You can certainly enjoy Scotch whisky without understanding how it is made. However, knowing the processes that create this globally adored product adds a lot to your tasting experience. You can begin to learn for yourself which parts of the process create the distinctive flavors that you love and appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into every bottle. Here is a short primer on how Scotch whisky is made.
The Raw Materials
At the very heart of Scotch whisky is the barley grain. Different varietals and different methods of processing barley all contribute to unique flavors, but this cereal leaves its mark on every whisky. Water is another key element; Scottish water is known for being very pure in general, but different areas have varying levels of hardness and softness that will affect the whisky. Highland water contains a large amount of peat particles in the clear water, which adds to the peaty taste of their whiskies. Yeast is a last component of whisky. The type of yeast is so important that many distilleries keep their yeast variety and mixture a proprietary secret.
Preparing the Mash
In order to produce alcohol, you must first produce sugar. This is accomplished by spreading barley on a flat surface and allowing it to germinate. This changes the starch to sugar. The barley needs to be turned and stirred regularly to ensure that the moisture and temperature remains the same throughout the mixture. When the barley is germinated to perfection, which can take 8 to 21 days depending on the season, the process is stopped by drying the barley. This is usually done over peat, which makes a sooty smoke that gives the malt a distinctive flavor.
When the malt has been dried, it is ground into a powder called grist. It is then ready to be brewed. It is mixed with water and warmed. The resulting sugary liquid is called wort. At this step, yeast is added and fermentation begins.
Fermentation and Distillation
The yeast then turns the sugars in the wort into alcohol over a long period of time. This alcohol is removed from the mixture via distillation: heating the mixture so that the alcohol evaporates and can be collected in another container. Scotch whisky goes through two distillation processes before maturation.
Each distillery has its own distinct maturation process, but most Scotch whisky is aged in ex-Bourbon or ex-Sherry casks made of oak. Scotch must legally be aged at least three years, although longer is usually better. Several factors during maturation can have an effect on the whisky, including the type of cask, the quality of air in the area, the ambient temperature, and more. Once it has aged, whisky is often ‘finished’ in another type of cask in order to add other flavors. Wine and sherry casks are popular for this purpose.
Although this process seems simple, it is the basis for an immense amount of craftsmanship and experimentation. Each whisky has a distinctive flavor that comes from tiny variations in this age-old practice.