Each second of every day, 42 bottles of Scotch whisky get shipped to markets around the world. That’s over one billion bottles each year.
Roughly 20 million casks are maturing in Scottish warehouses waiting for bottling. How do those casks full of amber goodness come to be in the first place? Let’s find out how is Scotch made.
What is Scotch Whisky
Scotch whisky is malt or grain whisky made in Scotland that must follow a particular distilling process set out by law to carry the name. And take care that you spell it as whisky with no ‘e’. Spelling it as whiskey is a kind of blasphemy in the Scotch world.
The earliest records of Scottish distilling dates back to late 15th century monks but it’s likely that it dates back quite a bit further than that.
Step 1: Malting
The first step in making Scotch is called malting. Barley gets steeped in water and spread across malting floors to germinate. The barley gets turned regularly to prevent heat buildup, traditionally by tossing it into the air with wooden shovels.
This process activates enzymes in the malt to convert starch to sugar when mashing begins. This germination process lasts 6 to 7 days after which the barley turns into green malt.
The green malt goes into kilns for drying, where the heat stays under 70 degrees Celcius so the enzymes aren’t destroyed. Peat gets added to the fire to add flavor from the resulting smoke.
Step 2: Mashing
Mashing is the second step in the process of how to make whisky. The dried malt gets ground into a coarse flour, known as grist, and mixed with hot water in a mash tun.
The water gets added in 3 stages, each hotter than the last. It starts around 67 degrees and rises almost to a boil at the final stage. The quality of the water is critical to the final product.
The mash gets stirred regularly to convert starches into sugar. The result is a sweet, sugary liquid known as wort. The spent grain, or draff, gets used for cattle feed.
Step 3: Fermentation
In the third stage, fermentation, the wort gets cooled to 20 degrees and pumped into wash backs. Active yeast gets added and the fermentation process starts.
The yeast feeds on the sugars in the wort, producing alcohol and “congeners” which help add to the complex flavor of the whisky. Carbon dioxide is also created, which causes the wash to froth strongly. Switchers cut the head of the froth to prevent overflow.
After roughly two days, fermentation slows down and the wash is between 6 and 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV).
Step 4: Distillation
In the next step, distillation, the wash gets distilled twice in large copper pot stills. The first distillation separates the alcohol from the water, yeast, and pot al residue. After this step, the resulting alcohol is approximately 20 percent ABV and is known as low wines.
The second distillation is the spirit still, which further purifies the spirit alcohol. The first compounds to distill, known as the foreshots, and the final runnings, known as feints, are redistilled by mixing with the low wines in the next batch.
The pure center cut, or heart of the run, gets collected in the spirit receiver. It ends up at roughly 68 percent alcohol by volume at this stage.
The shape of the distilling pot affects the character of the individual Scotch. Distilleries use the same still design over time, often for hundreds of years.
These stills work by heating the contents close to the boiling point of water. Alcohol and other compounds vaporize and pass into a condenser, or worm. This is a large copper coil immersed in cold running water that causes the vapor to condense back into a liquid that is collected in the spirit receiver.
Step 5: Spirit Safe and Aging
In the final stage of the process of making Scotch whisky, the distillates pass through the spirit safe. This is a locked safe with locks traditionally controlled by Customs and Excise. Making Scotch is a serious business and a whisky can only carry the name if it has met all the standards set out by Scottish law.
The Stillman tests and judges the distillates without physically contacting the spirit while it’s in the safe. They use their years of experience to judge its quality.
Once the quality has been verified, the colorless spirit, which ends up at approximately 63 percent ABV, goes into oak casks to mature. These casks may have previously contained whisky, bourbon, or sherry. The character of the aged Scotch is partly determined by the previous contents of the casks.
Scotch must be allowed to mature for a minimum of 3 years but is typically left to mature considerably longer. Many of the popular distilleries age their Scotch for at least 12 years while others wait much longer.
For example, CWSpirits Macallan collection ranges from 18 years up to 30 years. Longer-aged whiskys are naturally more costly since they need more patience and care for such a long time but the difference is noticeable in the taste of the final product.
Does Knowing How Is Scotch Made Make it More Enjoyable?
Now that you know how is Scotch made, you’re likely not going to be able to turn around and start distilling your own amber liquid. And even if you had the means to set up a home distillery, it wouldn’t technically be Scotch whisky unless you live in the Scottish highlands.
But knowing how to make Scotch can also make drinking it more enjoyable. You’ll be able to appreciate the time, effort, and knowledge that went into every bottle you crack open and you can thank the master distillers who have been passing their knowledge down for generations.
Did you enjoy reading this post? Be sure to take a look at the other articles on our blog for more interesting and helpful information.