One of the biggest reasons why people don’t get into scotch is the price. It’s a luxury item but it is by no means a ripoff.
Even at it’s most mechanized and automated the production of single malt whiskey is a painstaking and time consuming process that in my opinion earns it’s price tag. What this piece aims to do is talk about the process of single malt production in a little more depth than most articles will. I also want to deter people from ever buying an expensive vodka ever again.
How Single Malt Is Made:
I am going to keep this as simple as I can while trying to add some colour at the same time.
There are five main processes that go into the production of single malt whisky.
Barley is purchased from local farmers or grown by the distillery it’s self. The barley is steeped in water and laid out on a malting floor. Think of a hockey arena sized room without the ice. The wet barley will begin to germinate(sprout) the barley is then manually turned by fire hydrant shaped men named Colin or Padraig. This turning manual turning and built in quality control regulates how much oxygen and temperature the germinating barley comes into contact with.
The process of germination begins to release sugars from the grain these sugars are what sweet sweet alcohol comes from. At the precise time the germination must be arrested as the barley will begin to use the sugars for sustenance and we want those sugars.
The germination is arrested by a kilning process. In traditional floor malting the floor is actually part of the kiln. The sprouted barley is dried by the heat and smoke of the kiln. Depending on whether or not you want a peated whisky the fuel for the kiln is either coal, natural gas or peat moss. Peat Moss releases a pungent, earthy smoke that clings to the wet barley and becomes integrated with the grain. Coal and Natural gas do not impart flavour.
After the dried barley is allowed to naturally cool for up to six weeks it is then milled. The barley is crushed usually in large industrial milling machines into a coarse oatmeal like substance called Grist. The big part of the milling is removing the outer husk of the barley and exposing the sugary inside this makes the next step a much more efficient process.
Once the grist is ground up the process of mashing takes place. In a large vat called a mash tun the grist is mixed with hot water. The water begins to dissolve the sugars and separates the husks which float more readily. What you get is a sweet almost milky solution called wirt. There is normally three washings of the grist and the each time the wirt is drained off and reserved.* Once you get a concentrated wirt with enough sugar your next step is fermentation.
Fermented barley is essentially beer. So you can say that whisky makers are also brewers. A high quality whisky comes from a high quality fermentation of barley.
So how do we make beer? Well, we have wirt, this sugary chunky solution, that needs to go hang out with a proprietary blend of yeasts**. Some of these yeast blends are hundreds of years old and kept under lock and key in labs. At first the yeast reproduces in the wirt creating almost a film over the liquid. This film creates a barrier which protects the mixture from oxygen. When oxygen starved the yeast begins to take the sugars in the solution and convert them to alcohol and carbon dioxide. This phase is very important because of the rapid production of alcohol. This is also when the solution is at it’s least stable, climate inside the fermenter and the building must me maintained as any large fluctuations can ruin the process. When the alcohol level rises to an acceptable point the fermented wirt is then cooled and the yeast quickly dies. You now have a beer like substance that tastes more like a beer milkshake.***
Simply put, distillation is the physical process of separating mixtures based on the different volatilities of components of the mixture through boiling.(maybe that wasn’t so simple) I am going to link to a diagram to supplement this process because my explanation may not be good enough.
The important part of this is that a pot still can only make one batch of spirit at a time. In single malt production it is laid out by law that a pot still must be used, this style of still is much less efficient but it also allows the distiller to control the process with much more precision. The use of copper for the pot is two fold. Copper is one of the best materials when it comes to the conduction of heat, and there are compounds in copper which bind to compounds in the distilling mixture. These compounds are impurities which can impart bitterness or metallic flavours to the spirit.
As the beer like mixture heats in the pot area of the still. Alcohol is the first compound to evaporate. This alcohol vapour then travels up the “swan neck” of the still and is passed through a condenser mechanism. The condenser quickly cools the vapour causing(you guessed it) condensation. The newly condensed liquid now travels into a machine that tests for alcohol percentage. The first portion of the distillate comes in around 20% alcohol. It’s called the the “low wines” this portion is sent to a container called the spirit safe. There the distiller and the on site customs and excise inspector check for alcohol percentage, and other possible problems with the low wines.
The low wines are then pumped to a second pot still for a second distillation. The same process is repeated, but now the distiller must begin to test the output of the condenser. The first portion of liquid released from the condenser is known as the fore shots, this is essentially stinky poison. But the stinky poison is redirected back into the second still for a kind of half distillation. About 45 minutes into the process the fore shots end and you get the “spirit” this comes out of the condenser usually crystal clear and very neutral in smell and flavour. This run usually lasts a couple hours and it’s the stuff that us going to make your scotch. It comes in between 65-75% alcohol and it’s again tested and catalogued by the distiller and the customs man. Every ounce of alcohol in this process is accounted for by the distiller and audited on site by a government official.
As the spirit run ends another run called “the feints” is produced. This is again separated, catalogued and redistilled. The feints can be very interesting, full of flavour packed oils and quite aromatic so they add character to the spirit. They can also be quite toxic so this must be controlled.
So when you have your spirit you essentially have very very labour intensive scottish vodka. Anything the comes out of a still is known as a neutral spirit. There is very little flavour or character. This is where maturation comes into play. Whisky gets it colour and much of it’s flavour from the wood it is aged in. The spirit is placed in barrels which have been charred in the inside. There barrel are not brand new as well. They have in the past carried usually American Bourbon or Spanish Sherry.**** These barrels can cost upwards of $3000 USD, and normal aging house can have thousands of barrels and millions of dollars of equipment to move, store and catalogue.
During the maturation process the volume of alcohol in the barrel that is lost to evaporation is normally 2% a year, this is called the angels share. 100 litres of spirit over ten years of evaporation would be about 82 litres. Those angels love to drink. You can image the expense which a distillery incurs when you’re losing that much product just to the air.
As I explained in my previous post about scotch the age statements and marring process are a science all their selves and I am at over 1500 words so I figure this may be a great place to leave off.*****
After seeing the process and cost that goes into the production of single malt you can begin to see why it is so expensive. If you got to this point I admire the commitment.
*The Scots are like Indians in that nothing in the process goes to waste. 2nd and 3rd washes are usually reused in subsequent batches. The second wash becomes the first wash in the next batch, the third wash becomes the second and so on. Also these “washes” can be used in the production of beer or barley wine.
**Yeast is a single celled organism that in the case of fermentation eats sugars and craps out alcohol and carbon dioxide. Yeast makes bread rise because it eats sugar and releases carbon dioxide that carbon dioxide creates pockets in the dough thus the rising effect.
***It’s also important to note that during this phase there must be an absolute sterile environment. The environment for yeast to propagate is also the perfect environment for bacteria. A bacterial taint can ruin a whole batch of wirt.
**** Whisky can be aged in lots of different types of barrels from Port to Tokaji. What resided in the barrel before the spirit goes in can affect the flavour and colour of your whisky in dramatic ways.
*****Ok so as promised I am going to tie this up by telling you how dumb it is to spend over 30 dollars on a bottle of vodka. The process of making vodka isn’t unlike the process of making scotch in that grain is converted to sugar and then girst, then wirt, then beer, then spirit. But when vodka is produced the producer buys the cheapest grist they can buy, they use a continuous still that allows you to just feed beer in one end and after three distillations the vodka comes out of the final condenser, it’s diluted to 40%, filtered and bottled. The cost on a bottle of vodka is about a dollar. 95 cents for the bottle and 5 cents for the liquid. So find a lower priced vodka you like and drink it while you laugh at the chuckle heads who are drinking a 50 dollar bottle of the exact same product.