|A dram (small glass) of whisky is traditionally
an important part of Scottish hospitality and conviviality. Today,
whisky-making is also a significant component of the Scottish economy
and an international icon of Scottish-ness.
"Whisky" - spelled without an "e" in Scotland
-- comes from the Scots Gaelic term uisga beatha (water of life),
which was shorted to "uiskie" in the 17th century. It
is unclear when whisky first appeared in Scotland, but in 1494,
records show that King James IV of Scotland ordered half a ton of
malt for whisky-making purposes. Many Scots distilled whisky at
their homes and farms until the 18th century, when British authorities
began to regulate and tax domestic production. Domestic whisky production
eventually was declared illegal, and home stills were gradually
replaced by larger commercial distilleries. (A few home distillers
continued illegally, however, and Scottish immigrants brought this
tradition with them to Appalachia.)
Whisky-making is still as much of an art as a science. Distillers
begin with barley seeds, which are soaked in clear water for 2-3
days, then drained and spread out on a smooth "malting floor."
As the damp barley begins to germinate, it generates heat and must
be turned regularly. After about a week, the "green malt"
is transferred to a kiln house, where it is spread on a mesh drying
floor above a fire. The fire is often fuelled with peat, which gives
the barley -- and the resulting liquor -- a smoky or "peaty"
Next, the barley is ground into "grist" and mixed with
hot water in large metal tubs called "mash tuns." The
resulting sweet liquid is drained off, cooled, and pumped into huge
wooden vats or "washbacks," and yeast is added. After
two days in the washback, the yeast cells have converted the barley's
sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. This slightly alcoholic mixture
is carefully heated in the "wash" or "low wine still."
Since alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, it separates
or "comes off" first as a vapor. The vapor is channeled
through a spiral copper tube or "worm," where it condenses
and is run through a "spirit safe." The spirit is heated
and re-condensed several times until it is 70% alcohol. Then it
is diluted to a 63.5% alcohol level, put into specially prepared
oak casks, and placed in a bonded warehouse. Legally, Scotch whisky
must be matured for a minimum of 3 years, but most malt whiskies
are not transferred from cask to bottle until they are at least
10 to 12 years old.
Credit: The Smithsonian Institution thanks William Grant
& Sons for their assistance and support with this presentation.