By the letter

By the letter

In the latest in the series Dominic Roskrow looks at the letter ‘D'
Dominic Roskrow

01 March 2007

Publication: Issue 62

That’s the spirit. Distilling is, of course, the core part of the whisky-making process. We can – and I’m sure we do – sink many a glass of whisky and while away plenty of happy hours debating how important the barley, yeast and water are to the overall flavour of whisky, how much a long fermentation affects the spirit, and what slow maturation in the finest oak brings to the finished product.But for me miracle of malt – or the black magic, depending on your religious outlook – hits top gear once the process reaches the copper.Distillation doesn’t need to be carried out in a copper pot still of course. The word, from the Latin distillare, to drip down, refers to any process where a liquid is boiled until it evaporates and then is condensed and collected, separating component liquids out from each other.But there are two fundamental ways of carrying the process out for alcohol: the batch method, where you take an amount of liquid, distill it, keep the solution you want and either throw out or recycle the rest then you start all over again; and the continuous system, where liquid is added continually at one end of the process, and the finished product is collected at the other.Here let’s look at the batch method used for single malt whisky.Although distillation may be carried out once, three times and in some cases even two and a half or four times the normal way of making Scottish single malt whisky is through double distillation.The first still is called the wash still and the second the low wines or spirits still. Roughly the first still will be twice the size of the second.The wash – or distiller’s beer – is pumped in to the wash still until it is anything from half to two-thirds full. It is heated and the alcohols begin to evaporate, travelling up the long neck of the still, down the lyne arm, and condensed back to liquid again typically by passing through pipes that are being cooled externally by cold water.The original strength of the beer is 7% to 9%.At the end of the first distillation the liquid will have a strength of about 20%. This is mixed with the rejected spirits from the previous distillation, raising the strength still further.Now a second distillation is carried out and it’s here that the distiller’s skills come to the fore. To make good whisky he must separate away the bad and even poisonous alcohols and retain only the purest spirit.So the distiller allows the early part of the distillation to travel back to a holding tank to be mixed in to the next batch, as described above.These are known as foreshots.At a set point – and the point varies from distillery to distillery – the distiller starts to collect the ‘body’ as his new-make spirit. And eventually he will judge that the whisky is reaching its tail and once more the spirit – known as feints – will be rejected and recycled back for use in the next batch.So the distiller’s skill in making the cut will be essential. But so will the shape and size of the still, because copper removes impurities from the spirit, too, and the longer the interaction – the conversation – between whisky and copper, the smoother and lighter the spirit will be.There other number of factors too – the speed at which the spirit is passed through, the speed the liquid is heated up and for how long – all crucial to a distillery’s malt characteristics.The resulting spirit is clear and has a high alcoholic content of more than 60%ABV and here is all the whisky’s DNA. Quality wood may enhance the flavour, the barrel type will influence its taste.But if it’s wrong when it comes off the still, it’s wrong period. And there lies the miracle and the magic.Did you know?The whisky industry has long been conscious of the environment. Waste cereals are used for cattle feed, heat is recycled to reduce energy waste. Now, though, distilleries are under scrutiny. Among the measures some distilleries are introducing are processes to extract the small amount of copper deposited in liquids during the distilling and condensing process.DOUBLER
As the description of distilling shows, distilling can be carried out in various ways.In the continuous column still method normally used to make grain whisky, a second still can be added - known as a doubler.DRAFF
To make whisky you need to make beer and before you make beer you need to have a solution containing the sugars needed to react with yeast to form alcohol. This solution is extracted by adding hot water to malted barley in a mash tun (like making a large cup of tea). The liquid is drained off to be mixed with yeast to formalcohol. The spent grains that remain are packaged off as cattle feed, known in Scotland as draff.DRAM
Widely accepted as a small measure of Scotch malt whisky. In actual fact though, it can refer to a small drink of any distilled spirit and according to the Oxford Dictionary the world comes from Medieval Latin and the word ‘drachm’.DRUM MALTINGS
Turn barley in to malted barley you need to ‘trick’ the barley in to growing. This is done by soaking it in warm water and then turning it regularly, traditionally when it is spread out on a large maltings floor, using forks.However, it is possible to use a drum for this process. As the drum is turned mechanically it turns the barley.

Subscribe to Our Magazine

Published in print 8 times each year, Whisky Magazine is the perfect drinking companion for all who enjoy the water of life. Subscribe to Whisky Magazine

More From This Category

Wonders of Whisky

Subscribe to the Whisky Magazine Newsletter to see the latest in all things whisky