Whisky is as Scottish as the Loch Ness Monster or going out in the group stages of a major football tournament. ☹
This ‘water of life’ has fans all over the world and is worth a staggering £5.5 billion to the UK economy – that’s a lot of drams! But if you’re not one of these whisky-sodden fanatics (yet), but you’re in the area for Scottish tours or a whisky distillery tour in Scotland, you might have some basic questions that need answering. Questions like:
What is whisky made from? What’s the difference between a single malt and a blend? How is whisky made?
Here’s some basic answers to these questions so you can look like a pro on your next trip to the pub, or on that essential whisky distillery tour in Scotland.
What is Whisky Made from?
Malt whisky is traditionally made from malted barley. Barley is a member of the grass family and was one of the first cereal grain crops to be cultivated by the human race over 10,000 years ago!
You can also make grain whisky from various grains such as corn, rye and wheat.
What is a Single Malt Whisky?
Single malt whisky is malt whisky from a single distillery. For a whisky to be named a “Single Malt Scotch Whisky” it must be made exclusively from malted barley, be distilled using pot stills at a single distillery, and must be aged for at least three years in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres.
Blended scotch whisky is two or more malt and grain whiskies mixed, deriving from more than one distillery. Single malts are more sought after than blends and generally command a higher price.
How is Whisky Made?
We’re just going to concentrate on how to make malt whisky here – let’s not complicate things by bringing the grains into it!
The best quality barley is steeped in good Scottish water and then spread out on malting floors to germinate. It’s turned regularly to prevent the build-up of too much heat. The barley is then dried in a kiln that’s kept below 70°C so that the enzymes are not destroyed. At this point, peat may be added to the fire of the kiln to add some smokiness to the end flavour of the whisky.
The dried-out malt is ground into a coarse flour or grist, which is then mixed with hot water in a “mash tun”. The hot water is added in 3 stages and gets hotter each time, starting at 67°C and rising to almost boiling point (but never over).
This process creates a mash that is then stirred to help the enzymes convert the starches into sugar. The resulting sugary liquid is called “wort” and the spent grains (the draff) are then processed into animal feed.
Fermentation occurs when the wort meets yeast, which converts all the sugars in the liquid into alcohol in giant vats called washbacks. The process can take anywhere from 48 to 96 hours and the resulting liquid (called distiller’s beer or wash) contains 7%-10% ABV before it goes into the still.
The shape of the pot stills will affect the character of the final malt whisky, and distilleries tend to keep the stills the same over the years so as not to alter their distinctive taste.
The wash is distilled first in the wash still to separate the alcohol from the water, yeast, and a residue called “pot ale”. The distillate from the wash still (known as low wines) then goes to the spirit still for the second distillation. The more volatile compounds which distil off first are channelled off to be redistilled when mixed with the low wines in the next batch.
The liquid is then collected in the “spirit receiver” and is now a tantalising 68% alcohol!
The pure distillate is tested for quality and then is poured into oak casks. These casks will have previously contained sherry, bourbon or scotch whiskies, and these flavours 9as well as the oak itself) will affect the final liquid as it is left to mature for sometimes up to decades!
Book a Whisky Distillery Tour
Know you know the basics, why not book a tour of distilleries in Scotland to see the process for yourself! You can book a whisky distillery tour through IT Tours where professional drivers will show you the best of the Highlands as they transport you in style and safety to your favoured distilleries to learn more and taste many a dram!
To book a Highland distillery tour, visit the IT Tours website or give them a call on +(44) 01463233333 to discuss your options. They specialise in tours across Scotland and can help organise your holiday in Scotland.