The manufacturing process is the same for all distilleries and yet the varieties taste different. When and how does the taste get into the whiskey?
Distilled alcohol based on grain is called schnapps in our country and vodka is a neutral alcohol that has nothing at all to do with Scotch Whiskey.
Because whiskey connoisseurs talk about taste, they talk about peat, smoke, honey, vanilla, chocolate and many other flavors that they recognize in it.
Where and when in the manufacturing process do these flavors come into the whiskey? Let's go in search of clues …
Raw materials: What the whiskey distilleries need to produce
barley is the starting material for single-malt whiskey. It is the basis for the mixture, which is later fermented to the first alcohol. But first, the distilleries must come to the barley.
On Islay there are about ten distilleries (depending on how you count), almost all of them belong to the world leader of the Singlemalt. The amount of barley they need to produce can not be produced by Islay. And if you look at Talisker on the Isle of Skye, it becomes clear: most of the barley does not come from the places where the distilleries are located. It is often delivered by ship – on Islay there is a central warehouse in Port Ellen.
But there are also two distilleries on Islay, which are actually proud that they burn with local barley: Kilchoman and Bruichladdich.
Does the barley already bring flavor? No, because it is actually bought from all corners of the UK.
water – we'll see soon – is actually used all the time for the production of whiskey, in masses.
Does water already bring flavor? Also, the water has little to do with the taste of whiskey.
Of the peat finally, it is used as fuel.
Does the peat bring flavor? Yes! How exactly, we will learn soon.
The three basic products barley, water and peat and the finished whiskey used to determine the location of many distilleries. On Islay, for example, they are usually found on a sheltered bay, near a stream or river. Reason: The barley often came by boat and also the bottles or barrels were transported by boat again. At the same time they got fresh water from the nearby stream.
Malting the barley: Turn starch into sugar
The barley contains a lot of strength. However, the yeast, which should later undergo fermentation, can not do anything. She needs sugar, such as malt. That is why the barley is first malted.
The countless grains are watered and laid out on a floor. Or, as Andrew Jefford describes in his book, "Peat, Smoke and Spirit," they are deceived: Spring is pretended to them. Hopefully, they start to germinate and train a first small sprout.
Incidentally, the starch contained in the grain is converted by enzymes into malt. That's exactly what the distillers are made of. Because instead of the scion receives the sugar as food, he will soon consume the brewing yeast.
That's why the distillers now brutally stop the growth process: They dry the grain over fire in the so-called Darrboden or in English "mesh floor".
Incidentally, the smoke escapes through the now so typical pagoda chimneys, which have almost every distillery.
Does malting taste in the whiskey? Yes! Here comes the peat flavor in the whiskey. Because when the fire peat is added as fuel, strong smoke develops, which enriches the malted grain with phenol. This phenol is given in millionths. In the description of a whiskey in English this means "parts per million" and is abbreviated as ppm.
The front runner here is Bruichladdich's Octomore whiskey. It reaches between 167ppm and 208ppm depending on the filling – however, the value in ppm applies here for the barley. For comparison: A 12-year-old Bowmore is at 30ppm, but here again the phenol content of the final product is meant.
Whether barley is meant or the finished whiskey is important, because the phenol loses itself over time. Both in the burning process, as well as during storage. That is why some peaty whiskeys are quite young.
In some cases, however, the distilleries do not do it themselves anymore. On Islay, for example, the Port Ellen malting takes over all the Diageo whiskeys (Diageo owns several distilleries in Scotland). Here is delivered, malted and pitted with peat aroma.
Mulling the malt: Not too fine and not too rough
Then the malted grain is passed through a mill where it is crushed. The art is to find the right fineness. Too coarsely crushed will not release the optimal amount of sugar in the next process. If it gets too floury, it can clump and clog the mash tun.
The mills in most distilleries are either from Porteus or Robert Boby Ltd. Both have built such durable mills that almost never replacement was needed. That drove both manufacturers to ruin.
Does the whiskey taste when grinding? No. The consistency is important for the processing. But in many cases distilleries can already deliver the meal today and do not grind themselves.
Mash doing: Wash out the sugar
The grist or English "Grist" stores the distillery Bowmore in a Grist Bin.
At the end of this container you can see that the shot is already being directed to another vat.
After this more than brutal treatment, the former grain has now earned a bath. Warm water is added, which washes out the sugar. The result is a sweetish liquid, the spice – in English "word". The waste material, ie the washed-out meal, often ends up as animal feed in stables. The wort accumulates in the so-called "underback".
Does the spice taste into the whiskey? No. Because the supplied water – no matter how peaty – has no great influence on the taste anymore. Bruichladdich, for example, also produces untorfigen whiskey with very peaty water.
washback: Yeast turns sugar into alcohol
The seasoning ends up in a container called a washback. Here the brewing yeast is added to the liquid, which rushes on the sugar and converts it into alcohol. Fermenting means that too. Depending on the distillery, this takes between two days to 120 hours.
The result is a beer, the "wash", which then collects in the washback.
Does the fermentation taste in the whiskey? Yes! Short fermentation produces a sharp whiskey, long fermentation a lighter and finer.
