What is it that actually goes into a fine Scotch whisky bottle? Why are there distinctive flavor profiles in each bottle of single malt? These are questions that come to mind when analyzing a beautiful spirit.
Given the diversity in the single malt Scotch whisky world, it is amazing that each bottle starts off with only three ingredients: barley, water and yeast. Whisky is then fully brought to life by the Malt Master, also known as the Master Distiller. This true artist has the consummate knowledge and skill to craft the liquid into each unique variant of every brand.
At times, the process of creating the perfect single malt might seem overwhelming, confusing and a bit intense. Fear not! I will now give you – the captivated, eager enthusiast – a simple guide to help you understand just how whisky is made. I promise the guide will be free of baffling Scottish slang or whisky jargon.
Before I take you though the five-part process, it’s important to remember there is no exact science to distilling superior whisky. In fact, the most exciting spirits are often created by “happy accidents” – the unexpected magic that happens within the distillery walls.
Step 1: Malting
First, barley grains are soaked in water for a couple of days and allowed to germinate. Germination is the process of releasing starch and then converting it to sugar. After about a week, germination is halted in a kiln where the malted barley is dried.
Step 2: Mashing
During this step, hot water is added to milled malted barley. This causes the starch in the grains to convert to sugars thereby creating a syrupy liquid called wort.
Step 3: Fermentation
The hot wort is cooled down and poured into washbacks. A washback is a giant vat holding tens of thousands of liters of wort mixed with brewer’s yeast. The yeast turns the wort and the sugars into alcohol. This process takes 2 to 4 days and results in a liquid called wash that is like a strong beer with about 8% volume alcohol. It is important to remember that the length of fermentation time drastically affects the flavor of the liquid.
Step 4: Distillation
Wash is then transported to the still room where Scotch whisky is classically distilled twice in copper stills, which look like giant kettles with an open fire underneath. The size, shape and number of stills play a large role in the taste of the liquid.
The first distillation happens in the wash still, the larger of two stills where the wash is heated until the alcohol is turned to vapor. The vapors return to a liquid known as “low wines” which are about 20% alcoholic strength. The low wines are heated again in the second smaller spirit still. The alcohol is turned into vapor again and the resulting liquid is now about 68% alcohol. This liquid is collected in a spirit safe where the Malt Masters use their expertise to select only the highest quality middle cut.
Step 4: Maturation
This is the last part of the process where new-make spirit is poured into oak casks. The casks chosen for maturation have a direct effect on the taste of the final product. Casks made of American Oak previously contained bourbon; European oak casks once held sherry. It is over time that whiskies pick up the flavors of each cask and create the individual characteristics of the final product.
Across time, each distillery perfects its own unique techniques for each step of the process as talented Malt Masters strive to satisfy both the casual consumer and the most discriminating connoisseur. That’s the wonderful thing about whisky.