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This page is rather long because the making process of whisky is

not easy to summarize in a few lines. In order to facilitate the
navigation, a table of contents has been added on that page. A the
end of each page an transparent arrow icon is provided, and clicking
on it will bring you back on top of the page. Clicking on the pictures
will take you to the main page of the distillery where the picture has
been taken. On this page, you'll be able to see a larger version of
the picture.
1. Ingredients

• Barley Water Yeast
2. The manufacturing steps
• Malting Grinding Brewing Fermentation Distillation Aging Bottling
3. Illustration of the whisky making process

The barley is at the base of all the process. The quality of the barley
has a great influence on the quality of the end product. The barley
being used for the production of whisky is carefully selected. It is
after all the basic ingredient which will determine the quality of the
whisky which will be sold years later. This selection was traditionally
the job of the manager of the distillery. Most of the distilleries
nowadays buy their malt in a malting plant (for economic reasons),
this selection is done less and less by the distillery managers, but
well by the persons in charge at the malting plant. However, the
maltings must respect precise requirements from the distilleries, in
order to let them produce their whisky properly, and on the same
way year after year. There is no legal obligation to use Scottish
barley to produce Scotch whisky. Even if some producers would like
to go back to the tradition, like Bruichladdich does, most of the
distilleries are not concerned by the origin of their barley. The most
important thing is the highest sugar content and the lowest price.
The combination of those two elements is often the only criteria in
the choice of a variety of barley. A great deal of the barley used to
produce Scotch whisky is coming from England or South Africa. It is
not excluded that GMO are used, but it is difficult to get evidences
of that. Anyway, this would perfectly conform with the productivity
logic. If genetically modified barley gives better harvests with a
better sugar content...

Water is another of the most important ingredients in the making
process of whisky.
The quality of the whisky depends on the quality and purity of the
water. Water in Scotland is famous for its great purity. The difference
in taste between the whisky coming from various distilleries is partly
due to the quality of water used.
Water in the Highlands is often peaty, which gives it a brownish
colour. Substances, deriving from peat, are carried by the rivers
which water is used to make whisky, and contribute often to the
original taste of scotch whisky.
But water is certainly not the only determining factor in the taste of a
malt whisky. The manufacturing process is of course very important
in the final taste of whisky. Water is used in several steps during the
distillation process. First of all, it is mixed to the grinded malt in order
to produce the wort. It is also used for cooling the alcohol leaving the
still. Last but not least, water is used to reduce the alcohol at bottling.
Yeast (brewer's yeast, often mixed with culture yeast) will start the
fermentation process. The role of yeast is capital. The choice of the
yeast is part of manufacturing secret of the distilleries.
The manufacturing steps
The making process of whisky takes at least 3 years. If a grain
(malted or not) spirit did not stay for at least 3 years in an oak cask,
it does not deserve the name of whisky. Even worse, it does not
have legally the right to be marketed under the name of whisky. To
deserve the name of Scotch, the whisky has to stay for this
minimum of 3 years on the Scottish ground. Generally, the whiskies
marketed as single malt aged for a minimum of 8 to 10
years. Whisky, just like any other alcohol, is the result of natural
chemical alterations of sugar. To produce alcohol, we first need to
produce sugar. Sugar is potentially present in barley, which grows
easily under the Scottish latitudes. Many alcohols are made from
grapes, but the climate of Scotland is not suited for this kind of
culture. But the manufacturing process remains very similar to the
one used in production of alcohol based on other raw material.

Malt is the result of the malting process. The barley is made wet and
spread on the malting floor to allow the germination process to
start. A succession of chemical reactions change the starch
contained in the barley in sugar. Later sugar will change into spirit.
The malting art consist of finding the right moment to stop the
germination process: not too late but not too early. According to the
season, malting takes between 8 and 21 days. Constant attention
has to be given to the process. Barley has to be turned over
regularly to ensure a constant moisture and temperature and to
control the germination of the barley grains. The end of the
germination is triggered by drying the germinating barley over a fire
(kiln). This oven is often heated by peat. The smoke of the peat fire
in the kiln is determining is the taste of many a whisky.

