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The stuff whisky is made of

posted Nov 24, 2017, 8:52 AM by Whisky Belles   [ updated May 28, 2018, 8:10 AM ]

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Barley is one of the key ingredients to making scotch whisky.  To start the process of making the spirit, the barley has to be malted.  This process, germination, is started with the barley being steeped in water, then spread out over the malting floor.  In this picture this is a stone malting floor which can hold up to 14 tonnes of barley.  The barley is left for five to seven days and turned every four hours day and night.  The barley is turned regularly by hand to control the temperature and rate of germination.


The first picture below shows the barley at the being of the malting process while the second picture shows the barley at the end of the malting process when it is called ‘green malt’. This is the point where the barley has converted the starch to sugar that is needed to continue the process to producing the spirit.

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The barley is transferred from the malt floor to the kiln, this is where the barley is heated, halting the germination and smoke from the peat fueled fire is introduced to the barley.  Germination of the barley is stopped once the required levels of sugars have been achieved by the conversion of the starch in the barley which started on the malting floor.  You can see the grated floor and the blackened timbers of the ceiling from many previous batches of heated and smoked barley.

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Some level of smoke from peat-heated fires are introduced from the kiln to the barley.  This adds the phenols, that smoke to the whisky spirit.  Islay has a reputation of being heavily peated with 20-25 ppm (parts per million).  Unpeated or non-peated whiskies are typically made using hot air for drying the barely and not a peat fire.

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(Laphroig)            (Kilchoman)

Peat is this wonderful decaying vegetation or organic matter that is used to fuel the fires of many a whisky kiln in Scotland and Ireland.  As you can see from these pictures the peat bogs are rather soggy.  To harvest the peat, it is cut out in ‘bricks’ and left to dry before it is collected and used back at the distillery.

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(Connemara, Ireland)             (Bowmore Peat Bog, Islay)      (Laphroig)


Once the malted barley has been dried it is milled.  This is where the malt is separated in the husk, the grist, grit and flour.  The ‘grist’ consists of three parts: 15-20% husks (coarse), 70-80% grits (medium) and 5-10% fine flour.  Each distillery follows their own recipe and preference for the proportions of the grist.  These proportions are important, so the extraction of fermentable sugars during the mashing process is as effective possible.  



After the ‘green barley’ has been ground down to ‘grist’ it is passed through to the ‘mash house’.  The ‘grist’ is mixed with three lots of water at increasingly high temperatures to leech out as much sugar as possible and maximise the yield of alcohol.  It is this ‘liquid sugar’ known as ‘wort’ that is needed to make the alcohol.



Here you can see how the grist is kept moving as it is mashed to extract all the fermentable sugars.  The wort from the first two water courses is drained into "washback" vessels for further processing, whereas the third course is retained as the first charge in the next batch.



The shape of the stills adds to the characteristics of the spirit that it produces and many distilleries will repair their pot stills until they have worn out and when they create a copy they will include each dent the original still had.  For the distillation process the spirit goes through two distillations.  The first takes place in the ‘wash’ still and can take the spirit up to 22% alcohol, often referred to as low wine.  The ‘low wine’ is collected as it condenses and distilled a second time in ‘spirit’ stills.  The ‘spirit’ still take the alcohol content up to 68%.  Each distillery has their own view of when best to ‘cut’ the spirit to be barrelled for their final product.  (Laphroig)

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The ‘spirit safe’ allows the distiller to analyse and manage the spirit coming out of the pot still without coming into contact with the spirit itself.


The ‘new make spirit’ or unaged whisky, is then placed in oak casks to mature. By law, all Scotch whisky must be aged for a minimum of three years in oak casks, though many single malts are matured for much longer. The whisky continues to develop and change as it spends time in the wood, and maturation periods of twenty years or more are not uncommon. During the time it spends in the wood, a significant percentage of each cask's content will evaporate. The lost product is known as the angel's share.

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(Kilchoman) (Laphroig)