The heart of the matter

The heart of the matter

In the latest in the series on whisky terms,Dominic Roskrow looks at the letters H,I and J

Production | 20 Jul 2007 | Issue 65 | By Dominic Roskrow

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If you can’t make heads nor tails of the distillation then it’s not really surprising – there are so many terms floating about for the various stages of spirit that it’s a nightmare to put it into logical order. Two of the key terms used begin with H – heads and high spirits. Let’s go through it in logical order.After barley, water and yeast have been mixed together and fermented in the washback to make a sour brewers’ beer, the liquid, known as wash, is transferred to the first pot still, known as the wash still, where it is heated to distil it.This process separates the alcohol from water, and the evaporated liquid is recondensed and collected. This liquid is often referred to in the United Kingdom as the low wines. This will have an alcoholic strength of a little more than 20%, a strength short of the ideal needed for second distillation. To bring it up to the right strength for distilling – somewhere in the high 20s ABV – rejected spirit from a previous second distillation is recycled and mixed in.The liquid is now ready to enter the second still, known as the spirits still, and this liquid is often referred to, particularly in American terminology, as high wines.It is during the second distillation that the distiller must divide the evaporating spirits in to three separate parts. The first alcohol to boil off is the strongest and by definition the most volatile. It also contains compounds that are at best unpleasant tasting and at worst poisonous, and these need to be rejected.The first part of the distillation is collected and is known as the heads or the foreshots.At some point the distiller will decide that the spirit is good enough to collect to make whisky with, and he will start collecting this portion in another tank. This is known as the cut, and is effectively the middle section of the distillation. Finally, the alcoholic strength of the evaporating spirit will fall to a level at which it is no longer worth collecting and the distiller will again separate this third portion in to a third tank. This part is known as the tails or feints. The middle cut is new make spirit and will be put in casks to be matured as whisky. The heads/foreshots and the tails/feints will be sent back to be mixed with the next batch of low wines to form the high wines for the next secondary distillation.Irish pot still whiskey With the greatest respect to our Irish cousins, in the past the Irish whiskey industry has been just a tad happy-go-lucky when it comes to definitions and history. Trouble is, there is a little confusion about some of its terminology.Take the definition of pot still whiskey. If you look the term up on Wikipedia, for instance, it will tell you that it refers to whiskey made exclusively in batches using a pot still as opposed to a Coffey or continuous still. Fine. It will tell you that it normally refers to whiskey made using both malted and unmalted barley. Fine. And it says it is exclusively Irish. Okay.But then it says that the term can refer to whiskey made using just malted barley.If that’s the case, why shouldn’t single malt whisky made in Scotland using a pot still be known as pure pot still whisky?For the purposes of this glossary, therefore, we will define pure pot still whiskey as whiskey made from a mash using both malted and unmalted barley and then distilled using batch pot stills. Examples would be Green Spot and Redbreast. Irish whiskey made using just malted barley is not the same drink and should be known as Irish single malt whiskey. The best example of this would be Bushmills.GLOSSARY Heads – see main copy High wines – see main copy Hogsheads
Remade or dump hogsheads refer to American bourbon barrels that have been taken apart, transported to Scotland, and then remade using a proportion of new staves and new heads to give them a capacity of 250 litres, bigger than the original 200 litre barrel.Hogsheads are the most common type of cask used in Scotland but neither the biggest or the smallest. The quarter casks used when producing certain expressions of Laphroaig and Ardmore have a capacity of just 45 litres, and there are smaller casks even than this. At the other end of the scale butts can contain 500 litres of spirit, port pipes often used for finishing can contain 500 litres and puncheons can accommodate litres.Immature Spirit Act
The Act of 1915 stating that spirit had to be matured for two years before it could be sold. It was introduced to reduce alcohol consumption and it did badly damage the producers of raw spirit using the continuous Coffey still to make grain whisky.Indian corn
Also commonly known as maize. Once the most common ingredient in whisk(e)y, corn was originally used to make grain whisky in Scotland though wheat is now more commonly used, and a necessary 51 per cent ingredient in bourbon. Irish whiskey has also used corn in the past but it has been in decline.Irish pot still whiskey – see main copy Jigger Originally this was a name for an illicit distillery but it fell in to disuse. However there are some that use it as an American measure of spirit, normally one and a half ounces.
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