Germination is stopped by drying the grains above an oven (kiln).
The kiln on the picture is the one of Laphroaig. A kiln was often fed
with peat. It is the smoke of the peat fire which gives some whiskies
their particular flavour. The art of some distilleries is in the correct
proportioning of peat used to dry the malt. Springbank for instance
produces 3 different malts: Springbank, Longrow and Hazelburn
(which will be available from 2006). One of the main differences
between those 3 products is the proportion of peat used for drying
the malt. There are also some other differences in the distillation
process in the case of Springbank. Bruichladdich also produces 3
different whiskies with different peat levels: Bruichladdich, Port
Charlotte and Octomore (the two latter's are recent productions, and
will not be marketed before several years). .
Economic reasons obliged most of the distilleries to abandon their
malting floors during the 1960's Malting happens mainly at
specialized plants, called maltings. This maltings produce malt
according to the requirements of their clients. The same malting
company produces thus several kinds of malt. There are however
notable exceptions to that rule: Balvenie, Laphroaig, Highland Park,
Bowmore are some of the distilleries which produce parts of their
own malts. According to some sources, these distillery would
produce about 30% of their needs. Springbank produces 100% of
their malt.

Maltings can be independent, or belong to big concerns, owning
their own distilleries, like Diageo. Diageo, who owns a great deal of
the Scottish distilleries (see distillery owners) has created its own
malting plants, to supply the distilleries of the group (like for
instance the malting at Glen Ord) or for local distilleries, like the Port
Ellen Maltings on Islay.

The latter is the result of an agreement signed by all the Islay
distilleries who oblige themselves to buy a certain amount of malt at
the Port Ellen Maltings. This malting plant is in full expansion, just
like the distilleries of the island, and is progressively occupying the
territory of the (henceforth former) distillery of Port Ellen. The
maltings do not have the romantic aspect of (old) distilleries, with
their pagoda roofs...


When the malt is dry, it is grinded to make a kind of coarse flour
which will be used in the next operations.
This flour is called grist.
Malt grinding is done with a malt mill in the distillery itself.
Nearly all the distilleries use the same kind of mill, traditionally made
in England, in Leeds, which is sometimes hard to accept for a real

The grist will be mixed with hot water in the mash tun. Generally one
volume of grist is mixed up with 4 volumes of water. In this operation,
3 successive waters are used, at a temperature between 63 and 95%
A mash tun can contain up to 25000 litres and has a double bottom
with thin perforations to let the wort (sugared liquid resulting of the
brewing operation) flow out, retaining bigger parts which will be
sold as cattle food. In order to facilitate the process, mash tun have
rotating blades. The waste is called draff.

The first operation, taking about 1 hour, will change the starch in
fermenting sugars. The mix of water and grist looks like a kind of
traditional porridge.This sugared juice is called wort. The remainders
will be brewed 3 to 4 times, in order to get a maximum of wort.
The quality of the wort is controlled by the excise men, because it
determines the amount of spirit which will finally be produced. This
is the base of the taxation of the distillery. .

The wash back

In order to start the fermentation of the wort, yeast is added.
The action of the yeast on the sugar of the wort will produce alcohol
and carbon dioxide. The wort starts bubbling, which will sometimes
result in strong vibrations of the wash back, despite its impressive
size. Traditional wash backs are made of Oregon pinewood or
scottish larch. However, more and more stainless steel wash backs
are used nowadays, because they are easier to maintain.

The result of the fermentation is the same in both kinds of wash
backs. However, lots of distilleries pretend Oregon wood is much
better, and even hi-tech distilleries like Caol Ila do not believe in
stainless steel wash backs
The picture above has been taken at the Glenkinchie distillery, while
the stainless steel wash backs on the left belong to Laphroaig.

