There are tons of articles out there explaining how to make whisky. Some are way too technical to understand, others consist of woolly sentences and feelings. Because we are convinced a glass of whisky tastes better when you know how it’s made, we will explain the production process the best we can. To illustrate it all, we’ll take you along with us in a little story. Wake up your imagination!
Imagine we are making whisky together. We did a whisky tasting and you convinced us to join forces and start our own distillery. After months of boring paperwork we have our licencing in order and we can get started! Lucky for us, whisky is not a protected product (like Champagne or Cognac) and everyone is free to produce it.
Now what do we need to create some of this liquid gold? We need only three products: water, yeast and barley. None of these are very hard to find in our little country. We have very fruitful grounds for growing barley, we have lots of knowledge about producing yeast and we would drown in water if we weren’t so good at building dikes.
Now we have all the raw materials, let’s have a look at what else we need. We need equipment. First of all we need a large tank to soak the barley grains. This is to activate the enzymes in the barley. In Scotland they call this the ‘Sleep tank’. It is usually about six meters long, three meters broad and two meters deep. We fill this tank with barley and then add water until it’s full. The present enzymes will get a shock and activate directly.
After about three days we’ll need a place to spread out the soaked barley. In our case a 25 square meter bard or shed should do the trick for now. In Scotland this is called the ‘Malt floor’. What will happen now is really interesting. All the active enzymes will start converting starch into sugar. During this process the grains can become a bit sticky, which is why they should be turned over every once in a while. This is a tough job, you can do this.
In the meantime we will make sure that we keep an eye on the growth of the grains. As soon as the little plant that’s growing out of them becomes the size of two-thirds of the grain, we have to stop the growing process. We’ll do this by drying the grains. In the beginning, when we don’t have a drying oven yet, we’ll do this by blowing hot air through the grains. This will give the barley a nice and grainy flavour. In a few years we might consider getting an oven. This will give the whisky a more smoky flavour. In Scotland they call this ‘Peaty whisky’. For now let’s start easy.
We’re now about 12 days into the production process and all we have is malt. This is nice, but you can’t drink it, so let’s get on with it! Next up we need a mill. This mill will turn the barley grains into flour. The Scots call this grist.
We need a large stainless steel tin in which we mix the flour with hot water. Here the present starch will be turned into fermentable sugars. For a smooth process we’ll need a tin with a drainer at the bottom. This way we can separate the sugar water from the rest. In Scotland this is called a ‘Mash tun’ and it can contain up to 15.000 liters. I think we can do with one that contains 1.000 liters for now, don’t you?
The water is flushed through the grains three times in different temperatures. By doing this we flush all the sugars from the flour. The sugar water that we create is called Wort. The stuff that remains in the mash tun is very rich in protein and can easily be used to create cattle feed. Of course we’ll do this and make some extra money with it to make up for the large investments we’ve done.
Now at least we have something liquid, but you can’t drink it and it contains no alcohol. Let’s fix this. First we will cool the sugary liquid to 15 degrees (Celsius). This is very important as we’re going to add the yeast and yeast dies in a temperature above 25 degrees. Big distilleries have a wort cooler for this, I think in our case we should just wait until the temperature is low enough.
As soon as the wort is cooled down, we will put it in a mash tun. We will add the yeast to the sugar water. This is the start of a heavy process in which all the present sugar is converted to alcohol and carbonic acid. This process may take between 48 and 100 hours. The longer the yeasting process, the more flavours and aromas will originate. If we were to add hop now, we would have a heavy beer of about 7 – 9% alcohol. This is why we call it ‘Faint beer’, the Scots call it ‘Wash’.
We will increase the alcohol percentage by distillation. We’re finally there! After about 2 weeks of work we can start with the real deal. Distillation is the process of separating two liquids by making use of the different evaporation temperatures. We need two stills, these are onion-shaped copper kettles with a ‘neck’. The longer the neck, the more pure the white spirit will be. The first kettle we use is called the ‘Wash still’, the second one is the ‘Spirit still. These stills are expensive, but worth the money. Copper is an excellent guide and subtracts all the harmful elements from the liquids.
In the first still we pump the heavy beer, which we the heat by using steam. Because the alcohol has a lower boiling point this will start evaporating around 78 degrees Celsius. The evaporated alcohol will go into the neck of the kettle, through the lyne pipe into a copper spiral and end up in the condenser. The condenser is a large tank of cold water which cools down the damps to their liquid shape. The liquid that is now created is called low wine and has an alcohol percentage of 17 – 20%. Via a spirit safe the low wine is saved in storage tanks.
We’re almost there now! It’s time to start the second distillation round by filling the spirit still with the low wine. The process is exactly the same as the first time. The liquid that is left now is transferred to the spirit safe. The spirit safe is a copper closet with three glass containers. This is very important as we want to separate the middle cut from the forshot and the aftershot. Only the middle cut is suitable for making whisky. We catch the forshot and the aftershot in one of the glass containers and reuse that later. The middle cut is also called baby whisky and we catch it in the spirit receiver.
The liquid that we have now is colourless and grainy in flavour. According to the official whisky rules the liquid has to age for at least three years and a day to be called whisky. Which is good, because the wood of the barrel gives the spirit its colour and its flavour. This means we have to go look for some pretty barrels. This might be a bit of an effort, but we’ll get there. Once we found the perfect ones we can fill them with the baby whisky and bring them to a warehouse. After at least three years and a day we can bottle them and we can finally enjoy our very own whisky! Now all there’s left is give it a good name. Any ideas?
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