What is the best malt for whiskey

How barley becomes whiskey

Every whiskey is initially based on the processing of the grain. In the case of a malt whiskey, this is barley. Since the starch present in the barley grains cannot be converted directly into alcohol, the fermentable sugar must first be generated. The malting of the grain, which is also common with beer, is the first step that influences the taste of the finished malt. The moistened barley grains are germinated so that naturally occurring enzymes in the grain convert the starch into sugar. However, this process in the so-called green malt must also be stopped again, otherwise the sugar will fizzle out when the grains are expelled. Drying (kilning) depends on the temperature and the fuel in order to determine the taste of the finished malt and ultimately also of the whiskey.

Traditionally, the distilleries in Scotland and Ireland dried directly, but the picturesque buildings with the pagoda-like roofs, called Kilns, were built, which nowadays have a more decorative character. In Scotland there are actually only six distilleries still malting themselves, but none of them can cover the full demand for malt themselves. Drying is also the crucial step when it comes to making peaty whiskey. Peat, a weathered form of grass, is a traditional fuel in areas of Scotland and Ireland, which are not exactly blessed with large forests.

Burning dried peat lumps creates a lot of smoke, which brings a smoky taste to the malt and is not changed in any further production steps. Peaty whiskey varieties are extremely popular, even if they only make up a fraction of total production in terms of quantity. The most famous peat bombs come from Scotland, but peated whiskeys are also known from Ireland, Germany, Austria, Japan and other countries.

Not far from the beer

The first step in the distillery is grinding the malt and producing the "wash". The main thing that is done is to grind the fermentable sugar compounds more easily from the grain, because, similar to beer production, the next production step is mashing. The malt grist is washed out with hot water. Then the solid parts are filtered off, they are often used as concentrated feed for animals. The leftover wort, known as “word” in English, ends up in mostly wooden washbacks, ie fermentation vats, where yeast is added to start alcoholic fermentation, which takes 48 to 112 hours, depending on the distiller's will. The already fermented mash, which contains around eight percent alcohol by volume and is now ready for distillation, is named with the word “wash”. So this is something like a strong beer. Depending on the malt used, the type of yeast used, the temperature and the duration of the fermentation, unique taste components are created that are retained in the finished whiskey.

The heart of the whiskey

Scottish malt distilleries usually distill their whiskey twice in so-called pot stills, i.e. large copper stills that usually have a capacity of between 3,000 and 30,000 liters. The first firing process takes place in the wash stills, which can be recognized by the small peephole. The wash is heated to over 78 ° C. Since alcohol and water have different boiling points, vapor containing alcohol rises and is liquefied again in the condenser. When it cools down, the intermediate product known as low wine with 22-24 percent alcohol is created. The aqueous, protein-containing residue (pot ale) is disposed of.

Since the resulting low wine is not yet strong and pure enough to produce high-quality whiskey, it is distilled again in a second still (spirit still). The Brenner has to intervene decisively here. The foreshot (called foreshot or head) consists of harmful methyl alcohol and must therefore be separated and disposed of. The middle cut or heart is the pure alcohol that turns into whiskey during storage. The tail (feint or tail) is also cut off. The centerpiece or centerpiece is pure and transparent and now has an alcohol content of around 68 to 72 percent. The distillate is now called Spirit or New Make. It cannot be called whiskey yet, as it has not been stored. However, many New Makes already have taste characteristics that later come into play in the whiskey.

Before being filled into the storage barrels, the spirit is diluted with demineralized water so that the alcohol content drops by six to nine percent by volume. It finally comes into the barrel with an average of 63 percent by volume. Spirits stills are usually a little smaller than the wash stills. Each manufacturer has their own preferences. So it is said that tall stills are used to produce lighter distillates, while lower, squat apparatus often produces heavy, characterful spirits. In Ireland, a triple distillation is quite common, because here particularly mild basic distillates are to be produced; other distillation devices, some of which are much smaller, are also in use worldwide.

Time shows it

The freshly distilled spirit is now poured into oak barrels. These are very often American white oak barrels, in which American whiskey (mostly Bourbon) was previously stored, or Spanish sherry barrels. The former bourbon barrel is the most common aging barrel today. The Americans are only allowed to use new barrels for bourbon, after which they are used for Scotch, Irish and other types of whiskey, but also for rum, tequila and other brandies worldwide. A bourbon barrel gives the brandy structure and its taste is easy to recognize by the clear shade of vanilla. Ex-sherry barrels are traditionally of great importance. England is one of the most important markets for sherry from southern Spain. In the past, this was brought to England directly in wooden barrels by sea. So the barrels were readily available. Today the barrels are imported specifically for whiskey production, the sherry is exported in bottles. Depending on the type of sherry - there are dry (e.g. Fino, Manzanilla, Oloroso) and sweet (Cream, Pedro Ximénez) sherry - the barrels give off flavor from the pre-allocation in the whiskey. In addition to these barrel types, casks made from port wine, sweet wine, Madeira or rum have also been used to mature whiskey in recent years. After the last amendment to the Scotch regulations in 2019, former tequila and beer barrels are now also permitted for the maturation of whiskey.

After at least three years in the warehouse, we can only speak of whiskey. The barrels make a decisive contribution to the taste of a whiskey bottling, and therefore they are rightly given special importance in the manufacturing process. As the wood breathes, it interacts with the distillate, which loses around two percent of its liquid and alcohol content every year. The distillers speak of this loss as Angel’s Share. The distillate draws its color and taste from the wood, which partly comes from the pre-allocation. The environment, such as salty sea air, also has an influence on the taste. After the desired storage time, often more than ten years, the whiskey is usually diluted again to achieve a drinking strength of 40 to 48 percent by volume. Of course, there are also special bottlings that reflect the undiluted alcohol content naturally occurring in the barrel - these are labeled with the term Cask Strength. Incidentally, the age information on a whiskey bottle always refers to the youngest whiskey that is blended in the bottle. Once the whiskey is bottled, it doesn't change its taste.