Whiskey Production: How Does The Taste Get Into The Whiskey?
Distilled alcohol based on grain is called schnapps for us and vodka for the Russians – neutral alcohol that has absolutely nothing to do with Scottish whiskey in terms of taste.
Because when whiskey connoisseurs talk about taste, they talk about peat, smoke, honey, vanilla, chocolate, and many other flavors that they think they recognize in them.
The three starting products, barley, water, peat, and finished whiskey, were used to determine the location of many distilleries.
There are many aspects of not only the production process but also the commercial distilling equipment that impact the flavor profile of whiskey. This is something most enthusiasts do not realize, because it’s not as romantic or interesting as talking about the terroir of the ingredients like the grain, water, or barely.
MALTING THE BARLEY: turning starch into sugar
The barley contains a lot of starch. The yeast, which is supposed to ferment later, will not do anything with this. It needs sugar, such as malt. That is why the barley is first malted.
The countless grains are watered and laid out on a floor. Or, as Andrew Jefford describes it in his book “Peat, Smoke and Spirit,” you are being fooled: you are being fooled into spring. Hopefully, they will begin to germinate and form a first tiny sprout.
Whether barley is meant or the finished whiskey is essential because the phenol loses itself over time. Both in the firing process and storage. That’s why some peaty whiskeys are pretty young.
GRINDING THE MALT: Not too fine and not too coarse
Then the malted grain is sent through a mill, where it is crushed. The art is to find the proper fineness. If the grind is too coarse, the following process will not release the optimal amount of sugar. However, if it becomes too floury, it can clump and clog the mash tun.
WASHBACK: Yeast turns sugar into alcohol
The wort ends up in a container called a washback. Here brewing yeast is added to the liquid, which pounces on the sugar and converts it into alcohol. That also means fermenting. Depending on the distillery, this takes between two days and up to 120 hours.
The result is a beer, the “wash,” which then collects in the washback. If you would like to learn more about washbacks, there is an excellent article here.
BURNING: Now the spirit becomes more strong
Distilling is the basis of many schnapps, the water of life, etc. What happens there? In short: alcohol has a lower boiling point than water. So its vapors rise before water vapor is created. Heating separates the alcohol from the beer mixture.
In classic whiskey production, there are usually two, sometimes three consecutive, distillation processes. And although there are now mature processes, the distillers hold on to old copper stills.
First, the beer comes to the wash still, where a straightforward distillation process is carried out that produces the low wines with around 25 percent alcohol content. Two-thirds of the wash ends up as a waste product, the so-called pot ales.
On the one hand, alcohol does not only include the coveted ethanol. When it burns, for example, the methanol rises earlier – alcohol which, in too high a concentration, can blind people. The master distiller doesn’t want that.
SPIRIT-SAFE: Find the heart of the distillate
The liquid now enters the spirit safe. A case made of brass and glass in which the master distiller determines when the distillate should be used in the distillation process. To do this, he swings the arm with the spout over one of the collecting containers or the other.
MATURATION PROCESS: Aromas from used barrels
After this challenging tour through heat and cold, the distillate can now rest for a few years. Single malt is aged for at least three years. During this time, the whiskey gets the long finishing touches.
For this purpose, the distilled alcohol is poured into wooden barrels. These barrels are not new; sherry, bourbon whiskey, or even port wine has been stored in them before. And the new whiskey inherits part of the aroma from these spirits.
The oak barrels have the most influence on the look and smell of whiskey.
Why is this?
Well the barrels are toasted. Toasting a barrel is the process of firing the inside of the oak barrel. A bunch of wooden staves will be placed in a circle and held together with metal straps. Then the barrel will be place on top of a large flame for a certain period of time.
Depending on what is needed, a barrel can have a light, medium, or dark toast to it. The toast is the charred inside the barrel. So between the properties of the oak wood, and the chemical reaction that creates the toasted wood, this has a huge impact on the final way a whiskey tastes and smells.
Now, most distillers use fairly neutral barrels, which means the barrels have been used in the production of some other type of alcohol and have lost most of their flavor, but even used barrels will influence the whiskey as it ages. This is also where whiskey picks up it’s brown color, from the burned inside of a barrel.
There is an entire industry that makes oak barrels specifically for the alcohol industry.
At some point, the bottle will finally end up with us consumers. And we can still influence the taste. The right nosing glass, the addition of some water (very little!) Or simply taking the time for it and letting some alcohol evaporate, all of this can change the taste experience for us.