WHAT IS WHISK(E)Y?
Let’s start with the real basics. First of all – why do you sometimes see it spelled whisky and sometimes whiskey? Well, in Scotland they write whisky and in Ireland they write whiskey. And those spellings traveled across the Atlantic. In Canada, where many Scottish migrants settled, they kept the Scottish spelling. And in the US, which had much deeper links with Ireland, they adopted the “e”. This annoying split forces a lot of drinks writers to use the rather awkward generic word whisk(e)y.
HOW DO YOU MAKE WHISKY?
Whisky is fermented from grains to create an alcoholic liquid not unlike beer, then distilled to increase its potency. Many different types of grains can be used, from barley or rye to maize or wheat. American distillers refer to the combination of grains used as the “mash bill”.
Using grains rather than sugary raw materials such as grapes or apples requires an extra step in the fermentation process. Because yeast can’t feed directly on the starchy compounds within the grain, those compounds must first be converted to sugars. This is known as malting, and requires the grains to be soaked in warm water to start the seeds germinating. The grain is then dried and cooled to stop germination before shoots develop, resulting in a product known as malt. Some distilleries make their own malt on site and others buy it in.
Next comes mashing. The dried malt is ground in a mill, creating something called grist. This is mixed with hot water in a mash tun, resulting in a sugary liquid known as wort. This is pumped to another vessel, where yeast is added to turn the sugar to alcohol. After this fermentation stage, you have something similar to beer that distillers call wash.
(Apologies for the huge amount of jargon here, but these are the words distillers will use).
The beery liquid is distilled to increase its alcohol content and to emphasise certain flavours, with different styles of whisky using different methods. Puni uses the traditional malt whisky technique of double-pot distilling. The first distillation raises the alcoholic content from roughly 7% to about 20%. The resulting low wines are then filled into a second, smaller still, which boosts the alcohol content to nearly 70%.
Most distilleries will dilute the liquor coming off the final still with water, to achieve a cask strength of about 60% alcohol. It is then aged in oak barrels for several years. The final product is often reduced in strength again, with water, before bottling.
Note that the whisky is clear when it goes into the barrel, and slowly draws colour and flavour from the wood over the years. Whisky producers are also generally allowed to add a small amount of caramel colouring to ensure consistency of appearance across batches.