How is whisky made?


First, malt your barley

Do this by spreading it out and watering it to fool it into germinating. Once germination kicks off, dry it pronto in a kiln. If you’re after a peated whisky, this is the time to add peat to the kiln fire to infuse your malted barley with those heady peat fumes.

Then put it through the mill

Literally. Take all the malted barley and mill to a rough powder, called grist.

Before mashing

Now chuck it all into a giant container called a mash tun, and add hot water to make mash. Draw off the alcohol-producing sugary liquids, known as wort while getting rid of the rest – the draff, which generally goes into cattle feed.

Cool, and ferment

Bring the red hot wort to a cooler temperature, usually using condensers, pour into washbacks – massive wooden tanks, usually made of pine – and add yeast before covering and letting the whole lot bubble away as the alcohol takes hold. Your wort has now become wash, and will be around 7% alcohol. It will taste like flat, heady beer because, basically, that’s precisely what it is at this stage.

Distilling time

Now pay attention, because this is where it can get complicated, but as this is where whisky is born it’s worth getting to grips with.

The wash is first heated up in the wash still, a large copper still with a bulbous base and a narrow top. Still shape can affect whisky flavour and all distilleries will tell you why theirs are so special. There is some truth in this, but in reality no one really knows.

The wash vaporises as it heats and rises up the still neck, before condensing as it passes the top of the neck and down the other side. The wash that makes this transition is now called low wines, and passes to a second similarly shaped still to repeat the process. Wash that isn’t condensed goes off for cattle feed, just like the draff did.

In this second still, the first part of the wash which distills is called the low wines and is drawn off. The next portion is the middle, and this is kept for whisky making. At the end of the process comes the feints which are also not used. Along with the low wines, the feints are sent back into the first still to join the next wash as it comes through.

Now you’ve got spirit

Meanwhile, the lucky central portion of this final distillation – known as new make spirit - is poured into casks for maturing. It’ll be around 60-70% alcohol at this stage, as clear as a bell and, while hinting at whisky flavours, will be more likely to taste like Italian Grappa than anything else.

Which can be turned into whisky

By maturing in wooden casks for a minimum of three years, inside Scotland’s borders, the new make spirit now legally becomes Scotch whisky. The final flavour and colour of the finished whisky will depend entirely on how long it is matured, and what sort of wood is used.