That's the spirit

That's the spirit

In our latest in our series on whisky terms we look at the second part on the letter S,and the role of the spirits still in Scotch whisky production.

Production | 08 Sep 2008 | Issue 74 | By Rob Allanson

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At Glenrothes it’s known as the Cathedral.Some have argued that it should be known across the industry as the gallery.But whatever words you use to describe it, the still room is the buzzing heart of the whisky making process, the place where the magic of malt making is most manifest.Wonderful as the aromas of a maturing warehouse are,and dramatic as fermentation in the washbacks may be, nothing in a distillery quite matches the aesthetically pleasing sight of towering copper pot stills in all their glory.Milling, mashing and fermentation are where the artisanal skills of whisky making lie; maturation is where the magic happens.But it’s in the still room, and particularly through the operation of the spirit still, that art, practical technique and magic come together and each distillery’s unique properties are most clearly defined.Distillation is the process by which alcohol is separated from water.After malted barley has been fermented into distiller’s beer by the addition of yeast, the alcohols can be separated from the water by heat and condensation.Each time the liquid is heated and recondensed it will retain less water,be more concentrated,and have a higher alcoholic strength.Normally the process is carried out twice in Scotland.After the first distillation the liquid, known as low wines, will have an alcoholic strength in the low 20s ABV.This is mixed with stronger, recycled alcohols from the previous distillation to form a charge for distillation in the spirit still.What happens next defines the spirit that will be saved for maturation.During second distillation the stronger more volatile alcohols, which are at best foul tasting and at worst,poisonous, must be rejected. So the first portion of the distillation, known as foreshots or heads, are sent back for recycling.The skill of the stillman is to judge what to reject without sacrificing flavour because the higher alcohols and congeners are full of flavour, too.At some point in the process he will make the decision to start collecting the recondensed spirit and keeping it.This is known as the cut, and is the body of the run.As more spirit is distilled and collected, the weaker the alcohols will become. Eventually the spirit will reach a point where it is too weak to bother with and contains unpleasant flavours.These are the tails, feints or after-shots, and these, too, are rejected and recycled.No two distilleries’ stills are exactly the same size or shape,and in each the spirit will make a slightly different journey over the copper and through the lyne arm to the condenser.The speed of the process will vary, as will the length of the cut.The level to which the still is filled in each distillery is not uniform.Each nuance and subtlety affects the final new make spirit that will be saved for putting in to the cask as new make spirit.They say quality oak can make a good spirit great, but it can’t make a poor spirit good.And it’s in the spirit still that the raw materials for the wood work on are created.And that’s why whisky enthusiasts never tire of the view, never cease to be amazed by the process and can never ask enough questions about what is happening before them. GLOSSARY Setback Rare name for backset in American whiskey production:the proportion of sour spent grain returned in to the production process.There are a number of other ‘s’ words for this too:slops, stillage,and spent beer backset Single barrel Whisk(e)y bottled from a single barrel containing the produceof a single distillery Small grains In American whiskey the mash is dominated by one grain and normally made up of two others.These other grains are known as small grains.Sour mash American name given to the grains at the end of the production process that have been stripped of all their sugars – hence sour Sour mash process Process used in American whiskey production by which spent grains known as backset are reintroduced to the production process to neutralise bacteria.Sweet mash New and fresh grains used for fermentation and distillation with no backset present
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