As the head distiller at Lucky Bastard, when I was tasked with writing blogs, I felt the most logical topic to begin with would be the production of the spirit that inspired the creation of the distillery, single malt "Scotch style" whisky. Although we are most well known for our vodka, one of the important goals we have as a distillery is to craft unique small batch whiskies, we have only released a few barrels of these whiskies so far, but luckily, we have a very true saying around here that, "vodka pays the bills." I will try my best to not make this a mind-numbing technical breakdown of all that goes into creating whisky, there are many textbooks written by people far more qualified than me for those who are looking to put any of this information into practical use, think of this as more of a little peek behind the curtain of our, "bigger than before, but still micro," distillery.
Before diving into production, I will touch on a question that many people never ask, but also may not know the actual answer to, "What does single malt mean?" Whisky (or Whiskey depending on where it comes from) is a descriptor for a spirit that encompasses numerous different varieties, many of which have multiple sub-categories themselves. These different types of whiskies are generally differentiated by the grains used (the "mash bill"), where they were produced, methods of production, and methods of maturation; a few of the more known varieties would include Scotch, rye, and bourbon. To further complicate things some whiskies can have the same name but depending on the regulations where they were produced can have very different requirements, for example, in the United States it is required that a rye whiskey contain at least 51% rye whereas a rye whisky produced in Canada does not actually have to contain any rye in the mash bill. There are also differences between what you can call a single malt whisky and a single malt Scotch, the main one being that only a whisky made in Scotland can be called Scotch. I will focus on single malt Scotch because although we cannot use the name and were promptly shut down by Scottish lawyers when trying to trademark the name "Skatch", we produce our Canadian single malt whisky following the regulations set out for the production of single malt Scotch as closely as possible. These rules for a single malt are that the whisky's mash bill only contains malted barley, it is made with pot stills in a single distillery, and it is aged at least 3 years in oak barrels no larger than 700 litres. The 'single' and 'malt' parts of the name are not related with the single referring to it being from one distillery and the malt referring to malted grain being used, if multiple barrels from multiple distilleries are mixed you would replace 'single' with blended, and if grains other than malted barley were used you would replace 'malt' with 'grain'. With the fascinating world of whisky naming conventions out of the way we can move on to an overview of the process we use when creating a single malt whisky.
When making a single malt whisky, going from the raw materials to a ready-to-bottle product consists of 4 steps (mashing, fermenting, distilling, and maturation), 3 ingredients (water, malt barley, and yeast), and 3+ years (in the oak barrel of your choosing). Before starting the production process, the first thing we do is decide what flavour profile we want our end product to have - even though there are only 3 ingredients being used there are almost endless possibilities of ways to adjust your mash bill, fermentation, distillation, and maturation to produce vastly different flavours in a single malt. While you will probably get varying numbers depending on who you ask or how a whisky was prepared, to give an idea of what each step of the process contributes to the final flavour profile of a whisky, grains make up roughly 25-30%, yeast strain around 10%, distillation 15-20%, and maturation 50-60%. Although the only grain we use for a single malt is malted barley there are many ways that maltsters can prepare this barley to produce differing flavours. A very surface level explanation of the malting process is that barley is made to partially germinate to give us access to enzymes in the grain that will be very important in mashing, the barley can then be roasted which basically caramelizes the grains to then give a sweeter flavour profile, up to a certain point where the grain will start to become dark and bitter, these specialty malts are usually only used in small amounts because this roasting will decrease the available enzymes and the flavours can become overwhelming when too much is used. Malt barley is often smoked or peated as well which involves burning wood, or peat moss in the case of peated malts, and allowing the smoke to rise into the grains leaving the smoky flavour behind. Once we have compiled our desired mash bill we can begin mashing.
Mashing is the process of combining grains with water to create a sugary liquid known as wort. During the mashing step we will utilize a roller mill to grind the grain giving us more access to the enzymes and starch contained in the grain, a flex auger that moves these ground grains out of our mill room to the last piece of equipment used in this step, a mash kettle, which is a large tank wrapped in a steam jacket containing agitators to mix our grains and brewing water. The purpose of the mashing step is to convert complex starches contained in the grains into simple sugars that our yeast can turn into alcohol during fermentation. To accomplish this, we grind the grains to give easier access to the starch and enzymes that have developed during the malting process and mix the milled grains with water. This mixture is known as the mash, we will bring the mash to a temperature (around 63⁰C) and pH range (5.0-5.4) where the enzymes will be the most active and these enzymes will start to break down the starch into sugar. The conversion process usually takes about 60-90 minutes, once we have fully converted the starch, we will move this wort into a fermentation tank. We do an off-grain fermentation rather than fermenting with the grains included, to remove our grains from the wort we run it through a liquid solid separator which is a centrifuge surrounded by a fine mesh screen. Our liquid wort passes through the screen and is collected in a tank where the contents are pumped through a heat exchanger to bring the temperature into a range that works for our chosen yeast, usually 25⁰C-30⁰C, too hot and the yeast will die, too cold and the yeast will have trouble beginning fermentation which can draw out the process. Once we have the wort in a fermentation tank at an acceptable temperature, we will add the yeast and begin the fermentation.