The wash

As result of the fermentation of the wort, a kind of beer with a
percentage of approximately 8%. Till now, there are no substantial
differences in the process of making whisky, and the making of
From now the difference between the process will become obvious.
Beer will be perfumed with hops, while whisky will be distilled
without alterations.
The distillation is the process used to separate alcohol from water
and other substances contained in the wash. This is a classical
operation, and it is the base of each spirit round the world. It is
used in perfumery too. Distillation is made in stills. The principle is
very easy: water evaporates at 100% while alcohol does from 80%.
Alcohol will thus be transformed in vapour and raises into

the still before water itself begins evaporating.
Pot stills are used in Scotland.
The size of the stills is fixed by the law. This is due to historical
reasons, related to excise rights.
Edradour has the smallest legal stills of Scotland. If the stills were a
bit smaller, the distillery would lose its licence.
Stills are in copper, because this material has a great influence on
the physical process of separation of the waters and the spirits. The
quality of the dram we will enjoy a few years later depends partially
on the copper surface being in contact with the liquids during the
distillation process. Other things are important, like the shape, the
height, the length of the lyne arm are also very important in the
making of the taste of the future whisky. If a distillery has to add or
replace a still, it will always try to get a still with the same capacity
and the same shape, in order to guarantee a constant quality to the

Because of the extreme diversity of the stills used throughout
Scotland, it is not possible to display some pictures on this page. I
created a special page with pictures of various stills from several
Scottish distilleries. To get there, just click on the still icon on the
left. By the way, this is a still of Glenfarclas distillery.

Traditionally, the stills were heated with coal or peat, depending on
the areas and possibilities. Currently, nearly all of them are heated
with vapour, because this method gives more control on the
The fuel used to heat the vapour is generally petrol, but it can
happen that coal is still used.
The huge quantity of heat produced by distilleries is sometimes
recycled. For instance, the municipal swimming pool of Bowmore is
warmed with recuperation heat from the distillery.
Scotch whisky is double distilled, with some exceptions to this rule,
like Auchentoshan which is distilled three times, just like Irish
The distillation process occurs in two stages in two still with different
capacity and shape.
The first distillation occurs in the wash still whose capacity can be
between 25 and 30.000 litres and transforms the wash in "low
wine", at about 21 % of alcohol. If the stills were originally heated
with a naked fire, generally from coal or gas, the current stills are
heated by a serpentine within the still, where the vapour is

The alcohol vapours are cooled outside the still by condensers. The
traditional condensers were serpentines immerged in a great open
wooden back, containing cold water. Currently, most of the
distilleries use vertical tubular condensers, because the output is
better. Waste of the first distillation is called "pot ale" or "burnt ale",
and is transformed to feed cattle too. The low wines resulting from
this first distillation are kept in the "low wine receiver and will be
used as ground for the second distillation.
The second distillation occurs in a spirit still which is generally
smaller than the wash still, as there is less liquid to process.

During the second distillation, only the "distillation heart", the part
which has between 63 and 72% of alcohol will be casked. The
heads and tails, also called feints, will go to the feint receiver, and
reused mixed with the low wines of the next distillation. To separate
the feints from the distillation heart, a spirit safe is used. This spirit
safe (was) used for the determination of the quantity of alcohol
produced , to calculate the taxes due by the distillery


The distillation process is unique for each distillery using pot stills.
(Distilleries using Lomond stills - there are very few of them left now
- can produce several types of whisky.) This means that all the
whiskies produced by a certain distillery are treated on the same
way, with the same malt, the same stills on the same way by the
same people... So, why can they be so different from each other?
The answer to this question is in the aging process, the casks used,
the nature of the warehouse, the taste of the air (it seems that a
whisky aged in casks stored in warehouses close to the sea have a
different taste from a whisky aged on some other place).
Glenmorangie Cellar 13 is a good example of that phenomenon.

