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 processed with a second distillation, refined in a cask, and 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. Scotland is the largest producer, with 97 distilleries.
Each country has its own production and distillation methods, starting with different essential ingredients. Scotch Single Malt, for example, is only made by distilling barley malt that has been fermented.
Bourbon must contain at least 51% corn, while rye must contain at least 51% rye. In Ireland, whiskey can be made in any combination. 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 it in late 1800 after some pioneers returned to Japan and noticed that Japan has a lot in common with Scotland.
Peat, great cereals, and 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, which is called wash. But before moving on to distillation, let’s take a step back and 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, which is essential for triggering fermentation.
At this point, the malt is dried, or rather smoked, in an oven called a kiln, a process also used for beer. Only that there is an abundance of peat in Scotland and Ireland, so the question arises.
What is peat?
To sum up, peat is a fossil fuel made up of the remains of plants and moss that have slowly broken down and packed down over hundreds of years, forming 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 it 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 impart 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 heavily 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 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 conclusion.
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 beer!
Yes, the process is pretty much the same. It’s not a coincidence that many countries that make great whiskey are also great brewers.
Only now do we begin the actual distillation of the beer, using a still known as a wash pot.
In other words, it takes advantage of the fact that alcohol evaporates at 78.3 degrees Celsius while water evaporates at 100 degrees Celsius. Then the alcohol turns into steam and is then cooled and condensed.
This way, you get the so-called low-alcohol 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.
Since perfumes, flavors, and other substances are lost during distillation, the more alcohol is distilled, the more pure, strong, and tasteless it gets.
It is not such a simple operation. Volatile ethers like sulfur dioxide and methyl alcohol, which have a lower boiling point than ethyl alcohol, make up the head.
The tails are heavier and have more oil, but after a second distillation, they are thrown away.
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 whiskey 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, losing its scent and almost all of its flavors, but it can still reach a degree of crystalline purity. The world of distillates is beautiful, even in these completely opposite hemispheres.
Scotch Single Malt aging: the importance of wood
If we’re talking about Scotch single malt, the whisky is filtered and aged in barrels for at least three years.
And this is also a fundamental phase to understanding the flavor that our distillate will have: 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. American bourbon is often aged in barrels to keep it from getting too strong of a smoky taste or smell.
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, which is good to eliminate any residues. Some whiskeys go through chill filtering, which means that they are cooled to 0 degrees and then filtered by hand to get rid of any small particles.
On the contrary, many top-notch whiskeys 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.
Now the whisky is diluted with water from the unicorns’ source to adjust the alcohol content before being bottled.
Is water still such a fundamental ingredient?
Still, there is a lot of talk about water, which is one of the most important ingredients, along with barley, yeast, peat, and barrels. Once, the distilleries stood near the water sources and bought them, which perhaps gave the distillery’s name, but today it is possible to “manipulate” the 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.
Where was whisky originally from, and who was the first distiller?
The Egyptians are said to have been the first people to understand how distillation works because they separated some vapors. Still, there are other obscure figures and proclamations of paternity, starting with the Chinese.
In reality, distilling elixirs and perfumes started with the Arabs in the eighth century after Christ, when Geber made 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, which they then exported to Northern Europe. And so this “brandy” becomes Gaelic and takes the name “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 did the quality of the production process skyrocket. In 1968, Glenfiddich brought out the first Scotch single malt.
It was just the beginning of the rise of whisky and the fall of French brandy. This is especially true now, when distilleries are springing up all over the world’s ends, where people have never been so thirsty for uisge beatha.