According to trade statistics whisky outsells every other spirit on the world market. To delve into the history of whisky, 1994 ushered in the 500th anniversary of Scottish malt. The earliest record of whisky being distilled dates back to 1494 when such activity was only a sideline to farming but there is evidence that distilling of whisky took place long before that date.
The word whiskey is a derivation of the Gaelic term for " water of life" and those who find refuge in it, in times of stress and depression , will no doubt confirm its life sprucing features.
A single malt whisky or a single grain whisky is the product of an individual distillery with its distinctive methods of distilling. A blended Scotch whisky is a blend of a number of single malt and grain whiskies. The age of maturity of a type of whisky refers to the time that the whisky has been allowed to mature, which is stated on the label of a bottle of whisky. However, in a blended whisky the age of maturity will be the age of the most recent distilled spirit in the blend.
To unravel the mystery of whisky making, it is necessary to describe the production process. Scotland is famous for world's best known single malt whiskies. The rivers there provide plentiful supplies of pure soft water and the distilleries are usually situated on the banks of a rushing torrent from a nearby by mountain range.
The most vital ingredient of a good single malt whisky is water, the others being malted barley and yeast. Malted barely is barley which is soaked in water two or three days after the harvest and then laid out on a malting floor to germinate; fermentable sugars are extracted from this process. For whisky distillation partial germination is needed , therefore, at a certain stage of the production process the barley is taken out and dried in a malt kiln. The malted barley is then ground into grist ( coarse flower) in a milling machine.
The next stage is mashing. The grist is mixed with hot water in a large tub and this process converts the enzymes in the malted barley to sugar. In the tub, the liquid is conditioned by warmth and steam and thus liquid is called " wort". It is dawn off from the tub and cooled for fermentation. The residue of the grain is sold as high protein cattle feed.
" Wort " passes into huge circular vessels called " wash backs" with capacity for 60,000 litres. Yeast is then added and left for a minimum period of 50 hours to ferment the sugar into alcohol. The liquid is at this stage called " wash".
Throughout this process stringent precautions are taken to avoid bacterial infection. This is important in view of the fact that any contamination would inevitably affect the flavour and quality of the whisky.
The " wash" is then distilled twice in large copper pot stills. Copper eliminates sulphur and thereby ensures the flavour. The "wash" is heated first in the ' wash stilt' so that alcohol becomes vapour & this vapour passes up the stilt until it meets tubes of cooling water which condense it back into liquid state again. Such a process separates the alcohol from the fermented liquid & the product at this stage is called " Low Wines" and passes into a second stilt called ' spirit stilt' in which the process is repeated. At this stage the liquid is run off in three parts; the liquid during first and third stages are non-drinkable and it is only the second part of the run, known as the " heart of the run", which is the cream becomes the famous drink. The liquid is then drawn off into a large Oak vat which acts as the intermediate spirit receiver.
Maturity is the final stage in the whisky making process. Casks which are made from Spanish and American Oak are used to hold the spirit as it mellows and matures while Casks made out of British Oak are considered to be too porous. The criteria in casking is that the wood has to be just right quality and age to allow the whiskey to breathe as it matures. The distilled whisky is then transferred from the main spirit vat into casks that can hold upto 250 litres which are then stores in vaults to mature. The Oak Casks act as filters and the blend of the wood and whisky produces distinctive flavours. To qualify to be classified as " Whisky" the liquid must be in the casks for at least three years. After this state it can be blended with other single malt whiskies or grain whiskies to make blended Scotch Whisky. As an alternative the spirit may be left to mature for periods as long as 25 years.
The variations in flavour of whiskies are due to the distinctive differences in the type of water and barley, length of the maturation period, and most important of all the nature of the wooden casks used to hold the spirit to mellow and mature.