Monday, November 8, 2010

Whiskies 101

This is very expensive, but is it good?
This is an in-depth guide about Whiskies.  For the abridged version, see Scotch Cheat Sheet.

What is whiskey?
Whiskies are spirits (distilled alcohol) made from grains, where as Brandies are spirits made from fruits. Traditionally, whiskies were made with barley, but nowadays, maize and rye are just as common.

Unlike fruits, grains don't naturally contains the sugar needed to create alcohol.  The starch in the grain must be converted into sugar before fermentation (yeast convert sugar into alcohol).

Here is the production of malt whiskey:

Step 1: the grain is soaked in the 'steep', regularly changed water, for 48 hours to encourage the seeds to release its natural enzymes to convert the stored starch into sugar (which the seed can use to grow).

Step 2: the wet barley grain is then spread on the malting floor, a temperature and humidity controlled space or warehouse, and and regularly and gently turned. Alternatively, it can be placed into the (more space conscious and less labour intensive) rotating Saladin boxes.  This encourages the barley, which at this point is called the green malt, to germinate and create sugar.

Step 3: Before the barley sprouts, they are dried, usually kiln, to stop the growth. In scotch, peat is used to smoke the barley to add flavours. At this point, the barley is called malt.

Step 4: Malt is grinded into grist and then mixed in hot water in a mashed-tun.  This process completely the sugar conversion process.  This sweet beer-like liquid is called a wort.  Wort is then placed in fermentation tanks called wash-backs. Here, the yeast converts the sugar into alcohol.

Step 5: The alcohol is then distilled either through pot-still or patent-still.  The product of patent stills is usually flavorless, like vodka, The premium whiskey, such as scotch, usually uses pot-still which leaves more impurity (a.k.a flavour and nuances).   This distilled alcohol is called British Plain Spirit, not scotch whiskey yet.

Step 6: In ordered to be called Scotch whiskey, the alcohol must go through maturation for three years, usually in oak cask.  Traditionally, scotch uses freshly emptied sherry casks, but used Bourbon casks are now widely used.  The casks gives the most obvious flavour differences between different whiskey.  As amateurs, this is usually (the only) what we tastes.

Here is the production of grain whiskey: This is the more economical way of churning out cheap whiskey.

Step 1: Grind the grain (maize or any grain really) into flour.

Step 2: Cook it in a pressure cooker to release the starch.

Step 3: A little bit of malted barley is added for the enzyme and allow to ferment.  The fermented product would be weaker than the wort in malt whiskey.

Step 4: The industrial strength patent-still will distill it to whatever alcoholic strength you want.  This product is pungent but very smooth.

Step 5: In order to be called Scotch whiskey, it still has to be fermented for at least 3 years, effectively making it palatable.

Alternatively, grain whiskey is blended with malt whiskey.  In fact, most whiskies are made this way.  Standard Blend is usually not much more than three years old with varying quality and proportions of grains and malts. Deluxe Blend usually have more and better malt, the more expensive component of the two.  It will also age-able for longer and stated on the bottle as 8, 12, 17 years old.

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