“Whisky (from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning “water of life”) is a very old drink but it was the Irish, not the Scots, who are said to have produced whisky for much longer than the Scots…a fact that still irritates the Scots!” says Sandy Harper, DistelI Inter Hotel Challenge Judge and prominent Cape Wine Master.  

“It followed Scotch-Irish immigrants to North America, where it eventually evolved into the American and Canadian variants of whisky. In the early 20th century, Japanese and Indian distillers adopted the Scotch whisky template and used it as a base to develop their own variations of whisky. In America whiskey is spelt with an “ey”, but for this article, I will use the Scottish term whisky.

For many years these six countries dominated the world of whisky, both its production and its consumption. Today, however, whisky is a worldwide phenomenon. It’s consumed in more than 200 countries around the world and, as well, is produced all over the globe.”

The production process:

The production of whisky always includes the same basic principle ingredients: Water, a base grain and yeast. The grain provides the sugar for the fermentation process. Yeast is introduced to start the process of fermentation.

The flavour and aroma of a whisky are determined by the quality of the water (soft or hard: peaty or not) and the types of grain used (barley, corn, rye, wheat, or oats). As well as encouraging fermentation, the yeast also plays a role in the flavour. Finally, ageing in wood (type of wood and length of maturation) also contributes to the final flavour components of whisky.

Production in a nutshell:

“To give a brief overview, a cereal (grain) is cooked in local water to draw off the sugars.  Yeast is added to the milky, sweet liquid and it is allowed to ferment into a low beer of around 7% ABV.  This is now distilled and the alcohol vapours rise off as a gas and are condensed back into a liquid called spirit alcohol.  This is placed in used barrels and aged for a minimum of three years in Scotland.”  Don Paul, ‘My Whisky Companion

The production process differs slightly from whisky to whisky, but is always includes the following stages:

Malting (replaced by “cooking” in the USA), mashing/brewing, fermentation, distilling, and lastly the ageing process.

  1. Malting: The raw base grain, containing starch, needs to be heated in order for the starch to convert into sugar (maltose). The sugar is essential for the yeast to grow on during fermentation. 

“Sugar comes in many forms.  The sweet stuff ( fructose) in fruit, sucrose in sugar and maltose is the sweet stuff derived from starch.” Don Paul, ‘My Whisky Companion

Malting is necessary in order for the barley to germinate and get the starch in the barley to convert to Maltose ( sugar).

To encourage the barley into making its starch to be converted to sugar, the barley is soaked in water. The barley will then be fooled into thinking it is time to wake up and start growing.  Once the barley has been soaked for long enough, it is spread on a perforated barn floor (floor malting).  In the warm barn the little barley grain will start growing and send out a little green shoot.  During this time, the barley needs to be turned or stirred for even growth (germination).

In order to stop the germination process, the barley needs to be dried.  In a traditional process of drying (floor malting) the barley, a fire is lit beneath the perforated floor and the rising heat will stop the germination process, whilst the smoke will permeate through the sieve-like floor and get absorbed by the barley.  The traditional heat source was and still is in many cases peat *.

Today, many distilleries use steam, coal, and hot air as drying methods, but the use of peat is still used in distilleries that pride themselves on their ‘peaty’ character of the final whisky.  


The heating process traditionally in Scotland is done by burning peat.  Peat is a decomposed natural product containing plant material, mosses, leaves and seaweed (precursor to coal) and is found liberally in Scotland as well as in Japan. Whilst the base grain is heated, the smoke from the peat penetrates the grain and that in turn leads to some of the flavour compounds found in the many Scottish whiskies. In some cases the peat can also ‘flavour’ the natural water used in the production process, thereby also imparting certain flavour compounds.  In some cases, the drying process is done with electricity or steam which then involves no ‘peat’ influence at all.  

  1. Mashing: 

The process of mashing follows after malting or “cooking”. The grain is ground into a thick flour, called the “grist”, which is then mixed with heated water from the distillery’s own spring.

In the USA, the first stage in whisky-making is called “cooking”, and involves steaming a mixture of grains called “mashbill”. Otherwise the process is basically the same from country to country.

  1. Fermentation:

Yeast is added to this sugary liquid and allowed to ferment to a low beer of around 7% ABV.  This low beer ‘wash’ is now ready for distillation.

