The story of whisky production in Scotland
Whisky has links to Scotland in a way that no other product has to any other country in the world. Think of Scotch whisky and you’re immediately transported into the wild Highlands and Islands on the west coast, or perhaps to the gentler hills and glens on the borders. This delicious spirit has a history in Scotland dating back at least 500 years, and probably more, and is now inexorably intertwined not only in Scottish culture but is also fundamental to the nation’s economy.
Before reading further there are a few things you should know about the drink that we’re referring to as Scotch in this article. First and foremost, not every whisky can be called Scotch. You’ve probably noticed that there’s a subtle difference in the way the word is spelt when we refer to whisky produced in other countries, and indeed Ireland, the US and Japan all have thriving whiskey industries, but unless it’s made in Scotland it has to be referred to as Whiskey (note the use of the letter e), not Whisky. Only alcohol stored in oak casks in Scotland for at least three years can be referred to as Scotch whisky, and only Scotch produced in one single distillery can be called a single malt.
Uisge beatha (to use its Gaelic name, or ‘the water of life’ in English), is as Scottish as Rabbie Burns wrapped in a tartan cloth eating haggis, and no website about Scotland can hold its head up high without writing a dedication to the story behind this nations favourite tipple, or at least mentioning a few facts about the incredible industry that it’s spawned. So join me on a journey into the very heart of Scotland, and maybe learn a little about the soul of the Scots nation itself.
Oh, and if you’re ever in Edinburgh don’t forget to check out the Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile, not far from the castle esplanade. This fun and informative visitor attraction will tell you everything you need to know about whisky in all its glorious forms and you might even learn a few bits of factory-floor gossip from some the attraction’s resident ghostly tour guides! Take a look at the Out About Scotland guide to the attraction here to find out everything you need to know before you head off.
The different styles of Scotch whisky
Scotland is famous for its huge range of single malt whisky, with each distillery imbuing the liquid with its own unique and distinct character. From the peaty and smoky flavours of the Islay distilleries to the light and sweet notes of the Speyside region, it can be said that no two distilleries ever produce whisky with the same taste. It’s this variation in colour, flavour, smell and feel that gives enthusiasts so much to get excited about, and building a collection of rare and unusual bottles has to be the dream of every whisky-lover worldwide.
There are six distinct regions of Scotland that produce their own, very specific variations, although even within these regions there are a multitude of differences between the distilleries thanks to the use of different casks and production methods. The regions in question are; Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Islands (including Isaly), and Campbeltown, and each one is worth a quick explanation to understand what makes them unique.
Although Speyside is one of the smaller whisky-producing regions by size, it’s the by far the most distillery-packed, with over half of all of Scotland’s whisky-producers located in this remote north-eastern part of the country. Speyside whisky is generally quite light in colour and taste, with very little peat smokiness but lots of vanilla, honey, apple and pear notes.
The area is traditionally divided into eight distinct sections; Rothes, Strathisla, Lossie, Liver, Fridhorn, Dufftown, Deveron and Speyside Central, and some of Scotch whisky’s most famous names originate in Speyside (Glenfiddich, Tomintoul, Aberlour and Glen Moray are all Speyside whisky’s).
The Highland whisky-producing region of Scotland is by far the largest in size, covering almost the entire northern area of the country, although only around 25% of Scotch whisky is made there. Highland whisky tends to be a little smokier than Speyside but lighter than the whisky made on the Islands, and is characterized by the floral smells and fruity flavours that symbolise the wild coastline and dense moorland that surrounds distilleries like Glenmorangie, Dalmore and Tullibardine.
Although the Highlands boasts a diverse range of distilleries reaching as far as Glengoyne near Glasgow in the south to Wolfburn near John O’ Groats in the north, Highland whiskies generally come under six distinct tasting notes. Close your eyes while sipping a Highland dram and you’ll likely discover a combination of fruit cake, malt, oak, heather, dried fruit and smoke, with many variations also taking hints from sherry and bourbon casks. If nothing else, the range of Highland whisky is certainly diverse.
