A Craft Handed Down through Generations
The production of single malt Scotch whisky is a craft perfected by time. Many of the masters you’ll meet on the Malt Whisky Trail are from families who have been making Scotch whisky for generations – from the stillmen who harness the power of the spirit, to the coopers who make the casks which underpin whisky’s flavour.
Malting and Mashing
Single malt Scotch whisky is made using an age old process, beautiful in its simplicity. It uses natural, raw ingredients: malted barley, fresh spring water, and yeast.
The production of single malt Scotch whisky begins with malting the barley by steeping it in water and spreading it across a malting floor, allowing it to germinate. This starts the conversion of starch within the barley into sugars, which mixed with yeast will create the alcohol.
Part of the process has an effect on the spirit’s end flavour – sometimes the barley is dried over peat, imparting a smokey flavour.
Once it is dried, the malt is ground to a coarse flour called ‘grist’, and mixed with hot spring water in a large vessel called a ‘mash tun’.
The sugars from the malt dissolve, creating a sweet liquid called ‘wort’. Many distilleries on the Malt Whisky Trail give the excess solid waste to local farmers to feed their cattle so that nothing is wasted.
Fermentation and Distillation
The wort is passed into a large container, called a ‘washback’, where the liquid is fermented by adding yeast. This process converts the sugars in the wort into alcohol, creating a liquid called ‘wash’, which reaches a strength of about 8% ABV.
Now, the distillation can begin.
Typically single malt Scotch whisky is double distilled in distinctive copper pot stills. These stills are like very large kettles heating the liquid inside. The first distillation takes place in the ‘wash’ still where the alcohol vapours rise to the top first. The vapours pass over the head of the still, before they are guided through a condenser as they return to a liquid form.
The result is a ‘low wine’ at a strength of about 20% ABV, which then makes its way to the second ‘spirit’ still, where the distillation process repeats itself. High quality spirit is then collected in a locked spirit safe, which you will find at the heart of any still room on the Malt Whisky Trail.
But the whisky production process has barely started…
Maturation and Release
It is now time to mature the new make spirit. Each distillery on the Malt Whisky Trail produces a distinctive spirit, which is the basis for the whisky’s flavour. But the real magic happens in oak casks over a number of years.
By law, Scotch whisky must be matured in oak for a minimum of three years. It must also be matured in Scotland.
These casks impart a distinctive golden colour to the whisky. Many casks are imported from Europe and America, having started out life holding bourbon, sherry, port, and wine.
Some of the distilleries on the Malt Whisky Trail have their own ‘coopers’ – men and women who shape and repair casks ready for maturation. However, most of the industry’s casks are handled at the Speyside Cooperage at the heart of the Trail. Casks can be rebuilt and repaired with not a single nail or drop of glue is using this process.
On the Malt Whisky Trail, you’ll come up close to these casks. You can even smell the aroma of the old filled casks.
After some time in oak casks, the whisky is ready to be enjoyed the world over.
Meet the Masters
The unique and historic process of making Scotch malt whisky is an intimate art, perfect by passionate craftsmen and women. Hear their secrets first hand as you travel the Malt Whisky Trail.