Hopefully after reading the previous editorial (Whisky: An Introduction, Part I) some you may know a tad more about the greatest sun downer of all times!
Let’s see if you get this one right – If a Scotch Whisky bottle has a label featuring an age statement ‘18 Year Old’ how old is the Whisky?
a. The average age of the Whisky is 18 years old
b. The oldest Whisky in the bottle is 18 years old
c. The youngest Whisky in the bottle is 18 years old
All you fine gents or ladies who are interested in the subject and get the above one right certainly are not a part of the majority! Contrary to popular belief that the age statement of Whisky displayed on the bottle is the oldest or the average age of the whisky, it is the age of the youngest Whisky in the bottle. So by that standards if a bottle has whiskies aged 12, 15 and 18 years the age statement will display as 12 years. Going by that rule, again laid out by the S.W.A; the answer to my question would be option ‘c’.
In the second episode of ‘Introduction to Whisky’ I will help familiarise you with the production of Malt Whiskies. While I know most of the readers are eager to get to the ‘practical session’ of Whisky tasting rather than spending precious time reading the ‘theory’ of the subject, I will try and concise the interlude. I can also assure you that learning the basics of Whisky production not only helps in appreciation of the spirit better, it also becomes a dominant factor in the selection of your Whisky!
So we left the discussion at barley? Or did I add water? I stumble on another raging debate! Adding water or not to, when tasting Whisky? We will save that for later. Limiting the subject to production; there is no Whisky without water! You will realise that water has an ever increasing role in the production of Whisky. The importance garnered is so dominant that you will find labels mentioning the ‘Source” of the water used in the production. The streams of Himalayas are also tapped! Not in the production of Single Malt Scotch…at least not yet!
During the ‘Malting’ process, barley is soaked in water for two to three days, then spread out to germinate. This process of germination takes around a week in Scotland, but in a tropical country like India this takes only a couple of days! Once the barley has begun to sprout it is dried in an oven called a ‘Kiln’. This drying not only stops the germination but also adds the flavour of ‘smoke & peat’. (The process of drying is often fuelled by burning ‘Peat’ *). The dried barley is then crushed in the ‘Malt Mill’, and is called ‘Grist’. Hot water is added to this ‘Grist’ in a large vessel called a ‘Mash-Tun’, where the ‘Grist’ and hot water is mixed thoroughly. This ‘Mashing’ process converts the starch inside barley to sugars, which can be later fermented to produce alcohol. Think of the mashing as similar to adding hot water to muesli!
This mixture is known as ‘Wort’ which is Whisky in its nascent form. The magic ingredient for the production of alcohol is yeast, brewer’s yeast to be precise. This special type of yeast is added to the ‘Wort’ in a fermentation container known as ‘Washbacks’, the fermentation takes two to four days and the ‘Wort’ turns to ‘Wash’ once done. ‘Wash’ is a frothy liquid with an alcohol content ranging from 7-10%; this is also a form of beer!! So how does this beer ‘grow up’ to be a spirit with alcohol strength of about 70%? The answer is ‘Distillation’.
The distillation of all Scotch Malt Whisky is carried out in copper ‘Pot Stills’. These are vessels with a large pot shaped bottom and a slender neck bent like a swan, this is where the vapours are collected during distillation. This process should be relatively simple to those readers who understand chemistry (unlike me). Alcohol boils faster than water so when the ‘Wash’ is boiled the alcohol vapourises first and condenses down the neck of the ‘Still’. The first time this process is carried out it produces something known as ‘Low Wines’ with an alcohol percentage lower than required (10-20%), the distillation process is then repeated to remove impurities and improve the alcohol yield.
I am sure most readers would have observed the line ‘Triple Distilled’ on a few Whisky and Vodka bottles. Most of the Single Malt Whiskies are distilled twice and some of them adopt the triple distillation process. This method of production in batches with ‘Pot Stills’ differentiates the process of Malt Whisky to that of Grain Whisky production which uses ‘Coffey Stills’ or ‘Continuous Stills’.
Whisky production is a matter of the ‘heart’, and I literally mean that! Every distillation run the produce is divided into three cuts:
1. Head (the first liquids which trickle from the condensation neck of the still)
2. Heart (the spirit which ‘Matures’ into Whisky)
3. Tails (like the name suggests the very last liquid produced)
This ‘heart’ of the distillate is a clear liquid with the desired alcohol content. Did I just say clear? What happened to the golden spirit that was the crux of the matter? Hold your horses or rather your drink. We have to let this liquid ‘Mature’ as stated above. Remember the literally ‘golden’ rule? For a whisky to be known as Scotch it has to undergo the maturation process for a bare minimum of three years? Hmmm, I hope ‘Age’ is not catching up!
The Maturation process, different regions of Scotland and much more in the next episode! Keep watching this space.
Know your drink, and drink it responsibly!
Opinions cited in the above article are purely of the author. Hemanth Rao is a Single Malt lover and the founder of Single Malt Amateur Club India. Read more about SMAC at https://www.facebook.com/smacamateurwhiskyclub