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Before any distilling can start, malted barley and other grains are ground into a form of flour called grist, which is mixed with water to produce mash. Enzymes in the mash break it down into a sugary liquid called wort, which can now be brewed into a sort of beer – known as wash.
The wash is then distilled in column or – for the malt wash - pot stills (shown above). Here, the wash is heated, causing the liquid to evaporate – more alcohol than water evaporates, making the resulting spirit much stronger.
Once distilled, the spirit still cannot be called whisky – first it must mature for at least three years and a day. Because Scotch Whisky is matured for a long time compared to other spirits, old barrels are used to avoid the wood flavour becoming overpowering during the long ageing.
The lighter, more volatile alcohols to evaporate away, leaving the denser, less volatile alcohols behind. These dense alcohols, often known as old alcohols due to their prevalence in well aged spirits, are smoother and more flavourful than the harsher, young alcohols which dominate the taste of unaged spirits. The alcohol that evaporates during the ageing process is known as the Angels’ Share.
Since the earliest years of whisky production, distillers have been finding different ways in which add extra character and flavour, leading to a huge array of different whiskies and great distinction between the whisky styles from the five regions – Speyside, Highland, Islay, Campbeltown and Lowland.
No single whisky can have all the facets of these distinctive styles and so the real art of making a whisky is in the blending. With over 100 malt whisky producers each crafting a distinctive product there is nearly infinite scope to create complex flavours, to get it just right requires expert taste-buds and a lifetime of experience.