This is the second installment on my three-part series on Scotch tasting, as I research and prepare for my upcoming trip to Scotland. In the first piece, I looked into how Scotch is made, and how one should go about tasting it. In this second installment, I will examine how whiskey – and Scotch in particular – is made. In the third installment, I will detail my itinerary and planned stops at distilleries along the way.
In general, whisky distilled from fermented grain mash (some varieties include: barley, rye, wheat, and maize) and aged in wooden (usually oak) casks. The word whisky is derived from the Gaelic word, water, so you could reasonably trace its origins to Scotland/Ireland, though its actual point of origins is actually unknown. Some scholars contend that distilled spirits were first concocted in the 8th century AD in the Middle East, and brought over to the UK by Christian monks. Still others believe that St. Patrick introduced the drink to the UK in the 5th century AD. I won’t delve too much into the history of the drink here, but I believe that Tom Standage’s excellent book, History of World in Six Glasses, will provide more insight.
[Here, I want to deviate a little to point something out. You may have noticed that in my earlier post, I referred to whisky as “whiskey”. Technically, neither usage is wrong, but one generally uses whisky to describe Scotch whisky, and whiskey to describe Irish whiskey. I guess here in the U.S., either variation would work, so don’t mind me if I jump from one word to the next.]
How to make whisky
Ingredients: The three basic ingredients are water, yeast, and grain.
The distillation process has roughly six stages:
Stage 1 – Preparing the grain
All grains are ground into meal. The meal is then mixed with water and cooked at boiling point to break down the cellulose walls that contain starch granules.
Stage 2 – Mashing
Mix the cooked grain with malted barley and warm water. To malt barley, soak it in water and keep it damp until it begins to sprout (after about a three-week period). At which time, the enzyme amylase is produced, and serves to convert the starch in the barley into sugars. After which, dry the barley with hot air from a kiln and then ground into meal (in Scotch, the fuel used in the kiln includes peat, which gives it its distinctive smoky flavor). Over the next several hours, the amylase from the malted barley will convert the starch in the other grains into sugars (only barley is used in scotch) as well, forming a sugary liquid known as mash/wort.
Stage 3 – Fermenting
Transfer the wort to a fermentation barrel – either stainless steel or wood. With the addition of yeast, fermentation begins; a process whereby the sugars in the mash/wort are converted into alcohol. After three of four days, the liquid in the barrel, known as wash, should contain about 10% alcohol.
Stage 4 – Distilling
Heat the wash to the boiling point of alcohol (78 degrees Celsius) to vaporize the alcohol and run the vapor through a water-cooled condenser. By running the distillation process twice, the new liquid should contain about 70% alcohol. Note that you don’t want to get too high an alcoholic content, as that would ruin the taste of the whisky.
Stage 5 – Aging
Add water to the mixture to bring the alcoholic content down to 50%-60% for the American whiskeys, and around 65% for the Scotches. Age the American whiskeys in warm, dry conditions so excess water will evaporate. Conversely, age the Scotch in cooler, wetter conditions so it absorbs more water. Age the whiskeys in wooden barrels – usually charred white oak, a preferred wood since it allows the water in the whiskey to absorb the flavors of the wood.
Stage 6 – Blending
Not all whiskeys are blended; for example, single malt Scotches are produced from single batches and bottled straight from the barrel. Mix different batches of whiskeys together; selectively add neutral grain spirits, caramel, and a small amount of sherry/port to add to the flavors.
There you go. The basic steps of whisky making. But how then, do you differentiate the different kinds of whiskeys? I guess, to put it simply, Scotches must be distilled (generally, they undergo distillation twice) in Scotland, and matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks. Irish whiskeys are generally distilled three times and they must be aged in wooden casks for a period of at least three years. Whiskeys from Kentucky, are known as bourbon if they have been aged in oak casks for at least two years, and are made up of between 51% and 79% of corn. Rye whiskies must consist of at least 51% rye. Most U.S. whiskeys also differ from the UK ones in that they have to be aged in new casks.