October 3, 2013
We woke up to a lot of rain and figured it was a perfect day to visit some distilleries. Chandler and I used to brew beer back home, but we had no idea how whisky was made. My bosses in Anchorage are big fans of scotch and made sure their employees learned to appreciate the beverage! There are tons of distilleries in Scotland, and we were a little intimidated by the options and the apparent fanaticism of Scotch aficionados. So, we headed to the closest place on our map that sounded familiar, the Glenlivet Distillery.
The distillery offered a free tour of the facility with a great overview of the whole process. Glenlivet means valley of the Livet, which is the local river. Things started out in a familiar way: the basic ingredients of Scotch are: water, barley and yeast, even more basic than beer. The barley is grown locally and then malted which is a process where the barley grains are moistened and allowed to germinate briefly before been dried in a kiln. According to the tour guide, nearly every distillery in Scotland has their barley malted by an industrial malting facility, as the traditional method involves spreading the grains out on a clean floor, which takes up a lot of space.
The peaty flavors sometimes found in Scotch are added by smoking the barley with burning peat. The Glenlivet distillery and most distilleries on the eastern side of Scotland do not use peat in their process, so their whiskys don’t have a smokey flavor at all (a shame we thought).
The malted barley and water are mashed (combined with heat) to create a wort, which is water full of dissolved sugars from the barley. Yeast is added after few hours it starts converting the sugars to alcohol and CO2 in the fermentation process.
This is where things started to make a huge detour from beer brewing. The fermentation process is done in massive two story tall wooden fermenting vats called washbacks, which are basically roughly 5 meter tall pine barrels, made by local coopers. At the end of fermentation, the washbacks hold a very basic beer (no hops!) with an alcohol content of around 8%.
Next the beer is distilled. Distillation is the process of separating alcohol from water and occurs in large copper stills. The shape of the stills are unique to each distillery as it helps to influence the flavor of the final product. This takes place in two steps, first the beer in distilled to a spirit with an alcohol content of around 22%. The next process takes the distillate and refines it further again by distilling, but also segregating the product over time, which comes out strong at first (the head), then diminishing in strength (the heart) and further still (the tail) at the end of the process. The head and the tail are not thrown out, but rather cycled back into the next batch. The heart of the run is the end product of the distilling process, with an alcohol content in the high 60%’s or so.
The last step is to age the whisky. Glenlivet ages their whisky for a minimum of 12 years in oak casks. The casks are recycled Bourbon kegs from Tennessee and Sherry barrels from Spain. These casks greatly influence the final taste of the scotch. It was interesting to learn how much whisky evaporates during the aging process. After 50 years of aging, only about 25% of the original cask volume remains, hence a big part of the reason older whisky costs to much.
Before it is bottled, the cask whisky is usually diluted to an alcohol content of around 40%, which is supposedly optimum for enjoying the balance of flavors and the punch of the alcohol.
Our tour ended with a taster. It is recommended to add on a few drops of water at a time while drinking good Scotch, never ice cubes or Coke. They had some cask-strength tasters, and it was pretty intense and not as enjoyable as the regular strength stuff.
There were still several hours of daylight left, so we figured we had time to squeeze in another tour. The next place was Glenfiddich (valley of the deer). Our guide was wearing a kilt and we were allowed to take pictures, so the second tour was a great idea. The process was the same but the stills had a slightly different shape and the wood for the mash tons was from Canada and not Oregon. We also received a tasting at the end and entertained by a video of the Highland Games.
I wish we had realized that the Scotch in this area didn’t have any of the real peaty flavors we enjoyed, we would have made an effort to visit some distilleries on the west coast of Scotland.