Scotch is the most tightly regulated and protected spirit in the world, its very name a guarantee of quality and provenance. So when can you call Scotch Scotch and how is it made anyway?
First of all (and this is a dead giveaway), distilling and aging of Scotch whisky must take place in Scotland. That’s why at any given moment there’s a staggering number of around 20 million barrels of aging whisky lying around there. The liquid must be allowed to mature for a minimum of three years in oak casks no larger than 700 litres.
For the production process there’s some key regulations as well. Only cereals can be used as the starch source and the mash should be converted at the distillery only by natural enzymes from malted barley. No other substances than water or spirit caramel may be added. Cask strenght Scotch must have a minimum alcohol volume of 40% and a maximum of 94,8%.
The production of Scotch
Now that we know when we can call a Scotch a Scotch, let’s take a closer look at the production process. Essentially, there’s two types of Scotch: single malt Scotch, single grain Scotch and blended Scotch. Haig is a single grain whisky. Different single malts can be mixed to create a blended malt. Single malts and single grains can be mixed together into blended Scotch. And different single grain whiskies can be mixed together into blended grain.
The production process of whisky comprises five steps: malting, mashing, fermentation, distillation and maturation.
For single malt whisky top tier barley is used. For single grain, a mixture of grains is used. Cereals are high in starches which need to be converted into soluble sugars in order to make alcohol. This happens naturally during germination, so hot water is added and the mixture warmed until the cereal thinks it is time to grow. This is called malting.
The malted cereals are crushed in a mill to gain access to the starch.
The crushed-up cereals are drained with warm water to extract the fermentable sugars that are needed to make alcohol. This creates a solution called wort.
Fermentation is the third step and a very important one. At this stage we take the wort and cool it down. Then we add yeast and we start to make alcohol for the first time. At this stage we are basically making a beer that will be roughly 9% abv, but how long we leave this process for makes a marked difference to the final character.
45 – 55 hours: nutty/malty notes
65 – 75 hours: fruity notes
90+ hours: citric/floral notes
The beer like liquid is now called wash
We take the wash and we distil it in a copper pot still. Alcohol boils at a lower temp than water and as long as we keep the boiling temp below 100c the water stays and the alcohol separates as a vapour and then cools back down to a liquid.
The first time we do this the end product is still not strong enough to be called a spirit. We call this liquid “low wines”.
We then distil this liquid again and this is where we can influence flavour to great effect by choosing how we ‘work’ the stills. Distilling slowly allowing lots of copper contact, giving you a light and delicate spirit. Distilling quickly minimising/ preventing copper contact, giving you a heavier/ oilier spirit
The process of distilling single grain whiskies differs from single malt whisky. For single grain whisky, the wash is distilled using continuous distillation in column stills instead of copper pot stills.
The final step is maturation. This step is one of the most influential, since 100% of the colour of the Scotch and 30% to 70% of the final flavour profile can come from the cask, mainly made of American Oak or European Oak.
A good “wood policy” and a skilled team of coopers are key to the creation of great Scotch. A cooper is one of the oldest and most skilled trades in the world. Our coopers still work to the traditional methods. Every one of our coopers serve a 4-year apprenticeship before being formally qualified.