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History, distillation, maturation and appreciation
The Scotch Whisky Industry contributes close to five billion pounds to the UK economy, earning £140 in exports every second, and is continuing to grow.
A short history of whisky
Distillation arrived in Ireland and subsequently Scotland during the late middle ages, and was most likely brought by monks travelling back from the continent. Italian records from the 13th century tell us that aqua vitae was produced by monasteries for medicinal purposes, rather than for social consumption.
The bird of the whisky industry
In the early 19th Whisky production was soon begun in earnest on an industrial scale. However, single malt whisky was still in its infancy, with most of the whisky being used in the ever-popular blends.
Whisky’s first droom
By 1889, phylloxera had decimated almost every vineyard in Europe. Due to this tragedy, French wines and brandies were in seriously short supply and Scotch whisky soon became the drink of choice. Glenfiddich first fired up its stills in 1886 but they couldn’t produce enough spirit, so it was quickly followed by the construction of Balvenie (originally known as Glenfiddich No.2) next door in 1892.
Whisky and war!
By the outbreak of the Second World War, Scotch was truly a premium product, but the menace of the U-Boats in the Atlantic resulted in an acute food shortage. Many distilleries ceased production again due to the acute lack of grain, with others being used to shelter troops or store wartime equipment.
THE PRODUCTION PROCESS
MALTING, MASHING, FERMENTATION AND DISTILLATION
Step 1 Malting
The first step in whisky production, malting is the process in which grain is soaked in water to encourage germination, then dried with hot air to produce malt for the production of whisky.Once the malted barley is dried, it is ground down into grist before the mashing process to increase the solubility of various sugars.
Step 2 Mashing
Mashing is the process in which fermentable sugars are extracted from the grain. The grist is soaked in hot water (between 62-70 degrees) for a period of time, which encourages starch to be broken down into sugars through the activation of an enzyme called amylase.
Step 3 Fermentation
Fermentation, where the sugars in the wort are turned into alcohol using yeast, takes place in large washbacks. Essentially huge fermentation tanks, washbacks are large cylindrical vessels used for the fermentation of wort.
Step 4 Distillation
Distillation is the process in which alcohol is extracted from the fermented wort, or wash, through selective boiling and condensation. It is a physical separation process rather than a chemical reaction. Alcohol vapours evaporate, rise up the still and over the Lyne Arm. They then condense, and the resulting new-make spirit is collected.
Step 5 Maturation
The production process gives the whisky roughly 20-30% of its style and flavour, with the rest all being extracted from the maturation process.
Oak is an extremely durable wood but is also slightly porous, allowing the cask to breath. In humid conditions such as those found in Scotland, this allows a small amount of alcohol every year to evaporate into the air (the Angel’s Share), but also draws the spirit deep into the wood.
Maturing casks are kept in secure bonded warehouses. The traditional ‘dunnage’ warehouses found on site at many distilleries have thick stone walls and earth floors that help to maintain consistent temperatures and humidity.