How whisky is made.

The famous stills at Glenmorangie Distillery

Although the same basic whisky making process has been used for hundreds of years across the globe, each process has specific techniques to create an individual taste.
It all starts with a source of food for the yeast. Whether it’s barley in Scotland, corn in the United States or rye in Canada, the process begins with the creation of ‘malt’. It’s a simple process – soak a bunch of grain or corn in a big vat of water for a couple of days, until it starts to sprout. Then dry these newly sprouted seeds, grind it up and mix it with water and yeast. After a couple of weeks, the ‘mash’ as it is now called, produces alcohol. Once this fermentation process stops, the mash is ready for distillation. After that, it is stored for aging, and then bottled.
Pretty simple, right? But in order to get the specific tastes that we are looking for, we need to look at the details of each step.
Let’s start with the ingredients. If your distillery is located in the Rocky Mountains, your water supply will be clearer and purer than if you are located next to a peat bog on a Scottish island. So the water source has an impact on the taste of the final product. Same with the type of grain that is used and how it is prepared. For example, the flavours added by corn are very different than those created by barley. Or rye. Or a mixture of three or four different grains.
Another significant difference in the taste of the whisky comes how the freshly sprouted grain is dried. If we look back to the early days of whisky production, when some of the taste traditions originated, the way to dry the grain was to spread it over a porous floor and then to light a fire in a space below the floor. The resulting heat dried the grain over a period of two or three days. If that fire was made with nice dry hardwood, then there was very little smoke involved in the process. But if you lived somewhere where wood was scarce or expensive, then you needed to find something cheaper to burn – like peat moss, or seaweed, or straw. Maybe dried cow dung. Whatever was on hand and cheap. This resulted in various smoke tastes being introduced, although I’ve never had dung-infused whisky. These smells were carried through into the mash production and even through the distillation.
Let’s look next at distilling. A tall, shiny, copper still, for example, produces a different tasting product than Uncle Billy Bob’s home-made still made from an old oil tank strapped to a wood stove.
So what about aging? This has more impact on taste than any other step. Whisky uses oak barrels for aging. Sometimes new barrels are used. More often (in the spirit of Scottish frugality), used casks from the port or sherry industries are used. The amount of time that the whisky spends in the barrels is also important. So is the location of the storage warehouses, whether they are in the mountains, beside the sea, or underground. As a result, there are thousands of different tastes that can be introduced during the aging process.
Finally, there’s blending. If you like single malt whisky, like me, then here is little or no blending, But if you like Johnny Walker or Chivas, then you get to enjoy a bunch of flavors mixed together to get that great, consistent taste that people have come to expect.
So there you have it. A world of differences derived from one simple process.
Next we’ll look at whisky making in Scotland, where it all began (or maybe not?).

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