This post is the first of three that will take you through the life cycle of whisky – its birth, maturation and death. This post will begin the story by introducing you to the way whisky is made… baby whisky, that is!
In the beginning, there is barley…
In the beginning, there is barley. This barley is dried (either by air or peat smoke), cracked and then placed in hot water (usually from 63°C) for a while, so that the lovely flavour and sugar in the barley can be soaked up by the water. The barley is then strained out of the water, and the now barley infused water – think of it as barley tea – is ready to be converted to what can be described as a beer without hops.
Barley tea is made into a beer
To make this beer, yeast is added to the barley tea when it reaches somewhere between 18°C to 28°C (depending on the kind of yeast that is used). The yeast converts the sugars in the barley tea – or “wort”, in whisky speak – to alcohol, and this process is called “fermentation”. Many different types of yeast are used to create alcohol of different flavours, from bakers yeast used by many moonshiners to the more sophisticated ale yeasts that tend to be used by artisan distillers. You will find that every distillery has a particular strain of yeast they prefer to use, and this yeast contributes to their distillery character. Sometimes the batch is spoiled by wild yeast hanging around, eager to ferment any sugary liquids into the most fowl smelling substance that is sure to prompt the gag reflex. The race to beat that pesky wild yeast from spoiling the show requires a clean work area – which really makes me wonder about what those rowdy moonshiners make out in open air – and getting the wort down in temperature as quickly as possible to add the nice, friendly, yeast – the longer it takes, the more time the wild yeast has to cheekily ruin the batch, but if the wort is too hot the nice cultured yeast will die. Once the yeast is placed in the wort, magic happens, and it begins to slowly ferment into beer – the “wash”.
The beer is distilled… carefully!
The wash, now containing alcohol, is placed in a still (made of copper, to help remove sulfides in the wash and accentuate esters and aldehydes) and heated. It is distilled once to produce “low wines”, which are then distilled again to produce a stronger alcohol (more on that, below). Because alcohol evapourates at a lower temperature than water, it can be separated from the water in the wash by heating the wash to a temperature above 78.4°C but below 100°C. As the wash reaches around 65°C a liquid clear as water begins to travel up the still as vapour. Not all of it is good. The alcohol that boils at the lowest temperatures is acetone and methanol – real nasty smelling and poisonous – and this fortunately comes out of the still first and is discarded by a distiller. Then when the wash reaches 78.4°C that is when the good drinkable alcohol, ethanol, boils and travels up the still as vapour to be condensed into liquid and collected by the distiller. As the wash heats up, though, higher alcohols such as fusel oils/alcohols (2-Propanol/rubbing alcohol at 82.4 °C and 3-Methyl-1-Butanol at 99.5 °C) also begin to boil and then follow the ethanol up the still.
As you can probably already tell, not all the clear liquid that comes out of the still is good. The distiller needs to make what is known as “cuts”, after discarding the foreshots (the acetone and methanol) at the start of the run. The first part of the run is the “heads” which produces a potent alcohol that pierces the brain at first, very sharp and similar in smell to nail polish. As the amount of ethanol flowing out of the still increases, the lovely juicy body of the spirit emerges in the form of “hearts” which is mostly ethanol. This is the sweet stuff – pure hearts is sweet, smooth, soft, expressive of the raw ingredients and fruity. After a while, the hearts begin to fade into the “tails”, which smells very much like wet cardboard, baby sick, wet dog etc. It not poisonous, it just smells and tastes strange. For flavour spirits, such as whisky, the tails can provide some tasty congers and compounds so a distiller needs to determine what combination of “cuts” best expresses his or her distillery character.
The type of still, and number of distillations, matters
The type of still that is used is important, but most distillers use copper “pot stills” which basically allows alcohol vapour to travel up its neck and then be converted to liquid at the top when it reaches a condenser (which is usually a coil with cool water running through it). To make whisky, a distiller needs to typically undertake two distillation runs – first distilling the wash to produce “low wines” (usually 18-25% ABV) and then re-distilling the “low wines” to get a stronger alcohol usually between 60-70% ABV. Sometimes, to get a lighter spirit, a distiller might want to run it through again (as is typical with three times distilled Irish whiskey or Auchentoshan, which defies the Scotch industry standard of distilling twice). Other types of stills can include reflux or column stills which can distill a wash multiple times in one cycle, by using packing or bubble-plates (I have seen some of these stills with over sixteen bubble-plates which are mostly used to distill vodka because with each distillation the alcohol is stripped of some flavour and becomes purer and more concentrated with ethanol – this is why whisky is usually distilled only two or three times, to keep the flavour of the barley and fermentation). These reflux or column stills sometimes have a condenser at the top of the still neck with cool water running through it, and this cool water blocks heavier vapours so that lighter vapours can pass through to be collected thereby producing a very fine spirit.
Once distilled, at least twice, you have a bouncing baby whisky
Once the distiller makes all the desired “cuts”, you have whisky in its infancy. This is baby whisky, so to speak (though not legally whisky, which needs to sit in oak casks for at least three years). This baby whisky is more accurately known as “new make”.
Tasting Glengoyne new make
Glengoyne air dry their barley, never using peat, which means that from the start this little baby whisky is designed to have no peat flavours – just clean, fresh malty notes from distilling the fermented barley tea that was discussed above – the “wash”. Glengoyne new make is very clean spirit that is strikingly rich with hearts and some faint surges of heads, which add some welcome spark. There are hardly any detectable higher alcohols and tails seem to come out in the finish, which indicates that tails may have been used to amplify the finish. Tails are important, because they add some congeners and flavour compounds not found in hearts – they are sometimes very important ingredients to a distillery’s character.
Find in Glengoyne new make caramel (werthers original), brown pear, peaches, nectarines, crushed apple and orchard fruit with a lingering, flavoursome finish that offers disgorged digestive biscuits with mild creaminess (now that, surely, must bring back some early memories… unless you eat teddy bear biscuits before a big night!). This is superbly crafted new make.
This, as you have probably noticed, certainly does not sound like whisky! What about the vanilla and spice and all things nice, I hear you cry as you lament the idea of disgorged digestive biscuits!! To get the aroma, flavour and colour of whisky the new make needs to spend at least three years (usually much much longer) in oak casks. That is known as the “maturation”, a process which will be the focus of the next installment in the Life of Malt Whisky.
Up next… the maturation. Stay tuned!