How Whisky is Made

Nobody can name the date on which Scotch Whisky was first distilled and the origins of distilling remain somewhat a mystery. However, it is believed that distilling may first have been attempted in Asia around 800BC and found its was to Europe via Asia.

The original way to make whisky is to turn barley into malt, infuse it in water, ferment it into a form of beer (or “wine”), then distil it by the batch in a copper vessel shaped like a kettle or cooking pot. Malt whisky is still produced only in this way. In the mid-1800s, the blends of malt whiskies began to be leavened with a lighter style – made less expensively, from a variety of grains (not all malted) in a continuous process, using a column-shaped “patent” still. These unspecified grains may include unmalted barley, wheat or maize.

The Birth of the Blends

The Scots, with their mountainous country and long coastline, are a maritime nation of explorers, traders and engineers. Their pioneering travels have made blended Scotches, produced from both malt and “grain” whiskies, the most international of spirits. Although some of the sites are surely earlier, the oldest of today’s Scottish distilleries date from the 1700s. Many date from illegal stills, and others from farms. In the 1700s and early 1800s, production was small and irregular, and the notion of “brands” or trademarks was unknown in any industry. Whisky was sold by the cask to country grocers and wine merchants. Johnnie Walker was such a shopkeeper; George Ballantine another; the Chivas brothers were partners in a shop. These merchants dealt with lack of consistency or volume by creating their own house vattings, and these became brands. John Dewar, who went into the business in 1806, was the first person to sell branded whisky in bottles.

The Recovery of Single Malts

Scotland is still the world’s biggest exporter of spirit drinks, but the success of blends, owned by a handful of large corporations, made the few independent distillers of malt whisky nervous. In the post-war period, Glenfiddich began to export its whisky as a single malt, first to England, and then, in the late 1960s and 70s, to the rest of the world. What seemed like a lone gamble became an inspiration to others. Blended Scotch is still dominant in volume, but single malts like Glenfiddich, The Glenlivet, Glenmorangie, The Macallan and Laphroaig have established themselves internationally.

Single Malt: The Appellation

The term SINGLE has a very precise meaning. It indicates that all of the whisky in the bottle was made in the same distillery. It is the product of a single distillery and has not been blended with whisky from any other distillery. The term MALT indicates the raw material. The whisky is made exclusively from malted barley and no other grain, sugar or fermentable material. It is infused with water, fermented with yeast and distilled in a pot-still.

There are 100-odd malt distilleries in Scotland. Their products are the only Malts that may be called SCOTCH. A whisky must be distilled and matured for at least three years in Scotland in order to bear that appellation. The term “Scotch” cannot be applied – but the term “Single-Malt Whisky” can be applied to examples made in Ireland, somewhat experimentally in North America, and in New Zealand and Japan. These countries, however, have only a handful of distilleries among them.

While most bottles of single malt contain a vatting of several production runs, some are filled from a single batch. Such a whisky is sometimes identified as a “Single/Single” Scotches. This means that it is a single malt from a single barrel. A single barrel might fill fewer than 250 bottles.

The Glenfiddich is a true single malt, but also uses on its label the term “Pure Malt,” as if to wear both belt and braces. This is perhaps foolish, as the singularity sounds to be diminished by the term “Pure.”

On the labels of some other products, the term “Pure” indicates that, while the content is all pure malt whisky, it may come from several distilleries. This is true of several minor brands, especially in export markets. Any importer, distributor, or store-chain can create its own brand – let us say Glentammy, and fill its bottles with whichever malt whiskies are available and attractively priced. The contents of its bottles may vary from one year to the next. For that reason, these products are not reviewed in this reference, though some are very acceptable and excellent in value. Some countries with no malt distilleries buy whiskies from Scotland and vat them under a national label.

With this background, you are now ready to learn more about how to store and serve this most popular of spirits.


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