The whisky production process encompasses a number of steps in which the barley which is harvested from farms undergoes a transformation to become new make spirit which is then laid down in barrels in order to become whisky.
While there may be a multitude of online sources which provide an in-depth look at the processes, we believe that having more sources with different interpretations would be beneficial in providing readers with a better idea of the processes as a whole.
In this article, which is the first in a 5 part series, we will explore the very first aspect of the whisky production process: Malting.
The purpose of malting would be to convert the starch within the barley into soluble sugars which can then be extracted, fermented and then distilled.
The process begins by steeping the barley in water (this process is known as Wet Stand), then draining it (Air Rest) several times in order to achieve the desired moisture content that is required for the next stage.
The malting floors at Bowmore distillery
The moist barley is then laid out on a malting floor (such as the one seen above) in order to germinate and must be turned several times a day in order to prevent clumping as well as to ensure that the germination process is evenly conducted.
During the germination process, malt enzymes are formed which allow for the breaking down of the cell walls within the barley.
Once the barley has reached the optimal germination stage, it is then transferred to a kiln in order to be dried. This ensures that the barley stops germinating and is also the last part in the malting process which produces malted barley for the whisky production process.
Peat, glorious peat!
While most of the drying process in the kiln is done with either hot air or coal, certain distilleries tend to dry their malt with peat. This would have been most prevalent on Islay, where the abundance of peat from the bogs which dotted the landscape as well as the relative cost of coal meant that peat was the obvious choice for the drying of the barley.
Peat, which is formed from the decomposition of plant matter such as trees, shrubs and seaweed, is the first stage in the coal production process and has been formed over millions of years.
The use of peat to dry the barley also had the effect of imbuing it with some of the peaty and smoky characteristics which were then transferred into the new make spirit after distillation and also into the final product.
These peated whiskies from Islay are held in high regard and the malted barley is peated to specific levels in accordance with the distillery's preferences and requirements. It is also a well-known fact that peat which is cut from various sources tends to have differing characteristics and this in turn will influence the aroma and flavour of the new make spirit as well as the final product.
Another interesting malting situation involves Highland Park. As the Orkney Islands are located in the far north of Scotland and is a rather windswept place, there aren't any trees on the islands.
As such, the peat bogs which are found on Orkney tend to produce a rather heathery peat which is sweeter in nature when in comparison to the peat found on Islay. This in turn influences the character of the spirit produced at Highland Park and the distillery is known for its heathery and lightly smoky whiskies.
It is also interesting to note that the barley used in the whisky production process in Scotland is predominantly sourced from farms located in Somerset, England. The barley is also sourced from other locations and only a fraction of it is produced in Scotland itself.
Different barley varietals are grown and utilised in the whisky production process, although the most common strains, Concerto and Optic, are widely grown and used primarily due to their high yield in terms of amount of spirit produced.
Certain distilleries have also utilised the less popular and lower yield varietals such as Bere and Golden Promise and these have provided whiskies with different aromas and flavours as well over the years.
All in all, the malting process sets the stage for the whisky production process and the different varieties of barley used can also have an effect in terms of the aroma and flavour of the final product.
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