Still Waiting

Posted by on Feb 16, 2014

Having almost exclusively covered the more abstract, emotive side of whisky it’s probably about time to get into the nitty-gritty bits of it. More specifically, this post will cover some technical aspects of its production — or at least Scotch malt whisky production. I’ll do my best to keep the discussion moderately entertaining at least.

Malt whisky is made up of three ingredients: malted barley, yeast, and water. It really is a paltry plain makeup, and when you compare it to a simple cake recipe it really makes you wonder why three ingredients can warrant a product that’s a heck of a lot more expensive than a tasty pudding or well-made souffle.

Still, there are a lot more processes that take place in whisky production. Without even touching all the chemical, biochemical, and biological interactions that are occurring we’re looking at a minimum of five processes when it comes to malt whisky production: mashing, fermentation, two distillations, and maturation. Additionally you might factor in the malting and kilning of the grain as well as the potential blending, marrying, and/or finishing of a matured whisky. You make a cake and you’re looking at maybe four processes: mixing, baking, assembling, and icing.

I’m not trying to take anything away from professional or amateur bakers out there (especially those who produce delicious creations!). And obviously there’s no small degree of ingredient preparation and presentation factors that I’m missing when it comes to baking a cake. Nevertheless, I’d challenge anyone to take three years (not including planning time) to make a cake that I’d be willing to eat. More to the point, I doubt you’d even have a cake after twelve years.

So you might argue that what you’re really paying for in a bottle of Scotch whisky is time. But obviously it’s not that simple, as there are eight-year-old whiskies that are more expensive than fifteen-year-old whiskies. In this case you might be paying more for the distillation, the kilning, the blending, or just the brand name of the drink.

Most whiskies, are, of course, a composite of all of these things. Each process or addition contributes to a quantity or quality that is greater (hopefully) than the sum of the parts. But while you can take these apart in a cake — ‘Wow, the sponge is phenomenal, but the icing’s a bit too sweet and it looks like someone slapped it onto the plate’ — it’s a bit more difficult to determine what you’re paying for in a whisky. In some whiskies (maybe even most) there is a defining quality: an age statement, a blurb about a unique sherry finish, or a brand known for its smoky whiskies. Still, unless you have the money to do a side-by-side tasting of various whiskies it can be difficult to tell whether the quality of an Auchentoshan ‘Three Wood’ is a result of its unusual triple-distilled new-make spirit or the three different types of wood (ex-Bourbon, Spanish Olorosso, and Pedro Ximenez sherry) that the whisky sees during its lifespan.

Unfortunately (or fortunately), no matter how much reading you do, you have to taste a lot to be able to definitively determine what exactly you’re paying for in a whisky. Still, knowing a bit about its production can help you narrow it down. So, without further ado (and keeping the aforementioned triple-distilled Auchentoshan in mind) let’s delve into how Scotch whisky is distilled.

Skipping over the malt prep and fermentation regimes of various whisky distilleries, we’ll assume that we’re presented with a vile tasting beer (or ‘wash’) of around 7-8%. We throw this wash into a ‘wash still’ and heat it very slowly. Eventually we start evaporating the alcohol and some congeners from the wash, which travel up the still into some glorified copper tubing where it condenses and flows into another container. Once we’re done with this first distillation we’re left with a quantity of ‘low wines’ which are around 23% ABV. We then shove the low wines into the ‘spirit still’ and repeat the process. What condenses this time is the new-make spirit that eventually will become whisky. It’s not so simple, however, as the first distillate which condenses tastes foul and could have some harmful compounds. The same is true (more or less) for the final bit of the run. The really tasty stuff is in the middle, and so a stillman has to divert the run so that only the good stuff is sent off to be matured. The two nasty components are known as the ‘heads and tails’ or ‘foreshots and feints’ and are sent back into the low wines container to be recycled in the next batch. The middle cut (around 65-70% ABV) is sent off to casks for maturation.

So each time we distill our product we create a lighter, cleaner spirit — perhaps at the expense of losing some pleasing compounds. The geometry of the still also plays a role in the flavours that the final spirit contains. Almost every Scotch malt whisky distillery contents themselves with two distillations. Auchentoshan distills three times, as does Springbank for its ‘Hazelburn’ brand of whisky. Bruichladdich makes a quadruple distilled spirit (it’s not whisky because it hasn’t been aged for three years) and Springbank, Benrinnes, and Mortlach distilleries all have ‘partial distillations’ that are rather complicated. The latter two are known for producing rather ‘meaty’ flavoured whiskies, though whether this is due to their process or the geometry of the stills is open to conjecture.

With distillation basics covered, then, feel free to do some digging on which distilleries claim to have stellar distillation methods that outstrip the competition (if you’ll pardon the pun). Just remember that even if a distillery produces a nectar worthy of the gods from its stills, that spirit may not be worthy of residing in a cask for years upon years.