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Folklife Festival 2003 > Scotland > Whisky Making
whisky making
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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" flavor.

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.

Coming to the Festival...
William Grant & Sons (Dufftown, Morayshire)

—William Grant & Sons are working closely with the Smithsonian to mount a major display on the malt whisky distilling and manufacturing process. Visitors will see a 10-foot high copper still, a malting floor, and a barrel-making demonstration. Distillery workers from Glenfiddich and Balvenie distilleries including a malter, a blender, and a cooper, will be on hand to talk about the art and mysteries of making Scottish malt whisky, discuss the different regional qualities of Scottish single malts, and explain the history and importance of whisky making in Scotland.

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