In the latest in our series on whisky terms we reach the letter S.In the first of two parts,we look at American whiskey's use of the letter.

Production | 22 Jul 2008 | Issue 73 | By Rob Allanson

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Describing Scottish and American whisk(e)y as the same product is to argue that squash and golf are the same game because they both involve two players and a little ball.Beyond the fact that both styles of whisk(e)y are made using grain, water and yeast, the two have little in common.And although American whiskey was developed originally from Scottish, Irish and Welsh settlers, it has of course developed its own very recognisable style.With that comes its own language, too, and sometimes the language is the same as for Scottish whisky but it means something entirely different. So a straight whisky in Scotland means one served with nothing added to it. In America it refers to the fact that the whiskey has been matured for a minimum of two years in new oak barrels,an important measure of quality.One of the least understood parts of the bourbon-making process is that of sour mash and that’s at least in part to the fact that the fermentation process is fundamentally different to that of Scotland.Where Scottish distillers will take a fresh batch of malted grain, extract all the sugars and enzymes that will be eaten by the yeast to make alcohol and remove the spent grains before fermentation takes place, in American whiskey production the grains are left in the mix, so that a porridge-like mix of cereal,and water enters the fermenter and,once it has been made into beer,goes into the still.Once distillation is finished there will be a deposit of grains that have been stripped of their sugars and alcohols.They are slightly sour,hence sour mash and may be known as slops, stillage, spent beer backset and sometimes, setback.The sour mash process is that by which some of the backset is pumped back into the fermenter to be mixed with the next set of fresh grains.Up to a quarter of a fermentation will be made up by this backset, although it varies from distillery to distillery. Its purpose is crucial to the process.Acids in the sour mash control and neutralise bacteria in the mix that thrive in the warmer climes of Kentucky.This neutralisation helps allow the yeast to flourish, essential because grains such as corn and rye do not lend themselves to fermentation as readily as malted barley and the yeast needs all the help it can get.In contrast, the Scottish process of making each batch of spirit with new and fresh grains is described as sweet mash – with no ‘sour’ backset present.There are other terms that are special to American whiskymaking, too.They include: Single barrel whiskey:The product of just one cask.This has added significance in American whiskey because extremes in temperature and the warehouse system mean that there can be big differences between each cask and the very best ‘honey barrels’ are much sought after.Small batch:There is no legal definition of this termbut it refers to whiskey made from a small number of selected barrels.Whether this small number runs to 10s or thousands is a moot point, as is whether the whiskey is made in small batches or whether it is made in huge batches and a small amount separated off after completion.Small grains: the description for cereals used in the process that are smaller than corn. GLOSSARY Saladin box Device for mechanically turning barley to encourage germination at the beginning of the whisky-making process Single malt whisky Whisky made only using malted barley and from one distillery only Spirit safe Glass fronted unit through which distilled spirit passes on its way to one of three holding tanks.The strength of the spirit is monitored here and the decision taken to transfer spirit from running as foreshots tothe middle cut,and from the middle cut to the feints ortails Spirits receiver The tank to which the middle cut of the distillation run is stored.This is what is known as new-make spirit and will be matured to make whisky Steeping The immersing of barley in water to encourage germination at the start of the whisky-making process Shiel Traditional malt shovel Solera system Not common in whisky,but the process of siphoning off liquid from the bottom of a large holding cask and refilling from the top with a different batch of whisky so that the contents are continually changing Stein,Robert The Scotsman who created the continuous distilling process.A much more efficient version was introduced by Aeneas Coffey–and hence the Coffey Still
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