Lowland whisky was at one time famous for its distilling process which involved triple distilling the spirit to produce a wonderfully smooth and light drink. Today, unfortunately, production in the Lowlands concentrates on distilling grain spirit for whisky blends, and production of single malts has rapidly declined in the last couple of decades. There are a few single malt distilleries still in operation though, and some such as Glenkinchie near Edinburgh and Auchentoshan near Glasgow continue to use the old triple distilling techniques.
The growth of blended whisky was mainly driven by alcohol tax hikes at the beginning of the 20th-century which in turn lead to the closure of several Lowlands distilleries, and the rapid advances in grain production meant that many distilleries found it more profitable to make the cheaper grain spirit. We can see this effect on the market today with distilleries such as Aisla Bay which produces an incredible 12 million litres of spirit per year, but only for use by other manufacturers in their cheaper blends.
Even so, if you can find a modern bottle of Lowland single malt you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the quality of the spirit, with notes of grass, honeysuckle, toffee and cinnamon playing heavily on your taste buds.
Islands and Islay
Island whisky is characterised by strong, peaty, heavily smoked flavours from famous producers including Laphroaig, Jura and Arran. These whisky’s take their cues from the wild seas which whip around the rugged islands of the Inner Hebrides, although by far the biggest concentration of distilleries is located on the Isle of Islay. Islay has an impressive eight distilleries in full production, which is incredible for an island that only has around 3000 inhabitants.
The fine single malts produced on this stunningly gorgeous little island are the stuff of legend, and between the distilleries of Laphroaig, Lagavulin, Kilchoman, Caol Ila, Bunnahabhain, Bruichladdich, Bowmore and Ardbeg you will experience flavours ranging from spicy pepper, creamy fruit, syrupy apple through to medicinal carbolic.
Other islands in this whisky-producing region include Jura, Mull, Arran, Orkney and Skye, with the Highland Park produced on Skye recently voted the ‘best spirit in the world’ in a whisky contest hosted in the United States. While the heady smokiness of Island whisky isn’t to everyone’s taste, if you want to take a journey into the land of Scotch whisky then you owe it to yourself to at least try a couple of Island drams whenever you get the chance.
Campbeltown on the southern Kintyre peninsula in Scotland was once heavily invested in single malt whisky production with 30 plants in operation, but sadly today there are only three still left running; Springbank, Glengyle and Glen Scotia. Even so, the single malts produced in this remote part of Scotland are as fine a quality as you’ll find anywhere else, and there are some wildly different whisky’s produced by this small region.
Springbank, in particular, is very popular amongst enthusiasts for the way they are able to create completely different tasting malts by varying the levels of peat used in their double and triple distilling processes. While you could be forgiven for thinking that the Longrow variant has been poured out of a bottle from the heavily-peated Isle of Islay, a dram of Hazelburn could leave you in no doubt that it’s come from one of the light and floral distilleries of the Highlands. But what’s not in doubt is that Springbank is highly regarded in whisky-drinking circles, and rightly so.
The ability of the Campbeltown distilleries to innovate and steadily improve upon the quality of their product should leave enthusiasts in no doubt that although diminished in size, whisky production in Campbeltown is here to stay.
The history of Scotch whisky
While the very first origins of whisky production in Scotland are difficult to determine, it’s likely that the distillation process was brought across from Ireland by travelling monks who settled throughout the land in the middle ages. The first known record of whisky making that’s similar to our modern manufacturing technique is documented in the records of royal income and expenditure from 1494, when malt was requested to be used to make aquae vitae (the Latin phrase for water of life), or uisge beatha to use the native Gaelic term.
The quantity of malt specified in these historic records leads historians to believe that around 1500 bottles of whisky would have been produced, which suggests that the distillation process was already well established in Scotland by the end of the 15th-century.
Whisky distilling continued to thrive throughout Scotland due to the huge amount of grain that the country was able to cultivate, and thanks to the natural remoteness of the Highlands it was possible for Scottish distillers to build secret stills hidden far away from the prying eyes of government tax officials. In fact, the size of Highland illicit whisky production meant that by the late 18th-century black market whisky was one of the biggest exports from the region, though government tax officials were always on the lookout to sieze the distiller’s equipment.
The scale of these operations can be seen in the Scottish Government records from the time, and it’s public record that in 1782 illegal whisky production accounted for over one thousand seized contraband stills from the Highlands, with government authorities claiming that this was only a small percentage of the illegal distilleries that were suspected to be hidden away deep in the mountains.
