Malt whisky is still made with the same traditional methods of Scotland’s past using natural raw materials. Malted barley, yeast and water made up the humble ingredients of every malt Scotch whisky. The process is made up of 5 steps, and the time frame for making malt Scotch whisky varies depending on how long the whisky is eventually matured.
Step 1: Malting
Barley has to be malted before they can be used in the whisky making process. They are steeped in water before being spread out on a traditional malting floor for germination. This process creates a kind of starch in the barley which will be converted into soluble sugars in later processes. These sugars will eventually become alcohol.
The malting process lasts a week, in which the barley will start to sprout. The sprouting is stopped by drying the barley in a large oven known as a kiln. This drying process is known as kilning and peat is sometimes burnt in this process to produce whisky that has a distinctive, smokey flavour.
Step 2: Mashing
Once the barley are dried completely, they are grounded and then mixed with hot water in a mashing tun. Mashing dissolves the sugars from the malt and produces a sugary liquid known as wort. Wort will be used to turn into alcohol. The liquid is collected for the next step while the remaining solids are reused as nutritious cattle feed.
Step 3 – Fermentation
The wort that is collected went into large containers known as washbacks, where yeast is added for fermentation to happen. The yeast then converts the sugars in the wort, creating undistllled alcohol known as the wash. The wash is around 8% ABV.
Step 4 – Distillation
Normal malt whisky production demands a double distillation process, where the wash is distilled once in a wash still and once in a spirit still. The wash is heated in the wash still until it boils. Alcohol vapours then rise and pass over the narrow head of the wash still before it condenses back into liquid form as low wines. The liquid is then collected into the spirit still, where the distillation process repeats. The liquid that comes out from the spirit still is further monitored and only the high-quality of usable spirit is collected as new spirit. Do note that there are some whiskies which are tripled-distilled. In such whiskies, the liquid collected from the spirit still is distilled a third time to create even purer new spirits for maturation.
Step 5 – Maturation
The new-make spirit is then transferred into oak casks of different origins and set aside for maturation. Through the maturation process, the colourless spirit takes on the colour of the cask that they are in, and develops further flavour characteristics influenced by the cask. By law, whiskies that are to be known as Scotch whiskies must matured in Scotland for at least 3 years. When a whisky label carries an age statement, for example 12 years, all the whiskies in the bottle must have matured in a cask for at least the said number of years.
The 5 steps whisky-making process sounds easy but whisky-makers put in a lot of hard work and passion into the process. Whenever we are enjoying a Scottish dram or two, do think about the beautiful work that these producers are doing and wish them well. 🙂