The fermentation process can take anywhere from 3 days to 2 weeks depending on the chosen yeast strain and other factors such as temperature, pitch rate (how much yeast is used), and sugar content of the wort. In the fermentation tanks the yeast rapidly reproduces while eating the sugar in our wort, the by-products of this are alcohol, flavour compounds known as esters, and carbon dioxide, the carbon dioxide is vented out leaving us with the yeast, esters, and alcohol. These compounds can be produced in varying amounts depending on the yeast strain being used as well as any stresses on the yeast. Some of these stresses can include fermenting temperature (rises as yeast becomes active), alcohol content of the wort (which will be constantly increasing during fermentation) and the presence of any competing cultures (usually due to inadequate cleaning of equipment). When making a single malt we do not want to leave any residual sugars so we will allow the yeast to fully ferment our wort before chilling the fermentation tank to allow the yeast to settle to the bottom, this leaves us with what is essentially an un-hopped, unfiltered, high alcohol (8%-10%) beer that we pump into our first pot still to begin distillation.
We perform two distillation runs on our whiskies, the first distillation is called a stripping run and is a quicker, less involved, distillation where we are separating out the alcohol from the beer. From a 2400L distiller’s beer we will usually end up with somewhere between 600-800L of alcohol, known as low-wines, at around 25%abv. We then take these low wines and do one more distillation run in a smaller copper still, this distillation is known as the spirit run. During a spirit run we will have to pay more attention to our distillation because this is when we will get rid of the harsh-flavoured and more toxic alcohols. Since different types of alcohols have different boiling points it allows us to separate these unwanted alcohols by cutting out the alcohols that are coming off the still above (the foreshot & heads) and below (the tails) certain temperatures while collecting the alcohols that are produced in the middle of the run (the hearts). The first alcohols that will start to come off the still are known as the foreshot, this fraction can start to boil off at temperatures as low as 50⁰C and should always be thrown out as it contains poisonous acetone as well as methanol, after the fores, the heads will start to come off. This fraction will contain the same types of alcohols as the fores as well as some ethanol and propanol. Once we are satisfied that most of the unwanted alcohols have been distilled off, determined by temperature, %abv of the alcohol coming out of the still, and tasting what is coming off the still, we will cut the heads and move to the hearts, which mostly contain ethanol and the esters that we want in our final product. The hearts will be the largest portion of the spirits run and are mostly collected between 78⁰C-82⁰C after which the heaviest and most flavourful - but not always desirably flavoured, alcohols will start to come out of the still. Splitting up these different alcohols is never an exact science as some of your late heads, and early tails will blend into your hearts portion but making sure to keep the alcohol at a light boil around the 78⁰C heads cut and the 82⁰C tails cut will keep this meshing to a minimum. These cut points are where the art of distillation comes into play with the distiller making the decision based on taste of how much of the heads and tails to allow to blend into the hearts. After coming off the still we will end up with roughly 250L of crystal-clear new make spirit at about 75% abv. We will add reverse osmosis water to this alcohol to bring it to barrelling proof and fill an oak barrel to be put away for at least 3 years, when it can be classified as a single malt whisky.
With maturation contributing more than 50% of the flavour profile of a finished whisky this final step can be looked at as the most important, but it is often the most overlooked. Decisions that will affect your final product range from size of barrel, whether you mature the spirit in a used or new barrel, type of oak the barrel is made of, how the oak is prepared, the proof that you put your spirit into the barrel at, length of time in the barrel, and environmental factors such as temperature and humidity. During maturation of a spirit there are both additive and subtractive changes happening, the additive portion mostly depends on your choice of barrel while the subtractive maturation is affected more by environmental factors as well as the char on the inside of a barrel. The additive changes consist of flavours that the spirit pulls from the barrel as well as all the colour in the finished spirit which will come from the barrel, different types of oak, new or used barrels, how the oak was prepared (drying methods, barrel toasting, & barrel charring), length of time in the barrel and entry proof are some of the factors that can affect the final flavour profile. While the differences in oak used and maturation length are easy to understand why they would change a whiskies flavour, the %abv of the spirit may not be as intuitive, an easy way to understand how this will change the flavour is that sugar is not water soluble so at higher entry proofs less of the wood sugars will be dissolved into the spirit and more of the oak flavour will carry over. The subtractive affects of maturation are mostly due to the spirit expanding and contracting into the wood as pressure and temperatures change.
The barrels used for maturation are charred on the inside so as the spirit moves in and out of the oak it goes through this charcoal layer which will act like a filter, smoothing out the spirit over the many years that it spends maturing, more changes in temperature will cause the spirit to move through this layer more often resulting in a less harsh spirit over time. The humidity at the site of the barrels will also determine what is being taken out of the barrel, as the spirit is absorbed by the oak some will permeate through and be lost to the atmosphere, this is known as the angel’s share, but we do not like that term around here because those greedy angels aren’t sharing at all. At lower humidity this evaporated portion will be made up of more water than alcohol, this seems ideal but the alcohols that are lost to the angel’s share are mostly the higher proof, harsher alcohols that you want to get rid of anyway to have a smoother spirit. At too high of a humidity the number of losses will increase substantially, and you can start losing more of the desirable alcohol that you want to keep in your final product. We have recently moved our barrels into a warehouse where we can control the temperature to simulate the changing of seasons to have the spirit move in and out of the barrel more. Due to our dry climate, we found our whiskies were increasing substantially in proof during maturation so we have also added a misting system to the warehouse to increase the humidity so we can remove more of the high proof, harsher alcohols out of the whisky during maturation. At the end of the maturation period, we will pull the whisky from the barrel, slowly bring it to bottling strength with reverse osmosis water, and lightly filter it to remove any charcoal left over from the barrel before bottling.
Written by Kyle Waldal, Head Distiller at Lucky Bastard Distillers