Updated: Jan 13, 2019
When I first launched this blog, one of the things that I have in mind is create an ultimate destination that addresses traveling, menswear, as well as tasting. Whisky-tasting has been one of the things that I enjoy the most in my pastime. In fact, it is one of the things that motivated me to create this blog at the beginning.
Thus today, I would like to go back to the roots to where this all started by sharing with you all the process of how whisky is produced. Without further delay, let's dive into the main content of today.
There are five major steps of how whisky is made. The first part is called malting. In this process, fine-quality barley is first steeped in water and then spread out on malting floors to be heated and germinate, where sugar is released. Occasionally, you would hear about the term ‘peated malt’. This is to describe the barley that are heated with peat so that the final product would be more smoky.
To prevent over-heating, barley is turned regularly. Traditionally, this was done by tossing the barley into the air with wooden shovels. Workers would get sore-shoulders from constantly tossing the barley, which results in a condition called ‘monkey shoulders'. After about a week’s time of germination, the barley would be sent for drying.
What’s about interesting about the process of malting is that; although you may have heard many Scotch distilleries, there are only 7 active distilleries that actually malt their own whiskies. In fact, most of the distilleries in the whisky-industry purchase malts from them.
The following step is called mashing. This is when the dried malt is ground into a coarse flour, which is mixed with hot water in the mash tun. Depending on the distillery, water is added for 2 or usually 3 turns, and gets hotter each turn. The water temperature would usually start from 67 degree celsius, with a 5-10 degree increase for the second stage; and then another 5-10 degree increase at the final stage, reaching at about 83-87 degree celsius. During this process, the mash is stirred to help the conversion of starches in the barleys into sugar.
After mashing, the sweet sugary liquid, as known as wort, would be separated from the spent grains, as known as, the draff. Depending on how much resources and the geographical location of the distilleries, the draff wouldsometimes be processed into cattle feed or not.
Next off is fermentation, where sugar is converted into alcohol. This is when the wort is cooled to around 20 degree celsius and then pumped into giant wooden or steel water-tanks, as known as washbacks. With the addition of yeast into the washbacks, the process of fermentation formally begins.
The living yeast feeds on the sugars, producing alcohol and small quantities of other compounds known as congeners, which contribute to the flavor of the whisky. Since carbon dioxide is also produced violently during this process which could potentially lead to overflowing in regular water tanks, washbacks are usually designed to be 7 meters tall.
Once again, depending on the distillery, the duration of fermentation varies. The common ones are about 48 hours long yet often distilleries would have it last as long as 75 hours to enrich the flavor. The wash then contains 6-8% alcohol by volume. However, one distillery that I personally went spends up to 150 hours for their fermentation process.
The reason for that is because it is a newly established distillery that it does not even have their own whisky in the market yet. In order to reduce the amount of time required for the whisky to mature, which could take up to many years and would be addressed later in this article, the fermentation process is lengthened to enrich the flavor of the final product.
Distillation — this is when the wash goes through various copper pot stills to increase its alcohol percentage. In the first distill, alcohol would be separated from the water, yeast, and residue. At this point, the distillate in the water still, known as low wine, would contain about 20% alcohol by volume.
During this step, more volatile compounds that could contain up to 90% alcohol volume, known as the head; and the final runnings, called tails where more oily compounds are vaporized, would be channelled off to be redistilled when mixed with the low wines in the next batch. Only the ‘heart’ of the run, which is about 68% alcohol by volume, is collected in the spirit receiver.
Again, depending on the type of whisky you are having, the wash is distilled for either 2 to 3 times. While Scotch is more famous for its double-distillation, Irish whiskies are more known for their triple-distillation, which has the effect of softening the flavor and body of the end product.
The maturing is the final step of whisky production. After gathering the ‘heart’ at the spirit receiver, it would be sent to different casks for aging. The two most commonly used casks are American Bourbon cask, which gives the alcohol a more smoky note, and European Sherry cask, which gives the alcohol a sweeter, more delicate note.
Occasionally, you would also see virgin oak cask or casks that are used for aging Cabernet Sauvignon, depending how the distillers want to the final product to be like.
Once filled in the casks, the alcohol would take years to age. One of the requirement for a ‘Scotch’ to be qualified as a Scotch is that it needs to mature for at least 3 years. In general, the older the whisky, the more complex the flavor would be. This is when the knowledge of the distillers plays a significant role because they will decide now how they want to blend whiskies from different casks. After that, whiskies are bottled and ready for us to taste.
Whisky-tasting is one of my favorite pastime activities. For me personally, what is fascinating about whisky tasting is the passion and the effort that go into making a good bottle of whisky.
Producing a good-quality whisky requires distillers to have strong understanding of the variation of ingredients that could be used, as well as how to achieve desirable flavors. Tasting whisky, thus, is an appreciation of the knowledge and the work of the distillers; which is similar to appreciating the craftsmanship of other timeless pieces.
What is your favorite whisky? Comment down below to let me know! Also, click here if you haven't read the article on my visit to the Talisker Distillery.