Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Kosher Whisky, Part I: Production

Over the past year or so I’ve become interested in Single Malt Scotch Whisky. The truth is, I’m far more interested in learning/reading about SMSW than drinking it, but who likes to learn halacha without making it lemaisa? Anyway, considering the fact I spend the majority of my free time reading about halacha and SMSW, I will post about the process of making SMSW and other details regarding the spirit, while mentioning pertinent halachic factors in each step of the whisky making process….well, the truth is, there aren’t halachic factors in each step of the process – but understanding the process will help you grasp the issues that are pertinent.

Background

Whisky is the name of the drink. The 3 ingredients of whisky are water, yeast, and barley. (On the surface, it would seem as if there are no kashrus issues with scotch, since these are the only ingredients used.)There are grain and rye whiskies that substitute grain or rye instead of barley – although these tend to be thought of as inferior. Scotch is whisky made in Scotland. In Scotland, however, they don’t refer to it as Scotch – rather, they simply call it “whisky”. Bourbon is whiskey made in America.

Notice above a discrepancy in how I spelled the name of the drink. Whisky produced in Scotland is ALWAYS spelled without an E. However, typically, when referring to whiskey made in America and Ireland is spelled with an E.

The term “Single Malt” actually refers to two separate aspects of the whisky. The “single” of single malt refers to whisky that is produced by one distillery (ie, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, etc.). “Malt” refers to the fact that the whisky is produced with malted barley (read on for definition of “malted barley”).

This can be contrasted with the term “Blended Whisky”, which consists of whiskies from more than one distillery (ie, Johnnie Walker; JW). Basically, what blended brands like JW do is buy whisky from different single malt distilleries and mix that with other, cheaper, grain whiskies. So what makes one blend a better quality blend than another? Easy: the more malt whisky (as opposed to grain whisky) that is used, the higher the quality. Therefore, JW Red Label is going to have MUCH more grain whisky than JW Blue Label.

There are some whiskies that claim to be “Pure Malt”, like JW Green Label. This means that, while the whisky is a blend of other single malts, there is no grain whisky used.

The Production Process

Malting (as in single MALT)

The barley used is soaked in water for a number of days and then it is spread out on a special floor (the malting floor), where it is left to germinate. The malting process is complete when the barley begins to sprout at which point it is taken to a smoke room where the barley is dried, effectively ending the germination process. Often used as a fuel for this smoke is a substance called, “peat”, which is really nothing more than decomposed moss and other organic matter. This peat is what helps give a whisky its “smoky” flavor. Not all distilleries use peat, and those that do use it in varying amounts, leading to a continuum of smoky scotches.

Mashing/Fermentation

The resulting malted barley is crushed into a floury substance, which is than mixed with water to produces a sugary water. It should also be noted that depending on which region of Scotland the water source is from, the water used will taste VERY different due to the fact that there will be varying amounts of different minerals, as well as the types of rocks that the water in its natural source consists of. The fermentation process beings when yeast is added to the barley, converting the sugars into alcohol. This process takes a couple of days, and we are left with a liquid with an alcohol content of 8-10%.

Distillation

Most single malts are between 40-46% alcohol (except for Cask Strength whiskies), and the distillation process is what takes the liquid from about 8% up to this 40-46% number. It should be noted that up until this point, we have essentially made beer. Distilling beer makes whisky, just as distilling wine gives us brandy. Distillation is basically a process that takes place in a pear-shaped copper kettle with a long neck. The 8% liquid is put into the kettle (called a “still") and heated up to ~170 degrees F. Heating the liquid to this temperature causes the alcohol to vaporize, and subsequently rise up the long neck of the still. The vapors reach a condenser, which has been cooled, this turning the vapors back into a liquid form. The resulting liquid is about 25% alcohol, and that liquid goes through the exact same process to produce another liquid that is ~70% alcohol (which we can finally call “whisky”). All scotch is double-distilled, with the exception of Auchentoshan, the only scotch that is triple-distilled.

