The six stages of making whisky
It’s amazing how three simple ingredients can create the most delightful drink in the world. Whisky is created from just barley, water and yeast. These ingredients are put through six stages – malting, grinding, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation – to eventually result in your delightful dram.
From malting comes the malt. Based on the time of the year, this process can take anywhere between 8 to 21 days.
Wet barley is spread across the malting floor and is allowed to germinate. The process needs to be constantly monitored and the barley has to be turned over regularly to maintain a consistent moisture and temperature, and to control the germination.
The art of malting lies in knowing the perfect moment to stop the germination. Germination is stopped by drying the grain over a kiln. This kiln is often heated by peat, and the unique character of many a whisky is determined by the smoke of the peat fire in the kiln.
Once the malt is dry, it is ground into coarse flour at the malt mill. This flour, called grist, is used for mashing.
The grist is mixed with hot water, at a ratio of 1:4, in the mash tun. This mix looks rather similar to traditional porridge!
In this process, 3 successive waters are used, at temperatures ranging between 63°C and 95°C. The first part takes about an hour and it changes the starch to fermenting sugars. This sugared juice is called wort. A mash tun has a double bottom with thin perforations allowing the wort to filter out while retaining bigger bulkier products. In order to facilitate this whole process, the mash tun has rotating blades. The remaining mash is brewed 3 to 4 more times extracting as much wort as possible.
The quality of the wort is controlled because it determines the amount of spirit that is finally produced.
The wort is allowed to cool, and is then poured into washbacks. These are huge tanks where yeast is added for fermentation. The yeast acts on the sugar of the wort to produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. And the result of this process is a beer-like product with an alcohol percentage of approximately 7%.
Traditional washbacks are made of Oregon pinewood or Scottish larch. However, nowadays stainless steel washbacks are used because they are easier to maintain.
In this process the alcohol is separated from water and other substances contained in the wash. It is a classic operation, and is the base of any spirit. It is used in perfumeries too.
Distillation is done in copper pot stills. Copper being the preferred metal because it has a great influence on the physical process of separation of the waters and the spirits. The quality of the dram we enjoy years later depends partially on the copper in contact with the liquids during distillation. Other important factors include the shape, height, length of the lyne arm, etc.
The distillation process occurs in two stages, in two stills each with different capacities and shapes.
The first distillation occurs in the wash still with a capacity of 25,000-30,000 lts and here the wash is transformed to ‘low wine’, at about 18% alcohol.
The second distillation stage occurs in a spirit still that is generally smaller than the wash still, as now there is less liquid to process. During the second distillation, only the ‘distillation heart’, the part that has 63-72% alcohol will be casked. The heads and tails, also called feints, will go to the feint receiver, and is reused by mixing them with the low wines of the next distillation.
To separate the feints from the distillation heart, a spirit safe is used.
Despite using the same processes, the same malt, the same stills and the same craftsmen, how are the whiskies produced by a single distillery so unique and vastly different? The answer lies in the aging process, the casks used, the nature of the warehouse and the taste of the air. In order to qualify as ‘whisky’, a malted grain spirit must be aged at least for 3 years in aged oak casks. During this a period the angels consume their share. In India, due to the warmer tropical temperatures, the angels get a larger share per year. While in colder regions this may be about 2%, here it is 7-8%. That’s why, even though our Single Malts are matured for shorter durations they bear the taste and characteristics of a whisky aged for longer. It adds a rather unique spin to our Single Malts.
And those were the six stages of making whisky!