From Grain to Great Taste

Macallan Stills

Back to Basics: What I Learned of Scotch Before Lessons (1) and (2)

Scotch’s journey begins as raw barley, the grass family member used in cereals. To start, grains are soaked in water for 2 – 3 days until green sprouts begin to appear. The wet, germinated grain is then spread across screens and left to dry out, the starches inside changing into a simple sugar, or malt. Next, the malted barley is ground into a coarse flour, mixed with Scottish spring water, and then placed in a washback, a tank in which the blend forms a sort of mush in around 4 – 5 hours. The fourth step is to drain excess liquid from thickened, sugary wort, or the “syrup” to which both yeast and sugar will be added to instigate fermentation. The fermenting wort becomes a “low wine” (22% ABV) in three or four days. It is moved to a copper still to distill at this point, warming slowly, evaporating. The distillate – or vapor – rises into the copper pipes, condenses, and becomes liquid again. Lower in alcohol than it should be, it is distilled a second time, and finally collected into oak barrels, where it will age (for years) until it is bottled and sold.


Sampled Scotches were from Speyside, found in the northeastern corner of Ireland. Glenfiddich – whose water source is the Robbie Dhu, a freshwater spring – was first. Its nose suggested honey, and its finish was quick and light. Glenlivet followed. Getting its water from Josie’s Well, which draws from an underground aquifer originating less than a mile away from the site, it expressed almond and black pepper on its nose, and had a satisfyingly full mouthfeel and long finish.


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