Whisky Producing Process by Scotch Whisky Experience
Uisge Beatha (pronounced uish-ke bae-ha) is the Scottish Gaelic word for “water of life” or more commonly, whisk(e)y. The addition or omission of the “e” in the spelling is entirely up to the user, the addition of the “e” is more common in Ireland and the US. This is one of the examples to show that whisky and consuming whisky has no set rules and is entirely up to you. In this edition of Pub Convos, we talk about whisky and the process and craft that goes into producing this water of life. Whisky comes from all over but in the interest of time I am going to focus on Scotch whisky, which is whisky produced in Scotland and can be commonly found.
Malting and Mashing:
- The production of whisky starts off with the malting process where barley malt is steeped in water and then spread over the floors of a warehouse or malt barn. This allows for the malt to germinate and in turn transform the starch within into sugars. This process typically lasts for a week and the germinated malt is then dried in a kiln very gently to not kill the enzymes within the malt.
- The smoky flavour of some whiskies is imparted by adding peat to the drying flame, essentially smoking the malt, and drying it out.
- The dried malt is then crushed and mixed with water and heated to extract all the sugars. The origin and the quality of the water affects the taste of the product greatly.
Fermentation and Distillation:
- The next steps are what makes the alcohol in whisky. The sugary water extracted before is now put into large containers and yeast is added to initiate fermentation. The yeast feasts on the sugars, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol as by-products.
- Once the fermentation process is finished the liquid is at about 6-9% alcohol by volume. This is nowhere near to the 40% ABV that is typical of whisky, therefore a distillation process is introduced to concentrate the alcohol.
- Distillation is traditionally done in copper stills, as it is believed that copper interacts with unpleasant sulphates compounds and neutralises the smell and taste of those compounds. Modern stills are made of stainless steel but have copper inlays to achieve the same effect.
- The spirit tends to be distilled twice, once to separate the alcohol from the water and other impurities and another to further concentrate the alcohol.
Cooperage and Maturation:
- Now we have a colourless liquid with high alcoholic content, this still doesn’t constitute whisky. The spirit needs to be matured to further impart flavour and give it character.
- Cooperage is the art of making barrels and barrels are an important part of whisky production as it is the vessel where maturation occurs. Whisky is often matured in barrels that were previously used in the production of other spirits such as sherry, rum and recently even champagne. The previous contents and wood type of the barrels impart flavours characteristic of them to the whisky creating a new flavour profile.
- The spirit is left in these barrels and placed in warehouses called bonds to be matured. The spirit interacts with the barrel as mentioned before and the environment in which it is placed to develop a unique character and taste. For example, a barrel of whisky matured near the coast develops a briny flavour reminiscent of oysters.
- Lastly, maybe the most misunderstood part of whisky making – Time. I cannot stress this enough, longer does not mean better. Whiskies that are matured for a longer time might have a more complex flavour profile or more flavour solely on the basis that it had more time to interact with the elements mentioned above. This more complex flavour might not be what you like and might not work well with how you are drinking it. The higher prices of longer age whiskies are just the product of the cost associated with keeping it in the bonds.
Whisky is steeped in tradition, craftsmanship and innovation. To me whisky is like people, they are the product of their environment and maturation which is why it can be so unique and personal. Some whiskies you like, some you don’t, and some you always want to go back to. ENJOY RESPONSIBLY
If you have any opinions or questions, feel free to let me know on Twitter. My handle is @adfok15, and I am always happy to have a conversation and listen to any suggestions of what you would like to see in future issues.