How to Make Scotch Whisky

One of the things I wanted to do during a recent stay in Scotland was to take a tour of a Scotch whisky distillery. I don’t typically drink whisky, but I was in Scotland so I thought I needed to at least try the good stuff and see if I could distinguish it from the rotgut.

I joined a tour leaving from the Royal Mile of Edinburgh that wound its way out of the city and into the countryside. The Scottish geography is beautiful in the summer, on one of those rare days when the sun is out and the gray rain clouds have been pushed east into the North Sea. The rolling hills, the heather in bloom, the men in kilts, I could almost picture a man with bagpipes assaulting everyone’s ears.

famous grouse
How did that bird become famous?

After an hour of wandering down country lanes, the tour bus pulled up to the oldest Scotch whisky distillery in Scotland. The Glenturret Distillery near Crieff, Scotland, started perfecting the making of Scotch back in 1775, about the time that the first shots were fired in the American Revolution. Glenturret’s main brand is a blended Highland Scotch called the Famous Grouse; hence their tour is called the Famous Grouse Experience.

famous grouse statue
A giant grouse statute at the Glenturret Distillery.

A young local man named Colin was our tour guide and resident expert. Colin walked our group through each of the rooms in the distillery and explained what happened in each room. One or two steps of the distilling process was performed in each room. Unfortunately, it was not allowed to take photographs in the working distillery.

Scotch is made from malted barley, yeast and water. The distilling process works as follows. The barley is soaked in water for two to three days, then spread over the floor of a room called a malting house. The green malt is dried in a kiln over peat smoke. The malt is then milled into grist, which is like a coarse flour. The grist is then mixed with hot water in a mash vat called a tun at about 70 °C for about an hour. This is drained off and second, hotter water is added and allowed to run straight through. Finally, a third, even hotter water is added and allowed to run through.

Glenturret Distillery
A nice day in the Highlands of Scotland.

The resulting sugary substance is collected, cooled and fermented in large pine vats called wash backs. Yeast is added and after 48 hours of fermentation, a substance called the wash is made. The wash is pre-heated in a wash-charger and from there goes to a wash still. A wash still is a large pot made of copper and is of a shape unchanged in the history of Scotch whisky making. The wash is heated in the pot still so the alcohol vapor rises up inside the still, then cools and condenses in something called the low wines receiver. The low wines then passes through to container called the spirit still, where it is distilled again.

Famous Grouse bottle
A very old bottle of the Famous Grouse.

The spirit running through the pot and spirit stills can be sampled and tested by a specialist called the “stillman” to ensure everything is going right with the process. The spirit from the spirit still is divided into three parts, but only the middle part, called the “Heart of the Run” is suitable to be made into malt whisky. The other two parts are fed back into the low wines receiver to be re-distilled. The middle cut is then sent to an oak spirit receiver and from there to filling vats in a place called the spirit store.

At this stage, more water is added to reduce the concentration of alcohol from 75% to 64%. The Scotch is stored in oak casks, each of which is handmade and therefore unique, so each must be weighed before and after filling to determine how much Scotch is in each ask. The casks are stored in a warehouse for a minimum of three years. While in the barrel, the Scotch absorbs flavor from the oak. Generally, the longer the Scotch stays in the barrel, the darker the color of the liquid, and the higher valued is the Scotch.  Single malt whisky is kept in the oak casks to mature for 8, 10, 12, 15 or 21 years, or even longer for very special bottlings. Once the Scotch is taken out of the barrel and bottled, it no longer matures.

tasting room at Glenturret
Step right up and taste some fine Scotch!

At the end of the tour, Colin led us to the tasting room where we tasted different kinds of Scotch and Scotch that had been aged different lengths of time. Despite repeated attempts at tasting, I couldn’t really distinguish the differences between the drinks. Maybe my abilities degraded over time while tasting, I don’t know….

Of course, we exited through the gift shop. I bought several bottles of Glenturret Scotch. Someday I will open them for a special occasion, like maybe making a hole in one on the golf course, the start of football season, or the end of media coverage about the 2016 Presidential Election.

Scotch bottle
Standing next to the World’s Largest Bottle of Scotch.
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