When the beer is ready, it finally goes to the firing process, distilling the alcohol.
Burn: Now the beer becomes a high percentage
Distilling is the basis of many schnapps, life waters, etc. What happens there? In short, alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. So its vapors rise up before water vapor arises. So the heating separates the alcohol from the beer mixture.
In classic whiskey production, it is usually two, sometimes three consecutive firing processes. And although there are mature processes by now, the distillers hold on to old copper blisters.
First, the beer comes into the Wash Still, where a fairly simple burning process is carried out, which produces the low wines with about 25 percent alcohol content. Two thirds of the wash ends up as a waste product, the so-called pot ales.
The second burn in Spirit-Still produces about 70% alcohol. Again, a liquid of low wines remains as waste. It is mixed with the pot ales and both are pumped back into the river or the sea. Sometimes it also ends up as fertilizer in fields.
Does the whiskey taste when burning? Oh yeah! And in different ways that need to be done here a little longer. Because the old copper bubbles just do not produce pure alcohol – and that is just very important.
On the one hand, alcohol does not just include coveted ethanol. Burning, for example, causes methanol to build up earlier – an alcohol that causes people to go blind in too high a concentration. The master distiller does not want that.
At the same time, however, some substances should not be lost during the firing process. The above-mentioned phenol, for example, or certain acids. One speaks of Congeners – "kind relatives". This is what distinguishes the soon-to-be whiskey from, for example, vodka.
What happens in Spirit-Still is complex and important. The rough surface of copper plays a major role: It is said that the vapors "talk" with the copper. The inclination of the arm at the end, the size and height of the still, the filling and the speed of heating, all this determines the composition of the distillate at the end.
Condense: Liquefy the alcohol vapor
Again it needs water. The hot alcohol vapor is passed through the condenser. These are usually copper pipe spirals in water tanks, whose task is to cool the distillate vapor back to the liquid.
Does condensing taste in the whiskey? A little bit! Because the speed of cooling changes the character of the distillate again. The slower the cooled, the easier the character.
Spirit safe: Find the heart of the distillate
The liquid now enters the spirit safe. A box made of brass and glass, in which the distiller determines, when the distillate should be used in the burning process. For this purpose, he simply swings the arm with the spout over the one collecting container or the other. The forerun of the burning process, in English "Foreshot" or "Heads" and the caster, in English "Aftershot", "Fints" or "Tail", is not used, the distiller is on the middlecut off, on the "Hearts".
The middlecut becomes the "Young Spirit" or "New Spirit", so to speak, a baby whiskey with an alcohol content of almost 70 percent.
Pre- and post-run are collected in the fine receiver and added back to the low wines. The middlecut enters the spirit receiver and is then diluted to 63.5 percent alcohol content with some water for bottling.
Does Spirit-Safe taste in the whiskey? Yes. Because here in the Spirit Safe, the master distiller decides how wide the middlecut is, ie when it starts and when it stops. This affects the purity of the alcohol and also how sharp or light it becomes.
Aging: Aromas from used barrels
After this hard tour of heat and cold, the distillate is allowed to rest. And a few years. At least three years matures a single malt. During this time, the whiskey gets the finishing touches.
For this, the burned alcohol is filled in wooden barrels. These barrels are not new, they were previously stored sherry, bourbon whiskey or even port. And of these spirits, the new whiskey now inherits part of the flavor.
During storage, some alcohol volatilizes. About two percent per year go to heaven as "Angels Share", in English: share of angels.
Does the cask taste in the whiskey? And how. The selection of the barrel is crucial. Former sherry casks bring flavors like chocolate into the whiskey, bourbon barrels more like vanilla – just two simple examples, a much more complex palate.
Not only in which barrels, but also how long is stored, changes the taste. One should not believe that long storage per se is better – just think of the disappearance of phenol.
And there are even combinations in which a whiskey first matures in a bourbon barrel before being refined for a few years in a sherry keg.
Even the location of the warehouse, where the barrels are located, should influence the taste. Salty sea air is about to bring a special aroma in the whiskey. However, most whiskeys are no longer stored directly at the distillery but in large warehouses in the Lowlands.
filling: Filter before it goes into the bottle
If you fill whiskey directly from the barrel, there are often even small carbon residues of the barrel walls. There are also fats and our "congeners" that can form streaks and clouds in the liquid at a certain temperature. That's why he filters whiskey when it's bottled and corked.
Smaller distilleries do it themselves, such as Kilchoman on Islay. The large distilleries, however, use central bottling plants.
Does the whiskey taste when bottling? Let's put it this way: no more in here, rather out. In most cases, cool filtered, "chill filtered" in English. Some substances flake quickly and can be pulled out. The problem: These "congeners" are just as important flavors that the distiller has previously tried.
That is why most whiskey connoisseurs today pay attention to the label "non chill filtered". Many whiskey distilleries do without it today.
From the bottle into the glass: The end of a long journey
Eventually, the bottle will finally end up with us consumers. And we too can influence the taste. The right nosing glass, the addition of a little water (very little!) Or just taking time for it and allowing some alcohol to evaporate, all this can change the taste experience for us once again.
In this sense: Slàinte mhath!