What Is Malt Whiskey?
Malt whiskey. The grand daddy of all whiskeys. The one that started it all. Remember when we discussed Scotch (the earliest whiskey) we talked about single malts vs blends? Malted whiskey comes from 100% malted grains. Ok....but....that word, right there, malt. What does it mean?
Malting is a process by which the enzymes present in cereal grains, mostly barley (we’ll get to that) are activated in order to convert complex starches already present in the grains into simpler sugars that can be fermented by yeast. Science!
Barley contains a large amount of these enzymes compared to other grains. For this reason, malted barley is often combined with other grains when creating a wort (coming back to this word in a sec) because the enzymes produced by the barley will break down the starches in the other grains more efficiently than if those other grains had been malted on their own.
Ok that all sounds like a great science lecture. Basically in the malting process grains are heated in water to activate sugars. Then they’re left to germinate. Then they’re dried in a kiln. Boom, you’ve got your malt. The liquid pressed out of the malt is called the wort. These words are fun, yeah?
If it’s not with 51% barley in the malt, you’ve got a grain whiskey. Like corn with bourbon, or rye, like we discussed in our “what is rye?” article last week. All types of grains give the wort all kinds of flavors. Which is awesome, but too many grains, and you’re no longer drinking a malt whiskey. Simple right?
Wait, you’ve heard of malt in beer? You’re right! Malt and hops and water make beer! It’s the same process. Again, malting is just letting grains germinate to release sugars before processing. Ok this enough beer talk this is a whiskey article after all.
Another little refresher to keep in mind when thinking about malted whiskey; single malt doesn’t mean it all came produced from the same batch. It’s all about location. Single malt just means the malt came from one distillery.
A Brief History:
As we mentioned in our “What is Scotch?” article, Whisky evolved from a Scottish drink called uisge beatha, which means "water of life".
The earliest record of distillation in Scotland occurred as long ago as 1494, as documented in the Exchequer Rolls, which were records of royal income and expenditure.
In the document, Friar John Cor is tasked with making “Aqua Vitae” from 8 “bolls” of Malt. According to the internet a “boll” back then meant 320 pounds of barley malt, per boll! It’s said this was enough malt to make 1500 bottles of whiskey, so obviously, production was running high in 1494!
The equipment used was primitive and the methods were entirely undeveloped. This means that early spirit was probably very potent, and just like moonshine or other homemade spirits possibly even harmful. The liquor was often consumed for medicinal purposes which is what gave it that whole “water of life” name.
Since Malt whiskey is a term that encompasses a lot of whiskeys and scotches, it’s difficult to lock in a specific history more than the historic birthdate we have about Friar John Cor. For more in-depth histories on specifics like Scotch or histories of grain whiskeys, our previous articles this month can give a better path of history than we could possibly sum up here.
A wide array of malts are prepared by varying the temperature and roasting time. As a result, we can have many different malts with many different colors and flavors made from the exact same barley grain.
As we said at the jump, we’ve thrown a lot of whiskey info at you this month. We hope that this helped to dial it back a bit and clear up some of the jargon that’s been thrown around.
Learning about whiskey can be just like drinking it; there CAN be too much of a good thing. At least, that’s what we’ve been told. Stick with us through June for a few more whiskey tid-bits to come! Thanks for reading and as always...