It was one of those evenings when the mind is eager to get layered in bouquets of flavours. The mind is open and receptive and is ready to accept a new facet, a new truth, a new way, a new snippet or nugget of information. It is generally observed that at such moments, some information-laden friends always turn up… and this is what happened that evening.
One of these friends was just back from Scotland and told us he had been to a lot of distilleries there and has quite a bit to share… and then with a flourish he opened his bag and out came two bottles of Black Dog TGR. He said, ‘This one is triple gold reserve and has had that exclusive time spent inside a sherry cask.’
‘Aha!’ I said. I mean what more can one say at such a moment.
This friend, we all knew, was hardly the sort who would need to be encouraged to speak… and as expected, he started by telling us of things we had already read. I mean, who doesn’t know that the ‘origins of malt whisky distilling in Scotland are lost in the mists of antiquity’ or that they ‘date back at least to the monks of the 15th century and probably long before’?
One of us simply had to tell him that we knew that the Latin aqua vitae is ‘water of life’, and that it was was corrupted in the 18th century to usky, and then to whisky. Our friend looked at us and then smiled before he went on, ‘But I’m sure you guys have no idea about some of the processes of whisky making.’
I said, ‘Yes, we know what maturation is… and what casks are…’ and then I was silent.
‘That’s it?’ he said, ‘well then, let us start with malting and then go on to other lovely whisky terms.’
Our friend explained that the first step is to steep barley in water and then spread it out on malting floors to germinate. Tossing this barley prevents heat from building up. After a week, the germinated barley is sent to the kiln for drying. This halts the process of germination but care is taken to keep the temperature in kiln below 70 deg C or vital enzymes are lost. At this stage he dramatically said, ‘The Scots sometimes add peat to the fire in the kiln to give it the flavour from smoke. This is one of the secrets that I learned there.’
‘Good for you and good for us,’ I said.
This fried malt is then ground and mixed with hot water in a mash tun with the heating done in three stages to finally be around 67 deg C. ‘The experts told us that adding Scottish water is what gives this mash the right consistency,’ said our friend. The mash turns into a sweet sugary liquid called wort.
‘What do they do with the residue?’ I asked.
‘Ah! They call it the draff or spent grain and turn it into cattle feed.’
Fermentation is when the wort is cooled to 20 deg C and yeast is added. He added, ‘By the way, you may be unaware that the small quantity of alcohol that is produced when yeast feeds on sugar is called congeners and this also adds to the final flavour of the whisky.’ This is the stage when Carbon dioxide is also produced and there is a lot of froth to control. After 2 turbulent days, the fermentation is complete and the end product is a wash with 6-8% alcohol by volume.
The strange thing with pot stills is that every distillery has its own kind and they say that these stills are not moved around or the shape changed as the distinctive character of that malt whisky is because of them. Distillation takes place here.
The wash is distilled twice… after the first, the distillate has about 20% alcohol by volume. A website describes this as: ‘The more volatile compounds which distil off first – the foreshots, and the final runnings called feints where more oily compounds are vaporized, are both channelled off to be redistilled when mixed with the low wines in the next batch.’
The final process is where all distillates are passed through the Spirit Safe and then, as this website clarifies: The ‘newly distilled, colourless, fiery spirit reduced to maturing strength, 63% alcohol by volume, is filled into oak casks which may have previously contained Scotch whisky, bourbon or sherry, and the maturation process begins.’
‘So this is how the malt whisky is finally sent for maturation,’ said our friend.
And we decided to listen to more of his stories some other day. Stories that would obviously talk about maturation and the art of blending.
30 May 2014