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Scotland is home to over 125 distilleries located in six whisky-making regions from the furthest flung islands lying off the north coast right down to the Scottish Borders. The location and geography of each distillery, combined with the skill of its whisky makers, creates a distinctive character for every single malt Scotch whisky produced. In an industry worth over £4bn today, whisky sits proudly at the heart of our nation. Join us on its journey from spring water and barley to fine spirit…
Barley is the grain used to make Scotch whisky. After being soaked for two days in water – a process known as steeping – it’s spread out on the distillery’s malting house floor to germinate. This takes around 21 days with the grain turned regularly to prevent it from over-heating. Once the barley has germinated it becomes ‘green malt’ and is dried out in the hot air of the kiln, above a fire commonly fuelled by peat. The resulting ‘malt’ is then ground down in a mill to remove husks.
The ground down malt, now known as ‘grist’, is added to warm water. This is usually local spring water and, like the peat in the kiln, can influence the flavour of the final whisky. The combined water and whisky is known as ‘mash’ and is churned for several hours in a vast ‘mash tun’ to dissolve and draw off sugars, leaving a liquid known as ‘wort’.
After cooling, the wort passes into large tanks, known as ‘washbacks’, and the magic begins when the yeast is added, turning sugars to alcohol. The choice of yeast can also influence flavour and, at this stage, the fermenting liquid is known as ‘wash’ and has a low alcohol strength.
Stills are generally made from copper, the best material for extracting impurities. While tall stills with a long neck will result in a finer, lighter spirit, shorter and fatter stills give rise to a fuller and richer spirit. Stills work in pairs with the wort first going into a ‘wash still’ where it is heated, vaporises and rises up the still’s neck to condense. This liquid, known as ‘low wines’, then passes into the second still – the smaller ‘spirit still’ – where it’s split into three parts: ‘foreshots’ from the beginning of the process, ‘feints’ from the end and the ‘heart’ in the middle which will become whisky but is initially called ‘new make spirit’.
New make spirit has to be matured in casks for a minimum of three years before it can officially be called Scotch whisky. A ‘first fill’ cask is used to mature whisky for the first time, having previously held another spirit such as bourbon or sherry, while a ‘refill’ (or second fill) cask, as its name suggests, is used to mature whisky for a second time. Flavours from both the wood and the liquid that the cask previously held have a significant influence of the flavour on the maturing spirit.
Making and repairing casks is vital to whisky making and is a highly skilled art. Casks range in size from diminutive Quarter Casks (around 40 litres) to vast Butts (500 litres). Thanks to its sweet and aromatic influence, most casks are made from oak, usually sustainably sourced from forests in America or Europe. Felled trees – which must be at least 75 years old – are cut into staves that are weathered for six months to remove moisture before being softened with heat. This allows the staves to be shaped into casks and also breaks down cellulose to wood sugar and lignin to vanillin. In America, casks are charred to create a charcoal layer whereas in Europe, sherry and port casks are just toasted.
Whisky takes time to mature. It’s not a process that can be cheated or hurried. This is reflected in the scarcity of genuinely old liquid available which has created a surge in demand from collectors with many now seeking casks based on their own individual flavour and character preferences. Register now to purchase your own cask.
The whisky world is full of interesting words and phrases…
The Angels’ Share is the reduction of alcohol content and liquid volume from a cask over a period of years. But beware, if the alcohol volume drops below 40% ABV, the liquid can no longer be called whisky.
The process of measuring the liquid in the cask for up-to-date alcohol content and liquid volume is known as re-gauging.
There are many different cask types, but the most common are Quarter Casks (around 40 litres), Bourbon Barrels (200 litres), Hogheads (250 litres) and Butts (500 litres).