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Are the origins of whisky Scottish or Irish ? Naturally, opinions about this question are drastically opposed depending on the native country of the person to whom you ask. Nevertheless, it seems that more and more people tend to agree on the hypothesis of an Irish origin. It would be no one else than Saint-Patrick himself, the patron of the Irish, who would have introduced the still in his country at Vth AC, holding it himself indirectly from the Arabian. Irish monks would have then spread from Vth before J.C. the art of distillation at the same time as Christian civilization, in their own country to start with, then in Scotland.
In any case, what one knows for sure is that the art of distillation is very old and dates back too much more ancient time than the first origins of whisky. The Egyptians are known to have practised the distillation of perfumes 3000 years before J.C. As a matter of fact, the word alcohol is directly derived from the Arabic al-koh'l, koh'l being a dark powder from pulverized antimony and used as an eye make up.
From XIIth onwards, distillation of water of life or aqua vitae spreads progressively through Europe, notably in Ireland and in Scotland under its Gaelic name of Uisge Beatha or Usquebaugh, which will eventually transform into Uisge then Uisky, until becoming Whisky. Some virtues, literally miraculous which were justifying its name, were attributed to the water of life. Curing virtually any pain, it was then a medicinal potion which was prescribed as well as an ointment as a remedy to be drunk. It was a long way from possessing the flavours and the subtlety of the one drunk today, and was consumed for its mere virtues as opposed for pleasure.
From now on and inescapably, production of illicit whisky will strongly proliferate, notably in the Highlands. Having at its disposal easily transportable equipment, the smuggler hides in the innumerable glens.
At the end of XVIIIth they were literally controlling several areas of Scotland where Excisemen would venture only reluctantly and at their own peril.Illicit production had also developed in towns to the point that in 1777 one could count in Edinburgh eight licensed distilleries and 400 illicit stills !
After countless wanderings in the regulation, realism and common sense will eventually prevail. In 1823, on the initiative of the Duke of Gordon, the "Excise Act" is voted, with an aim at making licensed distillation an economical and viable occupation, at the same time as generating profits for the authorities, thanks to suitable and reasonable taxation. Illicit still will progressively disappear. In the same time many technical evolutions, such as steam heating and continuous distillation, will accompany the development of the industrialization of distilleries during the course of IXth, marking what can be considered as the start of the modern era of Scotch Whisky.
Highland distillery at the end of XIX th .
Several factors will favour the growing of this industry. From 1870 on the phylloxera crisis will bring to almost nought the production of Cognac, offering to Scotsmen an opportunity which they will not miss. At the same time, the practice of blending will develop in the Lowlands, consisting in the mixing of malt whisky with grain whisky, the latest being distilled in continuous stills from maize or wheat. But this process produces a quite neutral, high in alcohol spirit. At the end of the distillation a grain whisky strengh at 95% abv, versus 70% for a malt whisky. That's why the malt whiskies are used to give some flavors to the blended whisky.
After it has been harvested, barley contains starch which is a non fermentiscible sugar. The process of malting is aimed at transforming this starch in a fermentiscible sugar which itself will be able to be transformed into alcohol.
To start with, barley is soaked in water for two or three days before being spread as a layer approximately twenty to thirty cm thick on the malting area made as a wide flat concrete surface. This is where its germination will start, lasting for about eight days.
Barley will have to be turned over several times a day with wooden shovels so as to allow steady and uniform germination, and its temperature will be controlled permanently. Once the starch has been transformed into sugar, germination will be stopped through the heating of the barley in a kiln during 20 to 48 hours.
Heat will be provided by the burning of coal and to a varying degree by the burning of peat. the smoke of the latest will impart to the malt a character and aromas of very specific type which will be found in the finished product, the peatiest whiskies being those from the island of Islay.
The mashtun possesses a double bottom finely perforated which will allow the wort to be drawn off through the underback at the same time as it will retain the solid particles known as draff. Those will be taken away at the end of the process and are excellent food for cattle.
The last water used for mashing will be directed to a tank and used as the third water of the next mashing. Wort will then travel through a heat exchanger to be cooled to about 20°C, to prevent yeast cells which will ferment it from being killed.
Traditional mashtuns may be enclosed by a copper dome so as to preserve heat. They are nowadays very often superseded by lautertuns which allow for a better extraction of sugars contained in the malt.
Wort is the pumped into the washbacks which are large and open fermentation vessels, which can hold up to 70.000 litres and be as high as 5 or 6 m. They may be covered by detachable panels and are usually made of Oregon pine.