  1. Distillation: 

There are two methods of distillation used to produce whisky.

Firstly and a vastly more costly and time-consuming way, distillation is done in batches in large copper Pot Stills where the spirit is distilled twice.  During the first distillation process, the ‘wash’ is distilled into a first stage of alcohol at around 20-25% ABV.  This low wine is then put through a second distillation with the final spirit alcohol that is achieved is around 75% ABV.  During the second distillation, the Distiller will remove the tops and tails ie the first part of the distillate and the last part of the distillate, which is deemed unsuitable for the final product.  The midpart of the distillate is called the ‘heart’ and it is this part that will continue its journey to barrel and age for three years before release.

The second method of distillation takes place in a continuous still sometimes referred to as the Patent Still, Coffey or Column Still and is capable of producing great volumes of light sweet and fairly uncomplex whiskies in a much more cost effective and quick way. So rather than batches as per the pot still method, the distillation runs continuously and the low wine is distilled over and over in this column still in one process until the final spirit of 70% ABV is achieved. 

This method is used in the making of Grain whisky (un-malted barley, wheat, corn oats) and is a very cost efficient and effective method used by most American distilleries, some Irish and all Scottish distilleries that produce the grain whisky component used in creating a blended whisky.

A batch of beer-like wash is placed in the bowl of the Wash Still.  The liquid is heated and the vapour (Spirit Safe) is a clear liquid of around 20 – 27% ABV.  This clear liquid then goes into the Spirit Still to start the second distillation process. The spirit that emerges from the second Spirit Still is at a strength of around 75.5% AVB.

In Scotland, malt whiskies are produced by a double distillation in “pot stills”. For grain alcohol which is used to make blended whiskies, the distillation process makes use of ‘continuous still’ – Coffey’s patent still. The continuous distillation process is also used in the USA and Canada.

  1. Ageing: 

Scotch whisky must be aged in wood (usually second fill Bourbon Barrels) for at least three years. 

Bourbon must be aged for a minimum of two years and always in new charred American oak barrels.

South Africa

The James Sedgwick Distillery in the region of Wellington approximately 55 minutes from Cape Town is where South Africa’s premium whisky distillery is situated.  The distillery produces both malt and grain whiskies on the same site.  Andy Watts is currently the Master Distiller, only the 6th since the distillery was established in 1886

The James Sedgwick Distillery, operating as the only commercial whisky distillery in Africa is home to the internationally award-winning range of Three Ships and Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky.

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky

Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky is the only whisky made exclusively from 100% South African grown corn.

The whisky undergoes a double maturation, in previously used ex-bourbon casks, which lasts for five years. It is first matured in first fill ex-bourbon barrels for three years, after which it is moved to another set of first fill ex-bourbon barrels for an additional two years.

South Africa’s warmer climate accelerates the interaction of the spirit with the cask wood, extracting more compounds from the wood and speeding up its development. Summer temperatures in Wellington regularly exceed 36 degrees C, resulting in annual evaporation of around 5%. The accelerated aging result is an exceptionally smooth whisky, especially given the young age at which it is bottled.

The whisky has a bourbon like character to it as you would expect from a mash bill that is 100% corn. It has a creamy quality, featuring vanilla and coconut notes, along with hints of tropical fruit, cooked banana, cocoa and some citrus notes. There are some light wood spice notes of cinnamon along with a pepperiness that emerges on the finish. 

The international nature of whisky was driven home when the South African whisky, Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, was awarded the World’s Best Grain Whisky at the 2018 World Whisky Awards. Andy Watts, the founder and Master Distiller of Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky, was also awarded the title of Global Icon of Whisky Master Distiller/Master Blender.

Bain’s Cape Mountain whisky released in 2009, this is South Africa’s first ever single grain whisky, coming from the  James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington. Bain’s Cape Mountain Whisky is matured in first fill bourbon casks for an initial three years before spending a further two years in fresh first fill bourbon casks! It’s named after the chap who built the first roads in Wellington.

Sandy Harper has been judging at international competitive wine and spirits events for many years. Here, she gives us her perceptions, facts and finer points on that fabulous tipple, whisky!

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