the bottle, it must reflect the age of the youngest whisky in the blend. Many
cask-strength single malts omit the age as they use younger elements in minute amounts
for flavouring and mellowing. The two basic types of Scotch are Malt and Grain.
The ingredients of malt whisky are essentially just barley and water. Barley is a
crop that is highly suited to the Scottish climate. In this temperate climate summers
are cool with temperatures seldom rising much above 20C. There is also a lot of summer
rain ensuring conditions that are just right for healthy barley crops. This rain
also ensures that there is always a plentiful supply of clear, clean water. The source
of the water has a significant effect on the taste of the final product.
The Whisky Fermentation Process
The barley grains are the seeds of the plant and they are steeped in water until
they germinate or sprout. At this stage the germinating barley is spread on the floor
of a malting house where it continues to develop over the next week or two. During
this period the grains are turned over regularly using a “paddle” to allow air to
get at them and encourage even development. The starch in the barley turns to sugar
and at the optimum time the germination is stopped by placing the barley in an oven
or kiln. Traditionally the heat for this oven was peat fired and it was from here
that malt whisk acquired its peaty, smoky taste. Nowadays more conventional forms
of heating are used and some distilleries retain the peaty flavours by burning peat
and blowing the smoke over the grain during the process.
When the barley is dry it is then milled to produce a floury substance known as “grist”.
This grist, which is rich in sugar at this time, is then placed mixed with hot water
to create a “mash”. It is then placed in a large metal vessel or container called
a “mash tun”. The contents of the mash tun are stirred regularly to encourage the
release of the sugars. When this process is complete the resulting liquid, now known
as “wort”, is drawn off and transferred to large wooden “washbacks”. The remaining
solids are called “draff”, which is commonly used as cattle feed. The washbacks are
like giant wooden pails commonly made from Oregon pine or Cypress both of which have
a high resistance to fungi. It is in these washbacks that the yeast is added to start
the fermentation process during which the sugar in the wort turns to alcohol. Fermentation
is a vigorous process, the solution bubbles and foams furiously before gradually
slowing down as the sugar is converted over a period of two to four days. At this
stage the “wash” smells and tastes similar to beer. It is still quite weak with an
alcohol content of no more than about 8% or 9%.
The Scotch Whisky Distilling Process
The next step is to distil the liquid wash down to the required alcohol content.
Usually, the distillation takes place in copper pot stills which have a distinctive,
swan-neck shape. The character of the final product is influenced by the shape of
the stills and the length of the neck.
Some distilleries use rectifying stills, which can be adjusted to replicate different
lengths of neck. This allows them to produce malt whiskies of different character
from the same stills or combinations of stills.
Conventionally there are two stills involved in this process, the wash still and
the spirit still. The wash still is used to produce the first distillation, which
is called “low wines”. This is then distilled for the second time in the spirit still
before being collected as the strong distilled spirit. This spirit is not yet useable.
As it is produced the first part, the “foreshot”, is too strong and contains undesirable
components. The next part, the “middle cut” is what people are looking for. This
is diverted into a receiving tank. The final part of the second distillation, the
“feints” is too weak to be used but it is saved to be added to the next batch of
low wines so that nothing is wasted.
When the final spirit has been collected in the receiving tank it is ready to go
into barrels for the next stage of the process, which is maturation. These oak barrels
have often been previously used in the production of American Bourbon whiskey. While
Scotch whisky benefits from being stored in barrels that have been previously used
the Bourbon industry requires that only new barrels are used for this purpose. The
second hand bourbon barrels are therefore purchased by Scotch whisky distillers.
Sherry, Rum and Port casks are also used. All of these impart their own, unique characteristics
into the final product.
The casks are then moved to a bonded warehouse, the “bonded” referring to the fact
that the warehouse is once again controlled by HM Customs and Excise. By law, Scotch
whisky must remain “in bond” for at least three years but in practice it is usually
much more than this. It cannot in fact be called whisky until these three years have
passed. Before this it is just referred to as spirit. During this period about 2%
is lost through evaporation each year so that about 25% of the contents of a barrel
stored for 12 years will be lost to the “angel’s share”. This along with the cost
of storing the product for so long all adds to the cost. When you consider that Vodka
and some other drinks are produced and bottled within a few days, (no maturation
being required), then you see why whisky, which is similarly priced is such good
When the malt whisky has been matured for the required it time can be bottled and
labelled but if it is to be used as part of a blended whisky the master blender must
make his contribution. The blender is the person who decides what whiskies are to
be included in the final blend. Each whisky is “nosed” to determine its characteristics
and ensure that the consistency of the specific blend is maintained.
As many as thirty or forty different malt and grain whiskies may be included in the
final blend and the blender’s experience is critical in ensuring that your favourite
blend retains its consistency over a number of years. It is not possible to just
use a “recipe” for this. Whiskies come and go like any other product so as one goes
off line another must be selected to replace it. The skilled nose of the blender
is the single most important factor in this process. The whisky is then transferred
to the bottling plant where it is bottled using modern, highly automated methods.
Malt is an essential ingredient of many types of whisky. Malt is whisky made entirely
from malted barley and distilled in an onion-shaped pot still.
Grain is made from malted and unmalted barley along with other grains, usually in
a continuous "patent" or "Coffey" still. Until recently it was only used in blends—but
there are now some "Single Grain" scotches being marketed.
Malts and Grains are combined in various ways
Vatted malt is blended from malt whiskies from different distilleries. If a whisky
is labelled "pure malt" or just "malt" it is almost certain to be a vatted whisky.
This is also sometimes labelled as "Blended Malt" whisky.
Single malt whisky is malt whisky from a single distillery. However, unless the whisky
is described as "single-cask" it will contain whisky from many casks, so the blender
can achieve a taste recognisable as typical of the distillery. In most cases, the
name of a single malt will be that of the distillery (The Glenlivet, Glenmorangie,
Bowmore), with an age statement and perhaps some indication of some special treatments
such as maturation in a port wine cask.
Blended whiskies are normally cheaper whiskies made from a mixture of Malt and Grain
whiskies. A whisky simply described as Scotch Whisky is most likely to be a blend
in this sense. A blend is usually from many distilleries so that the blender can
produce a flavour consistent with the brand, and the brand name (e.g. Bell's, Chivas
Regal) will usually not therefore contain the name of a distillery. However, "Blend"
can (less frequently) have other meanings. A mixture of malts (with no grain) from
different distilleries (more usually called a vatted malt) may sometimes be referred
to as a "Blended Malt", and a mixtures of grain whiskies with no malts will sometimes
carry the designation "Blended Grain".