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• The Making of Whisky Distillation

• The Making of Whisky Distillation
This is the process which is at the heart of whisky making. It consists essentially in separating the alcohol contained in the wash from the water, taking advantage of the fact that alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water, at about 85°C. Distillation comprises two stages accomplished in two stills varying by their capacity and by their shape.

First distillation is done in the wash still which capacity maybe reach 25 to 30.000 litres and will transform the wash into low wines at about 21% vol. Originally heated by a naked flame, usually from the burning of coal or gas, the majority of stills are nowadays heated by coils placed inside them and through which steam circulates. Evaporated alcohol rises up to the upper part of the still, the swan neck, and then through the lyne arm after which it enters the condenser in which alcoholic vapours will transformed into liquid. Traditional condensers were made as coils immersed in large open wooden vessels and cooled by water flowing through them.

Nowadays the vast majority of distilleries are equipped with tubular vertical condensers offering improved calorific efficiency.

The low wines are kept in the spirit charger, wastes of the first distillation known as pot ale being conveyed to a dark grain plant to be transformed into cattle food.

The second distillation takes place in the spirit still which usually has a capacity equal to about two third of the wash still's. This is where the stillman's art expresses at its best, when he must retain only the middle cut, eliminating the heads which contain too much high volatility alcohols running at about 80% vol., and the tails comprising the heavy components. As the distillation progresses the alcoholic strength of the flowing distillate diminishes regularly : the moment when the stillman stops collecting the middle cut or heart of run is called the cut, and will usually happen when the hydrometer will read about 62/65% vol. If the cut is made too late, too high a proportion of the tails will result in an unbalanced whisky with unpleasant aromas. To the contrary, if the cut is made too early, the spirit will be deprived from some of its components indispensable to achieve a whisky with satisfying character. One will then obtain a product without major default, but without real interest and personality either.
Speed of distillation also has a direct influence on the quality of the collected spirit.

The latest which is perfectly colourless is at about 70% vol. and is pumped into the spirit receiver. The stillman has to do all his operations by intervening on the spirit safe, built with a copper frame holding plate glasses and into which lead all pipes linking the stills to the various holding tanks. It is usually a beautiful object duly padlocked under the control of Custom and Excise, the stillman not being allowed to have any direct contact with the product flowing from the stills.

For controlling the process, the stillman uses hydrometers and can check the purity of the spirit in verifying if it does not get cloudy when mixed with water.
Heads and tails will be pumped and kept in the low wine charger to be redistilled in the spirit still at the same time as the low wine intended for the next distillation. Waste of distillation known as spent lees will be thrown away or treated.
Some whiskies, notably in Ireland and in the Scottish Lowlands, are subject to a triple distillation process, which delivers a spirit of a higher alcoholic strength at about 85% vol.

 

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