If the surrounding air has a (little) influence on the taste of whisky,
one must realize that many distilleries bring their casks to some
central place near Edinburgh for their aging. It it not clear to me if
the whiskies aged that way are marketed as single malt or if they
will be used in blends. In other words, the influence of the air on the
taste of whisky; myth or reality?There is one thing for sure however,
and that is that the role of quality of the barley, the making process,
and the nature and quality of the casks where it was aged is very
important. According to some specialists, this could be good for
95% of the final quality of a malt whisky.
To have the right to bear the name of whisky, a grain spirit (malted
or not) must be aged at least for 3 years in a oak cask. Unlike
Cognac which is stored in new casks, the Scottish always use second
hand casks.
The kinds of casks
The oak casks
are classified
by capacity,
and the
following casks
exist: A gallon
is 4.546 litres
The capacity of
the casks is

4,5 gallons
FIRKIN 9 gallons
KILDERKIN 16 gallons
BARREL 36 gallons
HOGSHEAD 54 gallons
PUNCHEON 72 gallons
BUTT 108 gallons
The information about the capacities of the various casks comes
from the Campbeltown museum. The picture has been taken in the
yard of Old Pulteney. Casks on the foreground are "sherry butts"
The Scotch whisky industry uses mainly 3 kinds of casks:
the "barrel" : ±190 litresthe "hogshead" :± 250 litresthe"butt" : ±
500 litres
The shape of the casks is mainly due to historic reasons, related to
storage problems on ships. Sherry was carried on Spanish gallions,
and the slender shape of the butts was the best for storing on this
kind of ships, while the Portuguese Port was stored in a more
bulbous cask, which was easier to carry on Portuguese merchant
The "finishes"
Often whisky is aged for a while in bourbon casks, and finishes his
aging period in some kind of other cask, in order to give is some
new fragrances, before bottling. Generally it stays for 6 to 12
months in another kind of cask. This explains the "wood finish"
mention on some bottling's. For instance, the 18 yo Glenmorangie
finishes its maturation in next casks, which is rather uncommon in
A whisky cask is always a second hand cask. It generally contained
bourbon (american whiskey made from corn - (maize). Sherry is also
very popular in the whisky industry. Other casks are used too, like
Port, Madeira and more rarely Claret (French red wine) or rum,
etc... Glenmorangie is specialized in "wood finishes" and some of
them are very expensive, probably because of the rarity of the
However, there is a question about this wood finishes. If the aim is
to give some new and pleasant fragrances to the whisky, everybody
knows (at least in the whisky industry circles) that this method is
used sometimes to hide some distillation errors. Often, the casks are
warmed up before transferring the whisky, in order to accelerate the
fragrance transfer. Such practices are not acceptable, because the
consumer has no way to know about this.
Casks industry

A quick mental calculation ca make you feel dizzy. There are about
100 active distilleries all over Scotland. The average production of
each of them is between 1.200.000 and 2.000.000 litres a year. To
deserve the "Scotch label", whisky must stay at least 3 years on the
Scottish territory in oak casks. Assuming that the annual production
is about 150.000.000 litres, the absolute minimum of whisky stored
in Scotland is 450.000.000 litres This only to guarantee the legal
right to be called Scotch whisky. This is without taking in account
the huge quantity of whiskies which are aging for 10 to 30 years...

