Well folks, summer is over and it is now officially my favorite season, autumn; or as I like to refer to it, Scotch Season. If you ask me Scotch is the perfect spirit for the fall months, there are so many variations produced by the different regions Scotland that just evolves with the season perfectly. Depending on the region you can get a spirit that is full of honey and spice for those crisp autumn days, to one that is robust with notes of nuts, dark fruit and smoke for those nights meant for a pit fire and a cigar. I think this year my main focus with probably be on some of the more popular Scotches that hail from the Speyside and Highland regions of Scotland. However, before we delve into that, we just cover makes Scotch whisky different from American Bourbon and Tennessee Whiskies.
First the most obvious distinction is where it is distilled. For a spirit to be legally sold as Scotch whisky, it must be distilled in the following regions of Scotland; Island, Speyside, Highland, Lowland, Campbeltown, and Islay. From there, the spirits are classified as, Single Malt, Single Grain, Blended Malt, Blended Grain and Blended. As of 23 November 2009, the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (SWR) define and regulate the production, labelling, packaging, and advertising of Scotch whisky. They replace previous regulations that focused solely on production. The SWR define “Scotch whisky” as whisky that is:
- Produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been:
- Processed at that distillery into a mash
- Converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems
- Fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast
- Distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8% (190 US Proof)
- Wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 liters (18 US Gallons; 154 imp gallons) for at least three years
- Retaining the color, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in, and the method of, its production and maturation
- Containing no added substances, other than water and plain (E150A) caramel coloring
- Comprising a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40% (80 US proof)
Due to how much goes into the process of making Scotch, it makes it very time consuming for write about every detail, so I am just going to “borrow” some information from scotlandwhisky.com
How Scotch Whisky is Made
The origins of malt whisky distilling in Scotland are lost in the mists of antiquity. They date back at least to the monks of the 15th century and probably long before. Although the distillers’ art has been understood since earliest times, the subtle aromas and flavors of whisky have never been fully explained, even today. The ancient term using “beatha”, which is Gaelic for the Latin aqua vitae or ‘water of life’, was corrupted in the 18′” century to usky, and then to whisky. The following description is a generalization of the process. It should be remembered that each distillery has its own unique specifications.
Best quality barley is first steeped in water and then spread out on malting floors to germinate. It is turned regularly to prevent the build up of heat. Traditionally, this was done by tossing the barley into the air with wooden shovels in a malt barn adjacent to the kiln.
During this process enzymes are activated which convert the starch into sugar when mashing takes place. After 6 to 7 days of germination the barley, now called green malt, goes to the kiln for drying. This halts the germination. The heat is kept below 70°C so that the enzymes are not destroyed. Peat may be added to the fire to impart flavour from the smoke.
The dried malt is ground into a coarse flour or grist, which is mixed with hot water in the mash tun. The water is added in 3 stages and gets hotter at each stage, starting around 67°C and rising to almost boiling point.
The quality of the pure Scottish water is important. The mash is stirred, helping to convert the starches to sugar. After mashing, the sweet sugary liquid is known as wort. The spent grains – the draff – is processed into cattle feed.
The wort is cooled to 20°C and pumped into washbacks, where yeast is added and fermentation begins. The living yeast feeds on the sugars, producing alcohol and small quantities of other compounds known as congeners, which contribute to the flavour of the whisky. Carbon dioxide is also produced and the wash froths violently. Revolving switchers cut the head to prevent it overflowing. After about 2 days the fermentation dies down and the wash contains 6-8% alcohol by volume.
4. Pot Stills
In some mysterious way the shape of the pot still affects the character of the individual malt whisky, and each distillery keeps its stills exactly the same over the years.
In distillation, the still is heated to just below the boiling point of water and the alcohol and other compounds vaporize and pass over the neck of the still into either a condenser or a worm – a large copper coil immersed in cold running water where the vapour is condensed into a liquid.
The wash is distilled twice – first in the wash still, to separate the alcohol from the water, yeast and residue called pot ale – the solids of which are also saved for use in animal feeds.
The distillate from the wash still, known as low wines, and containing about 20% alcohol by volume, then goes to the spirit still for the second distillation. The more volatile compounds which distil off first – the foreshots, and the final runnings called feints where more oily compounds are vaporized, are both channelled off to be redistilled when mixed with the low wines in the next batch.
Only the pure centre cut, or heart of the run, which is about 68% alcohol by volume is collected in the spirit receiver.
6. Spirit Safe
All the distillates pass through the spirit safe – whose locks were traditionally controlled by the Customs & Excise. The stillman uses all his years of experience to test and judge the various distillates without being able to come into physical contact with the spirit.
The newly distilled, colourless, fiery spirit reduced to maturing strength, 63% alcohol by volume, is filled into oak casks which may have previously contained Scotch whisky, bourbon or sherry, and the maturation process begins.
THE MAKING OF GRAIN WHISKY
1. Scotch grain whisky is usually made from 10-20% malted barley and then other unmalted cereals such as maize or wheat. The starch in the non-malted cereals is released by pre-cooking and converted into fermentable sugars. The mashing and fermentation processes are similar to those used for malt whisky.
2. The wash is distilled in a continuous or Coffey still, named after its inventor Aeneas Coffey. It has two tall columns – a rectifier and an analyser. Cold wash is pumped in at the top of the rectifier and meets steam. The columns in fact act like a heat exchanger. The alcohol is cooled, condenses and flows away as Scotch grain spirit at about 94% alcohol by volume.
3. The distilled grain spirit is lighter in character and aroma than most malt whiskies and therefore requires rather less time to mature. The bulk of matured grain whisky is used for blending.
THE MATURATION PROCESS
While maturing, the whisky becomes smoother, gains flavour, and draws its golden colour from the cask. A proportion of the higher alcohols turns into esters and other complex compounds; which subtly enhance each whisky’s distinctive characteristics.
By law all Scotch whisky must be matured for at least 3 years, but most single malts lie in the wood for 8, 10, 12, 15 years or longer. Customs & Excise allow for a maximum of 2% of the whisky to evaporate from the cask each year – the Angels’ Share. Unlike wine, whisky does not mature further once it is in the bottle.