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Single Malt Scotch Whisky is produced from only 3 natural ingredients: Malted Barley, water, and yeast.
Here at the Borders Distillery we use locally-grown barley, all harvested from 11 farms lying within 30 miles of the distillery.
The distillery draws its water from an underground lake beneath the site. The lake’s water takes between 50 and 70 years to filter down from the hills through the rock. Even if it never rained again (unlikely in the Borders!) the lake contains enough pure water to last the distillery the next 185,000 years.
For each batch of spirit we mill five metric tonnes of Malt Barley, crushing the Malt to create a mix of husk, grist, and flour. The milled Malt goes into a large aluminium vessel called the Mash Tun, and hot water is added. The resulting sugary mixture is called Wort.
The Wort remains in the Mash Tun, heated and stirred, for around 5 hours. Once we’re sure all the sugar has been released from the Malt, the liquid is transferred to another large vessel called the Washback. After Mashing, the leftover Malt is called Draff and is sometimes sold for animal feed. However, at the Borders Distillery we send our Draff to an anaerobic digestion plant where the organic material is used to generate green electricity.
In the Washback, yeast is added to the Wort to start Fermentation. The yeast feeds on the sugars in the Wort, producing alcohol and creating some initial flavours. Washback size and materials, yeast type, and length of fermentation can all affect these flavours. Here at the Borders Distillery we use Pinnacle-M yeast, and a typical Fermentation lasts around 80 hours.
After Fermentation, the liquid is now alcoholic, around 8% ABV in strength, and is referred to as Wash. It is now transferred to the Wash Still to begin the process of distillation.
In the Wash Still, the Wash is heated and copper begins to work its magic. Alcohol evaporates before water so the spirit vapours rise and condense against the copper, removing impurities and unwanted flavour elements. Over time, the distillation sees the vapours reach the top of the still where they are collected in the Lyne Arm and run into a Condenser to turn back into a liquid.
After the first stage of distillation, the liquid is referred to as Low Wine, and its alcohol content has been concentrated to around 24% ABV.
In the Spirit Still, the Low Wine is heated, and once again undergoes a process of purification, seeing further concentration of alcohol strength and desirable flavours. As the liquid spirit emerges from the Condenser, the distillers pay careful attention to its characteristics. The first liquid off the still is referred to as the Heads – it contains unwanted flavour elements and is collected to be redistilled later. The tail end of the distillation is called Feints and is treated the same.
Between the Heads and Feints lies the Heart – the perfect balance of alcohol concentration and desirable flavour elements. The Heart is collected in the Spirit Safe and its characteristics carefully noted. It is now what we call New Make Spirit and is around 71% ABV.
The New Make Spirit now begins the slow process of maturation. It is transferred into oak barrels where it will mellow over time and take on new nuances of flavour depending on the type, age, shape, and storage conditions of the barrel. Over the years, each barrel is assessed regularly to see how the spirit is developing and to understand when it might be ready for bottling.
New Make Spirit must be matured in Scotland, in oak barrels, for a minimum of 3 years and 1 day before it is allowed to be called Scotch Whisky.
Making Scotch Whisky is a long painstaking process – a wonderful combination of nature, art, and science. At the Borders Distillery we started down our distilling journey in 2018. We’re looking forward to sharing our Single Malt with the world as soon as we believe it’s ready.
In the meantime, why not come and visit us, and see this amazing process for yourself?