The secrets of the Scottish whisky making process

Pot Still/ Alambique


Whisky is a discovery for me (never had any good whisky before living in Scotland) and as you may have seen in my previous article, I am quite fond of the topic right now. Since we moved in Scotland (last August), we already visited 5 distilleries.


If the making process is similar in each distillery, each brand develops a slightly different process and uses different ingredients to create their perfect whisky.


To create a Scottish Single Malt, you need 2 main ingredients: Barley and water. Barley is malted differently in each distillery according to the flavours developed in the whisky. If a brand is using peat to flavour its whiskies, they will introduce the flavour at this stage by “malted” the barley under a peat fire. As a core ingredient, water will be coming from a particular natural spring. Usually each distillery owns its spring coming from the mountains or countryside.

Washback fermentation

The Single Malt process is the following:

1. First, the barley is soaked into water to activate the germination process of the grain. The germination is very important because it allows to develop the sugar contained by the barley and necessary for the alcohol making process. Then, they dry the grains in a giant air pulsed dryer. If the whisky does have a peat flavour, barley will be dried under a peat fire to allow the flavour to develop in the barley.

2. The second step is to ground the grains in large machines (the same ones used to produce flour). Each distillery grounds the barley differently to obtain different ratio between the husk, grits and flour.

Cuve developpement sucre

3. The grounded barley is then mixed and heated in large tanks (called Mash Tun) made of still, copper or hood with spring water. At this stage, you obtain a first sugary liquid. Then it is transferred in other tanks (called wash back) where the liquid will be mixed with yeast. The result of this step allows the liquid to become a light beer around 9%.

4. The beer is then added to the pot stills for the distillation. Each pot still is unique and each distillery has its own pot still shapes. Depending on the distillery size, the company can use 2 to 12 pot stills (it could be even more in some distilleries). The minimum is 2 because they need one pot still for the first distillation of the “beer”, creating a first alcohol called low wines and a second one for the second distillation (pot still are usually different according to their use). Usually, we are talking of a double distillation for the Scottish whisky and a triple distillation for the Irish whisky (not always true of course).


5. The critical step begins here: the maturation. After the distillations, the alcohol from the second distillation is transparent and taste a lot the barley. To obtain the final product, they are filling the alcohol into oak casks. By staying into the casks during a certain number of years, the liquid will take its colour and flavour.

The cask used to mature the whisky, the weather conditions and the location of the distillery will all play a role in the final product. They will all influence the colour and the flavours of the golden liquid. They will also favour the “angel share”. The angel share is the process of evaporation of the whisky which can reach up to 2% per year (do you imagine the loss after 40 years???)

They use usually oak casks from the United States that were used to mature the bourbon (to mature bourbon, distilleries have to use new casks for each batch). However Scottish whisky can also be matured in port casks, sherry casks or even French wines casks like sauternes.

Glenmorangie Casks / Fût de Glenmorangie

To be called single malt, a whisky must be produced and assembled in one distillery but it can be a mix of different whiskies from different ages or different casks.

My whisky FAQ:

– On a whisky bottle, the age given is related to the youngest whisky used in the mix.
– The minimum age of a single malt is 3 years old according to the law but you will find more easily 8 to 10 years old minimum on the shop selves for marketing purposes (distilleries will say that it is the optimum age for their whiskies but it is often just a marketing strategy).
– A Scottish whisky called Scotch whisky must be produced and bottled entirely in Scotland.

Here you go! 🙂 To understand what I just described you with words, here is a short video explaining the process.

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