Scotch is a category full of history and technique. In order to make scotch, three simple ingredients are needed, malted barley, yeast and water. As in cooking, when using minimum ingredients, you want them to be the best possible because they are making up the final product.
For example, when choosing a water source, you need to take into account the effect it is going to have on the whiskey. Is it peated (we will get to that in a minute) or run over rock or sand? If it’s peated it will have a smokey, earthy effect on the final product. If run over stone it will be lighter and softer.
Barley, typically barley from the uk is used in scotch, has to be malted before the process of making scotch begins. In the olden days, the malting of barley is done at each distillery, some still do this, like Balvenie. But for the most part, distilleries are now buying the barley already malted to their specifications.
There are two ways to malt your barley, directly dry or indirectly drying your barley. The old and traditional way of malting barley is directly drying with the use of peat. The first step is soaking the barley in water to restart the germination and right before they begin to sprout you need to dry them out. Before electricity and gas heat, all the scots had to heat their barley with was peat. Peat, what I refer to as decomposed dinosaur parts, is the land mass of thousands of years of vegetation composed together. They cut it out of the land and dry the peat out. They would use it as an energy source and in the case of whisky, to heat and dry out the barley. So under the malting floor peat is layered and lite on fire and the smokey, earthy effect seeps into the barley. Examples of whisky that use this technique are Ledaig, from the Isle of Mull, Lagavulin and Ardbeg, from the Isle of Islay.
More commonly used now, is the method of indirectly drying the barley, with the use of gas jets. This method does not alter the taste of the barley, so the final product is more malty, honey flavored. Examples of whisky that are indirectly dried are Deanston, from Perthshire in the Highlands, Bunnahabhain, from Isle of Islay, or Tobermory, from the Isle of Mull.
So once you have your barley malted to your specifications you can begin making scotch. Next, you grind the dried malted barley into grist. Then it is mixed with hot water and made into wort in a mash tun. In this step the water is critically important to the flavor of the final product.
Next, the wort is pumped into wash backs, the yeast is introduced starting the fermentation and making alcohol. Then the substance enters the pot stills where it is distilled. The heart of the run, or referred to as the middle cut, is taken out at 68-70% alcohol by volume. Then the white spirit is put in wood for maturation. In order to be called a scotch whisky, the juice has to age in wood in Scotland for a minimum of 3 years. While aging, roughly 2% of the spirit evaporates each year, referred to as the Angels’ Share.
The wood used for aging also has a big impact on the whisky. Ex-bourbon casks are more commonly used. It is bourbon law that American oak casks can only be filled once when making bourbon. So the Scots buy up the barrels re char them and use them to age their whisky. Other finishes are used now as well, like Sherry, Port, or ex-Rum barrels.
Before bottling, whisky is filtered. The most common method is chill-filtered. Chill filtered whiskies and put down a pipeline that is frozen and oils and esters freeze and are filtered out. The benefit of doing this is that your whisky will never cloud or hazy if ice or water is added by the consumer. The down fall of chill filtration is that by freezing and filtering out those oils and esters, you a taking out 20-30% of the flavor, aroma, and color of a whisky. So a lot of people are moving towards un chill filtration, so that you have the fullest flavor possible in your whisky. With an un chill filtered whisky, they are typically bottled at a higher proof and will have a clouding effect if contacted with the cold, referred to as the heavenly cloud.
Scotch is made all over Scotland and each region has their own characteristics. There are five regions.
Isle of Islay: Small island on the west coast of Scotland, known to be heavier in style with salty influence. Lots of people classify Islay whiskies as being heavily peated, but there are exceptions to every rule. For example, Bunnahabhain uses unpeated barley, so it has the heavy, oily style without a ton of peat.
Campbeltown: Southwest corner of Scotland. Known to be robust in character with a salty sea tang. An example being Springbank.
Lowland: South Scotland. Unlike the rest of Scotch that is double distilled, lowlands are triple distilled making them lighter in style and more like an Irish whisky.
Highland: Largest production of scotch. Because it is so vast, different highlands have different characters. For the most part, they are known to be rounded, robust, and dry in character. Distilleries by the sea have a saltier effect, those more north are have more influence of heather and ones in the middle are fruitier. Deanston is a great example of a highland.
Speyside: Border the River Spey. Whiskies from the region are noted for their elegance and complexity.
Most distilleries are putting out single malt scotch whisky, but what a lot of people don’t realize is that most distilleries are selling there product for blended whisky. Blends make up 93% of scotch business. A blend, like Black Bottle or Famous Grouse, contains multiple distilleries juice with a percentage of neutral grains spirits.
Whether you are a blended drinker or prefer single malts, there is a style for everyone. Don’t be afraid to try new whiskies. There are too many out there to be brand loyal.