Some distilleries use fully closed vessels made of steel which are easier to clean.Yeast is added, being either distillers yeast or a mixture of the latest with brewer yeast, and will start fermentation. The action of yeast on wort's sugar will produce alcohol and carbon dioxide. Wort will bubble, and may even in some occasions generate strong vibrations of the washback itself in spite of its impressive size.
After about 48 hours, bubbling and fermentation are over and the wort has been transformed into wash, an alcoholic liquid of 7 to 8% vol. and not unlike a sort of crude beer, which is pumped into the wash charger.
First distillation is done in the wash still which capacity maybe reach 25 to 30.000 litres and will transform the wash into low wines at about 21% vol. Originally heated by a naked flame, usually from the burning of coal or gas, the majority of stills are nowadays heated by coils placed inside them and through which steam circulates. Evaporated alcohol rises up to the upper part of the still, the swan neck, and then through the lyne arm after which it enters the condenser in which alcoholic vapours will transformed into liquid. Traditional condensers were made as coils immersed in large open wooden vessels and cooled by water flowing through them.
Nowadays the vast majority of distilleries are equipped with tubular vertical condensers offering improved calorific efficiency.
The low wines are kept in the spirit charger, wastes of the first distillation known as pot ale being conveyed to a dark grain plant to be transformed into cattle food.The second distillation takes place in the spirit still which usually has a capacity equal to about two third of the wash still's. This is where the stillman's art expresses at its best, when he must retain only the middle cut, eliminating the heads which contain too much high volatility alcohols running at about 80% vol., and the tails comprising the heavy components. As the distillation progresses the alcoholic strength of the flowing distillate diminishes regularly : the moment when the stillman stops collecting the middle cut or heart of run is called the cut, and will usually happen when the hydrometer will read about 62/65% vol. If the cut is made too late, too high a proportion of the tails will result in an unbalanced whisky with unpleasant aromas. To the contrary, if the cut is made too early, the spirit will be deprived from some of its components indispensable to achieve a whisky with satisfying character. One will then obtain a product without major default, but without real interest and personality either.Speed of distillation also has a direct influence on the quality of the collected spirit.
The latest which is perfectly colourless is at about 70% vol. and is pumped into the spirit receiver. The stillman has to do all his operations by intervening on the spirit safe, built with a copper frame holding plate glasses and into which lead all pipes linking the stills to the various holding tanks. It is usually a beautiful object duly padlocked under the control of Custom and Excise, the stillman not being allowed to have any direct contact with the product flowing from the stills.
For controlling the process, the stillman uses hydrometers and can check the purity of the spirit in verifying if it does not get cloudy when mixed with water.Heads and tails will be pumped and kept in the low wine charger to be redistilled in the spirit still at the same time as the low wine intended for the next distillation. Waste of distillation known as spent lees will be thrown away or treated.Some whiskies, notably in Ireland and in the Scottish Lowlands, are subject to a triple distillation process, which delivers a spirit of a higher alcoholic strength at about 85% vol.
The nature of the warehouse itself has its importance, in particular depending whether it is more or less isolate. For instance, it is generally admitted that warehouses with earth ground provide the best results as they maintain higher humidity level. As a matter of fact, during ageing some alcohol evaporate through the wood of the casks with losses of about 2% per year, this is what is called the "Angel Share". In a humid warehouse the loss of spirit will materialize as a decrease of the alcoholic loss, which will advantage the obtaining of a high quality whisky. In a dry warehouse, this loss will materialize through a diminution of volume, with in extreme cases a rising of the alcoholic strength, and will deliver a dryer spirit. Altogether, losses are lower in dry warehouses than they are in a damp ones, the latest which provide the best results are also the most costly.Temperature also has its influence on ageing, if it is higher maturation of the whisky will progress faster.
It is only after three years of ageing in cask that spirit is entitled to be called whisky, but one usually considers that it is only after 8 years that a malt whisky reaches real maturity. Some can reach their optimum at the age of 10 or 12 years, many are those which will take advantage of further maturation up to 15 years or possibly beyond. If some of them may become exceptional at the age of 20 or 25 years, others might suffer of staying too long in a cask, their character ending up in fading away and aromas directly imparted by the cask becoming too preponderant.Last of all, one should not forget the ultimate stage in the long process of whisky making which is bottling. The reduction, which is the operation by which the alcoholic strength, initially at around 60% vol, is brought down to drinking strength - in most cases 40 or 43% vol - is much more delicate than one usually imagines. Quality of filtration has also an important effect, in particular depending whether it is a chill or non chill filtration process.