Aging/Maturation

This is where we finally have major kashrus issues, so I will therefore expand this section with relevant issues after I run through a couple more steps of the production process. Basically, the whisky is matured in oak casks (only oak is used) that have previously held some sort of beverage previously (ie, bourbon, sherry, port, etc. – read further). It is imperative that the cask previously held another beverage, for if not, the taste of the oak would totally overpower the whisky, resulting in a totally different taste. The whisky is matured for X number of years (the minimum, by law, is 3 years to be called “whisky”) before it is poured into a large vat and mixed with other barrels of the same brand. Most people think that they pop a tap into the cask and bottle directly (and this is sometimes done, although rarely). Most people don’t realize that this scotch is vatted with other barrels. This is done to produce a consistent product; each cask is bound to have slight irregularities and differences than other, so by combining them, these differences should cancel each other out. Since scotches of different ages are combined into the vat, what does the bottle “Glenlivet 12” mean? The answer is simple: the age on the bottle is the YOUNGEST cask that was poured into the vat. Therefore, it is feasible that there are much older whiskies mixed in with your bottle of Glenlivet 12 – but they must call it a 12 due to the fact that the youngest cask was that age. The resulting spirit is diluted with water to a percentage of 40-46%.

OK – I’ve decided to post this as part I of a 2-part series in hopes that it will be easier for you to digest in two parts. Part II will consist of a more in depth explanation of aging/maturation as well as a detailed look into what R’ Moshe Feinstein says on the matter. So you’re not held in too much suspense, problems arise due to the fact that the whisky is sometimes stored in casks that previously held sherry, which presumably, is not kosher.

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The History Channel did a great 3 hour episode on alcohol. They went through various types of alcohol and the ways each is made plus the history of the alcohol. Aparently the Balvenie Distilery is the only one left to use a malting floor in the traditional way - I believe they use wood to fire the furnace.

The head guy there also said the best way to drink Scotch is to throw a little water or an ice cube inside because the water helps release the flavor.

8:39 AM, June 22, 2006

 
Blogger AlanLaz said...

Anon, Thanks for reading. To my knowledge, Balvenie, Bowmore, Highland Park, Laphoraig and Springbank are the only distilleries producing their own malted barley. The other distilleries contract out and have their barley malted to their exact specifications.

The head guy there was correct that throwing a little spring water on the scotch can help release the flavor. That being said, ice should NEVER been mixed with single malt scotch. Quoting the "Instant Expert's Guide to Single Malt Scotch", "not only will it mask the taste, it can destroy it". Also, soda water, or any other carbonated water should never be added.

While drinking blended scotch, it is in some places customary to throw it "on the rocks", but this is due to the overall inferior quality of blended whisky (although there are good blends).

8:49 AM, June 22, 2006

 
Blogger Jewboy said...

This is a great post.

10:18 AM, June 22, 2006

 
Anonymous Greg said...

Great post! Looking forward to part 2.

9:04 PM, June 22, 2006

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i used to be a bar tender, now im teaching (hotel management )students all about alcohol. just happened to stumble upon your site whiles doing some research. its very informative and simple to understand i must say. keep up the good work

5:29 AM, August 04, 2007

 
Anonymous BJY said...

Yasher Koach and thanks for the info, Laz. You're answering many of the questions that came to me as I was squooshing my way through a peat bog in coastal Maine the other day. I'm looking forward to Part 2 and wondering what's unkosher about sherry.
BTW, I am a lawyer in PA & NJ and a bar exam coach. Please feel free to check my website: www.PaBarCoach.com. I'll be glad to advise you on bar exam essays if you feel it can help you thru your 2L year.
Best regards/Shabbat Shalom!
BJY

10:43 AM, August 01, 2008

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What ever happened to part 2? Which single malts are kosher?

3:19 PM, December 31, 2008

 
Blogger AlanLaz said...

Part II: http://alanlaz.blogspot.com/2006/06/kosher-whisky-part-ii-sherry.html

3:34 PM, December 31, 2008

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

2:49 AM, July 30, 2010

 

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