On the other hand, the casks used for storing whisky are never new
casks. It is thus very important to maintain the casks in good state.
Some distilleries have their own cooperages (like Balvenie or
Bruichladdich for instance), but most of them prefer outsourcing this
to specialized companies. There are lots of cooperages in Scotland,
and the most famous of them (because it is a first class tourist
attraction) is the Speyside Cooperage, situated half way between
the Glenfiddich distillery and the centre of Dufftown. This cooperage
has about 300.000 casks in stock. All of them need reconditioning.
There are about 20.000.000 cask all over Scotland. A cask can be
(re)used for a maximum of about 60 years.
The angels share
The advantage of oak for maturing alcohol is that it is not airtight. It
lets surrounding air enter the cask (which explains the salted taste
of a whisky aging near the sea), but is also lets evaporate the
whisky it contains. It is generally admitted that between 1 en 2% a
year evaporates this way. Evaporation can affect water contained in
the cask, but also the alcohol itself, resulting in a diminution of the
alcohol percentage. That is called "the angels share". However, this
percentage is theoretical, because this could result in a strange
situation, as old whiskies (30 years and more) would lose their right
to be called whisky. Indeed, assuming a whisky has about 70% of
alcohol when it leaves the spirit still, and loses about 1% of alcohol
a year a 30 years old whisky would just have a percentage of 40%,
which is the lowest limit for a whisky. The angels share is indeed the
part of alcohol which escapes to excise rights. Excise rights are
calculated on the amount of alcohol coming out of the still (and not
on the amount of water). As this amount is diminishing over the
years, it would not be fair to tax the marketed whisky based on the
alcohol percentage it had when it was distilled...
The nature of the warehouse is also very important. A damp cellar
or a dry cellar will influence the evaporation of the spirit differently.
In a dry cellar (with a concrete floor), water will evaporate mainly,
letting a dryer whisky with a higher alcoholic percentage. In a damp
warehouse (beaten-earth floor) the alcohol will evaporate, letting a
rounder whisky, with a smoother taste.
Bottling is the last step before putting the whisky on the market.
Unlike wine, whisky does not mature anymore in the bottle. So a 12
years old whisky stays a 12 years old even 12 years later, and does
not become a 24 years old one....
When bottling, some residues are left in the whisky. The effect of this
is that whisky looks "cloudy", and this is not always appreciated by
the consumer. That's why distilleries found out the "chill filtering",
which removes all this residues. The problem with chill filtering is that
it also removes parts of the fragrances and of the taste. With the
current revival of single malt, more and more bottlers (in dependant
or official) bottle their whiskies without chill filtering. And this makes
single malt lovers very happy.
During bottling, the alcohol percentage is reduced. This is the other
operation where the quality of water has a great influence on the
taste of whisky. The minimum percentage of alcohol for whisky is
40%. Most of the bottles are marketed at this percentage, because
the excise rights are calculated on the alcohol proportion in the
bottle. The excise rights are particularly high in Great Britain, but in
other countries they are lower. That's why on the international
market, whiskies are frequently bottled at 43%. For some technical
reasons, the ideal percentage for bottling without chill filtering seems
to be 46%. Most of the non chill filtered whiskies are marketed at
Often whisky is not diluted when bottled. That's called cask strength
Generally, the casks are mixed before bottling, to get a more
standardized product, just like great wines. When the whisky comes
from just one cask, it is called "single cask".

Most of the distilleries do not bottle their own whiskies, but let this
happen at specialized plants. Exceptions among others are
Glenfiddich, Springbank, Bruichladdich and Loch Lomond. Even if
they do not bottle themselves, the responsibility of the bottling stays
from the distillery. This is called "official bottling". This operation
happens often in the suburbs of Edinburgh where several bottling
plants are installed, belonging to distilleries (like Glenmorangie in
Broxburn) or to independent bottlers, like Ian McLeod in the same

Independent bottlers
A very interesting phenomenon in whisky world is the work done by
independent bottlers. Unlike bottling plants who work on behalf of
distilleries, the independent bottlers buy casks at one or more
distilleries, choose the type of cask, and let it mature in own
warehouses or in the distillery warehouse. The independent bottler
decides when the whisky will be ready for selling. These bottlings
are marketed under the name of the bottler, and sometimes the
name of the distillery does even not appear on the bottle -rarely-.
Some of these companies are Signatory, Ian MacLeod, Douglas
Laing (Provenance and Old Malt Cask), Cadenhead, etc...
Illustration of the whisky making
This illustration is based on pictures of the scale model of an
distillery displayed at the Glenkinchie distillery. Visiting this distillery
is very interesting, especially because of the very nice distillation
museum it hosts, and the pictures below represent the master piece
of this museum.

Barley reception at the distillery

Malting floors

Kiln (oven) used to dry the malt. This image of the
distillery makes the role of the pagoda roofs on
(old) distilleries obvious.

After drying the malt, it goes through the malt mill
to be transformed in a kind of coarse flour (like

After grinding, the malt is transferred in the mash
tuns where it is mixed with hot water in order to
extract the sugar.

The wort is then transferred in the wash backs ,
where yeast is added, to start the fermentation.

The fermented liquid is then distilled in the stills

The distilled alcohol is cooled in a condenser .

before being transferred in oak casks for a
minimum of 3 years.