It is really not easy to tell the production phases of a spirit which has been ruling the world for hundreds of years. However I will try to give you a summary of whisky production.
To explain whisky production we firstly need 3 main ingredients, namely water, grain and yeast. As grain Scotch whiskies often use barley but in the States corn and rye are widely used as you can remember from y Whisky Or Whiskey? post. Of course there are other materials which are used in the production phase like peat. Below you can find step by step production phase based on Scotch single malt whisky.
Whisky production is operated at where we call distilleries. These distilleries are generally located near pure water sources. The reason is to add water into process without playing with it too much. Just a little research will show you that most of the distilleries claim to have the purest water in the industry. Moreover distilleries like The Glenlivet and Bowmore released their bottled water.
In traditional manufacture, barley is harvested from nearby farms. Though today, the uprising demand resulted in mass purchase of barley. Finally yeast is of big importance when it comes to alcohol extraction. Like in Belgian breweries, most of the distilleries store and improve their yeast structure in years.
Malting is the first step of whisky production. Harvested barley is fed by water in a big concrete tank for around three days to attain a humidity of 45%. Wet and fat grain is layed on the ground to start germination. This traditional process is called Floor Malting. Some distilleries such as The Balvenie is still using this method for some part of its phase. Laid barley starts to germinate in time.
The arms of germinated barley should not tangle with each other. Therefore during germination barley is aired by big showels or ladles 3-4 times a day for 6-7 days. A physical disease on workers’ dislocated shoulders which happened during this operation is called Monkey Shoulder, which is a popular blended malt whisky nowadays. Next step happens at kiln which is composed of two stories. Second story has a big steel ground with tiny holes. At the first floor a fire is made by anthracite coal and peat. The more the peat is used, the more smoky your whisky gets.
In mashing, dried barley gets into grinder then meets hot water. Aim is to extract the sugar from starch. Hot water is generally given 3 times at 60, 75 and 90 degrees Celcius, which can differ from distillery to distillery. Resulting liquid is called the wort and directed to washback tanks.
It is now alcohol’s turn to take the stage. Wort from mash tuns is cooled and transferred to washbacks. In washback wort meets with yeast to lose its sugar and create alcohol. This process naturally release energy and carbondioxide. Process takes place for almost three days and the ‘beer’ attains a 6-7% alcohol level.
Until this step, whisky production is almost the same with beer production. In beer production, hops and sometimes sugar are added during fermentation. However in whisky production a new step is reached, which is called distillation. Process happens in copper stills. Every distillery has its own different numbers and sizes of stills. In Scotland generally 2 different types of copper stills are used which the spirit is distilled two times. Sometimes some distilleries can change this number. While Auchentoshan Distillery uses 3 distillation method, Springbank can do it 2.5 times. In Irish whiskies, the number is generally 3. Though it can also differ in some Irish whiskies.
Beer coming from fermentation is firstly directed to the bigger stills called the ‘Wash Still’. Alcohol in stills is evaporated by direct heating (direct fire or hot air) and condensates at the neck. This spirit is called ‘Low Wines’. Then low wines gets into the second still called the ‘Spirit Still’, which is smaller than the wash still. Same process by heating is done again and condensed spirit reaches the case known as ‘Spirit Safe’. Malt master decides whether the resulting spirit is pure enough to be whisky and sends it to the last phase where the spirit will be put into casks.
And the final step, as well as the longest step. Spirit coming from distillation is put into oak casks which they will sleep for at least three years according to Scotch Whisky Regulations. Though the period can be as long as 12-50 years or even more. Every year an amount of whisky evaporates because of climate and breathing structure of casks. This phenomenon is named as the angel’s share. While the percentage of this evaporation is around 2-3% in Scotland, it can be as high as 10-12% in whisky producing countries like Taiwan because of the hot climate. That is also why Taiwanese whisky matures faster than the Scotch.
After this step whisky is tasted by malt master and then bottled. Most of the whiskies are result of vatting more than one cask. However a cask can also be bottled which later will be named as ‘Single Barrel’. As whisky gets out of the cask, it generally has more than 40% ABV. While bottling water is generally added to lower the alcohol content to 43% or 40%. For whiskies named as ‘Cask Strength’ or ‘Barrel Strength’ no water is added to whisky and whisky is directly put into bottles.
Aside from the stages I stated, processes like caramel colouring, filtration may be applied. Moreover, micro climate of whisky region, climatic characteristics saturated in peat that is used, water characteristics can differ the taste and joy we get from whisky.
Some of the visuals I used in this post is taken from The Whiskey Wash. You can view the whole visual from here.