So what is “Single Malt Whisky”?
Probably the most misunderstood term by general punters is Single malt Whisky! Here is what it must be for it to be called a single malt.
- Produced at one distillery (means you can’t buy in the spirit from elsewhere). Things get a bit murky here as some distilleries buy the wash/beer from brewers. So I’ll leave that for another time
- Produced from one Malted Ingredient. Usually malted barley, however, you could produce it from 100% malted rye. It can be different versions of the same ingredient. For example you can toast some of your barley heavily, smoke some of it, and mix those two together.
- Aged in Oak Barrels for a period longer than two years
- Distilled in a method to retain the raw ingredients flavour (usually a pot still), with a lower ABV to retain such characters
There are a few other key aspects, however, I don’t want to get side-tracked on the reason I am writing this post. My aim is to explain the “MALT” in whisky!
So what does the Malt in whisky actually mean?
To understand the term Malt, we probably need to have some understanding of the term “Malting”.
Our good old friend google, has the definition as
“Malting is a process of steeping, germinating and drying grain to convert it into malt. The malt is mainly used for brewing or whisky making, but can also be used to make malt vinegar or malt extract. Various grains are used for malting; the most common are barley, sorghum, wheat and rye.”
To summarise that in simple terms. You have a plant seed (your grain), you start growing it (germinating it), then quickly dry it before it actually grows.
Why do you do this though?
Basically you are trying to trick the seed into growing. The reason for this, is the seeds are waiting for the perfect conditions to start growing. They wont start growing if its to “dry” because they won’t survive if they decide to start growing in the middle of summer when there is no rain.
Once the seed starts to grow (germinate), you then want to stop the process. Because we aren’t really hoping to make any barley plants. Its what happens during this germination that is important for whisky. The drying stops the seed from continuing the growing process.
During this germination process, the seed creates lots of enzymes. These enzymes normally allow the seed to convert starches (basically stored food for the seed/plant) into sugars (useable food for the seed/plant).
These enzymes are (α-amylase, β-amylase, α-glucosidase) super important in brewing, because they allow the brewer to extract the fermentable sugars from the grain, which in turn will become the booze.
Making the whisky wash
When we are making whisky wash, we essentially do three things.
- Mill the malted malted barley (crush the seeds a little bit to open them up)
- Add the milled malted barley to hot water (between 50-70 Celsius) and wait
- Filter off the malted barley and collect the hot sweet water
When we mill the malted barley, we are opening it up, to allow the starch and enzymes out of the seed. These starch and enzymes mix in the hot water (because they work faster at these temperatures) and the enzymes convert the starch into sugars, which then dissolve into the water. If you didn’t have the enzymes that were made during the “MALTING” process, then you don’t get the sugars out.
The water is the packed full of fermentable sugars which the yeast will then feed on and turn into booze. This booze is then distilled to make it a stronger booze and then stored in barrels (I’m really dumbing this part down, I’m sure we will discuss it another time).
So the MALT in “Single MALT Whisky”?
Means the grain has started growing and then was stopped to preserve the important enzymes that will be used later in the production of a whisky wash. This grain is the MALT in Single malt whisky!