The Process Of Making Scotch Whisky In Oak Barrels

All you Need to Know About Scotch Malt Whisky

Scotch oak barrelsWhile it may not be easy to say for sure where the art of distillation came from, there is a lot of evidence suggesting that the technique was brought to Scotland in the middle ages by Celtic Christian monks from Ireland. It is believed that the monks used local grain and water to make the first whiskies to ward off the biting cold in Scotland. In the middle ages, it was primarily the duty of the monasteries to produce alcoholic beverages and age them in Scotch oak barrels. These institutions had the resources and time needed to experiment with spirits and different aging techniques like storing them in Scotch oak barrels. When the monasteries were dissolved in the 16th and 17th centuries, monks were forced into the outside world with the skills they had. Distillation and aging of spirits in Scotch oak barrels was the most profitable of these sills, so Scotch whisky easily became a way of life.

During the same period, farmers used to make their own Whisky; more than they actually consumed. They aged the extra whisky in Scotch oak barrels and used it to pay rent or exchange it for other goods or services in barter trade. In the early  1600’s, politicians realized that the government could make a lot of money from taxing Whiskey production. In 1644, the government imposed a tax levy that forced distillers to go underground. This led to increased confrontation with tax collectors while smuggling of Whiskey became rampant. From this period to around 1823 when the British Parliament passed the excise tax act, the Scottish people resisted the idea of taxing their favorite drink. This act allowed distillers to produce Whisky and pay a small amount of tax per gallon and a fixed license fee. This new tax regime made the Scotch Whisky industry legitimate and more profitable as an industry. More whisky was also aged in Scotch oak barrels to improve their taste and value. Generally, the longer the whisky has stayed inside Scotch oak barrels, the more expensive it becomes. The timing of this piece of legislation was perfect because it came just before phylloxera started destroying the vineyards of Europe, and Scotch whisky started replacing brandy and Cogniac as the most preferred drink internationally.

Scotch Whisky is made in a two-phase process involving distillation and malting. Aging in Scotch oak barrels is also an important step. The first step is selection of raw materials. In many cases, this is barley. The grain used to make the first whisky in Scotland was grown locally, but the Scottish fields cannot meet the demand for the grain by the global market. The second step is preparing the grain for distillation through a three-step malting process. The barley is first soaked in water for two days until it softens in a process known as steeping. When this step is completed, the moisture content of water is expected to be around 50%, from the initial 10%; this speeds up the rate of germination. The next step is germination. The grain is spread out on a flat surface, like the floor of the malting house, for 21 days and turned with a shovel on a regular basis to control the rate of germination and temperature. Nowadays, germination is done in mechanical drums. A sprout normally appears after about five days. As the grains start to germinate, the enzyme diastase or amylase is produced; this enzyme normally breaks down starch in the grain into sugars. Once all the barley has germinated, the grain can be referred to as green malt. The term malt is simply used to refer to the germinated grain. The green malt is then taken to the next stage in the process of malting known as kilning. In this step, the malt is dried using hot air in a process known as kilning. The malt is placed on a fine screen above a peat fire and the grain acquires the aroma of the oily smoke that is produced during the process.

The drying or kilning step is very important in the making of Scotch Whisky because the character of a Whisky is determined by the duration of the kilning process and the type of peat used. In the Highlands, malt is kilned for a longer period than in the Lowlands. The malt is normally heavily roasted in Islay and Campbeltown.

Kilned malt is then ground into grist in the mill room. Mashing is then done. The meal is fed into a stainless steel vessel known as a mash tub; which is very similar to a fermentation tank. The milled malt is mixed thoroughly with warm water until all the starch is converted by the amylase into sugar. When the water is removed, what is left is known as the wort. This contains flavors from the malt and sugar. The flavor of whiskies can be improved further through aging in Scotch oak barrels.

The next step is fermentation. Yeast is added to wort in the fermentation tanks to jump-start the process of fermentation. Just like any other fermentation process, sugar is broken down into carbon dioxide, alcohol and heat.

The liquid is put into copper pot stills. It is then heated to over 173 degrees Fahrenheit. At this temperature, alcohol evaporates and rises in the still. The vapor is then condensed and collected as a clear liquid. The liquid is then poured back into the pot still where a second distillation takes place. In the second distillation, the vapors are divided into three fractions; the head, heart and tails. Only the heart is used to make Whiskey because there are many impurities in the heads and tails. In fact, the top Whiskey companies only use about 20 percent of the middle distillation. The taste of the whisky is further improved through aging in Scotch oak barrels. Scotch oak barrels are nowadays used to age whiskies from different parts of the world.

It is safe to say that Scotch oak barrels are the most important items when it comes to improving the taste and flavor of whisky. Scotch oak barrels are simply wooden cylinders made from wood derived from the oak tree and closed on both ends. This is the main reason why spirits are stored in Scotch oak barrels for several years before being bottled. Storage of Scotch in oak barrels also affects the rate at which aging occurs. After the two distillations, the spirit is approximately 140 proof before aging in Scotch oak barrels. It is then placed in Scotch oak barrels for aging. Scotch oak barrels are made from American white oak and can either be used or new. Some manufacturers of Scotch oak barrels have been experimenting with port casks and sherry. The flavor of the Whisky is greatly influenced by the type of Scotch oak barrels used. Scotch oak barrels are normally used to age distilled spirits for at least three years when producing Scotch whisky. Before the spirit is placed in Scotch oak barrels for aging, water is added to reduce the spirit to 124 proof. After aging in Scotch oak barrels, water is also added to the whisky before bottling. Since the quality of water greatly influences the flavor of the final product, some producers use the best spring water. An earthy flavor can be obtained when whisky is mixed with water from peat. Both the quality of water and type of Scotch oak barrels used determine the quality of whisky that is produced by distilleries.

It is only in the 1990’s that single Malt Whisky started becoming very popular with consumers. It is interesting to note that single malts only account for 6% of the total production of Scotch whisky. A single malt is simply made from water, yeast and 100% malted barley.

Initially, the whisky producing regions were divided into two: the Highlands and the Lowlands. In the early 19th century, some districts emerged as recognizable producers. This led to the division of the Highlands into four regions namely, East Highlands, West Highlands, North Highlands and Central Highlands. Part of the Eastern Highlands was then carved out to create Speyside. The western part of Scotland is made up of Campbeltown region, Skye and Islay islands.

Speyside is the premier malt whisky producing area in Scotland. More than 60 percent of the country’s distilleries are located in Speyside. Most of the barley used to make whiskey is also grown in the region. With close to 60 distilleries that use different types of Scotch oak barrels for aging, consumers can expect a wide range of styles and flavors from Speyside.

Distilleries located in the Northern Highlands are spread along the shore from the Inverness. The region is known for producing broad-shouldered whiskey. The most famous are Glen Ord and Glenmorangie. While there might have been hundreds of distilleries in the area a few centuries ago, only a few are currently in existence.

Islay is believed to be the cradle of whisky distilling as wella as the birthplace of the art of aging using Scotch oak barrels. Islay whiskies are famous for their smokiness brought about by the peaty island water.

When the Wash Act divided the country into the Highlands and the Lowlands, a great social and economic divide between the south and north became very clear. This is because distilling in the Lowlands became large scale and highly commercialized.

Blended Scotch Whisky

Before the mid 19th century, Scotch Whisky was either single grain or single malt. However, this has since changed. Most companies nowadays blend grain and malt whiskies to produce a Master Blend. A Master Blender is able to mix as many as 40 to 60 different whiskies to come up with a unique blend. Blending can be done before or after aging in Scotch oak barrels.

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