To combat the loss in tax revenue, in 1823 the government eased up on the tax restrictions that had previously been placed on licensed distilleries, and at the same time made punishments for illegal distilleries harsher. This lead to a new era in Scottish whisky production, and records state that after the tax restrictions had been lifted in 1823 the amount of Scotch produced the following year almost doubled in size.
As the methods and techniques used to produce whisky improved, so did the quality of the final product, and by the late 19th-century Scotch whisky was enjoying record export success across Europe and beyond. And with so many high-quality variations available from Scotland’s various whisky-producing regions on offer, a new breed of connoseiur appeared with an appreciation for what had once been seen as the poor man’s alcoholic drink.
So, how is Scotch whisky made?
As we’ve already seen, for a whisky to be called a single malt it has to pass two criteria. First it can only be made from malted barley and second, it has to be distilled in pot stills in one single distillery. While many distilleries today contract out the malting of the barley to third parties, there are still a few that choose to perform their own malting, although it’s a time-consuming task that’s very labour-intensive
The whisky is usually distilled twice (a few distillers prefer triple filtering) before it’s matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years, after which it’s bottled and sold to eagerly waiting consumers. Let’s take a look at the whole procedure of making whisky in a little more detail.
Step 1. Malting the barley
We all know that alcohol is made by fermenting sugar, especially when we look at how wine is made from the sugars of fruits, with sweet tasting vineyard grapes used in much the same way that homemade wine is made from garden fruits. But whisky is made from barley grain, so where does the sugar come from? Well, barley has an extremely high starch content, and as you might remember from your school science class, starch is simply a whole load of sugar molecules stretched into long chains. So what we need to do is somehow release the sugar from the starch, and this is done in the process of malting.
The first stage is to steep the barley grain in water and then spread it out across a malting floor, so that as the grain starts to germinate it begins to alter chemically to allow the sugar locked inside to be released. The grains then have to be turned over at regular intervals so that they germinate equally, and as this is traditionally done slowly by hand most distilleries simply choose to outsource the process.
Germination of the grains takes around 5 days at which point they’re spread onto grids inside a hot kiln to dry out, and this part of the process plays a big part in how the finished single malt will taste. The kilns are heated from below with fire, and as heat passes over the grains the steam rises and escapes through the pagoda roof of the kiln, and if peat is added to the fire (as happens with most Islay whisky), the grains then take on a characteristically smoky flavour.
Step 2. Fermentation
The next stage in whisky production turns the grains into an alcohol liquid in a process called fermentation. The grains are first milled into a coarse flour (called grist) which is mixed with hot water in a giant tub (the mash tun). The grist is mashed three times with water of increasing temperature, ranging from around 65 degrees on the first run, to 80 degrees on the second and almost boiling on the third.
The liquid from the mash is then syphoned off with the majority being used for distillation while a small portion is re-used for the next batch of grist. The remaining mash is then dehydrated and made into animal feed for resale to the farming industry.
As the liquid from the mash tun cools down, yeast is added and we’re then left with a liquid called wort. The wort is stored for around four days in wooden (and more recently stainless steel) containers called washbacks, where the fermentation of the alcohol is allowed to finish. After two to four days the liquid has finished fermenting and is now in a stage called wash, which has an alcohol content of about 8%. At this point the liquid is ready to be distilled inside the gigantic copper still pots that we’ll see in the next step.
Step 3. Distillation
As the wash is poured into the copper pot still it’s heated from both below and inside with hot steam, which causes the alcohol inside the wash to evaporate, leaving behind the water. As the evaporated alcohol continues to rise it enters a tapered tube in the still, where it then passes through a condenser which turns it back into a liquid which then flows into a second pot still. The first still, known as the wash still, produces an alcoholic liquid (called low wine) at 20 to 25% alcohol content, whereas the second still (the spirit still), further refines the alcohol content to around 70%.
The wash and spirit stills are usually made in different sizes to accommodate the different quantities of liquid they have inside them, and while the lower-alcohol wash still might hold up to 30,000 litres of liquid, spirit stills might only contain 10,000 litres. Even more impressive is the fact that these huge copper stills are made almost entirely by hand, with each replacement being fashioned into an exact replica of its predecessor. It’s been said that any change to a still will change the taste of the finished product, a theory that gave rise to the myth that the still maker even replicates the dents and scratches that the previous still received over the years.
