Whisky 101: Part 1. What is whisky?
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
In short, whisky is an alcoholic spirit made from grain crops that is commonly associated with Scotland and Ireland, but can be found in production just about anywhere in the world.
The earliest mention of the distillation of alcohol was recorded in 9th century Baghdad but the arrival of this knowledge to the British Isles is something of a mystery. It is believed that the process was observed by travelling Christian monks who recorded what they saw and later perfected the skill themselves. It was likely they who brought the knowledge back to Ireland and from there to Scotland.
Some suggest that the practice first arrived in Scotland when Angus Og of Islay married the daughter of the Baron of Ulster in 1308. When she arrived in Scotland she had in her service a physician by the name of MacBeatha who's family would go on to serve the Lords of the Isles for generations. It is not unreasonable to assume that they would have had some understanding of the process but without better evidence this remains speculation.
The earliest record of distillation being performed in Scotland comes from the other side of the country, at Lindores Abbey in Fife. Here, where now a modern malt whisky distillery stands, one Friar John Cor was commissioned to produce Aquavitae on behalf of King James IV in 1494. When the late 16th century saw Reformation radically change Scotland's religious landscape however, Lindores Abbey and places like it were destroyed and many of the monks forced to flee. Struggling to survive, it is likely some would have sought work as a farmhand and it is here that the story of scotch whisky really begins.
What started as a convenient way of converting leftover barley into a tradeable product soon grew into a national pastime, with families across the highlands and islands of Scotland distilling spirit for their own consumption as well as trade with neighbours and passing merchants. Before long, the Government, as they are wont to do, tried to impose bothersome taxes on the practice but only succeeded in creating an underworld of illicit distillers and smugglers that would last for generations, until the eventual passing of the 1823 Excise Act persuaded many to go legitimate. Thus, much of the scotch whisky industry as we know it today was created.
Though it wasn't always so, the production of scotch whisky is now strictly regulated. To create this King of spirits, one must first process the grain. In the case of malt whisky, barley must undergo a malting process in order to kickstart germination. First steeped in water, it is then allowed to rest for a short number of days. These conditions replicate the onset of spring and encourage the grain to access its internal reserve of starch in order to sprout. At this point the Maltster halts the process by drying the barley in a kiln, sometimes heated by a peat fire which gives some scotch a unique smoky character.
Once the barley is dried it is ground to a grist in a mill and then mixed with water in a large vat known as a Mashtun. During this process the starch in the grain begins to convert to sugar which can then be collected in the form of a syrupy liquid known as Wort. This wort is then transferred to fermentation vessels, or Washbacks, and yeast added. The yeast converts sugar into alcohol, creating a beer-like Wash of around 9% alcohol by volume.
The wash is then fed into kettle-like copper Pot Stills which are heated from below. As the temperature increases the alcohol content evaporates and rises as a vapour, travelling up the neck of the still and along a pipe known as a Lyne Arm before passing into a Condenser to be cooled back to liquid form.The process is then repeated a second time, sometimes a third, in order to achieve the desired strength and the resultant New Make Spirit passed through a safe where the distiller waits to collect the best portion of the liquid.
The outflow of a still is divided into thirds. Only the middle portion, the Heart, is collected in order to be matured into whisky, the rest, both Heads and Tails are either too high in strength and full of dangerous chemicals, or too low and of dubious flavour. These will be retained and added to the wash of the next production run to be distilled again.
The heart meanwhile is filled into oak casks where it will stay for a legal minimum of three years and one day. As it rests, the wood expands and contracts with the changing seasons, drawing spirit in and out of the porous oak, all the while pulling both flavour and colour back into the liquid. The cask's influence on flavour is no small thing, with some claiming up to 60 or 70% of the eventual character comes from the wood. Quite how they arrive at this conclusion is something of a mystery however. It would be more appropriate to say that a whisky takes on a lot of the flavour of the cask, depending on a number of factors, like how many times the vessel has been used before and what liquid it previously held, if any. New virgin oak casks tend to swamp a liquid in woody flavour, so second hand casks are generally preferred having previously contained bourbon, sherry, port or wine. Sometimes the previous contents can have a dramatic effect on the whisky itself.
Depending on its purpose a cask will be deemed ready for bottling by a master distiller / master blender / production director / whiskymaker or whatever else they choose to call themselves. It will either be bottled on its own as a single cask release, or more commonly vatted with several other casks to create a large batch of whisky, which can then be bottled and shipped out to retailers where it can be snapped up by eager enthusiasts like you and I.
I hope you have found this first written chapter of our Whisky 101 series useful. It would be impossible to cover every aspect of whisky production in depth, especially taking into account the vast variation in styles across the world but since single malt tends to be the thing that gets most of us excited about the spirit, it seemed that a look at its history and production would be as good a place to start as any.
As always, your feedback on this and any of our content is most welcome. What would you like to see from future episodes of Whisky 101? Is there something you've been dying to ask but never felt able to? We are not experts by any means, but we've paid enough attention over the years of our whisky hobby that we have some accumulated some useful knowledge and even if we don't know the answer, we will likely know someone who does.