What is Scotch whisky, where and how is produced and which are the best producing countries?
Whisky is a brandy that comes from malt, barley, rye, or wheat distillation. In practice, through distillation, ethyl alcohol is extracted from a low-grade beer and then is processed with a second distillation, refined in a cask, then the whisky is bottled.
Which countries produce whisky?
The countries that distill whisky are Scotland, Ireland, the United States (Bourbon), Canada, Japan, and even Australia and New Zealand. The biggest producer is Scotland, where we can find 97 distilleries.
Each country has its production and distillation method, starting from different essential ingredients. The Scotch Single Malt, for example, is produced exclusively from the distillation of fermented barley malt. Bourbon must have at least 51% of corn, Rye 51% of rye. In Irish whiskey is allowed any blend. Even oats are contemplated, as long as there is malt, even in small doses.
We will try to show you how distillation works and what it is. We will talk about the history of Gaelic brandy, the famous uisge beatha, and how these distillates have evolved over the centuries.
What is the difference between Scotch whisky and whiskey?
Let’s clear up a doubt: what changes between whisky and whiskey. Whisky is Scottish, blended or single malt, and that’s it. The rest of the world produces whiskey. Even the Japanese use the word whisky, not always, but their production was born as an emulation of the Scottish one since they started making in late 1800 after some pioneers returned to Japan and noticed that Japan has a lot in common with Scotland. Peat, great cereals, plenty of water sources. So we can say that the link between the two productions is powerful, having both production methods and similar ingredients.
How is Scotch produced?
Now we move on to the distillation process. We will examine the distillation of Scotch whisky. Distillation is the process by which, through heat, the volatile substances are separated from a fermented barley malt must be called wash. But before moving on to distillation, let’s take a step back and let’s uncork a beer!
How is Scotch whisky mash made?
First of all, we’ll start with barley, which is malted and turns into malt. In practice, it gets soaked in water and starts to germinate and sprout: the process lasts at least 12 days. Starch is transformed into sugar: essential for triggering fermentation.
At this point, the malt is dried, or rather smoked, with an oven called kiln, a process also used for beers. Only that in Scotland and Ireland there are crazy quantities of peat and therefore the question arises.
What is peat?
To put it quickly, peat is a fossil fuel, remains of plants and moss that have slowly decomposed and compacted over the centuries, creating layers upon layers. A sort of unburned coal that is dried and used to feed heating fires, but above all to smoke malt. Its calorific value is not very high and is inefficient, but it is cheaper than wood and is easily found in many parts of Scotland.
How is peated whisky made?
Okay, we have to smoke the malt with peat at this point. Based on the quantity and quality of the peat, at the chosen temperature and duration, you will give smoked flavors and scents to your malt and, therefore, to the product of distillation. But not all Scottish distilleries use peat. The process varies from distillery to distillery: from the most smoked distillates, such as Islay’s Ardbeg, to completely peat-free distillates, like Speyside’s Cardhu.
Once the malt is ready, you grind it to obtain a malted flour, called grist.
What is mashing?
Now let’s move on to mashing, where hot water is added to the malt to trigger the fermentation of sugars. And in this way, we arrived at the wort.
Thanks to the addition of selected yeasts, the wort ferments and transforms sugar into alcohol, a process as old as the world. The wort is now called wash, and yes, it is a beer! Yes, the mechanism is practically the same, not by chance, many great whiskey-producing countries are also excellent brewers.
And only now that we move on to the actual distillation of the beer, using a still called wash pot. Put, it takes advantage of the fact that alcohol evaporates at 78.3 degrees, while water at 100 degrees. Then the alcohol turns into steam and is then cooled and condensed. This way, you get the so-called low wine, alcohol at 40 degrees. Almost, and we say almost, all the alcohol is extracted from the beer.
What are the heads and tails of a distillate?
And now we must introduce the concept of heads and tails: the most crucial part of the distillation, where the master distiller must decide what to keep and discard. The more alcohol is distilled, the more it becomes pure, potent and tasteless, given that perfumes, flavors and substances are lost with distillation.
It is not such a simple operation. The head is formed by volatile ethers such as sulfur dioxide and methyl alcohol, which have a lower evaporation point than ethyl alcohol.
The tails are heavier and oily, but they are discarded thanks to a second distillation.
The second distillation of Scotch
After the second distillation with the copper spirits still, we get the real Scotch; indeed, it has an alcohol content of 65-85 degrees, which is toxic due to the astronomical alcohol content. Irish has a very similar process but then goes through a third and final distillation. On the other hand, the vodka is distilled 8-12 times, loses its scent and almost all its flavors, but can reach a degree of crystalline purity. The world of distillates is beautiful even for these completely at the antipodes.
Scotch Single Malt aging: the importance of wood
The whisky is filtered and placed in barrels and must face at least 3 years of aging, again if we talk about Scotch Single Malt.
And this is also a fundamental phase to understand the flavor that our distillate will take: the barrels can be American or European, white oak or red oak. They are very different and give opposite flavors and aromas: another crossroads to deal with. It is also common to use barrels used for the maturation of American bourbon to avoid aggressive smoky flavors and aromas.
The importance of Sherry
The second barrel aging can be done in casks used to make Sherry, which adds very sweet notes of dried and oxidized fruits. It helps to round off our spirit even more and make it more smooth.
We are almost there, stay with me! A quick and inevitable phase is filtration, good to eliminate any residues. Some whiskeys undergo chill filtering, i.e., they are brought to 0 degrees and then mechanically filtered to eliminate any particle. Many top-notch whiskeys, on the contrary, boast of not being chill-filtered, like Ardbeg. There is still much discussion on how the practice is respectful of the raw material. The fact is that the finest distillates are rarely cold filtered.
Ok, now the whisky is diluted with water from the source of the unicorns to adjust the alcohol content and then bottled.
Is water still such a fundamental ingredient?
There is still much discussion about water, a fundamental ingredient with barley, yeast, peat, and barrels. Once, the distilleries stood near the water sources and bought them and perhaps gave the distillery’s name, but today it is possible to “manipulate” water, filter it with coals, or use sources that do not come from Scotland. And many wonder if it is still so fundamental when many use simple distilled water.
History of whisky
Where is whisky originally from and who was the first distiller?
Legend has it that the first to perceive distillation dynamics were the Egyptians, who isolated some vapors. Still, there are other obscure figures and proclamations of paternity starting from the Chinese.
In reality, the distillatory art, applied to elixirs and perfumes, began with the Arabs in the eighth century after Christ, when Geber invented the first still. And this is a fact, not a legend.
During the Middle Ages, the monks were the custodians of all knowledge and the first to do experiments and then exported distillation art to Northern Europe. And so this “brandy” becomes Gaelic and takes the name of uisge beatha, hence the current name.
But the first whiskeys were very different, rugged spirits, not the smooth bottles we can drink today. Only after the Second World War, the quality of the production process skyrocketed: in 1968, Glenfiddich brought out the first Scotch Single Malt.
It was only the beginning of the rise of the whisky and the consequent decline of the French Brandy, and never as today, we are witnessing an endless frenzy with distilleries that arise at the antipodes of the world, which has never been so thirsty of uisge beatha.