If you ever find yourself on a tour of a distillery be sure to take a good look at the pot still that’s in use, as its shape is one of the contributing factors that gives the whisky its own unique taste. While softer flavours such as Glenmorangie are produced from long and slim stills, intense flavours like Laphroaig and Lagavulin are the product of short, squat stills. But an even more crucial component in the taste of single malt is the next stage in the process – the casking.
Step 4. Filling the casks
The clear alcoholic liquid from the spirit still can’t be called Scotch whisky yet, at least not until it’s spent at least three years maturing in sturdy oak casks in a Scottish warehouse anyway. As the liquid from the spirit still is syphoned off it passes through a series of valves and tubes inside a sealed compartment known as the spirit safe. It’s from here that the spirit is cut into three extractions, with the first (or foreshot) considered the lowest quality spirit, the second (or middle cut) being the best and the third (called the feints) being returned back into the spirit still.
As the middle cut is left to mature in the cask it will take on some of the flavour and colour that the cask has absorbed from its previous use, which is why you’ll see labels like ‘Sherry matured’ or ‘Bourbon matured’ on many bottles of single malt. The casks themselves come mainly from the US Bourbon whiskey and Spanish Sherry industries, with Spanish Oloroso casks being particularly highly prized.
Step 5. Maturation in the cask
The final stage in the process of turning barley grain into fine quality whisky is simply allowing the alcohol to sit in Scottish warehouses up and down the land to let it absorb the rich oils and flavours that are inherent to the oak casks.
These casks are left to their own devices for three or more years, with top-quality whisky left for twenty-one years or longer. You might be wondering why the finished whisky isn’t simply decanted into bottles after three years and then left to sit on a shelf to mature, but the reason is that as soon as the liquid is bottled it can no longer absorb the qualities of the cask, which means it’s stopped maturing. So a bottle of three-year matured whisky that has sat on a shelf for twenty-one years will always be known as a three-year-old whisky.
An interesting fact about this stage concerns the disappearance of several litres of alcohol from each cask throughout its life. When the whisky is initially poured into the cask it has an alcohol content of around 65%, and as the oak cask breathes it allows some of this alcohol to evaporate. In fact, for each year that the whisky sits in the cask the quantity of the fluid inside decreases by an average of 2%! Thankfully as the whisky matures it takes on a mellower flavour that becomes more valuable to the consumer, so this loss of whisky (known as the angels share) doesn’t lead to a loss in revenue for the distillery.
The final stage in the process is for the whisky to be bottled and sold to retailers worldwide, at which point the likes of you and me can finally get our hands on it. It’s fair to say that genuine Scotch whisky is slow and difficult to make, but the taste is definitely worth the effort.
Facts and figures
Did you know?
- Scotch whisky accounts for almost 20% of the entire UK exports of food and drink.
- Exports of Scotch whisky earn the UK around £140 every second.
- UK whisky manufacture supports over 40,000 jobs, with 10,000 employed directly by the Scotch whisky industry.
- At any one time, there are more than 20 million whisky casks maturing in Scottish warehouses. That’s four casks for every man, woman and child living in the country!
- There are currently (as of 2018) 126 different distilleries licensed to produce genuine Scotch whisky. Distilleries that are not located in Scotland are not allowed to call their product Scotch.
- A single malt might see several different casks before it’s bottled. A single malt means it’s the product of a single distillery, not a single cask.
If you want to see how whisky used to be made before modern technology got involved, why not visit one of the best-preserved distilleries in Scotland at the Historic Environment Scotland Dallas Dhu Distillery near Forres in Morayshire. But before you head off be sure to take a look at the Out About Scotland guide to Dallas Dhu here, where you’ll learn everything you need to know about what to expect during your visit.
And if you want to become a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Scotland’s premier whisky membership club, click the banner below and follow the link. Not only will you be given access to exclusive bottlings, regular magazines and special offers, but you’ll also be able to enjoy a dram at the society’s very own whisky connoisseurs club, where you’ll be able to enjoy a dram or two along with some first-class Scottish cuisine.