Whisky 101: What Is Whisky & How Is Whisky Made?
With a broad range of styles, brands and flavours, there are few spirits that inspire the same loyalty and intense debate as whisky. From the heated discussions around whether the type of water used has any effect on the finished product, the importance of the inclusion or exclusion of peat, through to the correct way to actually drink the liquid, discussing whisky is almost a hobby unto itself.
For aficionados, little explanation for this phenomenon is needed beyond the drink itself. One of whisky’s great strengths is its versatility; its distinctive flavour lends itself to being enjoyed neat, on the rocks or with just a drop or two of water to bring out its more subtle qualities and flavours. Additionally, it can serve as an excellent cocktail base; its flavour profile is well suited to blendings with ingredients such as sugar syrup, bitters, citrus or other mixers to create a unique drinking experience. The merest occasion will demand a dram at the drop of a hat.
Yet for such a beloved drink, whisky’s true origins remain as obscure as the mists of Alba itself. Distillation itself dates back as far as ancient Babylon — though was not necessarily used for alcohol. However, the records we do have indicate that whisky as the modern drinker might recognise it dates back to at least the 15th century in Ireland and Scotland, after stills were introduced to the country, possibly extending back even a few centuries earlier. And although whisky has long since become a drink with worldwide popularity, its image is still inextricably bound with these two Celtic nations.
A rich legacy of ingrained tradition
As interesting as this information may be, “What is whisky?” the uninitiated may be wondering. Well, at its base — it’s a grain spirit made from fermented grain mash which has been stored in wooden casks for ageing. Within this basic premise for a beverage, there’s considerable room for a variety of different styles and flavours. However, it would probably be fair to say that whisky is a more conservative drink in comparison to something like gin but is quickly moving into being a contemporary tipple recently. The appellation “scotch” can only be applied to whisky that is made in Scotland and stored in an oak cask for at least 3 years. Though this obviously doesn’t apply elsewhere in the world, many other distilleries around the world have tended to follow where Scotland and Ireland led, and for us – we follow the Scottish style process with two distillations.
Additionally, the process of whisky making is lengthy; heavy on both time and resource consumption. The risks of getting it “wrong” are substantially higher than with many other grain spirits, hence the greater conservatism around its creation.
How is whisky made? A step-by-step guide
So how is whisky made? And what is whisky made from? In principle, it’s a relatively simple process — but as with the creation of any form of liquor, the execution is what determines the quality of the final product. Each distillery has its own unique techniques — often jealously guarded — though this will serve as a general overview of the process.
- The process begins with malting barley. High-quality barley is steeped in water and then spread across the malting floor in order to germinate. While most modern distilleries like ours at Manly Spirits Co. Distillery, will purchase pre-malted barley to speed up the process.
- After about a week, the barley is placed into a kiln for drying. It is at this stage that Peat may be added at this stage, to add a smoky flavour to the final product.
- After drying, the barley is ground into a sort of coarse flour and then mixed into hot water to create a mash. This mash is then stirred, and the liquid eventually strained out for fermentation; the leftover husks are often converted to cattle feed. At Manly Spirits, we team up with our neighbours at 4 Pines to donate our spent grain to local farmers, which they can happily say goes down very well with their cattle.
- The resultant product — now known as “wort” — then has yeast added, to encourage fermentation. This can take between 2-7 days, creating a drinkable liquid with about 6-8% alcohol. However, it lacks the subtleties and flavours that whisky is known for, not to mention its alcoholic potency.
- This liquid is then distilled twice; there’s considerable belief that the shape of the copper pot still influences the flavour of the final product, and great care is typically taken to preserve the integrity of the still. Heads, hearts, feints will be cut and the purest cut collected in the spirit receiver.
- At this point, the newmake spirit is poured into barrels or casks for maturation. These barrels can exercise considerable influence over the colour and flavour of the final whisky. Casks previously used for whisky, bourbon and sherry are all particularly popular, though new (“virgin”) barrels will periodically be used.
- Now, we wait until it’s ready to be drunk. This may take some time! The minimum time required in Australia is 2 years although Manly Spirits Whisky will not leave the barrel till post 4 years.
Experience more with a whisky distillery tour at Manly Spirits
If you’ve ever wondered how whisky is made and separated, we have the dream gift for you here at Manly Spirits. You can take a unique, behind-the-scenes look at how our single malt whisky is created. From mashing our barley, through to fermentation, distilling and barrel maturation, you’ll get to witness the process firsthand. You’ll also have the opportunity to sample, compare and discuss four different whiskies from a number of style casks and maturation levels — one is tapped straight from the barrel! It’s a unique opportunity to experience a brand new whisky at the very beginning of its lifetime.
As part of your tour, you will also have the opportunity to add your name to our special whisky-only database to have the option to purchase our Distillery ‘First Release’ Single Malt Whisky bottling during 2021. Book your whisky distillery tour with Manly Spirits online today.
Here at Manly Spirits we also offer a wide range of other drinking experiences too, including gin, botanical vodkas and liqueurs — get in touch today to speak to one of our friendly liquor experts to discover more.