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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 ‘water of life’

The earliest mention of whisky in Ireland is a little worrying: in 1405 the death of a local chieftain was attributed to his consumption of ‘a surfeit of aqua vitae’ at the Christmas festivities. In Scotland, James IV of Scotland was said to enjoy aqua vitae, or uisga beatha, meaning water of life. In 1494 he ordered 500 bottles from a friar called John Cor, and distilled at Lindores Abbey.

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From uisge, to whisky

Following the reformation and the resulting dissolution of the monasteries, the monks took their stills and their knowledge of distillation and blended it into everyday life. Uisga (or ‘whisky’ as it became known) became an integral, everyday part of life. Many people distilled ‘moonshine’ illicitly by night. Due to smugglers being forced to hide from the government tax man, many began to put their whisky into oak casks.

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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 rise of single malts

The second half of the 20th century heralded a new era for Scotch Whisky. Demand steadily grew, being reflected in the amount of distilleries that were either established, overhauled or expanded during this period.

Today, there are 128 distilleries operating in Scotland, and the number is quickly growing through the establishment of new distilleries, the resurrection of closed distilleries and the expansion of existing distilleries.

There are over 20 million casks currently maturing at this very moment; that's over four barrels for every person living in Scotland. The number of bottles exported last year, laid end on end, would reach the moon.

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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.