Whisky Magazine Issue 133
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The importance of fermentation
?It all started, as we know, back in 1495 with James IV of Scotland's grant of eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor to make aqua vitae with. Whisky lovers get very excited about that entry in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls: what was Friar John's whisky like? Was it really whisky? Was it even a beverage, or was it just a solvent for herbal alkaloids? And how long had people been distilling malt liquor, as opposed to wine, before this mention?
All good questions. But we rarely stop to think about the ale that had to be brewed first. And it would have been quite a lot of ale, since eight bolls or 48 bushels of malt weighs 740kg; enough (if it was efficiently malted and mashed) to brew 13 - 15 hectolitres of ale at 7 - 8% ABV. There's no way of knowing, at this distance, whether the ale Friar John intended to distil was the same ale that he and his fellow-monks enjoyed every day; but there's no reason to suppose that it wasn't.
Today, though - well, a pint of wash wouldn't be so enjoyable. For just as Cognac is distilled from weak, acidic wines you certainly wouldn't want to drink, so malt whiskies derive from ales so well-attenuated that even tasting them is more of a chore than a pleasure. Scott Ferguson at the Eden Mill craft brewery and distillery in St Andrew's describes the wash from which his new make was created as, frankly, "thin and weedy".
"We want as much conversion in the mash as possible, and the distiller's yeast we use in the washback is very efficient," ...